Leonard, Bill J., ed. Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), xxxii, 328.


Although Americans claim to live along the information super highway, most continue to cling to old stereotypes that refuse to die. One common stereotype continues to define Appalachia as a pre-modern, isolated region inhabited by peculiar people. The media, in particular, continue to churn out hackneyed caricatures of the region’s people, especially where religion is concerned. In an effort to cater to their viewers’ obsessive appetite for the unusual, the major networks have recently produced several shows on mountain holiness churches that practice snake handling, strychnine drinking, and fire walking even though few churches practice these rituals. Even regional publications such as Goldenseal magazine seem to have succumbed to the need to boost circulation by publishing articles on these practices. Using nineteen essays written by scholars from various disciplines, Leonard has attempted to describe the diverse character of Christian movements within Central Appalachia. In doing this he has added to scholars’ efforts to deconstruct the myth of Appalachian homogeneity. For as Leonard argues, “Appalachia itself is not one region, but many; it is not one culture but is composed of a multiplicity of cultural and social experiences, ideals, and subgroups.”


"Christianity in Appalachia contains a wealth of information that will be invaluable to scholars, students, church workers, and organizers who come into the region to work with various community action groups and churches."

The introduction and chapters 1-5 describe the general characteristics of Appalachian culture and religion. This first section of the book attempts to provide the reader with a brief history of the region and the problems faced by the inhabitants of its pulpits and pews. Barbara Ellen Smith, in her essay, “Legends of the Fall: Contesting Economic History,” discusses the economic and political forces behind the mythic construction of this place we call Appalachia and the pros and cons behind scholars’ attempts to deconstruct it. Although her admonition for the need to include the natives’ role in the fabrication of Appalachia is well taken, the direction of this article does little to promote the book’s purpose.

Bennett Poage’s essay entitled “The Church and the Family Farm Ministry in Central Appalachia” describes the continued importance of the family farm to the region’s economy and communities. He focuses upon the current crisis confronting Central Appalachia’s tobacco farms as America moves toward becoming “smoke free.” Poage argues that the reluctance of many church communities to become involved in the development of support services or political action organizations only disguises the true dilemma faced by mountain churches today. What is the role of the modern church? Should the congregation minister to the spiritual or take a holistic approach and actively involve itself in the lives of its members and community? Contrary to what Poage would lead us to believe, few Appalachian communities revolve around agriculture today, especially the family farm. Nevertheless, congregations throughout Appalachia wrestle with these questions as the region undergoes a period of de-industrialization, especially where the coal industry is concerned.

The essays begin to address the issue of religious pluralism with Charles Lippy’s essay “Popular Religiosity in Central Appalachia.” Lippy discusses common features of Appalachian popular religiosity. First, contrary to popular opinion, Appalachian people are not fatalists who perceive themselves to be powerless. Instead, they see the world as a realm of supernatural power that they themselves can access in order to survive and thrive in spite of life’s many twists and turns. This is especially evident in Holiness-Pentecostal circles where its members believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit “assures ultimate triumph in life’s battles against good forces of evil.” Second, Appalachians believe in the existence of heaven. Rather than be bound in the empirical reality, believers look to the day when they enter heaven’s gates and leave their earthly troubles behind.

Jack Weller published Yesterday’s People in 1965, a work that maintained that Appalachia was home to a backward people, crippled by their religious fundamentalism, intense family loyalty, and stubborn pride. And Appalachian scholars have spent more than three decades deconstructing his argument and repairing the damage it that has inflicted upon some scholars’ perceptions of the region. As a result, Janet Boggess Welch takes a controversial stance when she argues for Appalachian exceptionalism in “Uneven Ground: Cultural Values, Moral Standards, and Religiosity in the Heart of Appalachia.” While she presents some interesting points, her argument is flawed because she applies the findings of her study, which are based upon interviews with older people in West Virginia, to the general population. In spite of this, Welch’s discussion of the people’s tolerance toward those of other faiths, their disapproval of ministers who “meddle in politics,” and the region’s intertwining of religiosity and cultural values have been well documented by other scholars.

Chapters 6-10 focus on the characteristics of mountain religion. Loyal Jones addresses the plurality inherent in mountain religion today in “Mountain Religion: An Overview.” Mainline denominations, Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues, Buddhist monasteries, and mosques are sprinkled across the region’s rural and urban areas, but the region’s topography fostered the proliferation of traditional mountain churches. These churches share several common characteristics such as their emphasis upon the heart and local church autonomy. Nevertheless, many churches remain divided over theological beliefs, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, and Pentecostalism. The proliferation of independent, non-denominational churches, with their distinctive names and worship practices, indicate the theological diversity of the population.

Other contributors to this section provide answers to some of the questions that students formulate when first studying mountain religiosity. What is the difference between the Holiness movement and denominations that include the word holiness in their names? Why are there so many kinds of Baptist churches in Appalachia, and how do we keep them straight? Why would anyone want to handle snakes? Is there a difference between a pastor, preacher, and minister? Scholars such as Deborah McCauley, Howard Dorgan, Mary Lee Daugherty, Gary Farley, and Leonard provide the answers, making this a valuable resource for students of Appalachian history or religion. Deborah Vansau McCauley provides her readers with the history of mountain religion and an excellent discussion of the difference between the Holiness movement that took place during the early decades of the nineteenth century and the Holiness-Pentecostal movements that evolved into mainline denominations at the century’s end. Dorgan examines the diversity of Baptist groups and the theological differences that divide them. As Dorgan wisely points out, “this diversity should dispel the stereotype of Appalachian religious life as a monolith fixed in either the serpent-handling phenomenon, the Holiness-Pentecostal movement, or the Old Regular tradition.” Using the Camp Creek Holiness Church in West Virginia Mary Lee Daughtery describes the worship rituals practiced in Holiness churches. Daughtery discusses the biblical justification, historical roots, and current practice of snake handling. Gary Farley and Leonard point to the various types of ministers who preside in the pulpits of Appalachian churches. The shepherds of Appalachian congregations range from preachers who “graduated” from “knee university” to ordained ministers who received degrees from prominent seminaries, are bi-vocational and must support themselves or supported by their congregations, or are male or female.

The last section of the book provides the reader with introductions to the history of denominations present in Central Appalachia, their practices, and the problems that confront the people and the churches in a region that is once again undergoing an economic transition. Various scholars contributed articles on the Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, Weslyan/Holiness churches, Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), and the Roman Catholic Church. These articles emphasize the religious diversity of the region and help dispel the myth of Appalachia’s isolation from the outside world. The capitalist economy guaranteed that the mountains would be connected to mainstream America. At the same time the mountains also served to contribute to the region’s uniqueness, especially where religion is concerned. As Samuel Hill points out, theological differences exist between Southern Appalachian Christianity and the Christianity practiced in the broader, American South. Unlike the rationalized religion practiced in the South, Appalachian churches have maintained the “Calvinist perspective” with its belief in hope as the “chief theological virtue,” the importance of the conversion experience and the centrality of the Holy Spirit, and the communal nature of the sacraments. Both Southern and Appalachian religion share a common heritage and exhibit some common characteristics, but different historical experiences created two distinctive religious cultures. As one living in a culture that is increasingly globalized and homogenized in spite of all of the rhetoric in support of multiculturalism, the reader must concur with Hill when he declares that the “authenticity and richness” of Appalachian Christianity “invites its preservation.”

The book’s first section, with its preponderance of essays that do little to support Leonard’s thesis, is more of an annoyance than a weakness. In addition, Leonard’s book serves to highlight the paucity of truly pluralistic studies on Appalachia, especially where religion is concerned. With this object in mind, if the plurality of Appalachian religiosity is to be presented, it is imperative that scholars turn their attention to the region’s various non-Christian groups. Leonard acknowledges their omission and hints at the possibility of a subsequent volume that will include these groups. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable resource for students of Appalachian history and religion. Furthermore, Christianity in Appalachia contains a wealth of information that will be invaluable to scholars, students, church workers, and organizers who come into the region to work with various community action groups and churches. For if their work is to truly succeed, they must respect the people and their culture and work within its confines.

Carletta Savage, West Virginia University


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