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Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Religion in North America)
Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Religion in North America)
Richard J. Callahan Jr.
Indiana University Press, 2008
280 pp., $34.95

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Reviewed by Kathryn Lofton


Coal Dust and Foot-Washing

The faith of Kentucky mining communities.

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Draping Richard Callahan's study of religion in eastern Kentucky coal mining towns is the pervasive presence of dust. As one observer noted, coal dust would "seep through the windows, it was on everything. A woman would work from dawn 'til night and never keep [the house] too clean because you just couldn't get rid of all that dust." In Callahan's rendering, dust not only blackened faces and window curtains but also closed the miners off from their own experience, hiding it behind an undifferentiated cloud: "The stories and lives of coal miners and other working people are themselves subject to dust."

No longer. In this graceful portrayal, Richard Callahan wipes away some of that soot. Through oral history, songs, folklore, and social scientific reportage, Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields tackles a region (Appalachia) and a mode (work) often neglected by scholars of U.S. religious history. Like Laurie Maffly-Kipp's Religion and Society in Frontier California (1994), Callahan's book pays attention to the relationship between religion and labor practices, showing how the work of miners informed their religious ideas, and how their religious lives molded their working choices. The study of religion is, in Callahan's rendering, the study of a "kind of work," a work that can be discerned in everyday life, in the sensual body, and in the political decisions of lay believers. The chronicle of religion in the modern period is, then, inextricably "the story of capitalism's power to expand and transform the parameters of existence."

Don't despair. This is not an abstruse treatise on the interconnectivity of capital and ideology. "Appalachian mountain religion," Callahan writes, "is not one monolithic thing but a shared repertoire of idioms, gestures, and concerns that has bound together an internally diversified style of worship and religious identity." Contributing to this identity were many denominational styles, including the immigrant stock of congregations like the German Reformed and German Lutherans, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and English Nonconformists, as well as newer religious innovators, Old Regular Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and Holiness groups.

Appalachian believers distinguished themselves from national patterns, Callahan explains. Appalachian Baptists, for example, did not associate with non-mountain organizations, choosing instead to retain a local sovereignty. Churches tended to be small, independent bodies that might join together into "associations," meeting yearly to check up on one another's doctrine and practice, but governance was left at the level of the congregation. This is how Appalachian Baptists came to oppose the theory of general atonement endorsed by the Triennial Convention as well as the missionary movement that had galvanized Baptists nationally. The localism of the churches mirrored the "household localism" that defined preindustrial eastern Kentucky and continued into the 20th century.

Still more distinctive were the "pervasive sacramentalism" of mountain religious culture and, most important, the domineering ideological and institutional sway of industry in single-company towns. By the height of the 1920s coal boom, Callahan reports, the majority of men in eastern Kentucky were mining coal as their main means of employment. In Harlan County alone, more than 25 coal towns were built between 1912 and 1928. By 1927 there were 33 new towns in Letcher County, 37 in Perry County, and 40 in Pike County.

Callahan offers a lively picture of everyday life in coal towns populated by a microcosm of early 20th century American demography, including Hungarians, Italians, Slavs, Poles, Mexicans, Russians, Syrians, and Romanians. Within this multicultural panorama a rough peace abided. For instance, according to one miner, "The Jews were very much hated people." Yet Jews managed many of the stores that defined the incoming modernism of that era. "Along with the commodification of labor and the ready availability of consumer items," Callahan writes, "coal towns also introduced new patterns of leisure time that larger company towns tried to structure through organized, often commodified, forms of entertainment." At the same moment when modernism and fundamentalism were embattled elsewhere, southern Appalachian religious leaders sought to civilize their flocks through increased domestic consumption and ritual diminishment. One modernist Baptist pastor, for example, discouraged the ritual of foot-washing. "Doing away with [foot washing]," Callahan explains, "was a sign of the distancing of modern Baptists from closely heeding to their physical body, and the bodies of others in the community, as rich sources of religious experience."

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