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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.

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."

Perhaps in reply to these modernist incursions, Holiness and Pentecostal movements enjoyed rampant success among the mining communities. Chapter 5 of Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields supplies a "synthetic and speculative" discussion about Holiness religion's emergence and popularity in the coal fields. Due to the limited documentary material, Callahan relies upon Raymond Williams' cultural theory, along with studies of the Holiness movement where the record was stronger, to explain why Holiness found such a strong footing amidst the horizontal mines of eastern Kentucky. This is a moving chapter, especially in its explanatory reading of healing as a popular ritual among miners. "When I can feel him coming into my body," one southern Appalachian believer said, "I know God is real." The somatic repeatedly appears in Callahan's study as he seeks to recover the palpable and the felt aspects of religious lives. "The event of healing," he writes, "made the power of the Holy Ghost concrete and present to witnesses and the person healed." This was a "somatic form of knowledge of the material reality of divine power and its ability to transform the world physically." In short, the laboring affect may have been particularly conducive to Holiness effects.

Callahan moves beyond sectarian borders in his pursuit of religion. "To become a miner," Callahan explains, "was also to be initiated into a community." Mines were theaters of the extreme, where life and death pressed at the edges of every work hour. Between 1902 and 1927, over 2,400 men died in the Appalachians as a result of mine explosions. "The worst thing about living in the mining camp," related one miner from the Blue Diamond Camp in Perry County, "one was always in constant dread … . You couldn't be confident about when the top was going to fall in. Only God above knew." To work day after day in such conditions required an extraordinary sense of solidarity and mutual support. As writer Emma Bell Miles observed of Appalachian culture, "Courage seems to me the keynote of our whole system of religious thought."

The closing chapter of Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields offers a significant contribution to labor history, offering as it does multiple interpretations of the labor movement that emerged among miners in the 1930s. The plot focuses on two unions—the National Miners' Union and the United Mine Workers of America—and their competition to organize coal miners in the region. While some Christian miners rejected labor leaders as atheists, labor organizers countered with images of suffering and broken bodies reminiscent of Holiness preaching. One local NMU president, also a preacher, demonstrated in a November 1931 labor speech just how overlapping were miner politics and miner faith: "The time is presented to you in the days when the Children of Israel was under bondage, when Moses went to lead them out … . We have the same opportunity presented to us, laboring men, by the National Miner's Union to walk out as the Children of Israel did, and if you don't drown these Capitalists and this Capitalism, it is your own bad luck. You can't blame any one but yourself."

Studies which highlight religious creativity arising from labor, from work, are few and far between. In his carefully composed, usefully complicating narrative of miners and Christianity in Kentucky, Richard Callahan begins what I suspect will be a wave of projects addressing this conspicuously neglected subject. Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields will be cited for years to come for its compelling argument that "the process of industrialization" was, in Callahan's words, "religiously productive." Callahan's book does for religion and work what one recent study of ritual claims for its subject, namely that "the work of ritual ceaselessly builds a world that, for brief moments, creates pockets of order, pockets of joy, pockets of inspiration."

Kathryn Lofton is a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

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