Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Often defined geographically by the Appalachian mountains, with their general north-south orientation and limited east-west access that create a series of hollows. Containing most of America's anthracite and a significant amount of bituminous coal, the region has long been economically defined by the vagaries of coal production. Agriculture is limited to small farms on steep slopes or small areas of "bottom" lands. With inhabitants of largely Anglo-Saxon origin, and little in-migration, the region has long been dominated by extreme class divisions. Those failing to seek out-migration or enhanced employment opportunities in the urban centers of Appalachia are often characterized as part of an assumed culture of poverty in a region long stereotyped by its presumed economic and cultural backwardness and "otherness."

Many argue that Appalachian religion, especially outside the urban centers, is unique in both the breadth and the scope of its influence. Appalachian religion is often associated with fiercely independent Holiness sects and their rejection of an educated clergy. This is but part of a pattern of persistent forms of rejection of the authority of educated professionals in areas such as education and medicine as well as in religion. Appalachian Studies programs contribute to the maintenance of a sense of "otherness" to this region and its peoples insofar as they have been made into a topic of specialized study. Yet social scientists have failed to establish that Appalachia, its peoples, or their religious practices are unique. Exaggerated emphasis upon some religious practices such as serpent-handling and the drinking of poisons, including both strychnine and lye, often are discussed outside the broader religious context within which both are rationalized and functional. Much religious diversity exists within this region. Many of the nonfundamentalist groups demonstrate similar patterns of religious persistence and change that characterize the culture at large.

Perhaps most significant have been recent analyses of Appalachian fundamentalism in light of theories that explore patterns and mechanisms that illuminate a conscious rejection of modernity. In these analyses, the stereotypical image of an illiterate and impoverished member of a Holiness sect gives way to a description of continue

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a person who has maintained a functional identity within a subculture that has resisted at least some of the major defining characteristics of modernism. These include the demonstrative nature of much of Appalachian religion and the rejection of the near universality of a technical rationality integral to capitalism. It is rural Appalachia that most dominates the media coverage and to a large extent the study of Appalachia in academia as well. The emphasis is typically on those aspects of Appalachia defined by their divergence from mainstream American culture. Most likely, specialty studies tend to select the most divergent aspects of this region for study and in so doing serve to foster the maintenance of these divergences. Those studied paradoxically gain affirmation for their lifestyles from the interest of those who would see them as exhibiting a problematic otherness in need of explanation.

See also Snake-Handling Sects

Ralph W. Hood, Jr .


A. Batteau (ed.), Appalachia and America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983)

D. Billings, "Culture and Poverty in Appalachia," Social Problems 53(1974):315-323

J. D. Photiadis (ed.), Religion in Appalachia (Morgantown: West Virginia University, 1978)

J. E. Weller, Yesterday's People (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966).

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