Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields by Richard Callahan [Vol. 2, #14]

A Strange Land and a Peculiar People

A Review of
Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields:
Subject to Dust
by Richard J. Callahan, Jr.

 by Stephen Lawson


“[Appalachia is] a strange land and a peculiar people”
-James Lane Allen


Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields:
Subject to Dust

by Richard J. Callahan, Jr.

University of Indiana Press, 2009. 259 pages.
Buy now from:   [ Amazon ]


If you turn on a light switch or plug in your computer in this country then you are connected with coal. Coal has long been (and still continues to be) the biggest generator of electricity in America. Whenever a commodity rises in importance as much as coal has in the last 150 years, then the lives of people are inevitably affected. Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust by Richard J. Callahan, Jr. chronicles the change that the coal industry brought to eastern Kentucky in the early twentieth century.

            Historians have an understandable tendency to focus on “important” people and events leaving the day-in, day-out struggles and work of the unnamed masses to the wayside. After all, the men and women who tilled the land, worked the mines, and built cathedrals and palaces seldom wrote their stories down. They were too busy surviving. When it comes to the history of faith, this means that church historians tend to spend their time discussing the importance of theologians, church councils and creeds. Most historians never ask how the faith of the people on the ground is being lived and breathed. When most of these historians of the church look at the religious history of Appalachia they see an area that by the late nineteenth century had situated itself outside the stream of economic and religious progression that the rest of the country had been enjoying. Nearly every treatment of Appalachian model has followed this (what Callahan calls) “retarded frontier” model. Scholarly and popular treatments alike have viewed Appalachia as a quaint region whose people have clung to antiquated practices (for example, most church historians focus on snake handling) that our modern age has moved past. They study Appalachia as if it were a place to go on safari. Callahan sets himself against these histories that treat Appalachia like a strange place where people are very much different from us.

            In the first chapter, “Appalachian Mountain Religion,” Callahan overviews religious life in Appalachia. He discusses why this region has been viewed (and viewed itself) as a distinct from the rest of America–economically, socially, culturally and religiously (20-21). From the beginning of the nineteenth century, religion was viewed as one of the primary markers of this distinctiveness. The Scotch-Irish, English and German immigrants who first settled in Appalachia strongly resisted the “democratization” of Christianity that was happening in throughout America. Instead, the opted for radically independent churches, with a strong emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, worship, and vocation. These churches tended to be very small bodies “that engaged with and emerged from local populations” (29). Prior to the incursion of industrial capitalism into the area, these churches were the binding agent of mountain culture. While they often had doctrinal differences, they shared a common language and served as the social and cultural centers of mountain life.

            In chapter two, Callahan records what the “Patterns of Life and Work” were in pre-industrial Appalachia. He shows that the incursion of industrial capitalism into the area through the coming to the coal companies “greatly accelerated a process that was already under way, more slowly, in the Kentucky mountains, as a household-oriented economy was being transformed into a market economy” (39). Before the late nineteenth century, eastern Kentucky was made up almost entirely of subsistence farming, in which each family produced what they needed and rarely (if ever) participated in the market economy. The people who lived in these mountains and tilled the soil for their survival used religious language to describe their work. Work was the natural order of creation, and by working, a family was being faithful to this order. The chapter concludes with the stage being set for the arrival of the coal companies. Farmers were offered the gold in exchange for the rights to the coal under their land. Most farmers accepted this gold for two reasons: first, there was no infrastructure (i.e. railroads) in Appalachia that were required for coal mining and, second, the farmers still had the rights to till the surface of the land.

            Chapters three and four record the drastic change in mountain life that coal mining brought. The farmers who moved into coal towns (towns built and owned by coal companies) “discovered that nature–or God’s design–was no longer the dominate force dictating life’s rhythms. Industry enveloped people in a new ‘nature’ where economic forces were just as powerful and often more determining of the dynamics of daily life” (71). These coal towns not only brought with them a market economy, but the brought new Christian denominations en masse. These denominations supplanted the Old Regular Baptist and Primitive Baptist that denominated the religious landscape before coal mining. These mountain churches still existed (and still exist today) in rural Appalachia, but in the coal towns saw the incursion of more “Evangelical” churches.

            Life in coal towns was a hard and very different life than subsistence farming. This massive change is recounted by a miner in the epigraph to chapter three,

                        “A mountain man becomes a miner. He moves his family and a few household goods from the picturesque cabin in the cove or on the ridge to a desolate shack in the sordid village that has sprung up around the mine. He had not realized that he would have to buy all his food…he has to pay even for water to drink. The life of nature, of which he was a part, has been torn from him, and stripped naked of all he has been accustomed to, he might as well be in a dungeon. The vices of out industrial progress fasten their tentacles upon him and soon suck out his life. His children are surrounded by ugliness instead of beauty, their time is spent in idleness instead of the healthy-minded recreations of the woods and the educative family chores incident to tilling the soil.” -James Watt Raine, 1924

            Chapters five and six tell the often untold story of eastern Kentuckians, their resistance to the capitalism of the coal mining. Escapism was not easy for the miners because “the dust kept falling” (156). The coal dust covered everything, even the religion of the miners. The people of Appalachia saw the incursion of the coal companies as an invasion of a way of life that supplanted the natural order of work. They expressed their resistance to this oppression in religious ways. The coal companies were the Egyptian slave masters who were oppressing God’s people. “Religion, in other words, provided a ‘way of talking’ that linked material and spiritual concerns in a dense performative style that had significance and effect as a rhetorical form aside from any underlying doctrine” (183).

            This book is a welcome addition to American religious history. Callahan faithfully tells the stories of people whose lives have been “swept under the rug” by capitalism. With the current economic crisis, there is a lot of rhetoric about preserving the “American way of life.” This book tells the stories of a way of life that was sacrificed on the altar of capitalism to create and sustain an “American dream.”

            The only negative about this book is that it does not tell the whole story. Coal mining didn’t leave Appalachia after 1932 (when the book stops). The picture here was taken in Harlan county, Kentucky in March of 2009. Coal mining is still present and, while conditions have improved, there are still people in Appalachia who are being sacrificed to sustain the unsustainable “American way of life.” Who will tell their story?




C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

L10-Launch Promo Blog Phase 1 CTA 1

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!
We respect your email privacy

In the News...
Christian Nationalism Understanding Christian Nationalism: Essential Books [A Reading Guide]
Most AnticipatedMost Anticipated Books of the Fall for Christian Readers!
Theology BooksTen Theology Books to Watch For – September 2022
B. EhrenreichJournalist Barbara Ehrenreich died earlier this month. Here's a few video clips that introduce her work
Funny Bible ReviewsHilarious One-Star Customer Reviews of Bibles

One Comment

  1. solomon burchfield

    Great review, thanks Stephen