In the history of American media representations, the South—or some imagination of the South—has figured prominently in how Americans figure class. To make a character working class, simply give him or her a thick southern accent. It is a move that shows up from Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy to Mater, the tow truck in Disney Pixar’s Cars (2006), starring Lightning McQueen.1 As a bonus with this signification, along with class comes ignorance. Likewise, a slightly different southern accent combined with dressy clothing and a plantation mansion works nicely to signify upper class snobbery. Obviously, the South is far more diverse and complicated. But what class is, exactly, and what it has to do with understanding southern religion, is far from clear. I do not have a definitive insight into “how the study of religion in the early twentieth-century South might appear differently if scholars emphasized class as a category of analysis” (the question that prompts the essays in this forum). But I have spent some time considering the relationship of work and labor to religion in the eastern Kentucky coalfields, and I can share some of what I have learned about the intersections of class and religion in the course of that research.

As a category of analysis, class has been figured in multiple ways—each of which lends itself to a very different sort of significance in terms of how it might affect the study of southern religion. Should class be explored primarily as a structural condition or as an experience? Should class be understood mainly in relation to poverty and wealth, or to authority, or to relations of power? To what extent is “class consciousness”—the self-awareness of members of a class as belonging to that class—essential to the analysis? Is class most relevant when related to political mobilization, to the emergence of organized labor, for instance, or as an issue of culture, aesthetics, or social distinctions? Each of these issues, all valid, influences the type of data and evidence the scholar will find significant, and the types of questions he or she will pursue in making sense of that evidence.

When it comes to tying class to religion, central Appalachia has been something of a laboratory for the application of explanatory models. The “discovery” (or “invention”) of Appalachia as a region with an identifiably distinct culture came into existence around the 1880s, at which time “mountain whites” also came to be identified by outsiders as “poor white trash.”2 The representation stuck, taking on new meanings as the region became increasingly enmeshed in the industrial economy as a source of natural resources (primarily coal and timber). Religion, poverty, and coal mining came to be three major signifiers of Appalachia in the popular media. Along the way, the religious ideas and practices of mountain residents became the data for studies and theories related to religion, class, and social disaffection. In the main, the prevailing perspective interpreted “deviant” religious practices such as serpent handling, faith healing, emotional preaching, and biblical literalism as compensatory response to economic, social, and psychological deprivation.3 A “culture of poverty” expressed itself religiously in “fatalistic” and fantastic beliefs and practices. Conversely, critics from a different angle have asserted that the “fatalism” of Appalachian religion has been largely to blame for a lack of social and economic motivation. In short, the religious practices of Appalachia are either the cause or the effect of poverty, which is inevitably also part of the story of the industrialization of coal mining in the region. Studies such as these are crucial as data to explore the process of how, as religious studies scholar Sean McCloud put it, “certain religious groups, beliefs, and practices came to be associated with certain socioeconomic classifications.”4

I find such studies frustrating and not terribly helpful for understanding how religion “works” in the real world and in its class dimensions. It has been nearly fifty years since E. P. Thompson argued that “class is a relationship, not a thing.” He added, “we cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period.”5 I find Thompson’s observations to be a useful starting point for thinking about how class and religion are related, and how attention to class might impact the study of religion. Three points in particular stand out for me: 1) class is a process, and religion is part of that process of the formation of class. It is not something distinct from class; 2) once “classified,” religion can become a powerful resource for identity and survival; and 3) because class is a relationship, one cannot fruitfully study only one class in isolation. The working class is defined by its relationship to, and distinction from, another class or classes, which in turn are constituted by their distinction from and relationship to the working class. I will discuss each of these points broadly in relation to my own work on religion in the eastern Kentucky coalfields.


The process of class formation is easier to see, perhaps, in eastern Kentucky than elsewhere because of the abrupt and spatialized nature of industrialization there. Though vastly oversimplified, there was something to Appalachians’ sense that industrialists were “foreigners,” not natives of the mountains. As one observer put it, “suddenly the ‘retarded frontier’ was rediscovered” in the 1880s, and two types of “outsiders” came rushing into the mountains: “those who saw the natural resources and sought them regardless of the interests of the natural owners; and those who with missionary zeal rushed to educate and reform.”6 Thus the transformation of the eastern Kentucky landscape and social fabric through the introduction of industrial coal mining went hand in hand with cultural forces of modernity that sought to transform Appalachian culture through education and religion. As eastern Kentucky natives were converted into industrial workers, they often identified their bosses’ cultural forms (and those that entered the mountains alongside the coal industry) as “foreign” to mountain culture. What this meant for class formation was that cultural resources and traditions became markers of class distinction. Of course the reality was always more complicated than that, and some mountain natives quickly joined the ranks of the industrialists. But often, part of that economic alignment entailed a social and cultural re-alignment as well. Religion was a privileged forum for this differentiation. Non-mountain observers described mountain religious practices as backwards, ignorant, and emotional, while mountain natives saw what they termed “railroad religion” (because it came in with the railroads) as cold, intellectualized, and too focused on worldly matters. Yet it is important to note that these were not solely theological or doctrinal differences. They were part and parcel of social and economic distinctions that were also being formed at the time. In other words, it is not the case that class preceded religious practice or vice versa; religious and class distinctions formed together, constituting one another, taking on particular resonations of significance in the contextualized process of economic, social, and cultural transformation in this place.


Religion, as it is lived, takes up the matters of everyday life and makes something of them. In eastern Kentucky, religious traditions took on new significance in the class context by providing identity, legitimation of values, and alternative sources of authority from those who dominated the industrial economy. Constituted anew by both their distinctions from “railroad religion” and the impositions of “outsiders” to dismiss them as ignorant and replace them, local religious traditions became part of the battlefield of class and industry. Representations of footwashing, emotional preaching, unaccompanied singing, anti-missionary positions, and faith healing came to be synonymous, for much of twentieth-century America, with poverty and ignorance. But it also became a source of oppositional identity and cultural pride for mountain natives. Viewed this way, the continued presence of such religious practices (including organizational forms like Old Regular Baptist associations and independent churches) appears less as something old that will not change or go away, and more as an intentional choice in a highly charged context. As Deborah Vansau McCauley has noted, with this background the appearance of independent Holiness and Pentecostal churches in central Appalachia during this time needs to be rethought as well: they were not psychological or social “compensation” for deprivation, nor simply the influence of the spread of Pentecostalism in the United States. Rather, the Holiness and Pentecostal churches in the mountains were resignified, re-charged, intensified versions of already-existing local religious practices that were consciously engaging with new forces shaping mountain life.7

At times, these culturally and religiously important distinctions could lead to political mobilization for social change, becoming important foundations for organizing labor unions. At other times, they redirected dissatisfaction toward ritual, theological, or other performative responses. Several studies have explored these dynamics and their complexity. Sociologist Dwight Billings, in particular, provides interesting conclusions about the conditions that might lead to churches and preachers supporting the powers of capital in some cases, while leading resistance in others. The corollary is that racial attitudes, not theology, divided southern churches in the first half of the twentieth century.8 Comparing the history of the early-twentieth century West Virginia and eastern Kentucky coalfields, where religion contributed to labor opposition, to the case of labor struggles in the textile-manufacturing communities in the southern Piedmont in North Carolina, where churches and religious leaders supported the powers of industry, Billings concludes that the religious leaders in the southern Piedmont “identified with the planter-industrialists’ hegemonic project of building a New South,” while most clergy in the coal fields identified with (and were often themselves) laborers. Following Antonio Gramsci, Billings determines that churches in the coal fields offered crucial elements that the southern Piedmont lacked for the formation of an oppositional culture: autonomous organizations (free spaces), organic intellectuals, and social interactions that could sustain an oppositional worldview.9 Billing’s analysis is primarily institutional, leaving aside questions concerning whether or not there is something particularly religious about the oppositional culture that churches and religious leaders helped to create and sustain.

Most important in considering the intertwinings of religion and class, in my mind, is to be aware of religion as something made, something produced and reworked by human beings in particular contexts. Religion does not just emerge on its own, nor does it just determine how people will think or act. This means taking the work of religion into account, examining both the possibilities and the limitations that particular religious and cultural resources provided and how people worked with them in producing and reproducing selves, worlds, communities, and material conditions.

Some of the most innovative and powerful religious productions in the 1920s and 1930s in eastern Kentucky in relation to class structures and experiences had to do with the signification and performance of the tactile world of coal mining. Ever-present coal dust, the daily dangers of underground mining, the broken bodies of miners and diseased bodies of miners’ families, the transformations of the mountains and even new commodities—these became the raw material of religious performance and ritual, from faith healing to song, from morally mapping the physical and cultural landscape to locating places of worship. Class was spatialized, commodified, sensed, and otherwise materialized in ways that tied into the embodied performances of mountain religious traditions.10 Contrary to widely held views that these traditions were “otherworldly,” the reality on the ground shows them to be deeply engaged with the material world.


In considering what an emphasis on class as a category of analysis might reveal about southern religion, it is also important to bear in mind that class does not only mean “working class.” It seems that when scholars invoke the term “class” they are often concerned with the politics and power of workers and labor. I strongly support scholarship that recovers the lives and stories of the hard-working people who are too often overlooked in our studies, and whose experiences illuminate otherwise unrecognized social and material dynamics. Nevertheless, if class is to be understood as a relational process within fields of power, then the formation and practices of middle and upper classes are also a constitutive part of the story. In the context of southern religion, this means that scholarship should be attentive to the “classifying” of religious organizations, orientations, and practices, exploring how various religious bodies and performances are represented and discursively framed. How is it that physical comportment, levels of emotional display, musical styles, and even volume of worship become linked to categories of class? What is at stake in such representations? Too often, “normative” forms turn out to be those religious activities embraced as proper by the middle class. Thus, scholars must also be self-critical and reflexive about their own class locations and assumptions as they frame their analyses.

In the central Appalachian case, scholars have often asked why the working class or the disempowered practice the kinds of religion that they do. When viewed as a historical process, however, the relationship between religion and class calls forth different questions. Why did people change denominations and religious styles, moving away from the traditions they grew up with, as they moved socially and economically away from the working class? In what ways did the worship practices and religious styles embraced by the middle class sacralize or otherwise legitimize capitalism, consumerism, and class distinctions? How were the rhetorics of progress and development that were embraced by missionaries, social workers, labor activists, and industrial capitalists related? How did they promote an orientation to the world that constituted central Appalachian religion and culture as “other”?11 As eastern Kentucky miners took up the materials of their world and made them into things of religious significance, so too did the middle class take up the resources of economic practices and social development and forge religious selves from these raw materials.


Paying attention to class might reveal any number of things about southern religion in the early twentieth century, depending upon what aspects or models of class a scholar wishes to emphasize. Insisting that class is a process, a dynamic of relations, has helped me to see religion as a central element in the formation of class, and class structures and experiences as tremendous forces and resources through which religion is practiced and performed. Paying attention to class, in this sense, means paying attention to religion as dynamic, as engaged, and as a form of work that must be deeply contextualized in its material and social fabric. It also means emphasizing the processes by and through which different communities—classes—understand themselves in relation to others, and how those understandings produce particular religious selves.

I have left a lot unexplored in this short piece. The most blatant omissions have to do with gender and race. Class has often taken a back seat to race as a category of analysis structuring studies of southern religion. Yet, as Martin Luther King Jr. increasingly saw toward the end of his life, these two concerns are deeply interrelated. Slavery was race-based in the United States, but it also needs to be accounted for in terms of work, labor, and social structure. The study of issues of religion and class as they have related to race in the South will be an important area of historical work. Gender, too, is thoroughly entangled with class. In the eastern Kentucky coalfields, gender roles and responsibilities transformed dramatically with the introduction of industrial mining and a money economy, and these changes had effects on religious practice, obligation, and authority. Ideally, gender, race and class should all be strongly considered in studies of southern religion.

The importance of class to the study of southern religion goes beyond the relationship of religious organizations or leaders to the emerging labor movement, or any other nascent political or social mobilization. It goes beyond theories of deprivation and compensation. It goes to the heart of the dynamic labor of religion as it is actually lived in particular places, intersecting with all of the forces that shape the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Insofar as class is a major shaping force, as it must be in a capitalist economy, then class will be an essential category of analysis for understanding southern religion.

  1. Larry the Cable Guy provided the voice of Mater; Texas native Owen Wilson provided the voice of Lightning McQueen.

  2. Allen W. Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990); Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1879–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978); Anonymous, “Poor White Trash,” Cornhill Magazine 45 (May 1882): 688.

  3. See Deborah Vansau McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). One influential example is Weston La Barre, They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-Handling Cult (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962).

  4. Sean McCloud, “The Ghost of Marx and the Stench of Deprivation: Cutting the Ties that Bind in the Study of Religion and Class,” in Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics, ed. McCloud and William A. Mirola (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 97. See also Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

  5. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Random House, 1963), 11.

  6. Olive Dame Campbell, “Flame of a New Future for the Highlands,” Southern Mountain Life and Work 1 (April 1925): 11.

  7. McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion, 265–67.

  8. John Gaventa Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Helen Matthews Lewis, Sue Easterling Kobak, and Linda Johnson, “Family, Religion and Colonialism in Central Appalachia, or Bury My Rifle at Big Stone Gap,” in Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case, ed. Helen Matthews Lewis, Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins (Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1978); Dwight B. Billings, “Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (July 1990): 1–31.

  9. Billings, “Religion as Opposition,” 27.

  10. See Richard J. Callahan Jr., Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), and Richard J. Callahan Jr., “Sensing Class: Religion, Aesthetics, and Formations of Class in Eastern Kentucky’s Coal Fields,” in Religion and Class in America, 175–96.

  11. For example, see Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001); Richard J. Callahan Jr., Kathryn Lofton, and Chad Seales, “Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 88 (2010): 1–39; John M. Giggie and Diane H. Winston, eds., Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).