Review: Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields
Richard J. Callahan, Jr. Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust. Religion in North America. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. 259 pp. ISBN 978-0-25335-237-8.
Eastern Kentucky coal miners did not check their faith at the mouth of tenebrous caves, where they piled into cars that carried them miles deep into the belly of Appalachian peaks. Nor did miners and their families escape the gritty realities of daily life when they walked through the doors of rough-hewn holiness churches on the outskirts of town. Just as black dust and mountain air commingled in early-twentieth-century coal country, so did religion and work, Richard J. Callahan, Jr., argues in Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields.
Callahan situates his book within the burgeoning literature on “lived religion.” In the introduction, he rehearses what are now well-worn criticisms of conventional religious history, with its institutional, top-down approach, even as he outlines the contours of his distinctive intervention. For Callahan, “work” and “labor” are “essential categories for the study of religion” (3). Along with Robert Orsi, Colleen McDannell, and numerous other contemporary scholars, then, he wants to challenge artificial distinctions between the sacred and the profane in order to understand more fully the meaning of faith within the context of everyday life. Yet Callahan hopes also to illumine something about the nature of religion itself, to explore the ways in which it is “a kind of work, always in process as it is produced and reproduced in particular settings” (8). His interest in religion qua category–what it is and how it functions–imbues his project with a distinctly religious studies flavor, which is reinforced by allusions to theorists such as Emile Durkheim, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Talal Asad.
The book unfolds in six thematic chapters, which proceed in loosely chronological fashion. The first three describe the folkways of Eastern Kentucky’s white, native-born population in the years before industrialization and then trace the “mind-boggling” changes wrought by the arrival of the coal companies (67). Particularly noteworthy for readers of this journal is Callahan’s discussion of what happened when missionaries from the national Protestant denominations followed the coal operators into the mountains. The miners and their families rejected these interlopers and their “railroad religion,” housed as it was in stone and brick sanctuaries, monuments to a vision of progress that was at odds with long-standing local values (60). With company-sanctioned Methodist and Presbyterian preachers bent on snuffing out “mountain sacramental worship practices” – foot-washing, healing, and river baptism, to name a few–native-born Kentuckians redoubled their commitments to Old Regular Baptist and independent holiness churches (94).
In the second half of the book, Callahan goes on to explore the relationship between faith and coal mining work itself. Here he stresses that many eastern Kentuckians, influenced by the reformed predilections of mountain religion, understood labor as a divine calling. What made mining unique was that it was so dangerous. The old cliché about atheists and fox-holes applies also to drift mines, Callahan suggests: even those who did not enter as believers sometimes found faith in the wake of tragic accidents that claimed fellow workers’ lives. Miners routinely brought the working and religious dimensions of their lives together. The very same bodies that strained under capital’s demands were those that spoke in tongues, fell down in the Spirit, and mediated all experience of the divine.
From time to time, these intimate connections between labor and faith surfaced in the political conflicts that rocked coal country. In the final chapter, Callahan explores the role that folk singers and miner-preachers played in the well-documented 1931-32 organizing campaign of the Communist National Miners’ Union. Initially, “miners cast the labor movement as an urgent religious issue,” he writes, and “the NMU took on the aura of a millenarian movement” (180). But then a contingent of local union leaders returned from a Chicago-based training with news of the national organization’s atheistic and racially-progressive propensities. One by the name of Harvey Collett declared, “‘they teach that there is no God, that a white woman is equal to a colored woman, that a negro has a right to marry a white woman, that Christ is a myth and that there is nothing in the resurrection’” (187). In short order, the NMU’s local support evaporated. In this world, appeals to “class interest” – conceived in isolation from or opposition to the prejudices and values that people held dear – had not a prayer.
Callahan’s book is not without its limitations. Many of these stem from a dearth of sources, which is presumably at the root of his decision to focus solely on white, native-born miners, for example. One wishes that there had been a way to include immigrants and African Americans, whom as he acknowledges together constituted a significant minority of the region’s workforce throughout the period under study. This would not only have added a valuable comparative dimension to the project, but would also have shed additional light on his principal actors. When confronted with the striking language of Collett’s diatribe against the NMU, one cannot help but suspect that race played a more central role in this story than it appears in Callahan’s telling. Nevertheless, this fine study should inspire more attention to the rich but oft-neglected intersection of religion and labor in American life.