Response to Roundtable on Class
Reading the contributions of the fine young scholars to this roundtable confirms my optimism about the future of this small company of historians interested in the intersection of class and religion in the South. I learned a great deal from their musings and will shamelessly use their suggestions when I return to my own work. Especially useful, it seems to me, is the way that Richard Callahan and Alison Greene flip the questions that historians typically ask about why the disempowered practice the kinds of religion they do and instead call for interrogating the religious practices, styles, rhetorics, and representations embraced by the middle class that legitimized capitalism and marginalized those of working people. Equally imaginative is Jarod Roll’s proposition that scholars pay close attention to the particular Biblical passages recited by groups and the precise context in which they are used. These can, as Roll demonstrates, tell us a good deal about the theological and eschatological meanings that undergird social movements.
There are a number of issues (perhaps even most) on which we all seem to agree. For example, there is agreement that southern religion scholarship has been shaped a bit too much by concerns with race to the exclusion of class or gender, but that most southerners were acutely cognizant of class differences. Similarly, denominational choice was less the result of class formation and more a part of theprocessof class formation and identification. Also noted is the need to go beyond the traditional denominational sources that form the resource base of much (but certainly not all) of the history of southern religion, as well as to read all sources with a sensitivity to the unexpected links between sacred and the secular realms. However, all of us have a healthy respect for what scholars of southern religion have achieved, and view this primarily as an opportunity to suggest other fruitful paths to follow.
One of these fruitful paths should include mobility, both social and geographical. Both John Hayes and Richard Callahan remind us that upward mobility often meant changing denominational affiliations, but we do less well at capturing the precise moments and motivations for such change, or even what meanings were attached to such changes. Even more important is Greene’s cue that geographic mobility was a marker of poverty and class, often hindering or obscuring the religious practices of the poor and incurring the disdain of the middle class. This insight might also offer additional clues to Callahan’s (and Dwight Billings’s) efforts to compare the impact of religious sentiments in Kentucky coalfields with those in Piedmont mill villages. Many millhands were migrants, experiencing spatial as well as social dislocations. The only churches they found in the village were, at first, those provided by the mill owners, who also paid the minister’s salary. In contrast, Harlan County’s coal mines drew heavily from local people who kept their religious communities intact and relied upon their own lay preachers. When railroads and “railroad religion” invaded Harlan, the already existing religious communities helped miners cope with or protest the destruction of their way of life.
Attention to migration should also caution us against generalizing too easily about working class composition. For example, Harlan County’s mine workforce was very different from that in nearby West Virginia, where operators recruited thousands of workers from Hungary, Italy, and the South’s Black Belt and where native-born miners were more likely to remain in mainstream Baptist and especially Methodist churches. Appalachian folk religion was varied and complex. Of course, as John Hayes, Alison Greene, and I pointed out in our first contributions to this roundtable, remaining in mainstream denominations still afforded working people an opportunity to give their own distinctive styles to worship.
It is interesting to see my co-contributors be so careful about defining class, even to the point of reviving the ghost of E. P. Thompson. I applaud Callahan for his emphasis on class as both a process and a relationship. However, I admit to being a bit befuddled by John Hayes’s discussion of class at first. After suggesting that the cultural construction of class may not exist in all societies, he then follows by asserting that the New South “was both acutely race- and class-conscious.” It might help if, a la Thompson, he separated the experience of class (the identity of some people’s interests as between themselves, and as against others whose interests are different from and/or opposed to theirs) from class consciousness (“the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms”).1 Nevertheless, Hayes says a number of very smart things about the ways that applying a class analysis to the hegemonic evangelicalism of the middle and upper classes of the early twentieth-century South can help us better understand the internal denominational divisions that were very much a part of a hidden history of southern Protestantism.
Finally, I am impressed that all of us feel that the appearance of independent Holiness and Pentecostal churches reflect something other than fatalism or psychological or social compensation, although Greene’s caution about romanticizing the religion of the dispossessed is solid advice. In fact, some of the contributors to this roundtable might be pushing a bit too hard in the other direction, seeing non-mainstream churches as sites where working people searched for an oppositional authority. Maybe they did at times, but probably other things were going on as well. In addition, as both Greene and Hayes point out, we will do well to remember that most of the poor did not gravitate to Holiness and Pentecostal churches. Instead, the poor of both races articulated and confronted the “insecurity, instability, frustration, and marginalization” that structured their lives largely in local Baptist and Methodist churches. Regardless, we also need to expand our study of social movements and acknowledge that the poor might strive to assert power in both the spiritual as well as the temporal realm.
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 9–10.↩