I am something of an interloper in this conversation. My fellow participants all work primarily on religion and labor or religion and class. I do not. But my colleagues’ remarkable work urges all of us who study southern religious history, and southern history more generally, to be more conscious of class in our own work. In one way or another, each participant in this conversation challenges a lingering tendency among historians of southern religion to accept middle-class experience as the default, and to describe the religion of poor southerners as either an imitation of or a departure from the norm.1

I describe this tendency because I too am guilty of it. I write about religion and the Great Depression, a topic that demands attention to class and wealth. In the course of this project, I became fascinated with a middle-class woman who worked as a Family Selection Specialist for the Resettlement Administration in Arkansas. Anna Weir Layne wrote short profiles of white families she interviewed for placement at Dyess Colony, an Arkansas Delta New Deal project most famous as the childhood home of Johnny Cash. Layne appreciated that her federal position gave her the opportunity to salvage the reputation and livelihood of the “native white tenant” who had fallen on hard times. She also believed it her duty to weed out the inferior class of sharecropper, the “flotsam and jetsam drifting down the Mississippi,” composed of “mostly foreigners and labor agitators.”2

Layne wrote about her federal job as though it was a sacred mission, and her perspective illustrates how the New Deal created opportunities for southern reformers to put skills honed in clubs and churches to use for the state. But it is a scene Layne describes from one of her home visits that has come to encapsulate for me the gap between the religious worlds of the middle class and the poor in the Depression-era South.

The Barclay family lived in a small batten house in a cornfield in the Arkansas hills. After a preliminary interview at the county relief office, Layne met Mr. Barclay at a neighbor’s house and he directed her to his, where his wife and four children greeted her. As Layne settled into a chair in the front room, Barclay stoked the fire. Layne fixed her attention on the mantle above him. In the center was a framed print of Joshua Reynolds’s The Age of Innocence, an eighteenth-century painting of a small girl. On either side of the painting stood a two-foot-tall wooden cross, painted white. “Sorrow” was lettered in green across one, “Adversity” across the other.

Layne took offense. “Mr. Barclay, will you please tell me why you have those words on the crosses?” she recalled asking. “Yes, life is like that, most all sorrow and adversity,” answered Barclay. Layne promptly retorted, “It is not, except as your thinking makes it so.” She lectured Barclay on God’s good intentions toward all creation, and then extracted a promise from the farmer: He would turn the crosses around and print “Love” on one, “Joy” on the other.3

Those two crosses, carefully crafted and prominently displayed, likely meant more to the Barclays than they conveyed to the resettlement agent who would decide their fate. One of the Barclays—or someone—had taken the time to paint, maybe even to build, the crosses, and to set them in wooden bases so that they stood upright. It is difficult to imagine that the Barclays chose the wordssorrow and adversity on a whim. It is not so difficult to imagine that the words summed up the family’s understanding of life and faith. Layne assumed that the Barclays’ inscriptions on the crosses betrayed the fatalism that many middle-class southerners associated with the poor. Perhaps she was right. But perhaps instead Barclay’s religious world was more expansive, with room for sorrow and adversity as well as love and joy. And perhaps this religious world was neither recognizable nor comprehensible to Layne.

Of course, this characterization can become caricature. To paint the Barclays’ faith as deep and authentic and Layne’s as shallow and sheltered is to romanticize the poverty that defined daily life for many southerners in the first half of the twentieth century. The point here is the gap in understanding between the Barclays and Layne. Layne lived for thirty years in Helena, Arkansas, but her life and the Barclays’ bore little resemblance. Layne recorded her awareness of class differences, expressing relief when she encountered a Dyess applicant whose family had once been prosperous. “We immediately spoke to one another as people of the same class,” she explained.4

Because the Laynes of the world left behind a more complete record of their lives than the Barclays, and because the kind of religious world the Barclays inhabited faded away in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is easy to presume that the contours, if not the content, of their religious lives were similar. In other words, historians have debated the theological differences between the classes, but have not always connected those to the practical differences—differences in mobility, in gender roles, in the very definition of church.5

It is not that southern religious historians have ignored class. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Glenda Gilmore, Milton Sernett, Anthea Butler, John Giggie, and Bettye Collier-Thomas, among others, have explained middle-class aspirations and expectations among African American religious leaders. It is no coincidence that over half these historians focus on the experiences of women, often the builders and guardians of middle-class religion.6 Paul Harvey, William Link, and David Godshalk have similarly examined middle-class respectability and reform campaigns that crossed denominational and racial lines.7

Nor have historians of southern religion ignored the working class altogether. Nearly all the historians above address class mobility—or immobility. But until very recently, historians of southern religion have treaded carefully when characterizing particular forms of belief or practice as working-class in orientation, or as especially appealing to the poor and less powerful. This is a sensible response to decades of work by sociologists and historians like W. J. Cash and Liston Pope, who contrasted middle-class religion with theologically unsophisticated, emotional working-class “sects.” Historians of Pentecostalism have had the most work to do here. Grant Wacker, Matt Sutton, and—for the South—Randall Stephens, have all pushed back against Robert Mapes Anderson’s characterization of Pentecostalism as the religion of the disinherited without simply describing it as another example of a radical religious movement moderated and middle-classed by institutionalization.8

Historians tend to pay attention to class most at flashpoints, at moments of protest, and these moments are indeed illuminating. Recent studies of the religious underpinnings of Populism and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) by Joe Creech, Jarod Roll, and Erik Gellman extend Wayne Flynt’s emphasis on protest in working-class religion and Robin Kelley’s argument that religious faith shaped labor rebellions among black and white farmers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.9 Richard Callahan, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, and Ken Fones-Wolf describe the complex relationship between faith and labor among working-class southerners, both at moments of crisis and in daily life.10

For John Hayes, and to some degree for each of the historians above, religious community emerges from shared poverty, and not just from shared work. Paul Harvey and Hayes particularly emphasize the long history of what Harvey calls “racial interchange” and Hayes calls “communal neighborliness” among poor black and white believers. In an essay in this journal, Hayes further argued that inattention to class, and overemphasis on racial solidarity among middle-class churchgoers of both races, has obscured the overlapping, even intertwined religious worlds of poor black and white southerners.11 Indeed, close attention to the religious lives of poor southerners reveals several themes in southern religious history worth further study

That is where Anna Weir Layne’s “flotsam and jetsam” come in. For Layne, a key difference between families like the Barclays and unqualified Dyess candidates was their connection to a community, to people who could vouch for them. But poor southerners moved. Some moved a lot and kept moving. The Barclays, too, had trekked all over the region, displaced first by unemployment and then by natural disaster, and they thought that their best chance at economic stability lay in yet another relocation. Layne reported that even their old friends had lost track of them after the latest move. While historians have been attentive to waves of migration, particularly the Great Migration and the exodus from the South in the Great Depression, the ceaseless movement of southerners within the region, from city to countryside and back again, is not as well documented.12

In this world of constant motion, people carried their religion where they went, often without much disruption. Certainly, traditional churches served many poor southerners. But even traditional-looking churches in many rural regions connected only loosely, if at all, with the denominational bodies to which they belonged—a fact evidenced by the frequency with which a single building could change denominational affiliation. Many southern churches lacked walls or a roof, and few boasted a steeple—the physical boundaries and markers that defined middle-class churches. In addition to the oft-described storefront churches, mobile southerners made places of worship from their homes, abandoned tenant cabins, and the open air. Even Howard Kester, a middle-class STFU supporter and southern radical, regretted to find many farmers “unchurched.”13 Some were. Many were not. But their churches were virtually invisible even to the most interested and sympathetic middle-class observer.14

In some states, Works Progress Administration employees charged with mapping and recording church histories documented the workings of informal southern churches.15 The proportion of women in leadership is remarkable. If there were men in the churches at all, the women outnumbered them and often out-powered them. Many women held services in their homes and took charge of church affairs, but some also stood in a pulpit and preached. And no one complained—or a lot of people complained, but not so often about gender roles. When historians really take seriously the religion of the poor as central rather than marginal, then women become much more important. This is not to say that poor women found church to be more meaningful or more liberating than middle-class and wealthy women. Just as poor women carved out opportunities unavailable to their middle-class counterparts, they faced boundaries and limitations that middle-class women did not. Simply put, the boundaries—of acceptable behavior, of race, of gender, of age—for poor believers were not those of the middle class.16

The churches of poor southerners were often incomprehensible, and sometimes, invisible, to the middle class. For that reason, they are hard—but not impossible—for historians to find. It is worth the effort. In the end, I am not just suggesting that we find the religion of poor southerners—many historians already have. I am suggesting—and I am not the first to propose this idea either—that rather than characterizing poor southerners’ religious worlds as alternative, or other, we account for them right smack in the center of southern religious history.

  1. I have chosen, with some hesitation, to use the term “poor” rather than “working class,” because many of the southerners I discuss did not identify primarily as workers, whether because of longstanding unemployment or because they were farm workers who distinguished between their labor and that of mine and factory employees. Regardless of their race, employment status, or geography, what they all shared was unrelenting economic instability and uncertainty.

  2. Anna Weir Layne, Family Selection Specialist, “The Scion of an Ancient Family,” pp. 5–6, from “Little Stories of Folks in Arkansas,” n.p., n.d. [1936?]; U.S.—Resettlement Administration—Arkansas Folder, Eleanor Roosevelt Pamphlet Collection, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

  3. Anna Weir Layne, Family Selection Specialist, Resettlement Administration, “The House of the Wooden Crosses,” pp. 3–4, from “Little Stories of Folks in Arkansas.” Layne does not provide the Barclays’ first names in her profile.

  4. Anna Weir Layne, “Holding an Interview,” p. 7, from “Little Stories of Folks in Arkansas.”

  5. Much of the debate over class and theology among southern religious historians focuses on Pentecostalism. See footnote 8, below. See also John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 137–93; Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 77–135; Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).

  6. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Milton Sernett, Bound For the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997); Anthea D. Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Knopf, 2010).

  7. Harvey, Redeeming the South; Willam A. Link, The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880–1930(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); David Fort Godshalk, Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). See also essays by David Hackett, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, R. Laurence Moore, and Leslie Tentler in “Forum: American Religion and Class,” Religion and American Culture 15 (Winter 2005): 1–29.

  8. W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941); Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers; Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Randall Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

  9. Joe Creech, Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Erik S. Gellman and Jarod H. Roll, “Owen Whitfield and the Gospel of the Working Class in New Deal America, 1936–1946,” Journal of Southern History 72 (May 2006): 303–48; Roll, “Garveyism and the Eschatology of African Redemption in the Rural South, 1920–1936,” Religion and American Culture 20 (Winter 2010): 27–56; Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Wayne Flynt, “Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 71 (Feb. 2005): 3–38; Wayne Flynt, Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).

  10. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf, “No Common Creed: White Working-Class Protestants and the CIO’s Operation Dixie,” in Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays in the Working-Class Experience, 1756–2009, ed. Donna Haverty-Stacke and Daniel J. Walkowitz (New York: Continuum, 2010); Richard J. Callahan, Jr., Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).

  11. John Hayes, “Hard, Hard Religion: The Invisible Institution of the New South,” Journal of Southern Religion 10 (2007): 1–24, online at http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume10/Hayes.pdf; Hayes, “Hard, Hard Religion: Faith and Class in the New South” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Georgia, 2007); Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  12. See, for instance, James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (University Of Chicago Press, 1991); Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land.

  13. Howard Kester, Revolt Among the Sharecroppers (1936; Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 47.

  14. For a few examples of informal southern churches, see White Hall Missionary Baptist Church, Hilleman, Woodruff County, Folder 18, Box 415, Historical Records Survey-Arkansas-Group H-Church Records (MS H62), Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville (hereafter Arkansas Church Records); Church of God (Cleveland), Haynes, Lee County, Folder 104, Box 427, Arkansas Church Records. See also Michael Berger, The Devil Wagon in God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893–1929 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979), 128–30.

  15. Church records are not available for every southern state. I have looked closely only at the Arkansas collections. For a couple of examples, see Original Church of God (Holiness), Jonesboro, Craighead County, Folder 119, Box 429, Arkansas Church Records; Assembly of God, Wynne (1020 Union Street), Cross County, Folder 7, Box 411, Arkansas Church Records.

  16. On how attention to the role of women in churches forces a broader reassessment of American religious history, see Ann Braude, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,”Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 87–107; Catherine A. Brekus, “Introduction: Searching for Women inNarratives of American Religious History,” in The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, ed. Brekus (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 1–50.