This report by Holmes Rolston III (A.B., Davidson College; B.D., Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia; Ph.D., Edinburgh University), who is pastor of the Walnut Grove and High Point Presbyterian Churches near Bristol, Virginia, was prepared at the request of the editors ofCHRISTIANITY TODAY.

Mountains and religion go well together. “Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain: and see the land, what it is, and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many” (Num. 13:17, 18). Do altitude and the beauty of the hills give highlanders a constant reminder of the Creator that those who dwell below have not? Perhaps it is easier with the Smokies on the horizon to sense the presence of him who once spoke at Mt. Sinai. Whatever the reason, faith has flourished in these mountains.

But of late, charges have arisen that religion in these mountains is as much a liability as an asset. “Hard-shell religion inspires faith, tends to oppose change,” commented a leading magazine recently featuring Appalachia. Harry M. Caudill says of the mountaineers: “They have retained a respectful reverence for the Holy Bible and for the Protestant cause but it is a reverence without scholarship, discipline, or leadership.” Others say denominational leaders are interested only in suburbia, in more people with more income, and are forgetting the hill folk in their hour of greatest need. At the same time, the national press has widely applauded United Presbyterian Church action preventing the closure of ten United Mine Workers hospitals. In his state-of-the-union message, President Johnson pledged a “special effort in the chronically depressed areas of Appalachia”; he has recently readied a $4 billion Appalachian “Marshall Plan.” Where is the Church? What is the religious mood of the highlander today?

Two significant surveys of highland problems have appeared recently. The Southern Appalachian Studies, financed largely by a Ford Foundation grant, has analyzed social, cultural, religious, and economic conditions in a 190-county, seven-state area. In 1962 twenty-two researchers published their findings in The Southern Appalachian Region. Dr. W. D. Weatherford, father of the studies, and Dr. Earl D. C. Brewer, religious sociologist at Emory University, have condensed the survey into an inexpensive paper studybook, Life and Religion in Southern Appalachia. More recently, in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry M. Caudill has revealed the grim depression and social decay in the Kentucky mountains.

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Economically, in too many places the natural beauty and wealth of the Southern mountains mask ugly scars of stubborn poverty. Those who prosper in Knoxville, the Tri-Cities, Asheville, Roanoke, Staunton, or in thriving communities of Western Carolina or the Tennessee Valley, may be reminded of rural and village half-living and hardship only by the influx from creeks and coves of those seeking jobs on “public works.” Yet multiple forces—such as automation of mines, cutting out of timber, small and primitive farming on worn-out land, substandard education, unimaginative leadership, inefficient politics—together form, in Mr. Caudill’s phrase, “the rape of the Appalachians,” and make this area lag far behind the nation in employment and income. In some areas, the unemployable subsist on welfare handouts “on a scale unequalled elsewhere in North America and scarcely surpassed anywhere in the world.” Socially and culturally, within the limitations of a failing economy, the area long isolated by geography, tradition, and myth is rapidly being thrust into the mainstream of American life.

In religion, too, Appalachia is changing; but here change is slowest of all. There is a constancy about faith that does not apply in culture or economics; particularly in faith, change is not always progress.

Religious attitudes are rather more conservative than across the nation. The Appalachian study found fundamentalism “impressively strong” among pastors and people. “There is no gainsaying that fundamentalism remains the main theme of religious thought in the region, and that it shows few signs of imminent weakening.” About 70 per cent maintain that the Bible is absolutely free from the most insignificant human discrepancy. Many simply assume, without further inquiry, that God’s Word must have somehow been dictated miraculously. Oblivious of the human and historical element in the making of the Scriptures, many understand divine truth in ways that tend to be forced and over-literal. Many are also given to a matter-of-fact meaning in each word that hinders imaginative application to the contemporary scene.

What the study calls “militant, antiscientific fundamentalism” is supported by perhaps one-third of the population. Moreover, most are content with an avoidance of uncomfortable conflict between science and religion. It is not that the religious mind of Appalachia has seriously, honestly, and openly confronted the challenge of new scientific and biblical studies and advanced to a new evangelical position. Rather it seems a fair observation that religious conservatism here often has not even faced many of the problems the twentieth century has posed for faith. Perhaps the greatest toll is on the youth who move out into higher education to find the faith of their home church intellectually sterile.

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Religion in the mountains has traditionally been and remains a lay movement, with resulting strengths and weaknesses. This was once due to geography. Circuit riders seldom came round, and, except for the annual revival, the Gospel had to be passed on without benefit of clergy. Even now, Dr. Brewer’s surveys show that only one church in ten has a full-time resident minister, and over half the full-time ministers serve four or more churches. Half the ministers hold other jobs, in mills and mines, as school teachers and farmers.

Appalachia has, not without some justification, been characterized as a land of semi-literate lay preachers. There have been great improvements in educational standards, but still four out of ten ministers serving the region have only a high school education or less; about half have a college education, and less than one-third have seminary training. Pastors’ self-study and in-service training, according to surveys, is very low. Here, more than elsewhere, every man is potentially a preacher regardless of abilities or education, provided he has had a suitable conversion and can gather a following. Every town and community has its capable, trained ministers but also all kinds of clergy in between.

Inadequate religious knowledge reflects the low educational level of the land. You can still hear theological argument at the country store or factory workbench. But many fine Bible readers notwithstanding, the data of such argument are often hand-me-down, and opinion and tradition get garbled with biblical facts and “Thus saith the Lord.…” Surveys show that generally here in the “Bible belt” even elementary biblical knowledge is appallingly low. Not one in fifty denies the divine origin of Scripture; yet only a little over half could repeat the Lord’s Prayer, and 37 per cent did not know whether it was in the New Testament or the Old. Only four in one hundred knew even the main points of all ten commandments. Despite rural religious vitality, city people consistently scored higher. Obviously, a great many believe the Bible from “cover to cover” but have only a hearsay idea what is between the covers. Then, too, in some areas one-fifth of the adults are functional illiterates, and many more read poorly.

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Substandard education is perhaps the heart of all Appalachia’s problems, religious and economic. In the past all the education available was often provided by the church and her schools. But now church colleges are inadequately financed, and surveys show that most plan to limit enrollment to a predetermined small size. Therefore, as across the nation, these schools will play an increasingly smaller role in general education. But some churches do not always lift educational levels where they can. A teen-age girl, who had sought me out to ask about college possibilities, said in unconscious indictment of her own church, one of Bristol’s largest, “Oh, they aren’t interested in helping you with that sort of thing there.”

For all his propensity to religion, the mountaineer—once solitary, always independent and self-reliant—has never been an especially good churchman. Many prefer attendance at irregular revivals. Some feel religion to be a private matter, with church affiliation optional. Church membership here has been consistently lower than in the country as a whole (in 1957, 46 per cent versus 53 per cent); but, according to Dr. Brewer’s studies, in the last generation Appalachians have been joining the church twice as rapidly as the national average.

According to National Council of Churches statistics, almost 40 per cent of church members here are Southern Baptist, and this church is growing more rapidly than any other large denomination. The second largest group is the Methodist Church, whose growth quite closely keeps pace with the population’s. These two account for about 60 per cent of all church members. The third and much smaller church is the Presbyterian Church, U. S. (about 5 per cent of the total).

The individualism of the mountaineer has plagued the land with too many small churches, developed with poor denominational strategy, splintering, competing with other church groups, and later maintained despite shifting populations. In this land of low church membership, nonetheless, a survey in the ‘fifties showed twice as many churches per 1,000 population in the Southern Appalachians as in the country as a whole, of an average size (167 members) one-third the national average.

The “gospel according to the mountaineers” remains chiefly personal and concerned with other-worldliness. Another legacy of isolation and individualism is that the mountain church has been short in social concern, limiting its message to evangelism and the fostering of individual morality. It has not felt either the responsibility or the right to speak to a worsening industrial picture or the exploitation of the land, or to stand in judgment on questionable politics.

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But there are signs across the religious landscape that give rise to a cautious optimism. On the basis of the Southern Appalachian Studies, the Southern Baptist Convention has produced a strategy for Appalachia.

The Methodist Church, at a 1962 Lake Junaluska meeting, considered a proposed fourteen-year program of greater service to the Southern mountains, through strategy based on the Ford Foundation study. Included were designs for an increase of a million new Appalachian Methodists in this period. Capitalizing on lay strength, the Abingdon District has made intensive use of laymen’s revivals. But reports of Methodism in Kentucky are discouraging.

The highlands have long been the prize home mission field of the U. S. Presbyterians, who still maintain an able ministry at grass-roots level. At the same time, Rev. Charles S. Sydnor, who oversees the Kentucky mountain ministry, has charged: “There are discouraging evidences that, in these days of critical need and opportunity never before known on such a scale, the Presbyterian Church, U. S., is wearying of its role.” The Board of Church Extension voted to cut appropriations for mountain work, later suspended the cut, and has instituted a restudy of its Cumberland ministry. A realignment of presbytery boundaries is in progress to strengthen this work.

The United Presbyterians, with a permanent committee on Appalachia under their Board of National Missions, are intensifying their concentration of brains, money ($1.5 million annually), and compassion here, evidenced by their alert action in saving the Miners hospitals. They support six area colleges (one jointly with the U. S. Presbyterians) and a complement of welfare services. Of particular interest is the investment of $20,000 annually in a new Appalachian broadcasting program, with headquarters at Maryville, Tennessee. Their strategy includes involvement of local ministers in redevelopment activities.

Significant also is the forthcoming Pan-Presbyterian Appalachian Council, pulling together the divided forces of some thirty-one presbyteries in four or five Presbyterian and Reformed communions. A meeting of representatives at Bristol in February adopted a proposed structure that, subject to ratification by denominational courts, will allow the formal organization of such a council this fall.

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He who probes deeply into the ills of Appalachia becomes convinced that the evil is more than just that of evil times. Land and men have been vitiated and sapped of strength. Character, no less than soil, has eroded; no less than coal has it been mined out and exhausted. In place of integrity and self-respect, idleness and defeat have settled across great tracts of Appalachia. Men no less than mountains have been scarred and ravaged. There are indeed some communities where Appalachians have proved themselves men of enterprising character, honesty, industry, imagination, faith, and hope—virtues that are religious no less than civic. Yet where Appalachia is sick—and she is not sick everywhere—her illness is a moral hemorrhage. From industrial ethics little short of robbery, exploitation, and dictatorship, to the scandalous plunder of the welfare system until what was instituted as a blessing has too often become a self-perpetuating curse and rot on society, all abetted by politics of decay, the basic issues are moral.

Caudill concludes his book with the statement: “In their suffering today the highlanders are both a summons and a reproach to the nation’s churches.” Can the individualistic and other-worldly churches rise to a prophetic ministry and concern for social righteousness? It is not simply a matter of roads, hydroelectric dams, forest projects, and new industries, important though these things are; without learning, inspiration, integrity, conscience, and hope for both society and individual, there will be no healing for Appalachia. These virtues, ultimately, only the Church can give. The uphill path for the mountain churches is slow, hard, demanding.

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