Mountain Baptists, Mountain Theology

Article excerpt

Writing about Baptists in Appalachia, religious historian Deborah Vansau McCauley argues that "[r]egional scholars estimate that, taken as a whole, these 'Old Time' Baptist churches and their members clearly outnumber the mountain churches and the church members associated with the Southern Baptist Convention ... It is these church traditions that most characterize the Baptist movement in Appalachia." (1)

This concept of Appalachian religion has dominated the field since the idea of "Appalachia" itself first began to develop after the Civil War. By the mid-1880s, the image of a backward region confined completely within an otherwise advanced and modern country became accepted fact among mainline Protestant denominations. (2) Not only were the people culturally different, but they also were religiously different.

But this leading paradigm, at least as it is applied to Baptists, overlooks two important realities. First, while McCauley's statement might apply today, it certainly does not hold for much of American history, including the critical time between 1880 and 1920, when denominational missions into the region reached their peak. Census data across the region indicate Baptists affiliated with national groups far outnumbered those belonging to independent or sub-regional groups. In 1906, the first year religious data was compiled by the Census, there were a total of 767,258 Baptists (both Northern and Southern) in five states with significant numbers of counties within Central Appalachia--West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. By contrast, there were just 66,669 adherents of other Baptist denominations. In fact, for a few of the small Baptist groups there actually are no available numbers from 1906. These statistics reflect in part the numbers from 1916 and 1926. (3) Of course, this data includes numbers from counties outside Appalachia. However, they are broadly suggestive of the predominance of mainline Christianity in the region.

In West Virginia nearly all the Baptists belonged to churches affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention. There were 50,149 such congregants, with a mere 1,672 belonging to Southern Baptist Convention churches. By contrast, in 1906 Primitive Baptists in the state numbered 2,019. (4) While these numbers seem to prove McCauley's point in some respects, they also reveal the second reality she overlooks. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, West Virginia, the only state completely within the confines of the Appalachian region, had an overwhelming number of Northern Baptists and a tiny number of both Southern Baptists and what Howard Dorgan calls sub-denominational Baptists. (5)

So, who were these West Virginia Baptists? What did they believe? How did they relate to the national Baptist group to which they belonged? Examining these Baptists and their mission work during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era provides a different angle on the nature and development of the Appalachian religion. Much of the literature on Baptists in Appalachia concentrates on small sub-regional and sub-denominational Baptist groups, emphasizing local autonomy and commitment to traditional Baptist theology and practice during a time of greater denominational control, theological inclusivity, and social change. While West Virginia Baptists cooperated with the Northern Baptist Convention, they maintained a strong sense of identity, part of which meant a continued commitment to Baptist theology and practice as they understood it, even as the national body, or elements of it, began to rethink certain doctrinal positions. Thus, a mainline Christian presence in Appalachia did not have to be one that was new, alien, or doctrinally suspect. Rather, West Virginia Baptist activity during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era reveals the continuity of faith in a region experiencing social, political, and cultural change, upheaval, and uncertainty. …