Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South

Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South

Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South

Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South


In his captivating study of faith and class, John Hayes examines the ways folk religion in the early twentieth century allowed the South's poor--both white and black--to listen, borrow, and learn from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in a world of severe struggle. Beneath the well-documented religious forms of the New South, people caught in the region's poverty crafted a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the margins of capitalist development, giving voice to modern phenomena like alienation and disenchantment. Through haunting songs of death, mystical tales of conversion, grassroots sacramental displays, and an ethic of neighborliness, impoverished folk Christians looked for the sacred in their midst and affirmed the value of this life in this world.

From Tom Watson and W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago to political commentators today, many have ruminated on how, despite material commonalities, the poor of the South have been perennially divided by racism. Through his excavation of a folk Christianity of the poor, which fused strands of African and European tradition into a new synthesis, John Hayes recovers a historically contingent moment of interracial exchange generated in hardship.


When the American painter Thomas Hart Benton turned his attention to the South as he was crafting his monumental The Arts of Life in America mural series in 1932, his imagination was drawn to religion. His finished product, Arts of the South, vividly evokes scenes that Benton had witnessed on travels through the region in the late twenties and early thirties. Religious phenomena dominate the painting: a simple wooden church pierces the horizon on the painting’s left side, a preacher thunders as a small crowd prays and sings on the painting’s right side, and in the middle, a man clutches his hands together and cries out in a gesture of passionate prayer (see fig. 1). Benton was interested in the indigenous cultures of American regions, in grassroots creativity. As the clothing, settings, and muscular bodies of the characters of Arts of the South suggest, Benton found such creativity among the region’s poor, among working people engaged in hard manual labor.

In the late thirties and early forties, photographers working for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) traveled throughout the country, compiling an extensive documentary record of some 175,000 images. the photographs capture a variety of subjects: the hard labor and harsh living conditions of sharecroppers, the liberal idealism of agricultural resettlement communities, the massive national mobilization for World War ii. They also capture religion (see figs. 2 and 3). Analyzing the FSA’s significant visual documentation of religion in the South, Colleen McDannell argues that though they weren’t looking for it, the photographers stumbled upon nothing less than “another South”—a religious milieu very different from the hostile, dismissive representations prevalent in American culture. Among impoverished rural people, they encountered a complex faith, “a religious world not bound up in Biblicism and moralism,” a “sensual religion” that “brought beauty into” the lives of the poor.

In the violent, enigmatic fiction that she crafted from the late forties through the early sixties, Flannery O’Connor explored the interiority, the inner struggle and strife, of a very distinct Southern religious milieu. Her first novel, 1952’s Wise Blood, introduced the jarring figure of Hazel Motes, an ex– farm boy from a vanished rural hamlet, fresh from four years in the U.S. military and eager to repudiate the Christianity of his upbringing. Haunted by . . .

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