I have to admit to being a bit shy about advising scholars of religion to emphasize class as a category of analysis.1 Typically (and more comfortably for me), I like to chide my labor and working-class history colleagues for their omission of religion and spirituality in their analyses. On that score, I feel much better. The work of several participants in this discussion makes me unusually hopeful, particularly because they represent a new generation of scholars interested in class for whom religious beliefs cannot be dismissed as “false” consciousness.2

When considering the topic now confronting me, my first thought was to return to what other historians of class have written about religious history. I thought back to the comment of British social historian Brian Harrison that I discovered when writing my dissertation, “Church historians tend to look out at the masses from the deanery window; they seldom inquire how the deanery appeared from outside.”3 I wondered if the same held true for historians of southern religion, so I turned to Samuel S. Hill’s Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (1984). Scanning the index for evidence that class had not been ignored, I was astounded. There were no entries for class, social class, workers, millhands, labor, the poor, capitalism, industrialization, or anything else I could connect with a class analysis. This is four decades after Liston Pope’s still useful study, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia. (I did find an entry for Pope, however, under the category of Ecumenism.)4

This interpretive gap could not be explained by an intention to avoid social issues; contrast the lack of class with the encyclopedia’s engagement with racial issues. There are subject headings for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act, abolitionism, Black religion, Ku Klux Klan, lynching, slavery, slave religion, and segregation. There is an index entry for “sit-in movement” but not one for strikes. The second edition of the encyclopedia does a bit better, but it does not have an index. There is, however, an entry for Liston Pope, acknowledging his pioneering writings on mill workers.5 My familiarity with the work of such excellent religious historians as Paul Harvey and Wayne Flynt made this all the more troubling. Both have written with considerable sensitivity about working people and the centrality of religion in their lives.6

How might we account for this ommission? Surely, we recognize that there is a long history of incorporating race into the study of southern religion. After all, it was the debate over race-based slavery that in some respects created the field. Then, after emancipation, race consciousness has been central to southern distinctiveness in the minds of many. On both sides of the struggle for racial equality, not surprisingly, southern churches (black and white) gained praise or infamy for their role in this most critical marker of southernness.7 The corollary is that racial attitudes, not theology, divided southern churches in the first half of the twentieth century.

Why not class as a critical factor? Did whiteness count for so much that southerners did not discuss economic inequality, workplace injustices, or the exploitation of children in their churches? Were black churches so consumed with Jim Crow that they ignored status distinctions and economic privileges within their communities? Did working people not experience industrialization in ways that persuaded them to seek their own churches, worship God according to their own fashions, and interpret gospel through their own understandings? Of course they did, and yet, Liston Pope has a limited number of followers who make class a central category of analysis when discussing southern religion.

Before I get to the main question of this symposium, let me lay out a caveat or two. Although I have been impressed by a number of studies that apply a class analysis to elites and bourgeois sorts,8 most of my own comments will focus on the working class. Second, I am aware that it is incredibly artificial to discuss the working class without including African Americans. In his 2007 dissertation, a portion of which was published in this online journal, John Hayes suggested the benefits of analyzing class and race together.9 However, I suspect that others in this symposium will address that issue and I will focus on what I have been researching, white workers.

So, what would a consideration of class contribute to scholarship on southern religion in the twentieth century? First, we might begin with a look at denominational growth and decline. For example, Pope’s study of Gastonia notes the increasing segregation by class in the church affiliations of Gaston County’s white millhands in the wake of the 1929 strike. During the 1930s, 21 of 24 new churches built in the mill villages were Holiness, Pentecostal and “newer sect” churches. Previously 88 percent of Gastonians had worshipped in Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian churches. Fast forward another decade, and one finds yet another significant change—Southern Baptist churches were increasing their share of church members in Gaston County by almost the exact share that Methodists were losing theirs.10

There is ample work from southern religious history to help explain these changes, starting with Robert Handy’s now fifty-year-old article on American religion during the Depression. Hard times reinforced rural-born and migrant southerners’ strongly held beliefs about the importance of God’s grace, redemption through faith, the necessity of bearing witness, and the Bible as the sole religious authority. Moreover, the depths of the Depression also gave credence to the warnings of premillenialist preachers that mankind was regressing toward the imminent end of the world.”11 Often, scholars have associated such ideas with fatalism, but the excellent work of Jarod Roll, Richard Callahan, and Alessandro Portelli—works that place class at the center—should caution us against such facile notions. Working people who held such beliefs at times mobilized the most effective collective protests against the injustices of capitalism.12

It is not my intent to suggest that the social bases of denominational affiliation would surprise scholars of southern religion. Most simply take that for granted. But applying a class analysis to the changing denominational strengths within the region is another matter. Here, I think, is a way (a la Brian Harrison) “to inquire how the deanery appeared from outside,” but it will require that we shift at least some of our research away from denominational sources and archives. For example, what drew working people out of the mainline southern denominations and toward newer sect churches? What made Methodism decline in mill villages like Gastonia between 1936 and 1951 while the Southern Baptists were increasing their numbers? Did it have anything to do with the making (or unmaking) of a southern working class and, if so, what? Also, what meaning did working people attach to their choice of churches and creeds?

Spending time with the oral histories of working people can make answering such questions seem daunting. Often, the choice of church appears serendipitous: “You went to the church that was closest to you,” claimed one mill worker while another simply stated that the village “didn’t have but one.”13 Even when a conscious choice was made, the reasons might seem unrelated to creeds. Nellie Mae Meyers switched churches because of her children’s friends, then justified it by relating, “like we all say, the church is not going to save you; it’s the way you live.”14 But as the statistics demonstrate, in the midst of the Depression and World War II, there was a southern pattern developing in denominational choice, and class sentiments shaped those choices.15 Determining precisely how and why should be on the agenda of southern religious historians.

Oral histories of working people also hint at a second way that class analysis might enrich the scholarship, by encouraging investigations of distinctive forms of worship. I am impressed here by Daniel Bender’s application of cultural history to class analysis, in particular the sensory perceptions of class. Similarly, Colleen McDannell tells us, “Religious practices are visceral and sensual. They involve the body in action.” How did the smells, sounds, and body language of services contribute to and differentiate working-class religious practices? How did they mold the lived experience of religion, not just at church but at the workplace and in the neighborhood?16 I have no answers for these questions, although there is a good deal of information on the rituals like foot washing, the spontaneous sermons and testifying, and the ecstatic services that attracted working people. Such practices, perhaps, even cut within as well as across denominations. Millworker Alice Levitt recoiled against Holiness preachers, but found a Methodist church that adopted rituals of rural folk religion. She knew that most Methodists would have been surprised at her church’s “old-timey” services.17

Consider also the rhythms, cadences, and syntax of ministers who broadcast over radio stations and counted thousands of devoted working-class followers, despite the opposition of mainline churches. How much of the appeal, positive and negative, of radio evangelist and former millworker J. Harold Smith should we attribute to his patterns of speech that resonated with the southern working class? While the Federal Council of Churches, the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations all endeavored to deny Smith airtime for his popular radio sermons (each for different reasons), Smith’s working-class followers wrote thousands of letters in protest. When Knoxville station WNOX cancelled his show in 1946, between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters, including one who said he represented “his poor hillbilly mother of 17 children” who was unable to be there, marched on the station to demand that his show be aired. Such crowds easily eclipsed most strike demonstrations in the post-war years, but they demand attention to issues of class.18

A third way that embedding class analysis might enrich the study of southern religion would be to examine the broader political and social meanings that working people attached to their convictions. Particularly during the Depression and World War II, the popular folk belief in the worldly presence of Satan had dire consequences for union organizers. For example, when Ester Crawford sought spiritual counsel after her dismissal from the Alma Mills for attending a union meeting in 1938, her minister said of the union: “you have heard that in the Bible it speaks about the evil tongue . . . people will come from far off and the people will listen to them and they will lead them wrong.” Ms. Crawford never joined the anti-union “prayer bands” that arose in the Alma Mills, but others who did regretted their former union associations and professed to being “absolutely saved.”19 In a superb forthcoming article, historian Matthew Sutton writes intriguingly about the surge in fundamentalism during the Depression and its attack on the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal as representing the “Mark of the Beast.” Similarly, popular radio ministers and evangelists with strong working-class followings constantly hammered home the message that the CIO stood for “Christ Is Out” or “Communism Is On.”20 Some of these plain-folk sentiments would give shape to evangelical conservatism on the West Coast after Depression-era migrations, according to Darren Dochuk.21

We know much less about how working people applied religious messages to everyday life. Most oral histories I have read, for instance, suggest that working people ignored the popular evangelical diatribes against the New Deal; the times were just so desperate that they were not about to reject any assistance.22 For labor unions, however, the polities and creeds of southern churches posed a more formidable barrier, especially when combined with the spread of premillenialism after World War II. For example, labor activists complained that the admonition they heard most from religious workers who refused to join the union was some variant of “be ye not equally to the yoke with nonbelievers.”23 Religious convictions warned churchgoers against joining outside organizations or following the lead of those who did not share their spiritual beliefs. In the worldly battle between supernatural forces of good and evil, devout workers wanted to make certain that they were fighting with the right army. When unions arrived, divisiveness spiked, whether or not the unions were at fault. Furthermore, adherents of popular religion appreciated both the present and future aspects of life—the here and the hereafter—convinced of the ultimate triumph of the sacred.24

To sum up, I think that the study of religion in the early twentieth-century South is essential to understanding modern America. Scholars like Jane Dailey, Paul Harvey, and David Chappell have put religion in the center of the struggle over racial equality, which drives both southern and national narratives, while Jim Gregory, Darren Dochuk and others have linked southern migrants to the triumph of conservative, evangelical politics.25 But the scholarship of southern religion has not given class as a category of analysis the same weight. Imagine for a moment, however, if the CIO had successfully brought unions to the South in the late 1940s. What difference might such a triumph have made in politics, economic policy, civil rights, and a host of other issues? If religion played a significant part in the failure of unions to connect with the white working class, might that not deserve the same attention?

  1. I would like to thank Matt Sutton and Paul Harvey for helpful comments on this essay.

  2. The concept of false consciousness has always seemed odd to me. It seems to imply that there is only one issue or reality that should motivate people toward political action, and that is economic interest. Ironically, such a formulation reduces human beings to one-dimensional characters.

  3. Brian Harrison, “Religion and Recreation in Nineteenth-Century England,” Past and Present 38 (Dec. 1967): 98. For an insightful recent examination of class in American religion, see Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  4. Samuel S. Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984). There are, I am certain, many notable exceptions.

  5. Samuel S. Hill and Charles H. Lippy, eds., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 2nd ed., (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005), 195, 598.

  6. 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, 2005); Wayne Flynt, “Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 71 (Feb. 2005): 3–38; and Flynt, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (1989; Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).

  7. For a sampling of some of the best recent writings on this issue, see David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Glenn Feldman, ed., Politics and Religion in the White South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005); Jane Dailey, “Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown,” Journal of American History 91 (June 2004): 119–45. Of course, there is also a recent spate of works calling into question whether or not southern racism is a unique or a national trait. See, in particular, Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).

  8. See especially the work of Bethany Moreton, whose prize-winning book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), has made giant strides in this direction. Also, see Sarah Hammond’s forthcoming Yale University dissertation on R. G. LeTourneau.

  9. John Hayes, “Hard, Hard Religion: The Invisible Institution in the New South,” Journal of Southern Religion 10 (2007): 1-24, online at http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume10/Hayes.pdf. My thanks to Paul Harvey for steering me to this essay.

  10. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and I discussed these changes in membership in “No Common Creed: White Working-Class Protestants and the CIO’s Operation Dixie,” in Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756–2009, ed. Donna Haverty-Stacke and Daniel J. Walkowitz (New York: Continuum, 2010), 114.

  11. Robert T. Handy, “The American Religious Depression, 1926–1935,” Church History 29 (March 1960): 3-16; Flynt, “Religion for the Blues.” See also, Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); William R. Glass, Strangers in Zion: Fundamentalists in the South, 1900–1950 (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001); Randall J. Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

  12. Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Richard Callahan Jr., Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coalfields: Subject to Dust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); and Alessandro Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  13. Eva Hopkins interview with Lu Ann Jones, 5 March 1980; Ethel Marshall Faucette interview with Allen Tullos, 16 November 1978 and 4 January 1979; Mary Thompson interview with Jim Leloudis, 19 July 1979, all in Southern Oral History Project (SOHP), Southern Historical Collections, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C. Fortunately, digitized versions of the recordings and transcripts are now available to researchers online at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/industrialization.html.

  14. Flake and Nellie Mae Meyers interview with Pat Dilley, 11 August 1980, SOHP.

  15. See especially, the chapter, “The Social Sources of Denominationalism Revisited,” in Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 106–47.

  16. Daniel E. Bender, “Sensing Labor: The Stinking Working-Class after the Cultural Turn,” in Rethinking U.S. Labor, 243–65. Colleen McDannell, “Introduction,” in Religions of the United States in Practice, ed. McDannell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 1:2. One of the best examples of using these insights in analyzing working-class religion is found in Callahan, Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coalfields. Of course, in another context there is Robert Orsi’s classic The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). See also, Randall J. Stephens, “Introduction: American Religious History in Context,” in Recent Themes in American Religious History: Historians in Conversation, ed. Stephens (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 1–10.

  17. Flynt, “Religion for the Blues,” 10–13; Glass, Strangers in Zion, 27–32; Alice Levitt interview with Jim Leloudis, 18 July 1979, SOHP.

  18. Knoxville Journal, 15 April 1946.

  19. Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, May 29–June 30, 1940, vol. 24 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1940), 18–19.

  20. Matthew Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Anti‑liberalism in a Global Age,”Journal of American History (forthcoming); Barbara Griffith, The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

  21. Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt.

  22. This certainly fits with Wayne Flynt’s interpretation, offered in his Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998).

  23. David Burgess, “The Role of the Churches in Relation to the C.O.O. Southern Organizing Drive,” undated typescript [12 pages], Box 1556, John Ramsay Papers, Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Ga.

  24. Charles H. Lippy, “Popular Religiosity in Central Appalachia,” in Christianity in Appalachia, ed. Bill Leonard (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 41. I would like to thank my graduate student, Joseph F. Super, for bringing this article to my attention.

  25. Harvey, Freedom’s Coming; Chappell, Stone of Hope; Dailey, “Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown”; Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt; 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).