Review: Hard, Hard Religion

Heath W. Carter

Associate Professor of History at Valparaiso University. 

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Heath W. Carter, "Review: Hard, Hard Religion," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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John Hayes. Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 250 pp. ISBN 9781469635316.

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Beyond the early-twentieth-century Bible Belt’s downtown steeples and official hymn books lay other religious worlds, cultivated by the poor, both black and white. John Hayes’s Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South takes readers deep into these lesser known corners of the New South, where flourished “a folk Christianity that has been evoked in literature and art, suggested by a few historians, but never explored with the sustained analysis of a monograph” (6).

This tradition’s underrepresentation in the historiography springs in part from its elusiveness in the documentary record on which historians depend. Indeed, one of its defining characteristics--and a point of contrast with more respectable forms of southern evangelicalism--is that it was transmitted almost exclusively orally. Hayes thus displays exceptional resourcefulness in reconstructing its contours. Combing through interviews, photographs, and more, he finds traces of folk Christianity in songs and testimonies, in rituals surrounding death and accounts of neighborly practices. While the faith of the poor was forged “in the interstices of inequality,” it was not, first and foremost, politically oriented (6). But at the same time, it was anything but otherworldly. Even the practice of decorating graves, which in Africa had been directed toward honoring the dead who had passed into another realm, was reinterpreted by black and white southerners alike to involve “hopeful expectation of new life in a transformed world—a new life that was remarkably tangible and material” (131). Indeed, Hayes convincingly shows that, rather than directing struggling southerners’ attention to an ethereal afterlife, the folk Christianity of the New South suffused their gritty existence in the here and now with meaning and dignity and, yes, even beauty.

Crucially, Hayes insists that this folk Christianity moreover transgressed the racial strictures of the Jim Crow order. “It was the fruit of a delicate but real interracial exchange,” he contends (6). He goes on to furnish extensive evidence of the same. In one particularly masterful example, Hayes traces the spread of “Conversation with Death” —a folk song with roots stretching all the way back to early modern Europe—across the South via the region’s “vibrant oral culture” (53). It originated with a rough-and-tumble white man by the name of Lloyd Chandler in the 1910s and 1920s, but quickly “jumped the mountains, from Madison County in the eastern Appalachian Blue Ridge, to the Cumberland Mountains of southwest Virginia and extreme eastern Kentucky, to the Cumberland Plateau of eastern Kentucky” (54). By the late 1930s a version of it was being sung by a black woman, Vera Hall, in Livingston, Alabama. Offering close readings of both continuity and change along the song’s epic journey, Hayes leaves little room for doubt that “the unifying factor in the song’s social basis was neither race nor regional geography but class position,” a point only further driven home by its conspicuous absence in all of the denominational hymnals and gospel songbooks (71).

But Hayes is on shakier evidentiary grounds when he moves from arguing for this sort of exchange across racial lines to more substantial forms of interracial cooperation, let alone identification. His sources may allow him to say that, in some very broad sense, “poor blacks and poor whites listened to each other, borrowed from each other, and learned from each other about what it meant to be a Christian in a hard world of toil and limit” (6). But, notably, while verbs such as “listening,”  “borrowing,” and “learning” most often imply direct interpersonal interaction, there is precious little of that in the book. Absent a greater number of real black and white bodies collaborating together in actual spaces, it seems too much to say, as Hayes does, “poor blacks and poor whites participated in a cultural space where race was not the decisive element or central metaphor—where being poor and being Christian became the paramount concerns” (7). After all, cultural permeability is one thing, common identity another. Hayes provides plenty of evidence of the former. But even those who are predisposed to agree with him that “spirit is just as real and historically powerful as matter” may be left longing for more concrete proof that southern folk Christianity in fact generated “an interracial, class-based sense of solidarity” (195-196). Solidarity is a high bar. Even if one sets aside any connotations of formal political collaboration, the term implies at the very least a profound sense of being for and identifying with another. Given the book’s ambitious regional scope and given what we know about the extensive variability of Jim Crow across geographies and chronologies, it would be a daunting case to make in any kind of convincing fashion. Without more evidence of widespread interracial trust and community, it seems unlikely, to this reader at least, that, even for folk Christians, class trumped race as decisively as Hayes at times argues here.

But that being said, Hard, Hard Religion does highlight “the power of class in Southern religious life” and stands as an important addition to a growing literature that includes excellent books by the likes of Jarod Roll, Alison Greene, and Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf (9). Even those who think they already know the Bible Belt will learn much from Hayes, whose lyrical evocations of southern folk Christianity linger long after the last page has been turned.