Many of the artifacts of Appalachian culture have become collectors' items--butterfly quilts, spinning wheels, hoe-down fiddles, turkey-bone birdcalls. When we think of folk art and folk music, we think of rugged rustics and good country people. But when it comes to old-time religion, our penchant for quaintness recedes, as we conjure up images of teetotaling rednecks and thrashing holy rollers. Yet the churches of the hills and the hollers are perhaps the most remarkable repositories of folk culture and folk wisdom in America. The infinite varieties of Protestant piety have been preserved there in pristine if endangered form.
It was inevitable that the Foxfire folks would get around to religion. Under the direction of Eliot Wigginton, the students of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Ga., have been recording the folklore of the Georgia hill people for 16 years now. The first Foxfire book appeared in 1972, and now, 10 years later, the seventh volume in the series has been issued on the subjects of "ministers, church members, revivals, baptism, shaped-note and gospel singing, faith healing, camp meetings, footwashing, snake handling, and other traditions of mountain religious heritage."
Oral history, which has been called the backwoods equivalent of autobiography, is hardly an alien custom to religious hill people. Churchgoers are accustomed to testimonials, and the people chosen as subjects for the book seemed glad of a chance to bear witness. When 85-year-old Southern Baptist preacher Joe Bishop says, "I'd walk one hundred miles if I knew I could win one soul," his words are a pledge rather than a boast. As a popular old hymn proclaims, Christians "love to tell the old, ole story." Sharing the good news is what evangelicalism is all about. It's just that no one can quite agree on the particulars of the story.
Geographic isolation and a tradition of rugged independence have fostered so many ways of worshiping in Appalachia that it seems there must be a different denomination on every hill. While evangelicalism is often referred to as a mosaic of diversity, in Appalachia the image that comes to mind is a crazy quilt. There are more than 50 kinds of Baptists alone, ranging from the predestinationist Primitive Baptists to the free-to-fall Free Will Baptists. Nowadays there is even a growing population of Roman Catholics.
Some preachers tolerate differences, like Methodist minister E.L. Adams, who declares, "It never made any difference to me whether I was in a Northern Methodist pulpit, a Southern Methodist pulpit, or a Baptist pulpit." Others, like Wayne Rollings of the Church of Christ, find the way strait and narrow: "I can't help but to say that we are the only church." Some believe in shouting or speaking in tongues, others in quiet meditation and sedate amens. The ritual of baptisms, still a major cause of sectarian rivalry, ranges in method from sprinkling and pouring to dipping and dunking.
Archaic traditions abide, even though makeshift brush arbors and revival tents have been replaced by the permanence of clapboard and brick. Methodists and Pentecostals still gather in seasonal camp meetings, and some Pentecostals persist in taking up serpents, placing their hands and feet in kerosene flames, and swallowing poison in order to prove their faith. (Those who handle snakes are a small minority--as are those who fool with politics.) A number of denominations still observe the custom of footwashing, following the example of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples in humble servitude. Advances in hosiery design, however, have made that ritual more difficult. Ray Dryman, of the Church of God, recalls a time during a communion service when the men and women separated to sit down in their respective rooms for a footwashing, but no women participated because "they all had on panty hose and you couldn't get to their feet!"
Two common threads unite most of the patchwork faiths of Appalachia: The first is the dramatic conversion experience. Many of the recollections of encounters with God recorded in this volume take on a visionary quality, and most of these venerable Christians can pinpoint the exact moment and the exact spot where they were "born again." Granny Reed, of the Church of God, recalls being in church and feeling "mashed down lower and lower," then suddenly being raised up: "Everything was as bright as sunshine. I jumped just as high as I could." When she received the further gift of a baptism in the Holy Spirit, it "came down just like a shower of rain. It was like a funnel in the tent just r-o-o-a-a-r-r-i-i-n-n-g." Ray Dryman recalls, "They had just run a Methodist meeting down here at the Methodist Church and I got under conviction and I was saved. I felt real good. I was hoeing cabbage when I got saved."
The second common thread is the sense of an ending. Many of the older Christians quoted in "Foxfire 7" feel that we are living in the end times, and that the Second Coming of Christ is just around the corner. Methodist Julie McClure, born in 1875, says that "times ain't like they used to be. No, there ain't nothing like it. I just feel the end of time ain't far off. I believe that the Lord's coming. I know we're in the last days. The Bible's about fulfilled." The sad, elegiac quality of these testimonials resembles the sense of diminishment found by the aging Lemuel Sears in John Cheever's recent novel, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems": "That things had been better was the music, the reprise of his days."
If some of the speakers recorded in "Foxfire 7" come across as crotchety, sanctimonious, or even racist, others astonish with their generosity of spirit, and with what Joe Bishop calls the "good, common bay horse sense" of their convictions. If fundamentalism has produced prejudice, fear and trembling, it has also inspired great faith. We are reminded that we need not read the lives of the saints in order to encounter exemplary virtue.