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New & Now: Spring 2009

New View of ALS

Strong Start

God and Coal

Plastics Plant

Joint Genetics

Incentives Support

Book Cover

In a new book, MU’s Richard J. Callahan, Jr. explores religion, life and labor in Kentucky’s mining communities.

God and Coal

For Kentucky Miners, Christianity Provides More Than Solace

“God provides for every miner, when in the union they’re combined,” sang 19th century colliers struggling to organize the Appalachian coalfields. It’s a sentiment that, in one form or another, persists in coal country today, says Richard Callahan, Jr., an assistant professor of religious studies at MU. Callahan is the author of a new book detailing the powerful influence Christianity has had on the lives and livelihoods of Kentucky mine workers.

This nexus of work and religion, past and present, is the chief preoccupation of Callahan’s Appalachia research. In his book, Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust, Callahan describes how early 20th century coal miners relied on spirituality to make sense of, and to some extent reconcile themselves to, the harsh realties of their working lives. But, he argues, religion for these miners wasn’t simply about solace. Biblical narratives, particularly when reinterpreted by miners in the pulpit, became a mighty weapon in battles against rapacious mine owners.

“In that society and time period, preaching wasn’t a paid job, so the preachers were also coal miners,” Callahan says. “So, you have coal miners who are preachers looking at the union with the same ideas. In the unions, they are using stories from Exodus and talking about being led out of slavery as a way of showing what the union can do for them. Unfair labor practices were defined in religious terms.”

Little has changed today. When an underground blast trapped 13 miners in Sago, West Virginia, in January 2006, families instinctively gathered at local churches. And it was these churches, not more secular venues, that quickly became crucial sites for rescue planning, exchanging news, organizing relief for affected families and, of course, for offering prayers for the victims.

 Such an integration of labor and religious practice is, on a broader scale, a constituent part of the working lives of millions of Americans. What's more, Callahan argues, the shop floor has for decades been a crucial site of religious activity and innovation. "Religion helped people to negotiate transformations of labor and work settings produced new religious practices, issues, and ideas," Callahan wrote in a recent e-mail. "As I say at one point in the book, 'The process of industrialization was religiously productive.' "

For Callahan, of course, Kentucky coal country is a prime case in point. "You can see how religion is so deeply intertwined with life," Callahan says of the region. "You can't pull it out from the everyday lives of people. It's a case study of how work also has been about religion. This is a recovery of a history that is untold."

Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields is published by the Indiana University Press.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.


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