Southern Religion

Goodbye to old-time mountain faith

Travelers who frequent the winding mountain roads of Southern Appalachia know that, every few miles, they're going to pass yet another small Baptist church sitting close to some rushing water. It's all about location, location, location.

Why would a preacher want to baptize a new believer in a heated, indoor tank when he can dunk them in the powerful, living, frigid waters of the river that created the valley in which his flock has lived for generations? There's no question which option the self-proclaimed Primitive Baptists will choose, even if it adds an element of risk.

"Among Primitive Baptists, you almost always see two ministers when they baptize someone -- one to do the baptism and one to hold on. It's even become part of their unique liturgical tradition to have two ministers there," said Baptist historian Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"As the saying goes, you could get baptized and go to heaven on the same day if there wasn't somebody there to hang on so you didn't wash away and drown."

This is the kind of old-fashioned faith that Americans are used to seeing in paintings of frontier life or grainy black-and-white photographs from the days before interstate highways, shopping malls, satellite dishes and the Internet. Appalachian religion has played a dramatic role in American culture, helping shape our folk art, Scotch-Irish history, roots music and a host of other subjects.

The question, for Leonard and many other scholars, is whether the rich heritage of "mountain Christianity" will play much of a role in the nation's future.

"Increasingly," he said, "our modern forms of American religion and our mass media and culture are sucking the life out of one of our most distinctive regions."

While the region contains religious groups with European ties, the most important fact about the common Appalachian churches is that they are uniquely American.

For outsiders, this can be very complex territory.

The Calvinist, Primitive Baptists are not the only Baptists whose sanctuaries dot the landscape of the 1,600-mile-long strip of mountains that run from Eastern Canada down to the high hills of Alabama and Georgia, cresting at Mount Mitchell in the heart of North Carolina's Black Mountains. There are Independent Baptists (of various kinds), Free Will Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Southern Baptists and dozens of other brands.

Even the Primitive Baptists are a complex bunch, noted Leonard. There are some who avoid wine and some who make their own. Some refuse to hire professional pastors or to send their preachers off to seminary, fearing they will be corrupted. There's even a small body of Primitives -- critics call them "no-hellers" -- who insist God's love is so strong that everybody ends up in heaven, no matter what.

Then there are the various kinds of Pentecostal-Holiness churches, including the rare -- but world famous -- congregations in which believers handle snakes, sip poison and wrestle with demons.

Some "Oneness" Pentecostal believers baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, while others embrace the traditional Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In an academic paper entitled "Looking for Religious Appalachia," Leonard noted that he once heard a Trinitarian Pentecostal preacher explain that doctrinal feud in terms anyone could grasp: "Jesus had a Daddy. He wasn't no bastard."

"Case closed," wrote the historian.

Ironically, some of the most powerful forces that threaten these churches are the efforts of outsiders to help the region -- such as missionaries sent to evangelize the locals or social-justice activists who want to help the locals escape their own way of life. Then there are the softer forms of Evangelical Protestantism that arrive through television, mass-marketed gospel music and those new, transplanted megachurches that keep sprouting up like suburban superstores.

Thus, the stark "Sacred Harp" hymns of the shape-note era gradually gave way to the cheery gospel quartets of the radio era, which were then blitzed by the pop-rock "praise bands" of the Contemporary Christian Music era.

What happens when the mountain churches and their traditions are gone?

"Appalachia still exists and it remains something to celebrate," said Leonard. "Still, what's happening there is a danger signal to us all. ... What was once pristine wilderness is becoming an exploited region. Tragically, a crucial element of America's religious history and heritage if being lost, as well."

Pastor Will B. Dunn -- RIP

Cartoonist Doug Marlette got used to hearing people mix comments about his humor with references to Almighty God.

After all, one of the main characters in his syndicated comic strip "Kudzu" was the Rev. Will B. Dunn, a deep-fried Southern preacher who always remained optimistic, even as he battled with the insanity of modern life (especially trendy Bible translations).

Meanwhile, Marlette's political cartoons often inspired readers to barrage editors with the kind of God talk that cannot be printed in family newspapers.

There was, for example, his caricature of Pope John Paul II wearing a "No Women Priests" button. The caption said, "Upon this Rock I will build my church'' and Marlette drew an arrow pointing at the pope's head. Another infamous cartoon showed an Arab terrorist driving a truck containing a nuclear bomb. The caption: "What Would Mohammed Drive?"

A cartoon on my office wall -- a gift from Marlette as I left the Charlotte Observer -- shows PTL televangelist Jim Bakker kneeling before a dollar sign that towers over a stone altar framed with candles. Bakker proclaims, with his boyish grin, "Gimme that old time religion!"

The cartoonist knew he was playing with holy fire. You can't draw Jesus climbing Calvary on Good Friday -- carrying an electric chair -- and not expect people to react.

Marlette insisted that his goal was to remind his fellow believers to practice what they preach.

"As I look back through my work, I'm always amazed by how much of what I do just comes out of having gone to Sunday school," he said, taking a break in his cluttered Observer office in the mid-1980s. "The perspective, the viewpoint, comes out of that. They don't teach subversive ideas in the Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi."

Marlette, 57, was back in Mississippi recently when he died in a single-vehicle crash on a rain-swept highway while on the way to help a high school perform his musical, "Kudzu." A true gadfly, he rattled cages for more than three decades and died with more than his share of faithful friends and fierce critics.

A native of North Carolina, the cartoonist and writer burst into print after studying at Florida State University, where he tried to study art but ended up majoring in philosophy. He took classes in New Testament and ethics but also, as he loved to note, classes in sports officiating. Marlette won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his work at the Observer and the Atlanta Constitution. He wrote two novels and, in 2001, became a distinguished visiting professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marlette had a better grasp of the power of religion than most journalists, noted former Observer editor Rich Oppel, who led the newsroom during the PTL era. The cartoonist was a provocateur and, at his best, a prophet.

"After 10 years of our reporting, televangelist Bakker resigned from PTL and was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to federal prison," noted Oppel, in his editor's column at the Austin American-Statesman. "Bakker's handpicked successor was Jerry Falwell, who came in to see me and 'make peace.'

"From a corner, Marlette cast a gimlet eye on Falwell as the minister did his best Sunday school number on me. Marlette then retreated to his lair to pen a cartoon of the preacher as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Falwell refused to talk to me again."

When it came to religion, Marlette thought of himself as a Baptist's Baptist, a fierce believer in the "priesthood of the believer," the authority of human experience and the separation of church and state.

There are, he told me, people who become cynical about religion and he was determined not to yield to that temptation -- very often. But there were many times when he preferred laughing, instead of crying.

While he took the Christian faith seriously, he also thought it was futile to obsess over details. There were times when he felt like a church of one.

"It's my own church, my own perspective. It certainly doesn't deserve to be institutionalized or taken more seriously than other people's," said Marlette. "It's not infallible. It's skewed. It's mine. ... It's kind of like dissecting a frog. Once you get the thing cut up and taken apart, it's not really a frog anymore. Something dies in the process."