Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields

Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields

Subject to Dust
Richard J. Callahan, Jr.
Distribution: World
Publication date: 10/28/2008
ISBN: 978-0-253-00070-5
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Exploring themes of work and labor in everyday life, Richard J. Callahan, Jr., offers a history of how coal miners and their families lived their religion in eastern Kentucky's coal fields during the early 20th century. Callahan follows coal miners and their families from subsistence farming to industrial coal mining as they draw upon religious idioms to negotiate changing patterns of life and work. He traces innovation and continuity in religious expression that emerged from the specific experiences of coal mining, including the spaces and social structures of coal towns, the working bodies of miners, the anxieties of their families, and the struggle toward organized labor. Building on oral histories, folklore, folksongs, and vernacular forms of spirituality, this rich and engaging narrative recovers a social history of ordinary working people through religion.

Author Bio

Richard J. Callahan, Jr., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.


"A strong contribution to our understanding of Appalachian religions and Appalachian lives." —Courtney Bender, Columbia University

"Callahan's book on the Jesus—haunted Appalachian coal country restores the hard work men and women do every day as a necessary subject for U.S. religious historians. This book tells the important, rich, and compelling story of how the miners and their families engaged the harsh realities of their world." —Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University

". . . In this graceful portrayal, Richard Callahan wipes away some of . . . [the] soot. Through oral history, songs, folklore, and social scientific reportage, 'Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields' tackles a region (Appalachia) and a mode (work) often neglected by scholars of U.S. religious history. . . . Callahan's book pays attention to the relationship between religion and labor practices, showing how the work of miners informed their religious ideas, and how their religious lives molded their working choices. The study of religion is, in Callahan's rendering, the study of a 'kind of work,' a work that can be discerned in everyday life, in the sensual body, and in the political decisions of lay believers." —Kathryn Lofton, Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University,
Books and Culture , May 11, 2009

"Callahan shows the profound connections between work and religion that those who study each separately often overlook. . . . Recommended." —
Choice , June 2009

". . . an excellent study that will benefit anyone interested in coal culture throughout the Appalachian mining regions because life within any society can hardly be understood apart from its religion." —Doug Cantrell, Elizabethtown Community and Technical College,
Register Kentucky Historical Society , Vol. 106.2 Spring 2008

"[The author's] analysis of the spread of Holiness . . . is a nuanced, careful interpretation with suggestive ideas for other contexts. He argues that miners joined the Holiness movement as a way to preserve, and intensify, precisely the elements of older rural religion that were under attack by the emissaries of 'railroad religion.' Holiness took the older belief in visions and omens and made it tangible . . . . Callahan skillfully links industrial transformation to Holiness as an intensified resistance movement . . . . He goes further and shows that this active engagement with the new context made Holiness believers ripe for unionization when national organizations came into the coal fields in the early 1930s." —John Hayes, Wake Forest University,
H-Pentecostalism , August 2009

". . . outstanding study of work and faith . . . . For Kentucky’s coal miners and their families, religion functioned as a counterweight to the industrial capitalism that came with coalmining. It served sometimes as a form of resistance to evil company powers, sometimes as an account of a better life or as an explanation of brushes with death, and sometimes as a source of hope and comfort in the midst of tragedy. For recovering their story we are indebted to Richard Callahan’s first-rate history." —James Hudnut-Beumler, Vanderbilt University,
JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY , Vol. 96. 3 December 2009

"[A] commendable piece of scholarship, completing the link between cultural theory, religious studies, and history." —Robert S. Weise, Eastern Kentucky University,


"Callahan's hard labour has excavated some rich analytical mines and cut a path into subterranean but vital dimensions of religious experience in America." —
Journal of Ecclesiastical History , Vol. 61/2, April 2010

Work and Faith in the Kentucky coal Fields is an outstanding book. Building on the excellent scholarship of Deborah Vansau McCauley, Dwight B. Billings, and Alessandro Portelli and weaving in theoretical insights from James C. Scott, Robert A. Orsi, and Raymond Williams, Callahan gives us a sophisticated reading of religion as it was lived and felt in the everyday world." —The Journal of Southern History , Vol. 76, No. 3, August 2010

"[T]his fine study should inspire more attention to the rich but oft-neglected intersection of religion and labor in American life." —
The Journal of Southern Religion , Vol. 13

Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields certainly advances the study of Appalachian pentecostalism; it also provides an excellent framework for further exploration. . . . If it is the nature of good history to answer important questions while raising even more, by this standard Richard Callahan has delivered good history." —Pneuma Jrnl Society for Pentecostal Studies

"This is an important study that contributes to the scholarship of Appalachia, labor and religious history, and to social science generally. Callahan's respect for Appalachian people is vividly clear throughout the book. He lets people speak, sometimes without finding the most articulate quotation, but one that rings true." —Appalachian Journal

"Coal miners’ experiences—of routinely facing injury or death in this dangerous form of employment, of excessively long work schedules that impacted family life, and economic hardship and exploitation—led them to reflect on their spiritual beliefs and practices. This intersection between labor and lived religion is the focus of Richard Callahan's book, 'Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields'. . . Callahan's account of religion and labor in the oppressive coal mining industry documents an important part of American religious history." —JRNL SCIENTIFIC STD RELIGION

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Table of Contents


1. Appalachian Mountain Religion
2. Patterns of Life and Work
3. Coal Town Life
4. "It's About as Dangerous a Thing as Exists"
5. Power in the Blood
6. Suffering and Redemption