By Bill Leonard
In Primitive Baptists in the Wiregrass South, John G. Crowley describes an 1829 sermon preached at Union Church in Lakeland, Ga., by Reverend Matthew Albritton who, one listener said, rose “in the fullness of the gospel and by inspiration delivered to us a hart cheareing and affecting Surmond [sic]” so effective that “a goodly number gave him there [sic] hand to be praid [sic]for.”
The phrase “a heart cheering and affecting sermon,” came to mind when master-preacher Fred Craddock asked me to give the fall Craddock Center Lectures on Appalachian preaching. Craddock and his board remain committed to the region as an environment for assisting churches and preachers.
The Oct. 6 lectures in Cherry Log, Ga., began with questions: Do Appalachian rhetorical and doctrinal modes born of revivalism, biblical literalism and mountain spirituality offer insights for a church culture divided into assorted homiletical camps shaped by Evangelical-Mainline-Megachurch-Emerging-Church theology and praxis? What if Appalachian preaching modes are less a model than an illustration of ways that preachers in one geographical and historical context addressed a culture at times distant, if not antagonistic?
Why Appalachia? In his prize-winning volume titled Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945, Ron Eller comments: “Appalachia endures as a paradox in American society in part because it plays a critical role in the discourse of national identity but also because the region’s struggle with modernity reflects a deeper American failure to define progress in the first place …. We know that Appalachia exists because we need it to exist in order to define what we are not. The notion of Appalachia as a separate place, a region set off from mainstream culture and history, has allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.”
In distancing ourselves from the Appalachian religion, we may ignore issues that could re-form our own religious dilemmas.
Mountain preaching — Baptist and Holiness — is conversionist, what William James called “the religion of the twice-born” involving “two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” Mountain preachers are restorationist, seeking to replicate the New Testament church in faith and practice. Mountain preachers are biblicists, affirming the infallible authority of the biblical text, while often differing on what the authoritative text means. Mountain preaching is experiential, grounded in what Deborah McCauley calls “the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost,” by which “God speaks through the preacher.”
In Appalachian Mountain Religion, McCauley warned that “mountain preachers” are often caricatured “as drab, oppressive, narrow purveyors of doctrinal darkness” or “emotional exotics left over from the worst excesses of the Great Revival.” These caricatures undermine “mountain religion’s broad spectrum of worship practices, belief systems, church traditions and religious culture.”
Perhaps listening to Appalachian preachers and churches will help us understand ourselves.
First, Appalachian preachers remind us of the otherness of the biblical text, an unpredictability that resists domestication. In Plurality and Ambiguity, Chicago University professor David Tracy writes, ”To encourage interaction between text and interpreter, it is helpful to find examples where the interpreter is forced to recognize otherness by confronting an unexpected claim to truth.” Appalachian preachers call us to explore the “otherness” of texts that may take us where we do not wish to go.
Over the years, I’ve heard Appalachian preachers write themselves and me into the biblical story. Sometimes they were semi-literate, yet the grandeur of their rhetoric drew us in and made us wary of the dangers and demands of the Jesus Story — an undomesticated gospel. Across the years, mountain preachers have made me laugh, cry and furious, made me give up bad habits and take on new ones. John Crowley quotes Elder John Harris of the Old Line Suwannee River Association who “said that rather than his taking a text, the text took him.”
Second, Appalachian preaching reflects the otherness of an enthusiastical faith, a passion for religious experience, what Jonathan Edwards called a “sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things ….” For mountain preachers this “sense of the heart” involves an experience God’s grace through faith in Christ, transforming experiences that must begin with the preacher. In Faith and Meaning in the Southern Highlands, Loyal Jones cites North Carolina Baptist Henkle Little’s assertion: “It’s the most personal thing that’s ever happened to me, this thing of salvation. Strange as it may seem to you, I know the salvation of the Lord better than I know my name.”
Religious experience anchors the preacher, not only in terms of salvation but also in terms of calling. This “sense of the heart,” this “thing of salvation,” is at the center of Appalachian religious experience personally and homiletically.
Third, Appalachian preachers unite sermon and sacrament, the word of God proclaimed and the word of God enacted. They know how to “tangibilify” grace, to use a phrase from Father Divine. Unlike many evangelical Protestants, they refuse to memorialize Jesus out of baptism and Holy Communion, and they find “real presence” in the washing of feet. Thus preaching becomes a form of hierophany — the sacred revealed in the ordinary.
In a culture where many people have no idea why Christians find outward signs of inward grace in water, bread, wine, oil or damp towels, what are we to do? For better or worse, Appalachian serpent-handlers taught me this: For them, the sacraments are alive and can kill you. And every time you go to worship it is a matter of life and death. That was a great lesson for me since I belong to a baptismal tradition that holds converts under water long enough to repeat over them, “buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in newness of life.” At Christ’s table we repeat Jesus’ words, “This is my Body,” and think of life and death, body and blood.
The gospel remains dangerous, even when we domesticate it. In the end, it’s not simply where we take the text, but where the text takes us, inside or outside the hills and hollows.