Musings On Religion In Appalachia

As a teenager who spent all of my time at home when I wasn’t in school, I spent quite a lot of that time talking to my dad. He had retired due to disability and my mom was often gone with babysitting/ housekeeping work. The conversations we had were often spiritual in nature. I never thought of my dad as particularly religious, though I was well aware that he was Christian. However, he did strike me as spiritual at times. Some of the things we discussed were of spiritual experiences. At the time, I was exploring Paganism and not yet open about it. I had begun playing around with the idea of Christo-Paganism, which felt somewhat safe enough to cautiously discuss. We talked about the possibility of the Christian god being neither male, nor female; as well as being both. We shared stories of spirits, out of body experiences, and connection to the divine. He was rather open-minded in his Christianity. Of course, I never used the word “Pagan” when talking to my dad. I feared that doing so might have triggered a different response than what I recieved, after all.

At one point, I had discussed the idea of someday becoming a preacher for an earth-centered church. My dad’s reponse to this? His perception was that his religion was already earth-centered, as his god was a part of everything. Naturally, it made sense, being that he viewed the earth and everything on it as being his god’s creation.

In retrospect, I have come to realize that old-fashioned Appalachian religion isn’t always so cut and dry as the form of it that Christian churches have often tried to enforce. Though both of my parents’ families had Baptist backgrounds, they still spoke matter of fact about the existence of ghosts and what popular culture would consider psychic abilities. Where movies and certain other church-going types would say it’s all demons and “the Devil”, my family often knew better. The superstitions and magic that the elders practiced was all just a part of life. Even the rumors, often hushed as they were, about certain elders/ ancestors being witches were mostly seen as an interesting fact rather than a point of shame.

Furthermore, I have learned as an adult that religion in Appalachia is truly more diverse than just the Christianity that is in the majority. It wasn’t entirely a shock to me when I started talking to Christians who professed an interest in “New Age” spirituality and witchcraft, particularly when they mentioned the folk practices they saw from the elders of their family. What was a pleasant surprise, was just how many other Pagans there are. (Though I am aware of other minority religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Satanism in the region, these are not religious communities that I am a member of and so I will not speak on them.)

I lived in a rural, small town area in southern West Virginia from my teens up through my mid-twenties. The most religious diversity I saw in the open was a Catholic church in town, whereas most of the churches were some brand of Protestant. The only Pagans I knew were Wiccans, a couple of whom were only exploring the religion as a phase in high school before returning to Christianity. There weren’t any covens, kindreds, or other Pagan gatherings in the county I lived in. The closest ones I’d heard of were about an hour away from where I lived. I slowly became more aware of other Pagans in the surrounding area, still mostly Wiccans, but not all. As it turned out, there were more of us Pagans in West Virginia than I had dared to imagine.

I moved to Charleston, West Virginia’s capitol city, several years ago. Part of my draw for the city was in knowing that I could more easily meet other Pagans here. (There were, of course, a handful of other reasons; but I’d be going off topic if I went into all of that.) Charleston is home to a few Pagan/witch owned businesses, at least one or two covens and kindreds, a Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPs) group, and a few public Pagan/ witchy events throughout the year. There may well be more that I haven’t been made aware of. Some groups and events are private. I joined the CUUPs group as soon as I was able to make it work with my schedule. This got me involved with the Unitarian Universalist church that the group is hosted by, which I was aware of, but had not experienced firsthand.

For those unaware, Unitarian Universalism as it stands now is a humanist interfaith religion. Though it began as a denomination within Christianity, UU churches are open to people of many faiths and many of their congregations hold services that draw from varying religions. During my few short years thus far with the UUC of Charleston, I have seen Sunday services composed of liberal Christian sermons, Buddhist teachings, secular issues, Pagan rituals, and more. Being a member of our CUUPs group, I’ve assisted in a few of the Pagan-centered Sunday services. Although the members there vary in their beliefs and aren’t always very knowledgeable of minority religions, they do their best to remain respectful of each other with a willingness to learn.

West Virginia isn’t alone in being home to Appalachians of varying religious and spiritual beliefs. While Appalachian culture is, without a doubt, strongly steeped in Christianity; there have always been pockets of folk practioners who practice magic. There have always been people of varying beliefs here, especially as ideas spread into these mountains, bringing new life to ancient religions and to entirely new ones.

All of this said, it can not be denied that the brand of Christianity that shapes Appalachia (as well as the rest of the United States) is rooted in fascist ideals. Many here hold firmly that there is only “one true religion” and they use their idea of that religion as an excuse to hate, discriminate, and abuse people who don’t fit neatly into their worldview of what is “good”. While I detest the role that this form of organized religion has played on Appalachian culture and her people, I still hold out some hope that we can someday move beyond that pain. Surely, if any place can overcome the hold of Christo-fascism, Appalachia can.


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