My Story, Part 2: More Reflection on Growing up Poor in Appalachia and Religion

Mazie Kentucky Post Office
Mazie, Kentucky Post Office. I visited occasionally as a child. It was less than a mile from my childhood home. My uncle, aunt, and a few cousins still live just a few houses down the road.

My brief, but refreshing step away from academic-oriented posts continues. Judging by the increase in views and the click-through rate on my previous post, many of you are intrigued. If you have not read the first post, then be sure to do so here.

From where have I come?

I am a native Appalachian. As I have already noted, most of my years before age 14 were spent in poverty and isolation in Lawrence County, Kentucky. Primarily, they were spent in a small community called Martha in which the population was well under 300 with a population density of 10-13 people per square mile. For the sake of clarity, I bounced around between Martha, Mazie, and Blaine, but this fact is inconsequential given that these were only separated by less than five miles. The closest population of significance was to be found in either Louisa or Paintsville, both of which were home-ruled cities about 30 miles away over the mountains. I rarely got to visit them.

Martha Kentucky
Isolated region of Eastern Kentucky, where I spent much of my youth.

In addition to what I have already said of my father, he was a hell-fire-brimestone preacher. His preaching and the preaching of others in the community, fostered nightmares of me burning in hell. My father said, these were good for me. Much of my family were and still are “Old Regular Baptists” (a denomination primarily found only in Appalachia). Our services were distinctly different, as songs were sung acappella in lined-out hymnody usually from a depression-era church building tucked away in a lonely hollow between two coal stripped mountains. They were and still are, an extremely mournful, but beautiful kind of hymn-singing chanted from the hearts of those broken in despair. Moreover, like a scene from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thouour baptisms were administered in a creek (as was mine in August of 1986 in Hood Creek, Blaine, KY). Eventually, my father and I (my step-mother and half-brothers rarely attended) found our way to an old Freewill Baptist church in Blaine, then to a church more in the tradition of Stone-Campbell movement (a slight change).

Beech Grove United Baptist Church
Beech Grove United Baptist Church in Isonville, KY. I occasionally attended here as a child. Picture courtesy of google maps.

Regardless, many of the Appalachian churches of my youth were filled with unintentional separatists, who wore their socioeconomic condition as a badge of honor, believing that God had purposely set them apart from an evil world. We were often a fatalistic people, who routinely rejected modernization and influence from outsiders—esp. memorable was the complete rejection of educated ministers, preachers, or other-related clergy (anathema). I’m not quite sure, but I suspect that this mindset was caused by the effect of poverty. I’m sure there have been a few dissertations written on the subject.

Nevertheless, we were hillbilly-poor-mountain-white trash; socially and economically marginalized—in the days of my youth, such words of rancor, prejudice, and stereotype were socially acceptable. Notwithstanding, in spite of this past, I am privileged as I was born with an intellect and determination that enticed me out of the ignorance, isolationism, and poverty for which I was otherwise destined. What I have accomplished—esp. as it concerns academia—is unimaginable for someone raised in Appalachian poverty. The older I get, the more this understanding humbles me. I am blessed.

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