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West Virginia Incorporated: Religion and the Railroad in the Timber Counties
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The West Virginia Central and Pittsburg Railway (WVC&P), founded by a group of capitalists, politicians, and industrialists, and headed by Henry Gassaway Davis of Maryland, was one of the first railroads to penetrate the state's interior and the first to traverse its highest altitudes. "The Alleghenies were as rich in coal and lumber as the Rockies were in the precious metals. The heart of the wealth of the Alleghenies is in West Virginia, and its throbbing has just begun with the awakening of its industrial life." These statements, part of a promotional publication by the Board of Directors of the WVC&P, aimed to draw attention to the railroad's role in that industrial awakening and the profits which would follow. The publication covered the line's route into the mountains and detailed the natural resources along the way.

But the West Virginia hills teemed with people as well as minerals and trees. And more people came as entrepreneurs like Davis laid more tracks, sank more mine shafts, and built more saw mills. Just as natural resources attracted industrialists, people attracted Protestant missionaries. By the mid-1880s, the idea of West Virginia as a backward region confined completely within an otherwise advanced and modern country became accepted fact among mainline Protestant denominations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, these denominations established systematic and well-funded missionary endeavors into the southern mountains. The railroads themselves played no small part in the effectiveness of these efforts, allowing proselytizers to penetrate deep into the backcountry and high into the mountains, planting new churches, and growing existing ones.

But this straightforward link between industry and religion hides a more complex and nuanced relationship between the secular and the sacred. The relationship between these two spheres in America frequently oscillates between close and distant, contested and cordial, conflicting and cooperating. Industrial capitalism refashioned the relation between these two in the late nineteenth century, thereby strengthening and solidifying a discourse of Christian civilization in America that equated moral progress with economic progress. At the same time, the secular components of this discourse achieved hegemony over the sacred ones, co-opting some of the language and the power of the church to more specifically secular ends. While this connection between morality and economics had a long history in the Christian West, the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century had a profound effect precisely because it gave individuals and small groups the ability to wield unprecedented power and wealth. Capitalism determined the political, economic, and social relations between classes, and thus its provenance was primarily the secular sphere. But this power eventually trickled down to the sacred sphere, as new material realities forced churches and the families and communities forming them and surrounding them to adjust.

In the North, this transition occurred just before the war. During much of the antebellum period, while sacred and secular authority, values, and discourse often cooperated and freely traversed each other's borders, the church could at least respond to economic and social changes and their negative effects from its own independent vocabulary because it possessed the collective resources to act as counterbalance. This changed with the so-called Businessmen's Revival of 1857-58. T. J. Jackson Lears argues that this event signaled the near total dominance by the business culture over mainstream Northern Protestantism. Businessmen, not professional clergy, conducted revival meetings, running them by the principles of sound business. "Ancient tensions between piety and profit were beginning to relax," Lear contends. "By the late nineteenth century, business values permeated even the pulpit."

Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century and continuing into the first quarter of the twentieth century, a similar process occurred in Appalachia. The advent of industrial capitalism not only changed political, social, and economic relations, but also wedded the sacred and secular in the mountains in ways similar to the rest of the country, especially the Northeast. The stories of industrialization and church activity in the highest elevations of West Virginia demonstrate both the hegemony of the discourse of Christian civilization and the processes whereby the secular components of that concept achieved superiority over the sacred components. Whereas religion itself...



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