Christianity and Appalachian Labor Movements

For the residents of turn of the century Appalachia, Christianity permeated every part of their lives. An intimate familiarity with scripture and the local church as the center of social life, were standard features of Appalachian society. With the rise of the labor movement and the organization of unions, the workers turned to Christianity for inspiration and justification in their work. This movement is depicted in Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel Storming Heaven.

Christianity’s intersection with the labor movement is based on a liberationist reading of scripture—a theological and social movement based on understanding the original message of scripture as being for the oppressed and marginalized. While this has been extensively studied, research as it specifically relates to the American labor movement is more limited, in scope as well as amount. Most of the research focuses on the organizational and political opportunity models; that is, how the structure of churches and Christian communities have influenced their politics.

In this paper, I will approach the topic using the theological model: examining how the beliefs of individuals and communities affects their politics. The theological model creates a different, idea-based paradigm for historical analysis, one which is particularly suitable for historical fiction. This analysis will be done through a close reading of Storming Heaven, which depicts coal miners in West Virginia and the strong connection the nascent labor movement has to Christianity. Giardina, herself both an Appalachian native and a seminary graduate, explores the topic in her depiction of a rapidly changing landscape in which Christianity becomes a bedrock.