anthropology english


Yongho Kim
November 3, 2003
Anthropology (248) of Religion

Anthony F.C. Wallace provided a five-stage structural framework for understanding the revitalization process (see Hicks, pp. 455-68). To what extent are these five stages applicable to the Holiness Church (Sign Followers) of Eastern Kentucky? Do you consider the Holiness Church to be a revitalization movement? Why or why not?

Wallace is rather specific in his requirements for revitalization movements. He asserts that beyond adaptation, the fourth task of revitalization, is the revitalization movement proper recognized as such. (Wallace, Hicks 466) Even though he does not explain its basis because the motivation was purely pragmatic – that of deciding which movements to document and which not to – this standard seems adequate in deciding if the Holiness Church movement was a failed revitalization movement or not one at all. Thus according to Wallace, a movement failing at or before the third task (organization) of the fourth stage (revitalization) is not a revitalization movement; one beyond organization is a failed revitalization movement; and one that establishes a new steady state is a successful movement.

Wallace conceptualizes revitalization from the perspective of the society as an organism composed of mutually depending –and thus supporting- parts. Should any portion of this “organic” society –an individual or a group of individuals- suffer any “illnesses” – materialized in social stress -, other members of society will scramble to aid the ailing. This structural-functional construction of society, however, is given dynamism as Wallace takes on a Weberian stance by recognizing a critical point at which the regular stress coping mechanisms of society no longer work, requiring society to adopt drastic measures – the revitalization movement being a major possibility. For this movement to be successful, it needs to change the mazeway – the cultural construction of society and the role of the individual in it (Wallace 457) – with the consequence of changing the real structure that inflicts social stress to soften or eliminate it.

I think it is rather clear that the Holiness Church was, at best, an unsuccessful movement. The social illness, industrial exploitation and reconfiguration of labor that fundamentally changed family and community relationships, was never overcome, but rather only dodged by taking refuge in religious fervor (Kimbrough 89) and ultimately fleeing to the big cities (186). The question, then, is whether the Holiness Church was at least a formalized attempt to solve problems brought about by industrialization or whether it was merely a reactionary sparkle channeled to soothe the reality of capitalistic exploitation.

As a first step, it is agreed that a major social illness was in the process of deploying itself. The demeaning conditions of coal mines (Kimbrough 86), company scrips (87), land speculation driving subsistence farming unsuitable (83), and bourgeois conceptions of time and labor brought by Baptists and Methodists (81,93), all contributed to an increasingly unbearable socioeconomic stress on the individual and in the mountain society as a whole from 1850’s onward, hitting a steep curve in 1911 with the establishment of coal mining. In this we may recognize the first two stages of a revitalization process: a steady state, in which the early settlers had established subsistence farming systems closely tied together through kinship by the late 1700s (61); a period of increased individual stress with capitalist land speculation and the later arrival of coal mining companies utilizing an over encompassing labor scheme.

The third stage of cultural distortion may be identified as the early periods of Holiness Church. The Saylors initially succeeded in tolerating high levels of chronic stress by becoming “all the more ardent in their religious conviction” (90). Others, on the other hand, seem to have shown regressive behavior, such as gun fights (89). Wallace points out, however, that neither strategy is adequate in times of increasing stress caused by structural dysfunction. Tolerating stress by substituting cultural elements with another will only increase misunderstanding on behalf of the rest of the community, which in turn increases the stress level. In fact, local authorities and non-believers merely took snake-handling as maniac action. Regressive behavior, arouses guilt which again increases stress levels. (Wallace 460)

Identification of the fourth stage becomes problematic. Wallace explains that the very first step in the revitalization stage is a reformulation of mazeway as to solve the structural problem inflicting the society. The prophet, the charismatic leader, needs to have a brief moment of revelation in which he receives wisdom in both the social malady as well as a new religious conception. George Hensley evidently conceived a newly reformed religion that bestowed supernatural powers in God channeled through the practitioners when handling serpents (Kimbrough 40), but he apparently received no wisdom as to how to combat capitalist industrialism. Despite several assertions on Kimbrough’s behalf that religious denial of traditional forms of Christianity was an attempt to challenge the capitalistic scheme behind it (92), I saw no ethnographic evidence supporting the claim. (Such as an actual sermon exhorting social resistance or pointing out the evils of coal mining company owners.) The closest it gets is when somebody in a confrontation against the police shouts “Let’em kill it…. They [the snakes] ain’t rationed” (141), possibly referring to rationed food provided to miners in order to keep the scrip system up.

There was certainly a revelation, but a it was a revelation devoid of actual maze reformulation. Only the religious “maze” (if such a distinction were to be meaningful) was reformulate to further attract believers into the heart of the church. Many aspects beyond this stage more or less fit into Wallace’s scheme, but the crucial element is missing. The prophetic work was “socially inconvenient to spouse” (Wallace 462, Kimbrough 46). The doctrine spoke of “care and protection” and “material benefit” for practitioners. (Wallace 462, Kimbrough 40), and the Holiness Church certainly gained active practitioners, fulfilling all three components of the communication task (doctrine of protection, doctrine of material benefit, and discipleship). It was organized in its struggle against the state authorities (Kimbrough 136) and adapted to the new realities of outmigration to the Chicago area, (186) thus accomplishing the tasks of organization and adaptation.

To talk about Cultural Transformation and Routinization in the context of the Holiness Church is meaningless since all previous steps had been achieved only in the spiritual arena. I would like to bring up another comparative approach from a reading for my Africa class. Comaroff (Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People) argues that the Tshidi people, exposed in similar exploitative conditions as the Appalachian coal miners, developed a syncretic form of Christianity from the Zionist church which effectively provided a struggle point in both the ideological and material grounds. Among other aspects, I would like to emphasize the observation Kimbrough made, that “snake handling represented a form of supernatural retaliation [against the capitalistic system identified with evil]” (96) with Comaroff’s argument:

movements trying to reverse the experience of estrangement and to protest established ideologies should do so in the idiom of physical illness, and that they should resist its biomedical coding and seek a healing power both personalized and spiritualized.

Comaroff’s argument explains why the Holiness Church believers rejected medical treatment, for example, since “rejection of the categories of the cultural scheme in which healing was a matter of rational technical intervention” and suspicion against “the rising status of biomedicine as a bourgeois profession” proscribed medical treatment in both the Tshidi and the Holiness Church congregation. (181-82)

Wallace’s assessment of revitalization movements seems to be too general to account for the many varieties of religious resistance. In particular, in analyzing schemes of industrial exploitation against religious fundamentalism, comparative study in similar environments seems to throw more light into the issue than a general structuralization.

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