APPALACHIAN CULTURE Everyday Life and People Groups

205,000 Square-Mile Region More than 20 million people make up the current population of Appalachian region.

APPALACHIAN CULTURE

The Appalachian region, as defined in Appalachian Regional Commission’s (ARC) authorizing legislation, is a 205,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Forty-two percent of the region’s population is rural, compared with 20 percent of the national population. The region is home to more than 25 million people and covers 420 counties.

Appalachian Mountain Ministry serves all the area defined by the ARC and includes within its ministry those areas outside of the ARC definition but which are within the Appalachian mountain range. This includes regions such as upstate New York, middle Alabama and major cities like Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.

The Appalachian region encompasses many groups, all of which have some common values. They are self-sufficient and independent people. They have survived influxes of “outlanders” seeking coal, timber, natural beauty for recreation and cheap labor.

Culturally, there are five distinctive people groups in Appalachia.

Old Appalachians:

Who are descendants of the original pioneers who settled in the region during the westward movement. These people tend to be landowners, politicians and business people. The characteristics of this group are self-reliant, independent, hard-working, stable and having strong ties to family. They tend to be resistant to modernization and like things the way they used to be. This group is made up of hard-working coal miners, loggers and factory workers.

The average worker has little education, few skills, a large family, no wealth and few choices in vocation.

In terms of religion, they prefer the King James translation of the Bible, “Spirit lead worship”, and music that reflects their history and heritage. Christian education and missions are not important to them. They have a strong distrust of denominations and outsiders.

CHARACTERISTICS

Self-reliant
Independent
Hard-working
Stable
Strong ties to family

CHARACTERISTICS

Progressive
Embrace change
Use modern technology
Professional skills
Higher education

New Appalachians:

They are like the Old Appalachians but tend to be more progressive. They are willing to embrace change such as using social media and modern technology. They strive to advance their educational skills and job skills. Many of them are professionals who work as bankers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, ministers, and in government, to name a few of the vocations.

In terms of religion, they respect the King James Version of the Bible but frequently use modern translations when attending church and in their personal Bible study. They enjoy a more structured worship service and appreciate a more blended style of music in their worship experience. They place a higher value on Christian education and missions and tend to be more trusting of denominations.

Returning Appalachians:

Returning Appalachians make up the third group, one that is often overlooked in cultural studies. This group consists of those who grew up in the mountains, moved away for employment, military service, or marriage and are now returning to Appalachia after years of being absent. Many of them find it difficult to readjust to the lifestyle or to find acceptance among their peers and extended family.

CHARACTERISTICS

Grew up here
Moved away
Returned
Difficult to adjust

CHARACTERISTICS

Not readily accepted
Professionals
Here to work


Professionals:

Are an interesting group. These are individuals and their families who have moved to Appalachia due to a profession (i.e., bankers, lawyers, teachers, ministers, etc.). Members of this group are usually not readily accepted by the Appalachians. Included in this group are those who have moved to Appalachia to attend one of the many universities in the region and work off campus, who transfer to the region with a business, or who marry and Appalachian and move to the region with their spouse.

The final group is the Wannabes.

Across the central region of Appalachia is a group that may or may not have roots in Appalachia but who aspire to become the media generated version of an Appalachian. Frequently they can be found trying to live off the land, in isolated locations, or small rural towns. Their religious views and political views tend to be in the extreme, whether liberal or conservative.

CHARACTERISTICS

Isolated
Extreme religious views
Live off the land


One group that is emerging, but not addressed above, is the growing number of ethnic people groups who are quietly moving into central Appalachia; and with them they are bringing their world religion – Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, their diet preferences, and worldview. As they live, work, and intermarry with Appalachians, they are having an influence upon the culture around them. Since central Appalachia is made up of multiples ethnic groups who migrated to the region during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the 21st Century ethnics are finding for the most part easy acceptance.

Traditional Appalachian culture is real and functioning and revealed through arts and crafts, traditional music, traditional foods, customs and a somewhat common language.

It is one that has been preserved mostly by families, communities, and churches and based on subsistence agriculture and hunting—not class-structured ways of existence. There is a sense of equality that exists between the people; this is of course in sharp contrast to the inequality and elitism that exists in other areas of modern society.

Many cultural traditions have survived for generations; however, many modern-day Appalachians try to distance themselves from the image that is associated by “outlanders” to the inhabitants of this region. While many young people try to forget the traditional ways and notions and adopt the new ways of thinking, others for a variety of reasons, continue to enjoy the traditional Appalachian worldview.

The media, mission organizations, and the American film industry have done much damage to the image of the Appalachia. Because of media portrayals like the film Deliverance and television show The Beverly Hillbillies, Appalachian people are viewed as hopeless but proud, desperate but industrious, noble first-generation frontier people, yet somehow ignorant and degenerate. In fact, to call an Appalachian a “hillbilly” is considered by many to be an insult and can be inflammatory.

In general, Appalachians are very independent people and very content with the places they live. They are very close to nature and have a deeply held belief in God. They are friendly, kind and helpful to one another, taking care of the needs of others. Appalachians also have a strong sense of what is right and what ought to be. They have a deep mistrust of anyone who is new and resist change.

For the most part, the mountains have kept Appalachia isolated from the rest of the country and outside influence. The area, extremely rich in natural resources, has a very long history of exploitation. Though fabulous wealth has been generated in Appalachia, the mountaineer’s share in it has been held to a minimum. Yet, while Appalachia has become synonymous with destitution and illiteracy and contains some of the poorest counties in the nation, it has also produced some of the greatest minds and politicians in American history. It is conserved one of the most patriotic regions of the USA and given more sons and daughters to defend America’s freedom than any other region in our country.

Many barriers exist within this culture when it comes to business support. Entrepreneurship often suffers because of geography, learning styles of entrepreneurs from this region, workforce quality, negative attitude toward success, regional insularity and general information available about capital.

The English dialect spoken in central Appalachia is unique to the region. It is thought to be a blend of Scottish flavored Elizabethan English directly related to the migration patterns of early settlers from these regions. The documentary, “Mountain Talk,” is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about the dialect of native central Appalachia people.

While religion is important in Appalachia, the reality is that better than 75 percent of the region is unchurched. Some counties are as high as 98 percent unchurched or nonevangelical. Culture and religion are interwoven, and while mountain people believe the Bible, respect the church and welcome anyone who comes in the name of the Lord, the organized aspects of religion have not been important factors to the people of Appalachia.

To help prepare you and your mission group for their mission trip to Appalachia, a devotional study guide, “Living Out the Book of Acts: A 42-Day Devotional Guide for Preparing Mission Volunteers to Serve in Appalachia” has been prepared. Click here for a free download in a pdf format.

To download a brochure on Appalachian culture, click here.

Permission is given to reprint free copies for distribution to the Mission Team and/or church of the above brochure. It cannot be resold. For permission to change the format, please email bbarker@gabaptist.org.

[1] Appalachian Regional Commission, arc.gov