God’s Kentucky: What Happens When ‘Religious Sanctions” Go Wrong

Bill Sr., THE CHURCHMAN, May 28, 1932

You know a good bit about the Kentucky coal fields, I presume.  Most everybody does.  First a cry of misery from starving miners and their families.  Later we were told of the bitter struggle between the operators and the miners’ unions,with injunctions, riots, innumerable killings, and more recently the driving out of the state of groups who went there to find out for themselves what it was all about.  Gradually starvation was crowded into the background and civil liberties became the issue.  These charges of violations of law, particularly the kidnapping and beating of visitors, prompted a group of New York clergymen to appeal to the United States Senate to investigate ‘in order to throw light upon a confused situation’.


A few days after the appeal appeared in the papers a telegram was received  by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, chairman of the clergyman’s group, inviting the parsons to come to Kentucky to do their own investigating.  It was signed by Mr. Walter B. Smith, county attorney in Bell County, and Mr. Cleon Calvert, chairman of the citizens’ committee in Pineville.   It was, of course, impossi9ble for the entire group to go.  So a committee was organized consisting of the Rev. C. Rankin Barnes, social service secretary of our church; the Rev. Cameron Hall, pastor of the Christ Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, professor at Union Seminary and myself.   Before setting out we made it clear…at least we did everything possible to do so…that we had neither the time nor the training to conduct anything that might be dignified by the word ‘investigation’;  that we could merely ‘visit’, hoping in the short time at our disposal to get something of a slant on the situation.  I think we did.


Upon our arrival in Pineville we called upon our host, Mr. Walter B. Smith.  He welcomed us in his office very cordially and then ushered in a flock of county officials for the customary handshaking and conversational clap-trap.  We were then informed that a committee of clergymen  had been organized to welcome us and that we were to go to the Baptist Church for a little conference.  The Rev. S.E. Tull, pastor of the First Baptist Church in the neighboring town of Middlesboro, was the chairman.  Preacher Tull was most cordial with his welcome, rather too cordial I thought.  He extended to us ‘the right hand of brotherhood and fellowship; the same hand I gave my beloved wife in marriage; the same hand with which I defend my sacred hearth;  the same hand with which I salute our glorious flag.”  So far so good.  But Brother Tull went on to give us his life history;  where he was born, where he was educated,  who his ancestors were, what churches he had served.  Then he called upon the other pastors present to do the same.  It was preliminary of course to asking us to do likewise.  So one by one we told of our ancestry, our schooling,  our church connections.  No particular fault could be found with any of us on that score.  They were a bit disappointed,  I think.  Maybe not.  But I have an idea they would have been delighted to have been told that one of us was born in Russia or Turkey or some ;place.  No;  one hundred percent without exception.


But the inquisition did not end there.  Pastor Tull assured us that he had no connections outside the Baptist Church South.  That wasn’t hard to believe.  Then he turned on Dr. Niebuhr.  “You, I believe” are one of the editors of ‘The Christian Century’.  And when he got an affirmative answer he let out a grunt of approval for having unearthed such a damaging bit of evidence.  “And of the “World Tomorrow”, which I am told teaches pacism?” (‘Pacism’ was his word for ‘pacifism’ all the afternoon.)  And when he got a yes to this he was quite satisfied that he had completely discredited Niebuhr. And so far as that particular audience was concerned I think he had.


My turn was next.  “Do you belong to the American Civil Liberties Union?”  The answer was yes.  “Who is the chairman of that organization?”  The answer: “The Rev. Harry F. Ward, professor at Union Seminary.”  “Where is Dr. Warn now?” Answer:  “He is taking a trip through Russia.”  “I thought so”, which was said with a finality which closed that particular matter as far as Preacher Tull was concerned.  But we did labor with him for a good half hour about the American Civil Liberties Union, trying to make him, and the flock of others present, understand that it was a thoroughly American organization, organized for the sole purpose of upholding and battling for the rights guanranteed American citizxens by the constitution.  But we were wasting our time:  the chairman of the union was in Russia;  the union fought for the right of free speech for miners who were attempting to organize a labor union.  It was perfectly clear to Pastor Tull that it was a communist organization.


Then I was asked if I believe in ‘production for use instead of for profit’ and when I allowed that I did it was merely jotted down as another piece of damaging evidence against me and nothing further was said about it.  I was rather sorry about that, for things being as they are in Kentucky it might have been possible to convince at least some of them that production for use was better than no production at all, which is quite clearly their present state, arrived at by a strict loyalty to the doctrine of rugged individualism.


If your imagination as good as it ought to be you can readily understand that by this time we were not looked upon with entire favor  by the dozen or so who sat in on this inquisition.  But Brother Tull had yet to play his trump card.  Suddenly he shot out with: “Do you believe in the inerrency of he Holy Scripture as the absolute word of God.”


Dr. Niebuhr, being a particularly honest man, replied:  “You mean am I a fundamentalist.  The answer is no.  But what has that got to do with conditions among the miners?”


“Well,” said Brother Tull, “And nobody can understand us or our situation who is not also a fundamentalist.”


It was my turn next.  I tried hard to be  both dignified and outraged.  “It is not your business to examine into my theological views.  I have been examined by the authorities of my own church and ordained.  That ought to be enough to satisfy you.”


However it wasn’t, so I took another line.  I suggested to Preacher Tull that he get in touch with the Rt. Rev. H.P. Almon Abbott, Episcopal bishop of Lexington, “whom you no doubt know and he will tell you anything you wish to know about me.”  But that didn’t go so well, either.  Brother Tull said that he had heard the good bishop preach once and didn’t think so much of him.  So eventually I had to come clean and admit that I was not a fundamentalist.


Rankin Barnes, better trained as a theologian, handled the situation more skillfully.  He delivered a discourse on this a result he was accepted by the Southern brethren as one of their own and was so announced to the world by the newspaper men present, as a a fundamentalist.  I doubt if he ever gets over it.  Cameron Hall was equally skillful.  He is a very quiet and level-headed fellow who takes such business calmly.  He merely said that he thought he agreed pretty much with everything Mr. Barnes had said.  Thus he got under the wire without so much as snapping out of his relaxation.


I have given you too much of this.  The point is that we were condemned before we even started to look around.  We were not fundamentalists. We had associated with such people as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop McConnell, Russell Bowie, S. Parkes Cadman and others who do not believe in the innerrency of Holy Scripture as the absolute word of God.  That meant, to them, as they told us, that we could not believe in the incarnation.   That led inevitably to a denial of God.  And that meant that, like as not, that we were advocates of ‘pacism’, communism, and that we were in Kentucky as emissaries of Moscow “to tear down our sacred flag and institutions.”  And the interesting thing about it all was that no amount of reasoning on our part could convince these good Christian people that we were anything else.


We did find out a good deal about the mining industry and the conditions of the miners in the short time we were there. …..Here is one mine–said to be the best in the county.  The average wage of the miners who are working is just a few cents over thirty-two dollars a month.  Of this twenty dollars is taken back for rent for their company house, foar the doctor’s fee, for the hospital fee, electric lights, etc.  Thus the miner is left with twelve dollars to feed and clothe his family.  He gets this twelve dollars in scrip which means that he must make all his purchases in the company store, where the operator is able to charge any prices that he likes.  We were given figures to indicate that these prices were out of line with those of the merchants in town.  One miner told us of his neighbor being fired.  He went in to the company store and had on a pair of new shoes.  He was asked where he got them and when he said, “Sears-Roebuck” he was told to go to Sears-Roebuck and get a job.  He was fired and evicted from his company home with his family.


One of the operators told us that they did not expect the miners to live on what they earn.  “We give them credit.”  This is undoubtedly true, but this, of course, creates a condition  of essential peonage.  And at that we received plenty of evidence that no miners” family is allowed more than five dollars a week, including both wages and credit.


The condition of the thousands who are unemployed is even worse.  They get some relief.  The community is trying hard, and their effort is supplemented by the Red Cross and the Friends, but the total amount of relief given is so meager that one wonders how they can keep body and soul together.


There is a great deal of talk, and fear, about the ‘reds.”  But I doubt there is a real ‘red’ among all the miners in the region.  One old miner said to us: “If you are hungry you are a red, and if you tell your meighbor you are hungry you are guilty of criminal syndicalism.”  It is nearly that bad.  Scores of the minjers have been indicted for criminal syndicalism who have been guilty of little more.  They did try for a time to organize the United Mine Workers, an organization of the American Federation of Labor.  The effort was not a particularly serious one, on the admission of the leaders of that union.  Then the National Miners Union came into the field.  The National has communist affiliations.  But the miners joined without any idea that they were joing a communist organization.  It was simply thast the National was on the job, had courage in coming to the aid of the miners and promised them relief, which incidentally they were unable to deliver.  This started the cry of ‘the reds’, with the warfare which followed.  The simple fact is that any real effort to organize these miners is oppposed by the operators, aided by county and municipal officials, and the cry of ‘reds’ is their excuse for the terrorist methods they are us9ing in crushing out all efforts to establish collective bargaining in the region.


The miners at the moment are a lot of God-fearing fundamentalist religious folks who are anxious to ;put in a hard day’s work for just enough cash to keep their families alive.  How long they will continue to be worshipers of Kentucky’s God I am not prepared to say.  But I have an idea that if they are allowed to contine for long in their present plight all the powerful preaching on the subject of getting their reward in heaven is not going to keep them from demanding at least a bit of it here on earth.  After all, we ought not to bank too heavenly on the stupidity even of miners.”