Religion in the Ozarks

The Ozark Mountains have a long history of deeply conservative religious expression. Robert K. Gilmore, in Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions, describes the people of the Ozark Mountains as “predominantly Bible-believing, traditional Protestants” who were “strongly aware of the presence in their midst of the ever-zealous devil and were equally zealous in their efforts to rid themselves of him” (68). Drinking, shows, cards, dancing, and the fiddle (nicknamed the Devil’s Music Box) were all proscribed as “evidences of the ‘old gentleman’s’ (Satan’s) efforts to corrupt” weak human beings. Long sermons, annual two-week nightly revivals, and camp meetings–held in the early days in brush arbors and later in large tents–were all standard fare for the religious.

I grew up in the heart of this ethos in a small congregation of the southern Church of Christ, which was, in those days, an exclusive fundamentalist denomination. My early memories of that community and the people in it are sweet. The adults were mostly simple working class people and farmers–like old Brother Hubbard, a farmer and an elder, with my father, in the church, and whose wife taught elementary school. When she died, Sister Hubbard, because I too had made education my profession, left me a packet of her teaching materials in hopes that I would find them useful. And Brother Ballard, another of the elders who, like my father, worked as a railway mail clerk, kept a Model T pickup truck and drove it in all the local parades. And Sister Davis, who searched the scriptures earnestly, seeking the truth, whose heart was broken by what she found there.

On warm summer nights we played hide-and-seek after the services while the grown-ups talked among the circling moths in the lights of the porch, the men smoking and the women bouncing babies on their shoulders. The world was secure and circumscribed.

I am a recovering Fundamentalist, just as my grandfather was a recovering alcoholic. I seek, day by day, the source of love and peace and strength. I am often surprised at the places it may be found.

Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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