War On Poverty Anniversary Recalls Religion’s Role In Appalachia

The war on poverty reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed

In the 1880s, it was the turn of the northern Presbyterians, who built dozens of small churches throughout western North Carolina. They and other denominations established boarding schools, hospitals and medical clinics. Unfortunately, along with their Bibles, some missionaries also brought offensive attitudes about the people they came to help. By the early 20th century, the missionaries had failed to leave a lasting imprint; their institutions were for the most part closed, abandoned or left in ruins.

 

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. (RNS) The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty, which falls today (Jan. 8), reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed.

Appalachia was one of the targets for the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity, utilizing programs such as Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The anniversary also recalls how religion has motivated, shaped and sustained this effort, in many ways prefiguring the campaign, in both its successes and failures.

For more than two centuries, these Southern mountains have been a magnet for missionaries, both religious and secular, all determined to wipe out poverty, hunger and ignorance — whether the region’s benighted folk wanted them to or not. Their too-common failing, local people say, is that the erstwhile do-gooders have not respected the strong beliefs and culture that already existed.

With the best intentions, altruists and uninvited agents of uplift have come with their social gospel of “fixing” local people. That is to wean them from violence and the debilitating use of alcohol, while bringing their brand of faith, along with education, nutrition and improved living standards. Invariably well-meaning, these efforts have typically ended in disappointment and failure in places such as Madison County, N.C.

Early in the 19th century, the British-born evangelist Francis Asbury was a familiar sight hereabouts on horseback. Yet people in Madison County, a poor, sparsely populated area hard by the Tennessee border, looked warily at the Methodist missionary when he began visiting the village of Hot Springs (then Warm Springs) in 1800.

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