Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Ronald L. Lewis.


Early accounts of the Harlan County mine wars place the inability of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to establish a permanent foothold in the county, first at the feet of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association (HCCOA) and secondly at the worn work boots of miners who, when work was plentiful, saw little or no need for a union. The power of the HCCOA is not in question. Its members used their immense wealth and influence to build a million dollar war chest to fight the union and to maintain their iron-clad grip upon the county's political, judicial, and legal systems. In doing so, the association built such an impenetrable fortress around the county that without the assistance of the international UMWA and the protection of the federal government, local unionists were unable to maintain union recognition. The international UMWA abandoned the Harlan miners, not once, but twice during the 1930s. UMWA support for the Harlan miners might have evaporated, but the miners' desire for a union remained. In spite of the UMWA's lack of support, a group of miner/preachers secretly drummed up support for the union. The county's miners persisted in their demand for change in the work place and within the community with resources from a source regarded as an opiate of the people and a bulwark in the defense of the status quo---their religion. The plain folk religion of the mountaineers, with its emphasis on the centrality of the Holy Spirit and literal interpretation of the Bible, empowered these miners. The power of the Holy Spirit empowered miners to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and Unionism, and God's Word sanctified their revolution. These miner preachers and their churches provided more visible resources as well. Besides the leadership provided by miner preachers, these churches provided miners, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation, with free spaces where they could gather to receive information, hold union meetings, political rallies, and establish aid distribution during strikes. Equally important was the plausibility of belief that resulted from the fellowship of believers, whether they were gathering for prayer meetings, worship services, or rallies. In all three cases, miner preachers stood in the pulpit, at the pit mouth, and on the picket line praying for victory and encouraging the weary to maintain their faith in God's Promises. In turn, their belief spread throughout the mining community and infected miners regardless of their religious orientation. These miner preachers and their churches provided the resources to support the desire for a union alive, recruit membership, and provide meeting places for local union meetings and rallies until the UMWA was firmly established in the county in 1937.