Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reasons why Family Historians should read SALVATION ON SAND MOUNTAIN

by Terry Thornton

I've come late to the reading of Dennis Covington's little masterpiece, Salvation on Sand Mountain. Although the book was published in 1995, I had only read bits and pieces of the major theme of his work (snake handling as a religious practice) and only knew of his coverage of the Scottsboro, Alabama, trial involving attempted murder by rattlesnake. But the subject matter of his work simply made me overlook a wonderful treatment of genealogy, history, family history, religion, faith, migration patterns into the Southern mountains/states, Americana, and Covington's assessment of what happens when cultures clash.

And throughout it all are the snake handlers.

The small book, a work of nonfiction, carrying the subtitle "Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia" is a quick read. Covington is a master story-teller and proves again what other Southern writers have always known --- reality is better than fiction.

In his Prologue, Covington talks about the South and refutes Hodding Carter's assertion that this "mythic land of distinctive personality, is no more." No, says, Covington, "We're as peculiar a people now as we ever were, and the fact that our culture is under assault has forced us to become even more peculiar than we were before."

Most thinking Southern people will agree --- the South hasn't disappeared, absorbed into the homogenous world of Wal-Marts and MacDonalds and superhighways and Internet instant communication. Covington says the "new" South will survive and endure, more hardy and "more durable than what came before", because of all the tests by "fire" the region has undergone.

And in one of the strongest statements in the Prologue, Covington states that ". . . poor Southern whites" . . . are . . . "the only ethnic group in America not permitted to have a history."

To me, that statement about poor Southern whites goes to the core of what Salvation on Sand Mountain is all about --- addressing the major issue of Southern history, the clash of cultures --- and Covington then jumps into his work on "following signs" and how he came to a realization of faith, family, and redemption through a look at his heritage and the snake handlers.

Family historians, genealogists, and geneabloggers should read Salvation on Sand Mountain for the following reasons.

1. If your roots are Southern, you'll add to your understanding of your family's geo-history by reading Salvation on Sand Mountain.

Faulkner has been credited with saying that if one wishes to understand the world, then he must first understand a small place like Mississippi. Covington's work is set in the Southern Mountain country from which the majority of the migrations into the South and West passed.

Covington has a brief and concise summary of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America with particular emphasis on the Scotch-Irish from which many Southerners descend. And I was so impressed with Fischer's approach, that I read more of Albion's Seed. Fischer's use of Daniel Defoe's 1709 seven classes of English society (page 802) to help describe the social structure in the New World is most telling:
1. The great, who live profusely.
2. The rich, who live very plentifully.
3. The middle sort, who live well.
4. The working trades, who labour hard, but feel no want.
5. The country people, farmers, &c., who fare indifferently.
6. The poor, that fare hard.
7. The miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.
But it is Covington's descriptions of the Scotch-Irish poor whites in the Southern Mountains, their demeanor, their speech patterns, and their fierce independence (and open sensuality) which so thoroughly describes much of Hill Country.

2. If your roots are Southern, you'll gain a greater understanding of your family's religious-history by reading Salvation on Sand Mountain.

John Wesley and other early Methodists perfected the concept of sanctification as a separate step within salvation and redemption. I've written very feebly about The Sanctification of Miss Charity, an early Methodist missionary/resident of Hill Country buried in my home cemetery at New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County. She was so sure of the specific date of her sanctification that she had the date chiseled upon her grave stone and for many years that date was thought to be her date of death.

The Methodist Church gave rise to the Holiness movement -- or, as Covington states, ". . . that after 'salvation' or 'new birth,' there occurred a second act of grace, which believers called the 'Baptism of the Holy Spirit" . . . "moral purification." And from these believers came signs, wonders, healing, prophecy, casting out devils, speaking in tongues, and yes, handling snakes, as the Holiness movement gave rise to the "Holiness-Pentecostal belief in spiritual signs and gifts."

3. If you are writing family history, you will be well-served to read how genealogy is handled in Salvation on Sand Mountain.

Dennis Covington, besides writing of regional history, also writes of his genealogy. His father left him some beginnings of a family genealogy --- and Covington sets out to answer the question "Were we actually kin to these people?" during a New Year's Eve all-night service with "snake handling, Holy Communion, laying on of hands" and "foot washing." His journey into his family genealogy, although briefly presented in this book, is so deftly and tenderly done that all who write of family history should take notice.

4. If you believe, as I have been taught, that a truly great book will alter the way you think, then you must read Salvation on Sand Mountain.

Covington writes of redemption. As a journalist covering the story of snake handlers, he becomes a snake handler. His journey into his personal redemption and renewal of faith will captivate and forever change the way you think.

5. And finally, reading for pleasure or reading for research should both be enjoyable. Salvation on Sand Mountain is the most enjoyable read I've had in years. Don't miss it.

I'm glad that reading Covington has helped me define what Hill Country of Monroe County is about --- and I'm glad that my puny attempts to record regional, local, and family history may help to document "poor Southern whites, the only ethnic group in American not permitted to have a history."

Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (New York: Penguin Books. 1995) is available from your favorite book seller. I obtained my copy through

David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press. 1989) is available from your favorite book seller. I obtained my copy through


Bill West said...

Interesting post, Terry. I've been
lusting after "Albion's Seed " every time I pass it on display at my store
so I'm finally going to give in and buy it. And now I'm going to look for
"Salvation on Sand Mountain" as well. Although I'm not too sure that poor Southerners are entirely without a cultural heritage, because I'd classify bluegrass music as being a very rich legacy from them.

Terry Thornton said...

Thanks, Bill. It is always good to hear from my favorite book seller. I found a used copy of SALVATION ON SAND MOUNTAIN but bought a new paperback of ALBION'S SEED. I can't wait to get to the "Borderlands to the BackCountry" in ALBION'S SEED.It has such interesting sections such as:

Motives for Migration
Social Origins: Poverty and Pride
Religious Origins: Militant Christianity
Ethnic Origins: We Are a Mixed People

And then ALBION'S SEED starts the most fascinating part to me (pages 633 - 782) with these subsections:

The American Backcountry
Border Names for the New Land
The Backcountry: "Ascendancy": Border Origins of an American Elite
The Colonial Mood: Anxiety and Insecurity in the Back Settlements
Backcountry Speech Ways: Border Origins of Southern Highland Speech
Backcountry Building Ways: Border Origins of Cabin and Cowpen
Backcountry Family Ways: Border Ideas of Clan and Kin
Backcountry Marriage Ways: Border Origins of Bridal Customs
Backcountry Gender Ways: Border Rituals of Love and Violence
Backcounty Sex Ways: The Border Celebration of sensuality
Backcountry Child-naming Ways: Border Onomastics
Backcountry Child-rearing Ways: Building the Will
Backcountry Age Ways: The Border Idea of the Elder-Thane
Backcountry Death Ways: The Border Idea of Nescient Fatalism
Backcountry Religious Ways: The North British Field-Meeting Style
Backcountry Magic Ways: The Border Obsession with Sorcery
Backcountry Literacy
Backcountry Learning Ways: North British Rituals of Schooling
Backcountry Food Ways: North British origins of Southern Highland Cooking
Backcountry Dress Ways: Border Origins of Country Western Costume
Backcountry Sport Ways: North British Origins of Southern Highland Games
Backcountry Work Ways: Border Attitudes toward War and Work
Backcountry Time Ways: The Border Idea of "Passing the Time"
Backcountry Wealth Ways: Border Ideas of the Material Order
Backcountry Rank Ways: A System of Stratification Without Orders
The Backcountry Comity: Patterns of Migration, Settlement, and Association
Backcountry Order Ways: The Border Idea of Order as Lex Talionis
Backcountry Power Ways: The Politics of Personal Government
Backcountry Freedom Ways: The Border Idea of Natural Liberty

I think ALBION is going to be a most interesting book to have. But read SALVATION too!

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi

reh ncw said...

This Southern God-fearing, Tent pitching, Gospel singing descendent will have a response to your book review by Monday.
I am also looking for good books to read.