John Sparks

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Appalachia’s distinctive brand of Christianity has always been something of a puzzle to mainline American congregations. Often treated as pagan and unchurched, native Appalachian sects are labeled as ultraconservative, primitive, and fatalistic, and the actions of minority sub-groups such as “snake handlers” are associated with all worshippers in the region. Yet these churches that many regard as being outside the mainstream are living examples of America’s own religious heritage.

The emotional and experience-based religion that still thrives in Appalachia is very much at the heart of American worship. The lack of a recognizable “father figure” like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox compounds the mystery of Appalachia’s religious origins. Ordained minister John Sparks determined that such a person must have existed, and his search turned up a man less literate, urbane, and well-known than Luther, Calvin, and Knox—but no less charismatic and influential.

Shubal Stearns, a New England Baptist minister, led a group of sixteen Baptists—now dubbed “The Old Brethren” by Old School Baptist churches in Appalachia—from New England to North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century. His musical “barking” preaching is still popular, and the association of churches that he established gave birth to many of the disparate denominations prospering in the region today. A man lacking in the scholarship of his peers but endowed with the eccentricities that would make their mark on Appalachian faith, Stearns has long been an object of shame among most Baptist historians.

In The Roots of Appalachian Christianity, Sparks depicts an important religious figure in a new light. Poring over pages of out-of-print and little-used histories, Sparks discovered the complexity of Stearns’s character and his impact on Appalachian Christianity. The result is a history not just of this leader but of the roots of a religious movement.

Winner of the Chaffin Award 2004 for Celebration of Appalachian Writings

Elder John Sparks is an ordained minister of the United Baptist Church and graduate of Pikeville College.

"Here at last in an affordable paperback reprinting is the book which won Sparks the Chaffin Award from Morehead State University as well as considerable acclaim for illuminating Appalachian religion like nothing before."—Appalachian Heritage

"A dramatic breakthrough in the study of Appalachian Christianity."—Appalachian Heritage

"Sparks has established himself as one of the leading scholars in the study of Appalachian religion."—Appalachian Journal

"An impressive book about Shubal Stearns and his Appalachian followers."—Baptist Studies Bulletin

"An impressive book."—Baptist Studies Review

"Engagingly written for students, specialists, and general readers, this book deserves a place in Appalachian, American religion, southern culture, and Baptist history collections."—Choice

"Provides a needed history of the life and ministry of Shubal Stearns, an alternative theory concerning the origins of distinctive religious traits found in Appalachia, and revealing insight into religious tradition from the perspective of an active insider."—Church History

"Offers new insights on issues ranging from the Regulator and Whisky rebellions to the origins of the Primitive Baptists of West Virginia."—Goldenseal

"Valuable as a look at a specific individual and specific events that had great influence on the development of Christianity in Appalachia. . . . A joy to read as well."—H-Net Reviews

"A fine and provocative survey of the life and legacy of Shubal Stearns, the Separate Baptist pastor, evangelist, and frontier churchman."—Indiana Magazine of History

"This is a special kind of book, written by a person mostly within the religious traditions discussed, and as such it has a distinct viewpoint and sense of authority. The book very carefully, clearly, and impressively recounts the biography and influence of Shubal Stearns on subsequent southern religious history."—John B. Boles, Journal of Southern History

"To establish causal linkages, Sparks makes his book both a study and a story, setting events in motion in narrative form and retelling pieces of the story in contextual micro-narratives. . . . This is a book that all students of southern religion should read."—Journal of Southern History

"Brings the legend of Shubal Stearns, the man who evangelized the South, to life. . . . Sparks has opened the door for important scholarly debate and subsequent research."—Journal of Southern Religion

"A must for those interested in church history."—Kentucky Living

"The author’s keen sense of well-researched detail is evident throughout."—Kentucky Monthly

"Brings to light an individual and religious movement that influenced a major segment of American religious life."—Lexington Herald-Leader

"A significant contribution to scholarship in the field of religion, particularly Appalachian religion, and more especially because it comes from one who is daily involved in the lives of an Appalachian congregation."—Loyal Jones

"Sparks’ lively discussion investigates the unique preaching and singing styles of the region and explores the disputes, theologies, and personalities that pushed Stearns to the forefront of Appalachian religion."—McCormick (SC) Messenger

"Shubal Stearns might be the greatest evangelist you’ve never heard of."—Nashville Tennessean

"Sparks' lively discussion traces the cultural path of the uniquely rhythmic preaching and singing styles of the region and explores the disputes, theologies, and personalities that led to Stearns' position at the forefront of Appalachian religion."—Northern Kentucky Heritage

"A fascinating and extremely thorough examination of the rise of the Separate Baptists of North Carolina and their continuing influence of the distinctive mountain denominations of Central Appalachia."—Now & Then

"Sparks has made a clear case that Stearns should not be disregarded and that he played a pivotal role in bringing enthusiastic Baptist religion to the mountain South."—Ohio Valley History

"A fascinating study of the evolution of religion in our own area."—Paintsville Herald

"Argues for the importance of the 18th-century traveling preacher in establishing Appalachian Christianity as a distinctive, populist movement. . . . Well-told."—Publishers Weekly

"Those readers seeking to learn more about the history and the flavor of mountain churches, their dogma and rituals, will come away with a greater understanding of how they came to be."—Modern Mountain Magazine

"Meticulously researched and well conceived, Sparks’ biography of Elder Shubal Stearns is a history of the beginnings of the distinctive form of Christianity practiced in the Appalachian region and seeks to defend this often misunderstood and dismissed branch of American Protestantism."—Virginia Quarterly Review

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Shubal Stearns, Baptists, Appalachia, Church history


Appalachian Studies

The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns
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