Company towns and the gospel of Here
Learning from deeply rooted people; picking up insight from the edges of empire
The first U.S. city I ever lived in wasn’t a company town but often felt like one. Most company towns are dominated by one or a few private corporations. The main employer is also the main service provider.
In my town, most people worked at or around a university, a medical school, and two or three regional hospitals. Education or medicine—those and their support fields were the main options. And also religion: that town still has one of the highest per-square-foot density of churches in the U.S.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, as industries sprawled across the continent, company towns did too. Corporations helped to build schools, roads, and churches, educating, transporting, and acculturating community members and clergy alike.1 Within those sponsored congregations, the spiritual teaching that emerged is what some authors call “the company gospel.”
Just like water always finds a way, though, people always seek spiritual resources and networks that feel integral and alive, even in controlled contexts and even under empire’s nose. In last century’s company towns, new kinds of spiritual leaders sprang up around the edges of society and operated without official imprimatur, just out of the mainstream’s frame.
Faith & Leadership describes how this played out in coal country, West Virginia.
Money from fossil fuels built much of West Virginia, including its churches. If you wander into a small West Virginia town and find a big old church built with cut stone and intricate stained-glass windows, chances are you’ll find a local coal magnate’s name on the attendance roll.
Industry infused religious life in other ways, too.
“The company built the church house in the camp the company built, and hired the pastor to come in and preach the company gospel,” [Rev. Brad Davis] said. “When the minister stands in the pulpit and says, ‘Be obedient to God,’ he’s really saying, ‘Be obedient to the company.’”
Those companies are mostly gone now...
As David A. Corbin writes in “Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields”: “The preacher suffered a decline in prestige and influence as the miners showed him little respect and never looked to him for personal advice or counsel.”
So workers found their own shepherds in miner-preachers. Though not ordained and largely uneducated, these men held prayer meetings before and after shifts. They wrote pro-union hymns and preached about a Jesus who calls his followers to unity and sacrifice.
“As a result, it was the miner-preacher, not the company preacher, from whom the miners sought personal counsel in secular as well as spiritual matters,” Corbin writes.
The first place I worked for in New York, now closed, was the non-profit arm of the oldest church in the city and the oldest church in the country. Three centuries before me, a Dutch trading company specializing in privateering (authorized piracy), colonial settlements, and the trafficking of goods, gold, and West Africans started building forts and villages along Manhattan island.
When traders and customers needed clergy, the Dutch West India Company sent some west. Trafficked Africans built settlers’ church buildings and, in time, as money flowed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, this regional trading company and its descendant church corporation became a foundational landowner in New Amsterdam.
This Reformed church corporation, now an association of four churches and dually affiliated with the United Church of Christ, tells its origin story a little differently than I just did, at least online.2 I expect that to change in the current climate of reckonings and new narratives, and how we tell our foundational stories changes from era to era and storyteller to storyteller. One thing that griots and culture-keepers agree on regardless is that these creation stories influence how we live.
Several people have referred me to Clint Smith’s stories of place and collective memory in his 2021 book How the Word is Passed.3 I have no business adding it to my Bookshop cart, but I’m going to anyway. Place matters, and every time I go somewhere or hear someone talk about their people’s place, I know it does.
About seven years ago, my partner and I spent a few days in central Maine. I’d been working for a small Unity congregation and needed some time out of town, so took a congregant up on the offer to rent her family’s cabin on the cheap. There was probably no other way I’d have ended up in Lincoln, watching loons on the left and windmills on the right, all in the shadow of the old mill over the Penobscot River that fueled it.
A few days into our visit, we stopped by a one- or two room museum on Indian Island to learn about the area from the peoples who had been there for more than a couple of generations.
That was how I met James Neptune.
James was then the curator of the Penobscot Nation Museum, and an eager narrator of his people’s millennia living across the northeastern corner of this continent.
He told me that the Penobscot people have lived around that part of Maine for 12,000 years. I’d asked thoughtlessly, not expecting an answer with so many zeros, and that conversation has replayed in my head ever since. The pyramids aren’t even 5,000 years old. The Neolithic stone circles in Avebury are about as young.
But 12,000 years is a good while, long enough to root a people, to learn the land’s rhythms and hear them speak, to get a little perspective on cycles, time, and place.
I’ve been preparing to return to Maine with a small multifaith group early next month. As well as listening to the land and building new relationships with each other, we’ll hear John Bear Mitchell tell creation stories and weave the ethics narratives threaded through them.
John is also a Penobscot leader, one who I learned this week once participated in James’ youth groups and now tells stories to youth and adults at the University of Maine. From our elders’ perspective, he said to me, we are the seventh generation. And we’re now planning for the seventh generation to come—the kinds of lives that will be possible for them depend at least in part on our choices and actions today.
5 Things I’m Reading, Watching, or Listening to
Zoe Williams recently interviewed Peter McIndoe about the information satire project he started in 2017, Birds Aren’t Real: ‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists, Guardian, April 2022).
Information, misinformation, and disinformation feature in every sociopolitical crisis over the last decade, from climate change to persistent gun violence. McIndoe was able to transmute outrage into conspiracy with little more than generational cynicism and social memes—and it’s a cautionary tale for anyone who cares about community, media, or public trust.
In New York Magazine, Zak Cheney-Rice talks to Olúfémi O. Táíwò (Cornell) about his book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), just out two weeks ago from Haymarket. “What’s Wrong with Identity Politics?” Zak asks.
Over the last few months I’ve been sharing Femi’s essays on how identity can be used to disrupt justice movements and shortcut knowledge-making.
Rather than using personal identity as an entry point to building radical coalitions, as [the Combahee River Collective] intended, elites are using it as a tool to advance their own narrow interests.
I’m also interviewing Femi for Auburn’s Future of Democracies project—more on that later this year.
Last September, Prof. Loretta J. Ross, Adaka Utah, Tara Romano and Political Research Associations talked about reproductive justice, rising White supremacist authoritarianism, and constructive collective action.
It’s incredible how current it is since its premier in July, nearly a full year before the recent SCOTUS leak. Watch or read along with the transcript:
Organizers working for reproductive justice and bodily sovereignty as life’s work are not surprised at what’s happening now: it’s been in motion for decades.
[In the 1980s] the battle for control of white women’s uteri moved from a moralistic argument to a nationalistic one. I say white women because the reproductive organs of Black and other women of color were being policed in a totally different way.
While white women were encouraged to have babies, women of color were being forcibly sterilized and having dangerous forms of birth control pushed on them, sometimes through the use of financial incentives or time off of prison sentences.
America has spent the last four decades trying to reverse the rushing tide of changing demographics, strategically manipulating reproductive rights and immigration policies to keep America white. —Ajah Hales in An Injustice Mag
Hales’ article (September 2021) references Ben Wattenberg’s 1987 book on low birth rates in Western countries, The Birth Dearth. Hales also explains what abortion-restriction laws tested across states through the 1990s and 2000s were designed to do—and for whom.
For an absolutely delightful contrast, eavesdrop on dinner and conversation with Mary J. Blige, Tabitha Brown, Angelica Ross, and others.
I knew that Kelis had taken on a second career as a chef. I did not know she’d be creating dishes like coconut black rice, jerk snapper, edible flowers, and candied lamb chops.
Get into it. It’ll make you hungry for food and friendship.
Similar patterns of infrastructure sponsorship mark the influence of mining, engineering, and construction companies on Jamaica. Bauxite is the ore that yields aluminum, and mining rights are still frequently traded for corporate commitments to build roads and schools.
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