Era of the uneducated, country preacher fading in Appalachia

Saturday, September 13, 2003


im Norman wasn't always the articulate wordsmith who now shines as a Southern Baptist pastor.

Not so long ago, Norman was just another high school dropout from Appalachia who had gone on to earn a living for his wife and children.

By his own admission, the 37-year-old carpet installer was unable to match subjects and verbs in simple sentences. He stumbled clumsily over many of the words in his Bible.

So when he began sensing God's call to ministry, Norman felt he had to go to school.

"I needed an education," he said. "I needed to be able to communicate, to relate to people. I needed to be able to understand the Bible, to interpret Scripture correctly."

Like Norman, a growing number of country preachers across Appalachia are opting for higher education, despite a pervasive mountain belief that those whom God calls to ministry should not seek a formal theological education.

Norman said some friends in his mountain community suggested he attend Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, a small school outside Pineville that trains ministers for rural churches. Others, he said, warned that preachers who go to school are showing a lack of faith in God's ability to equip ministers for service.

He wasn't the first young preacher to encounter such opposing views.

"There has been a mind-set that preachers get in the pulpit and God will fill their mouths with the right words," said Cathie Canary, an administrator at Appalachian Bible College in Bradley, W.Va. "Our response to that is: Would you go to a doctor who has not been educated and expect he'll just know where to cut you open?"

Enrollment in existing Bible schools is rising and new schools are sprouting up to help meet the demand, said Randall Bell, associate director of the Accrediting Association for Bible Colleges in Orlando, Fla.

Bell said his agency accredits 110 such schools -- up from 50 in 1973 -- with total enrollment of about 36,000 students. He said some 1,200 other Bible colleges, most of which are unaccredited, serve an additional 36,000 students.

With 300 students, Appalachian Bible College, which was established in 1950, has doubled in enrollment in the past 20 years. Enrollment at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College has grown from 135 to 205 over the past 10 years.

Those schools, along with the Kentucky Mountain Bible College at Vancleve, are turning out about 100 new graduates a year, most of which are serving in central Appalachia.

"This area has been known for strong feelings against educated ministers," said Bill Whittaker, president of the Clear Creek school. "We still have churches in our area who do not believe in educating ministers. But we don't run into that as much anymore."

Charles Lippy, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said Bible colleges were popularized by church leaders who were suspicious of the religious doctrines taught at traditional colleges and seminaries.

"It's not an opposition to education," Lippy said. "It's an opposition to the wrong kind of education. There was a belief that seminaries were infected by liberal thought."

Hiram Adkins, a soft-spoken Old Regular Baptist pastor from Pikeville, said his objection goes beyond that. He said preachers who go to school simply don't have the faith to trust God to prepare them for ministry.

Adkins, 72, said he has never stepped into the pulpit with a prepared sermon in his 46 years as a minister.

"I have found for me to try to study up a message just don't work," he said. "I just turn my heart over to the Lord."

Adkins, one of staunchest holdouts on the education issue, said only people who are truly called by God can do that.

"We believe in a divine calling," he said. "A lot of times when you get into school, you have to take somebody's theory or you won't graduate. That's the problem."

Adkins concedes, however, that the number of people who share his view is shrinking.

"There still are some people who have what I believe to be the mistaken notion that there is somehow incompatibility between academic excellence and spiritual zeal," Bell said. "They're fearful that much learning would diminish spiritual fervor."

However, Bell said educational levels of the general population, and therefore congregations, have increased to the point that preachers also must be educated to effectively minister the gospel.

"If you're going to minister to an educated congregation, you must be educated so that you hold their respect," Bell said. "The groups that have historically had somewhat of an anti-education bias have changed their attitudes."

Dan Anderson, president of Appalachian Bible College, said the number of Christians who actually oppose formal education is small.

"That mentality is diminishing," he said. "It has become less and less of a factor as time has worn on."

W.B. Bingham, a graduate of the Clear Creek school who served as pastor of the 3,000-member Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro until his retirement, said he has always stayed clear of the argument over whether preachers should receive ministerial training.

"You're going to get educated somewhere," he said. "You're going to learn from somebody, whether it's in a school or from someone individually."

Norman, who now serves as pastor of McKinney Baptist Church in Lincoln County, said he resisted God's call to become a minister, primarily because of his lack of education. When he first went to the Clear Creek school, he said his language skills were so poor that he flunked his first English grammar course.

"The goal is to reach people with the gospel," he said. "Without that education, I would not be able to minister to everyone. To me, if God calls you, you need to be at your best."

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