Anthropology Review: “The Holy Ghost People”

Appalachia’s “Holy Ghost People” was a subculture in an Industrial age

By Crystal Hollis | Fall 2010 | ANTH 1150 World Cultures Through Film

The Holy Ghost People is a documentary film recording the religious practices of a white Pentecostal protestant group in 1968. Instead of a narrator dominantly telling the story, the members of the congregation are interviewed and the religious rituals are observed. The Holy Ghost community does not have characteristics of a pre-modern society. The members of the congregation did not seem to question the dangerous religious practices of dealing with poisonous snakes based on a literal biblical passage. The Holy Ghost community can be labeled as a subcultural group, possessing distinct traits that are different from the pre-modern/industrial criteria, and ultimately defined by the dominant religious values they share.

The town of Appalachia seemed to be in a rural setting even though most of the inhabitants do not seem to farm. They would most likely work in industrial-type occupations such as mining and timbering. The inhabitants of this town seem to live in poverty and depend on religion to give them purpose and make life more meaningful. The members of the church rationalize their practices of handling poisonous snakes simply because they consider that since they believe strongly in Christ as their savior, God would spare them pain in the ritual. Technically the town isn’t close-bounded from the rest of the nation since the inhabitants have the freedom to leave and live in an urban city. However, the rural town has some characteristics of a peasant society being personal and holistic. Appalachia is still small, isolated in the mountains, and are not racially or religiously diversified unlike a larger Industrial society.

The church members that are from the Appalachian community are tied together by the white Pentecostal religious values that they share. For that reason, the Holy Ghost community managed to fit within the Industrial society framework because the key social relationship in an Industrial society is ideology, which is defined as beliefs that support specific groups of a society. When the church members meet for service, they meet for the common purpose of praying to their God. They believe that they should go to church and pray instead of being lazy, an evidence of a Protestant ethic mindset. While they do possess stranger relationships because they are not related to each other and key relationships are nuclear families, the church members do have personal friendships with each other and have some sort of harmony because of the strong religious values that they have in common.

The Holy Ghost community’s ritualistic practice of handling poisonous snakes is comparable to the film Bisha—The Awesome Fire Test. The Holy Ghost community members speak in tongues, holds poisonous snakes, and drink strychnine because of the passage in the bible claiming that believers would not get hurt as long as it is in God’s name. The Muslims in the Bisha film, representing a tribal or band society, believe that the accused is lying if their tongue got burned from licking a hot bowl. The reason why they follow this tradition is because Moses was the first person to have undergone the fire test and according to the Koran, God had saved his tongue from burning. The Pentecostals are a protestant sect of Christianity; both Christianity and Islam are considered Abrahamic faiths. The Holy Ghost community held strongly to an old world belief system while living in an industrial setting.  The Holy Ghost community personally acknowledges God as their ultimate authority instead of Man.

The Holy Ghost community does not possess all of the characteristics of an Industrial/pre-modern society. God is the authority in their lives, they do not question the logic of the unsafe ritual, and they are in a small and rural setting. They are comparable to a tribal/band society just like how the Muslims were in another film. However the community is held together by their religious ideology and Protestant Ethic mindset. The members of the community are not directly related to each other and most likely work industrial jobs that require specialized skills rather than farming. The Holy Ghost People is evidence that when societies grow, more sub cultures emerge and create diversity within the society.

Watch the documentary:

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