In The Hands
Of A Happy God
The "No-Hellers" of Central Appalachia

Howard Dorgan

A Review
By Frank A. Mills

April 20, 2024
In the Hands of A Happy God Cover

In The Hands Of A Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia, Howard Dorgan, (1997, The University of Tennessee Pres). ISBN: 0-87049-962-9. 208 pages, including Notes and Index.

Have you ever heard of the “No-Hellers” of central Appalachia? I hadn’t either until just recently. Intrigued, I went on a quest to discover more, and came across In the Hands Of A Happy God, by Howard Dorgan.

The “No-Hellers” of central Appalachia are the Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU), a sub-denomination of the Primitive Baptist. They reject the idea of an angry God who dishes out punishment and retribution. Rather they embrace a “happy God” in whom all will ultimately enter into harmony with. In the Hands Of A Happy God is the first and only in-depth study of the PBU’s theology and structure. It should be noted before we go any further, that the term “No-Hellers” is not a description they would claim for themselves. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid it.

The book is academic to be sure. Every historical thread from the coming of the Baptist to Appalachia to the Primitive Baptist to the Primitive Baptist Universalists is covered (chapters 1-3). After all, the author, Howard Dorgan, is a professor at Appalachian State University and the author of several books on Appalachian faith. But the book is more than that—Dorgan loves the people of Appalachia, as well as Appalachia. He, writes elsewhere, “…I developed an immense warmth for the people of this faith, a deep respect for their worship practices and a profound regard for their theological principles (Forward, Here I Am Again, Lord, Adda Leah Davis).” That warmth, that respect and that profound regard runs deep through the book.

Although the Primitive Baptist Universalist didn’t come into existence as a sub-denomination until 1924, Universalism has been a distinct theological strand among the central Appalachia Primitive Baptist since at least 1907. In that year, the Washington District Primitive Baptist Association admonished Elder M. L. Compton to refrain from such theology.

Although there are some independent churches modeled after Primitive Baptist Universalist structure, In the Hands Of A Happy God explores the couple dozen or so churches of the three Associations of central Appalachia (Tennessee, Virginia & West Viginia) and out-migrations to Ohio and Pennsylvania (chapter 8). The three associations are the Elkhorn Association, Three Forks of Powells River Association, and the Washington District Association. When the book was written, the Houston Church (Dandridge, Tn) was part of the Elkhorn Association. Today the Houston Church functions somewhat independently, seeking to unite the PBU churches that have a more liberal bent. There is also another Elkhorn Association, which because of the animosity between the Elkhorn Associations, mostly over practice, Dorgan chose not to include in the book.

Dorgan is thorough in laying out the theology of Primitive Baptist Universalistic belief. At its core is the conviction that Christ’s redemption is so powerfully overwhelming that all will ultimately be reconciled to God. As Primitive Baptist are Calvinist in perspective, such thinking is ultra-Calvinist—all are predestined to be saved.

Theologically there are similarities and differences between the Primitive Baptist Universalists and other Primitive Baptists. They are in agreement that humanity is inherently sinful and cannot save itself apart from the atoning act of Christ on the cross. However, for the PBU there is no afterlife punishment for anyone. Hell is limited to the temporal world. It is that state where our worldly sins are “punished” by our separation from God. Satan is not a being, but rather descriptive of the spirit that exists in the natural man warring against the spiritual man, and even this is temporal. It is in our separation from God that we punish ourselves, and that punishment is limited to this world in that when we enter God’s presence we are no longer separated.

Although all are saved, there are still the “elect.” They are the Primitive Baptist Universalists, and others “perhaps not known” that have “’been separated from the rest of God’s people here in time’ chosen to be the earthly witness for Christ and the earthly preserver of his righteousness (p, 5).” These chosen are “kept by the power of God through faith.” Still, even the elect can still sin, but as “elect” they will feel the separation from God more deeply than the non-elect.

At the Resurrection, all sin and all suffering will come to an end. All will enter into a wholly egalitarian heaven, which is the culmination of Christ’s universal atonement.

Lastly, living a righteous life is a joyful experience, and thus is its own reward. And this being the case there is no need for either additional reward or retribution in heaven.

Dorgan expands upon the theology in chapter 4, “Salvation for All.”

While it seems that most people who know of the Primitive Baptist Universalist focus on their theology, Dorgan devotes a good bit of the book to their happy, “carried out” worship and how that carries over into their Association meetings, remembrances (as an event), and even their congregational and Association meals. When an elder becomes “carried out,” that is anointed by the Spirit in his preaching, worship becomes what is probably best described as a celebration (chapters 5-7).

This is not the frenzied worship of the Pentecostal Snake Handlers. Although it involves movement – the elder’s chopping hand movements as he becomes more and more “carried out,” the singing accompanied by dance-like movement, first by the women, then the men, lots of handshaking – it remains orderly. There is no falling down on floor and rolling around in a frenzied state. Elders are called to speak. If there is more than one present, they decide among themselves who will speak when – services can be several hours long. If an Elder feels he is not being “caried out” (something each strive for) he will graciously relinquish the floor to another Elder.

A few lines in a review doesn’t do justice to what Dorgan refers to as the “Happifying of God.” It needs to be experienced before it can be described. Dorgan isn’t simply writing from abstract research, he writes from being there, from his own personal joy of the experience. For me that moves In the Hands Of A Happy God from an interesting read to an inspiring read.

Among the PBU there is a deep respect for the patriarchs and matriarchs, both the living and the dead. If there is any one group that grasps the notion of that “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, it is the PBU. Family and friends are not forgotten, but are “indelibly present” in the church and in the home. For Primitive Baptist Universalist, the departed exist in a blissful, joyful sleep awaiting the Resurrection when they shall be reunited with family and friends. Besides theological belief, cultural considerations also enter into this reverence toward their dead. Both are expanded on in chapter 7, “Keeping Them Near.”

There is something that appeals to me about this idea of keeping the departed near.

The Primitive Baptist Universalists are a happy lot, a “people of joy,” and that’s the way Dorgan ends In The Hands Of The Happy God. When I finished reading and put the book down, I was excited—that’s the only word that fits. Excited, because the Primitive Baptist Universalists are excited about their faith and that rubbed off thanks to Dorgan’s deep-felt telling their story. Excited, because their excitement reminded me once again, being a Christian Universalist is an exciting proposition that has much to offer to each and every one of us, no matter how diverse our understanding of Universalism may be.

Ending with a pragmatic note, as one who has an interest in the history of Christian Universalism in America, In the Hands Of A Happy God whet my appetite to learn more about the Primitive Christian Universalist. Each chapter describes a PBU church, and not all are exactly the same. What particularly caught my attention is that Dorgan suggests that it is quite possible the Christian Universalism entered Appalachia via members of the Christian Universalist Church. That will send me on quest for sure.

Claude Howard Dorgan (July 5, 1932 – July 5, 2012) was an American academic best known for his research and writing on the topic of religion in Appalachia. He was Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Besides In The Hands Of A Happy God, he wrote several other books: The Old Regular Baptist of Central Appalachia, Giving Glory to God in Appalachia and The Airwaves of Zion. He was the editor of the religion section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. It was Dorgan’s fascination with the rhythmical style of the old-time Baptist preachers of central Appalachia that drew him to research the Baptist sub-denomination of the region.

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