Strangers Below

Primitive Baptists and American Culture

By Joshua Guthman

232 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2486-0
    Published: September 2015
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-2487-7
    Published: September 2015
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4032-5
    Published: September 2015

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit
Before the Bible Belt fastened itself across the South, competing factions of evangelicals fought over their faith's future, and a contrarian sect, self-named the Primitive Baptists, made its stand. Joshua Guthman here tells the story of how a band of antimissionary and antirevivalistic Baptists defended Calvinism, America's oldest Protestant creed, from what they feared were the unbridled forces of evangelical greed and power. In their harrowing confessions of faith and in the quavering uncertainty of their singing, Guthman finds the emotional catalyst of the Primitives' early nineteenth-century movement: a searing experience of doubt that motivated believers rather than paralyzed them.

But Primitives' old orthodoxies proved startlingly flexible. After the Civil War, African American Primitives elevated a renewed Calvinism coursing with freedom's energies. Tracing the faith into the twentieth century, Guthman demonstrates how a Primitive Baptist spirit, unmoored from its original theological underpinnings, seeped into the music of renowned southern artists such as Roscoe Holcomb and Ralph Stanley, whose "high lonesome sound" appealed to popular audiences searching for meaning in the drift of postwar American life. In an account that weaves together religious, emotional, and musical histories, Strangers Below demonstrates the unlikely but enduring influence of Primitive Baptists on American religious and cultural life.

About the Author

Joshua Guthman is assistant professor of history at Berea College.
For more information about Joshua Guthman, visit the Author Page.


“A wholly original contribution to American religious history, and to the new field of the history of emotion.”--American Historical Review

“Guthman’s haunting, poetic style is perfectly matched to his subjects, and the book is not only an important contribution to southern religious history but also a delight to read.”--Choice

“Well-researched, engagingly written. . . . A valuable resource for those researching evangelicalism, southern religion, the history of Calvinism in America, and American popular culture.”--Journal of American History

“Brilliantly reveals the lived experience of Primitives.”--Journal of Southern History

“Filled with great insight. The book should be of interest to scholars of southern (and specifically Appalachian) history, emotion, and religion, religion and popular culture, as well as to scholars of Baptist history. Guthman contributes greatly to the history of this small group of often overlooked nineteenth-century.--Journal of Southern Religion

"[Guthman] does an excellent job recounting the group’s formation during the late stages of the Second Great Awakening.”--West Virginia History

Multimedia & Links

Visit the author's website,

Listen: Hear examples of music from the book at the author's website.