The Religion of Coal


Photo: Nick Mullins

I usually avoid religion in my posts but I can no longer ignore how some people apply it to the subject of coal and coal mining.

“If God didn’t want us to use coal, he wouldn’t have put it here!”

I’ve heard it a dozen times from friends and family back home. It’s even been preached in sermons to coal miners and their families and proclaimed at pro-coal rallies.

My question is….have we mined and used coal in ways that would make God happy with us?

Let us look at the history of coal.

Coal mining began in Appalachia in the late 19th century. The owners of the coal mines paid as little salary as possible with many using a form of money known as “scrip.” Scrip was only usable to pay for goods and services provided by the company who controlled the prices of food and rent for the entire town. Mining was also extremely dangerous. Over 90,000 miners lost their lives in the nation’s coal mines from 1900 to 1945 (the total today is 104,000 miners). This doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands who were seriously or permanently injured. Miner’s demands for better safety and to be paid in more than company scrip was not often heeded by coal company owners. When their requests were denied, miners tried to unionize which was met with violence perpetrated by mercenaries hired by the company owners.

The coal that was removed from the mountains by the blood, sweat, and tears of Appalachian families was shipped off where it would be put to use making steel in massive mills or to generate electricity. These mills and power stations polluted entire cities and caused countless deaths from respiratory illnesses. The steel mill owners, like the coal company owners, placed production and profit over the well being of their workforce. Though rank and file unions ended some of the abuses, the coal and steel industries continued to exploit their laborers.

Debilitating, long term health impacts were also prevalent for those who worked for the industries. Black lung has claimed more than 75,000 lives and is still occurring today. Companies continue to deny that it is a problem and continue to block miner’s efforts to seek benefits. They also find ways to avoid paying retirement healthcare plans and pensions. They do these things all to save money and increase profit.

Trillions of dollars have been made building bridges, railroads, cars, massive skyscrapers, and even machines of war using coal, but the communities that contained the resources remain some of the poorest in the nation.

The world created by coal has never been one of justice and equality, especially that which Jesus tried to teach us. It has been a world of more Sadducees and Pharisees, of more intense suffering created by the “haves” who use the “have nots.” Billions of people throughout the world are cast into extreme poverty as the industrialized nations build larger cities and wage needless wars for resource wealth. Millions of people die because of the wealth inequalities that exist while millions more attend churches powered by coal to hear the good word of Jesus’ teaching. They then ignore all of the suffering and despair caused by their love of comfort, convenience, and material things.

“Cheap energy” is the gospel that breaks the backs of thousands of coal miners and chokes their lungs with coal dust. A “healthy economy” blinds people to the high cancer rates where coal is extracted, cleaned, and used. God’s creation is being destroyed, torn down in the name of progress, but what kind of progress and is the benefit shared equally among God’s children?

And so I ask, would a loving God, who created this amazing world full of life, full of so many wonders—who sent his only begotten Son to teach us lessons of love and humility—would such a God have placed something here capable of creating so much harm? Would He tell us to lay waste to the world He created to provide us with clean water and air, so we could mine coal for a better economy—for more money?

God provided us with everything we need on this Earth. For many generations Native Americans and Appalachian families lived in our mountains in a simple balance with what God created. Did we ever truly need coal? Or was it something someone else wanted?

What if coal wasn’t a gift from God? What if it was placed here by someone else to be our greatest temptation?

Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Hebrews 13:5

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”[a]

Matthew 19:21
 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Categories: Education, Industry Propaganda, Miners, Stereotypes


    • Thank you for your thoughtful writing. I moved to West Virginia 16 years ago. I respect coal, and remember how it heated the homes of my youth. I was hopeful after the gains of the 60’s for miners. Now I’m disheartened to see how they have been co-opted by the companies. Keep it up!


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