FACING HARD TIMES:
Voices of Faith during the Great Depression
by Bruce Daugherty
We are in the midst of the worst epidemic of hysteria this country has ever seen. The causes are financial depression, unemployment, and propagandism. Some men are perplexed and fainting for fear. Others are committing suicide. The masses are bewildered, excited, and clamoring for they know not what. Eight million men are out of work; business is at a standstill; railroads are fighting for their lives; our government is forced to spend much more than its income with reparations and foreign debts still to be adjusted; the problem of tariffs and moratoriums to be solved and the question of adjustment between the production, distribution, and consumption of goods is to be dealt with; and those who have the responsibility of these great questions upon them seem not to know what to do or which way to turn.(Lewis, 770-71). With a few updates, the paragraph could be describing the present day.
For a generation that has never experienced an economic crisis of the magnitude as our country currently faces, the temptation to surrender to the voices of panic and fear is powerful. Even if one does not give way to anxiety and worry, pressure to place trust in “lesser gods” such as the civil state, for material and economic security is considerable. When confronted by these circumstances, it may be profitable to listen to some of the voices of the past and to be strengthened in faith by those who went through hard times. This article will share some of the experiences from the Depression era. These experiences will be drawn primarily from the pages of the Christian Leader, a religious paper published in Cincinnati from 1886 until 1947.
The Great Depression was a tremendous economic and psychological catastrophe for a nation whose character prides itself in material abundance. The stock market crash of 1929 ended the deceptive prosperity of the 1920’s and ushered in hard times to American life. Statistics for the period quantify the disaster: decline of the GNP, unemployment figures, farm prices, number of bank and business failures, personal income, etc. The statistics give a gloomy picture of the “greatest economic calamity in the nation’s history.”(Shannon, 109). A year after the crash, six million men walked the streets looking for work. By 1932, there were 600,000 jobless in Chicago, a million in New York City. In heavily industrialized cities the toll of the depression read, as one observer noted, like British casualty lists at the Somme -- so awesome as to become in the end meaningless, for the sheer statistics numbed the mind. In Cleveland 50 percent were jobless, in Akron 60 percent, in Toledo 80 percent. In Donora, Pennsylvania, only 277 of 13,900 workers held regular jobs.(Lechtenberg, 337).
But statistics do not tell the story in terms of the human suffering endured. At one point during the era a young psychiatrist made these observations of Pennsylvania miners who had remained unemployed for several years:
They hung around street corners and in groups. They gave each other solace. They were loath to go home because they were indicted, as if it were their fault for being unemployed. . . . . These men suffered from depression. They felt despised, they were ashamed of themselves. They cringed, they comforted one another. They avoided home.(Parrish, 415).
Evangelist J. H. Hines described conditions faced in Akron, Ohio:
I realize we are in the midst of a panic. The newspapers are trying to keep it from the public, but those who know conditions cannot be fooled. Things are in a terrible condition here and elsewhere. House rent is high, groceries are out of sight. The church is helping several. Next Wednesday we intend to have a grocery shower for several who are out of work. We must help our brethren bear their burdens.(Hines, 12).
This call for assistance from a woman in Oklahoma appeared in the Christian Leader:
We would be glad to get half worn clothing of most any kind. Shoes, hosiery, underware [sic], overalls, shirts, dresses of all sizes almost. Even the best part of discarded garments could be used for old quilts, or patches. Old sheets and pillow cases or night gowns would come in handy. . . . We have always been needy, but this is the worst time I can remember seeing as there is no work to amount to anything much. If our men folks could get work and could get a reasonable price for it, we could do very well. What work they have done lately was 10 cents an hour and not much of that. We have a warm winter, which has been a blessing, . . . God is merciful that all is well as it is.”(Have You Ever Been Poor?, 3)
A farm woman from Ohio shared her situation:
“. . . my husband and I were sitting here talking of financial problems of our home. We had only $2 to our name and nowhere to get anymore, and no flour, sugar, lard, etc., in the house. And five little children all under 14 years of age. And as near naked and barefooted as it is possible to get, and winter staring us in the face.” (Boyce, 8).
Persistent drought in the Midwest brought added misery to hard pressed farmers in the depression years. A brother from Lockney, Texas wrote:
In addition to a bank failure we had a very cold spring that destroyed nearly all fruit on the farm, then just as our wheat harvest came on the hail storm wiped out that 350 acres of wheat completely. All of this on a three years drought with the extremely low prices has gotten us to where we hardly know when we let a dollar go where the next will come from.” (Rowe, 6).
Examples of Sacrificial Living
Many people in America had never enjoyed the prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties.” The hardships of the Depression exacerbated those already living sacrificially. This was especially true for preachers and their families. An observation concerning Disciples’ ministers during the Depression era described the common situation. “One aspect of the problem was that before 1929 the Disciples’ minister was not highly paid. In many cases, the salary was a minimum living wage.” (Paulsell, 137). During the Depression years, preachers, especially those from rural areas, were often paid in groceries and produce. (Paulsell). Pay in the form of bread, eggs, fruits, and vegetables had long been a reality for the itinerant preachers of the Ohio Valley. “What is a preacher without a tater patch and a hen roost?” veteran evangelist W. H. Devore once asked. (Devore, 4).
Ira Moore, West Virginia preacher and editor of the Christian Leader stated, “ ‘Old Man Depression’ has hurt us some but most of us were down where he could not reach us.” (I. C. Moore, 4). Moore and his family never lived on more than $50 a month and often on less. Moore’s brother, Commodore DuPont, had always known hard times in the ministry he conducted in the upper Ohio valley, Pennsylvania and later in Florida. C. D. sustained his preaching by working in coal mines and saw mills. But after he had been crippled and badly scarred in a sawmill accident, he determined to devote full time to evangelism. He knew his scarring would never permit him to preach in larger, “well to do” places, so he determined to carry the gospel in mission places. He shared some of his experiences: "In my mission work I have slept in school houses, with my saddle for my pillow, and in my Ford, because of having no other place to lodge. Have boarded myself on bread, bananas, beans, and water, and thankful for that much." (C. D. Moore, Sleep On, 8).
C. D. Moore
C. D. Moore also did what he could to awaken readers to the responsibility of sharing with those in need. In one article, Moore stated that he did not believe there was a contradiction between Galatians 6:2 - “Bear one another’s burdens,” and Galatians 6:5 - “For every man shall bear his own burden.” Every Christian had his own responsibility before God, but each one can be sympathetic and compassionate in times of need. Moore then asked, “Do you count it a “burden” to help the needy? You should count it a joyous privilege, and then you would get happiness out of it instead of sadness.”# But Moore believed some Christians had never known the joy of sharing.
I have heard a few brethren say that the main reason they take a church paper is to keep themselves informed about the poor and needy brethren over the country, as it is a great pleasure to help them. Have heard others say that they quit taking the paper because there were so many appeals for help from the needy ones! (C. D. Moore, Sword, 3).
Preference for the Poor
The examples of sacrifice encouraged and strengthened many in small, rural congregations. But teaching on God’s will in relation to the poor was also needed. In a report from the congregation meeting at Shadyside, Ohio, R. N. Perkins praised evangelist J. H. Pennell for “an excellent sermon on ‘The Mission of the Church.’ Pennell’s sermon had stressed “preaching the Gospel to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). The sermon had also raised a question.
We are compelled to ask the question, “Whither are we drifting?,” when we see some of our “big preachers” settling down among well to do brethren and expecting a big salary. Why are they not sometimes sent into some of the hard places? (Perkins, 11). Perkins went on to invite preachers like Pennell and Moore to “tell us some of your experiences so that we may awake to our opportunities.” (Ibid.)
As the Depression years dragged on, some individuals became jaded in their response to the needy. Missouri preacher James Amis reminded readers of God’s pronouncement: “Blessed is he that considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble” (Ps. 41:1). Amis said many could see the “blessings emanating from attendance at the Lord’s day assembly, carefulness of speech, scrupulous honesty,” but failed to appreciate “the promises of God to the charitable.” Amis said, "It is a very weak excuse when Christians plead that there are no worthy poor to help. One noticeable thing is that God never said anything about “worthy” poor. When a person is hungry, cold, or sick, he needs food, warmth and medicine regardless of how he became in that condition." (Amis, 1). Amis cited Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25:34-46 which included no restrictions or investigating “to see if the poor became poor through mismangement, profligacy, or carelessness.” Amis believed that “covetous” Christians were following the footsteps of the rich young ruler, instead of following the examples of Jesus and Paul. Such Christians needed to compare themselves to Scriptures like Luke 6:20 and James 2:5 which indicated God’s preference for the poor. Amis believed that some churches gave lip service to their duty to the poor, but their practices were negligent. “The spasmodic donations of abundant supplies with a consequent forgetfulness of the obligation is more often the action of churches than the regular providing of their needs as they should have.” (Ibid.)
Trust in God
In 1932, Texas evangelist J. D. Tant, no stranger to a life time of hardship and privation, wrote, “Never in my life have I been so financially oppressed.” (Pro and Con, 8). But in Tant’s brief sentence, lay a key to facing hard times and overcoming them. Tant refused to give in to “depression.”
An attitude of trust, not just a dogged optimism, but genuine trust flowing from faith and assurance in God, persisted in the editorials of the Christian Leader and gave readers a way to overcome the pessimism of the period. It was this spirit that had encouraged Anna Boyce as she and her husband faced their economic dilemma and its subsequent “depression.“ ". . . It seemed as if a shadow was hanging over us. . . . We were not sick - just sort of heartsick. And we sat here and each felt so blue and sad, neither of us feeling like doing any work." (Boyce, 8). But the arrival of the Leader in the mail had a transforming power for the couple. ". . . The day that started out so dark and gloomy became a beautiful, glorious day full of sunshine and good cheer, just because we had let a shadow come over our faith in God and forgot to trust, and the dear old Leader coming just when it did, scattered the gloom and brought sunshine and faith to our little humble home. Its got [sic] strength to raise one up almost from despair." (Ibid.).
Flavil Hall was an evangelist from Georgia and an associate editor of the Christian Leader. He shared a letter that had been written to him: "He said (concerning his congregation) they seem depressed. Of course there is a general feeling of hard times, but I would not advise brethren in Christ to begin economy by turning down the faithful preachers of the gospel." (Hall, 6). Hall wrote that there was a danger of a greater depression. "To “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” is the only insurance against real calamity - against depression out of which no good can ever come. With consecrated Christians, blessings eternal may flow from what the world calls misfortune." (Ibid.). Hall invited his readers to trust in God’s providence without complaining. For those who trusted God’s dealings, misfortune would not hinder them from setting their minds on the things that were “heavenly and eternally enduring.” Hall then pointed to the lesson learned by Asaph (Ps. 73). The Psalmist had complained of the prosperity of the ungodly and declared that he had cleansed his heart in vain. These painful thoughts plagued him “until he went into the sanctuary of God.” There he learned of the end of the wicked and God’s guidance to glory for the faithful. Then Asaph declared, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon the earth that I desire but thee.” He confesses that before he had learned this lesson he was foolish and ignorant and was “as a beast” before God. Hall then made his application. "He had walked by sight, as does the beast, and had not learned the lesson of walking by faith and trust. This is the woeful condition of too many in the church today. Attendance upon the “sanctuary” of the Lord and hearing lessons of faith, obedience, and trust would wonderfully help many, would make them infinitely more happy, and prepare them for all impending trials . . .". (Ibid.).
T. Q. Martin was an evangelist and also an associate editor of the Christian Leader. In 1931, Martin spoke of the turbulent times: "We have fallen upon an evil day. Our ideals have been shattered, our domestic life is being undermined, our political life is a stench before high heaven, our social life rapidly crumbling, and our very civilization threatened." (Martin, We Need, 5). The calamity was due to forgetting God. Like Israel of old, the nation had forsaken the “fountain of living waters” and turned “to broken cisterns” (Jer. 2:13). Martin declared, "We have featured material matters to the neglect of spiritual values. We have forgotten that our greatest national asset is character. We have forgotten that the very basis of sound business is the confidence of man in man, and the basis of sound government is confidence in God." (Ibid.). But there was a way out of these troubles. Martin reminded his readers of the question Jesus posed to his disciples, “Would you also go away?” Peter’s reply, had a relevance that Martin wanted his readers to get. “To whom shall we go?” "We have trusted in material wealth, in inventive genius, in secular education, in the wisdom of men, and all have failed to give us the bliss for which we yearn. The principles of the great Teacher, who spake as man never spake, will bring us to real prosperity." (Ibid.). Martin’s faith was in the God of heaven Who would bring order to the present chaos as individuals whose hearts were changed would then reach out through their lives to influence others and bring them under the rule of Christ. Here was a challenge to outlive the world to change the world!
By 1937, the continued economic hardship caused T. Q. Martin to observe: "We have trusted in men, in the President, in the Senate, the Congress, in schemes of man’s devising and we have gone from bad to worse. The very human legislation that we hope will prove a panacea for our ills, but adds fuel to the flame." (Martin, Is There, 5). But Martin believed help was still available, if men would turn to God. "There is yet help, divine help. If we will awaken before it is eternally too late. God is longsuffering, but “He will not always chide; neither will He keep His anger forever.” (Ps. 103:9). “For the eyes of Jehovah run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Chron. 15:9)" (Ibid.). For Martin, this was genuine revival, based on the promises of God and beginning with one’s own heart. The removal of hindering sin and perseverance in genuine prayer would be the catalyst for national revival. “But such a revival would be God’s revival, using willing, human instruments.” Martin closed his column by asking, “Will we let God lead us out of our terrible plight, or will we drift aimlessly on?” (Ibid.).
A few weeks later, another article by Martin posed the question of how anyone could be serene in the midst of international tensions and national economic collapse. Once again, Martin called for national revival by turning to God. (Martin, Be Still, 5). Though he was afraid that his call was becoming repetitive, Martin was convinced it was the only way of hope. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10) was Martin’s counsel to his readers. If Christians would make full confession of sin (Ps. 32:5-6), they could be confident that “the eyes of Jehovah are toward the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry” (Ps. 34:15). Martin encouraged his readers to rely on the character of God. "God is longsuffering. He has not cast us off. Jesus is our Advocate at the throne of God. There is yet hope, if all who claim to be Christians will prove to be such in reality." (Ibid.). For such reliance, Martin pointed his readers to the first words of Psalm 46, “Be still.” These words reminded Martin of Jesus’ calming the storm when the disciples were fearful of perishing. The Savior’s rebuke of the wind and waves, “Peace, be still” (Mk. 4:38-39) served to remind those who are on life’s voyage that there was no need to fear as long as God and Christ were present.
Application and Conclusion
In 1932 the United States turned to newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt to restore confidence and hope. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided short term relief with initiatives like the NRA and CCC work camps. But long term recovery would not be experienced until after World War II. But for many people, hard times were faced with faith and hope in God. In their troubles they praised God as they compared their troubles to others. Though often poor themselves, they helped their neighbors with their needs. They saw examples of sacrificial living through the preachers who served them God’s Word. They were pointed to Scripture which reminded them of God’s preference for the poor. They were encouraged by an attitude of optimism in the religious papers they read. This attitude was based in genuine faith that had cultivated trust in God long before the Depression occurred. These voices of faith from the past also suggest avenues of ministry in the present crisis.
When today’s hardships are compared to the troubles of the Depression era, the realization of blessings received will stifle gripes and complaints. The sense of entitlement that has characterized recent generations should be replaced by sentiments of praise and thanksgiving. God’s leaders need to lead God’s people in focusing on their blessings in Christ, rather than the material things that may be lacking. The old dictum, “people don’t care what you know until they know you care” holds true. Churches that help people with their physical needs will have credibility for helping people with their spiritual needs. As David Lipscomb wrote in the early months following the Civil War, “Some bread now, brethren, and afterwards the Bibles and preachers.” (Lipscomb,
Congregations will also need to see their leaders as examples of sacrificial living. Do elders and preachers resemble the lifestyle of CEO’s or do they reflect the example of the Son of Man? He was born in a manger, had nowhere to lay his head, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Teaching programs in the local church should include God’s preference for the poor. Congregational financial management seminars rarely address responding to the cry of the poor. They seem primarily aimed at funding building projects. Fears of a “social gospel” must be replaced by responsible instruction on appropriate attitudes toward wealth. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9). Additionally, people need to be given hope. The media available: whether in print, the cyber sphere, or weekly preaching from pulpits needs to ring with inspirational messages for people caught in depression and despair. The transforming power of hope is not found in simply “positive thinking,” but rooted in genuine confidence in God.
The props and crutches on which men lean are crumbling. They must be replaced with trust in God. Families and congregations should be centers for cultivating trust. Faith should not be viewed as a life preserver, only drawn out in hard times and forgotten in good times. Faith must be seen as that indispensable element for all of life. “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls -- Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.” (Hab. 3:17-19).
Whether reading from the Bible or from gospel literature of previous generations, there are reminders that God’s people have faced tough times before. These reminders demonstrate that security, happiness, and well-being are not dependent on government, Wall Street, the media or the vicissitudes of national and international affairs. May these reminders from the past instill a greater faith and trust in God’s providential care in a younger generation.
Amis, James T. "The Poor" Christian Leader April 27, 1937: 1.
Boyce, Anna. "What the Leader did for this Family" Christian Leader December 8, 1931: 8.
Devore, W. H. "Letter from Bro. Devore" Christian Leader July 3, 1917: 4.
Hall, Flavil. "Hard Times and Depression" Christian Leader December 30, 1930: 6.
"Have You Been Poor?" Christian Leader March 10, 1931: 3.
Hines, J. H. "Field Reports - Akron, Ohio" Christian Leader March 4, 1930: 12.
Lechtenberg, William. "The Great Depression" in Readings in American History, vol. II. eds. Glyndon Van Duesen and Herbert J. Bass. New York: MacMillan, 1963.
Lewis, John T. "Political Panic and Hysteria," Gospel Advocate July 7, 1932: 770-71.
Lipscomb, David. Gospel Advocate 1876: 476. as cited in Robert Hooper Crying in the Wilderness. Nashville: David Lipscomb College, 1971.
Martin, T. Q. "We Need to Do More Than Give Thanks" Christian Leader November 17, 1931: 5.
__________. "Is There Any Help?" Christian Leader July 20, 1937: 5.
__________. "Be Still and Know That I Am God" Christian Leader August 3, 1937: 5.
Moore, C. D. "Sleep on Now and Take Your Rest" Christian Leader August 21, 1928: 8.
Moore, C. D. "Sword Swipes" Christian Leader October 2, 1938:3.
Moore, Ira C. "To Those Who Have Appealed to Us for Help" Christian Leader January 12, 1932: 4.
Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Paulsell, William O. "The Ministry and the Great Depression" in Explorations in the Stone-Campbell Traditions: Essays in Honor of Herman A. Norton. eds. Anthony L. Dunnavant and Richard L. Harrison. Nashville: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1995.
Perkins, R. N. "Field Report - Shadyside, Ohio" Christian Leader September 1930:11.
"Pro and Con - Open Forum for Our Readers" Christian Leader June 28, 1932: 8.
Rowe, Fred. "Things That are Happening" Christian Leader September 20, 1932: 6.
Shannon, David. Between the Wars America 1919-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.