No depression in heaven: The South, race, religion and FDR

The relationship between the churches and government in the South was never the same after the Great Depression

Published December 25, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Cover detail of "No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta"   (Oxford University Press)
Cover detail of "No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta" (Oxford University Press)

Excerpted from "No Depression in Heaven"

My grandmother washed out used paper towels and hung them on the clothesline to use again. She spent painstaking hours piecing quilts of mismatched and worn-out fabric scraps or odds and ends from the knitting mill where she worked because she could not fathom buying new material. “We didn’t know we was poor,” Grandma said nearly every time she told us a story about her childhood. It was not a boast. It was an apology: an apology because she had to quit school after sixth grade and never again felt smart; an apology because she spoke in a mountain accent so thick that my friends from college scarcely understood her; an apology because she was a child of the Great Depression. Those words also acknowledged the still deeper poverty that Grandma knew surrounded her, the real and urgent need for outside help as hunger and despair crept into households once happy and humming. By the twenty-first century, the depression generation would become the Greatest Generation, idealized in the popular consciousness as plucky, selfless, and self-sufficient. They grew their own food. They went to church every Sunday. They helped their neighbors. They defeated Hitler. Maybe they suffered some deprivation during the Great Depression, but that just taught them the value of saving and thrift. “We didn’t know we was poor,” or some variation of it, became a common phrase, a badge of honor that set the Greatest Generation apart from their spoiled offspring, who turned to the government instead of one another when things got rough.

This rendering of history erases one of the most traumatic episodes of twentieth-century American life and turns it instead into a morality tale about the value of family and community. There is no room in Great Depression nostalgia for parents forced to abandon their children to orphanages because they would otherwise starve, for communities fractured as their residents fled in the vain hope that any place had to be better than where they were, or for evicted farmers forced out of their homes onto frozen soil. That sanitized narrative of the depression erases the voiced suffering of millions, the murmurs of revolution that swept Franklin Roosevelt into office. That is, in the end, the point of it.

This book tells a story that the myth of the redemptive depression obscures. There is truth in the myth, of course: members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning. Yet that turning together revealed only the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream. Members of families, communities, and churches turned to one another, and then they turned together to demand more of their political system, more of their federal government. The greatest power of the Greatest Generation was their collective acknowledgment that they could not go it alone.Nowhere was this transformation more dramatic than in the South. For a moment, the southern Protestant establishment faced the suffering that plantation capitalism pushed behind its public image of planters’ hats and hoopskirts and mountains of pure white cotton. When starving white farmers marched into an Arkansas town to demand food for their dying children, when priests turned away hungry widows and orphans because they were no needier than anyone else, and when visitors claimed that moonshiners did as much as churches to feed the hungry, southern clergy of both races spoke with almost one voice to say that they had done all they could. Their churches and their charities were broke. It was time for a higher power to intervene. They looked to God, and then they looked to Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt promised a new deal for the “forgotten man,” Americans cheered, and when he took office, the churches and private agencies gratefully turned much of the responsibility for welfare and social reform over to the state. Yet Roosevelt’s New Deal threatened plantation capitalism even as it bent to it. Black southern churches worked to secure benefits for their own community members, while white churches divided over their loyalties to Roosevelt and Jim Crow. Frustrated by their failure to alleviate the depression and split over the New Deal, leaders in the major white Protestant denominations surrendered their moral authority in the South and then blamed the federal government for its loss.

The Great Depression revealed the inability of American religious institutions to care for the needy in the midst of crisis, and it opened new opportunities for the state to take on the burden instead. From the poorest sharecropper in Arkansas to the wealthiest philanthropist in New York, depression-era Americans re-envisioned the relationship between church and state and re-evaluated the responsibilities of each for the welfare of the nation and its people. Yet the Great Depression was a profoundly local experience that affected each region of the nation and its residents in distinct ways.

In Memphis and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, economic crisis compounded an ongoing agricultural depression and coincided with a devastating drought. Together, Memphis and the Delta make up a single economic and social region—an urban center with a distinct rural periphery). Nowhere did the depression strike more swiftly or more savagely, and nowhere was the wholesale transfer of charity and reform from church to state more complete. The Great Depression and the New Deal remade this southern region, a place with striking religious, ethnic, and political diversity. In 1930, Memphis was the nation’s thirty-sixth largest city and the South’s ninth largest. Home to more than 250,000 people, just over a third of whom were African American, Memphians oriented toward the vast cotton plantations that spread out on both sides of the river south and west of the city, in Arkansas and Mississippi. Delta planters sent their crop to Memphis, an important inland port and the nation’s largest inland cotton market. The predominantly African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers who cultivated the cotton often fled to Memphis as well, either to escape racial violence or to seek work away from the fields. Fierce racial repression and widespread suffering among the poor of both races provided the pillars of the region’s plantation capitalism. After all, given a choice, no one would farm cotton on someone else’s land for pennies a day. Hard times came early to the region, as cotton prices fell after the Great War and a 1927 Mississippi River flood inundated the flat Delta.

Memphis and the Delta graphically illustrate the broader transformation of American religion and culture in these turbulent years. A land of extremes, the Delta endured a devastating drought in 1930, before its residents could recover from the flood. The Delta became the locus of national debates about voluntary aid and federal responsibility for the suffering, and its hungry and homeless residents represented the face of rural poverty to millions of distant Americans. The elite white businessmen and religious leaders who both emerged from and reinforced the region’s fierce commitment to white supremacy called for federal aid even as they worked to bend its distribution to the region’s racialized economic system. By 1933, their steady and essential support for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal meant that elites in Memphis and the Delta helped to set the terms and constraints for the transfer of charity and reform from voluntary and religious organizations to the federal government.

Religious elites in Memphis and the Delta emerged almost entirely from the southern Protestant establishment, the wealthy and middle-class members of the region’s major denominations. These white Protestant leaders represented a powerful social and political force in Memphis and the Delta, and together with businessmen drawn from their ranks, they shaped the region’s major benevolent and service efforts. Episcopalians represented less than five percent of the region’s churchgoers, but they sat atop the social hierarchy, with influence and wealth disproportionate to their numbers. Methodists followed, with just under a third of all white churchgoers but a larger proportion of the middle class. The Protestant establishment also included wealthy and middle-class Southern Baptists. That denomination claimed more than half the region’s white churchgoers, and its size lent its elites considerable political heft, however powerless and disconnected its largely rural and poor masses might have been. Wealthy and middle-class Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists also played an important social role even though together those denominations represented only about ten percent of churchgoers, most of them in Memphis and larger Delta towns.

The Protestant establishment faced competition and criticism from within and without. The ethnic and theological diversity of Memphis and the Delta belies stereotypical portrayals of southern homogeneity and regional isolation. Although Jim Crow circumscribed their broader political and social authority, black baptists and Methodists exercised tremendous power within their communities, and their tradition of self-help and social outreach ran far deeper than that of their white counterparts. Memphis and the Delta were also home to the fundamentalist Churches of Christ, a number of pentecostal and holiness denominations, a small but disproportionately influential Jewish community, and a thriving minority of black and white Catholics. The region’s preeminent homegrown denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC)—one of the largest global religious denominations in the twenty-first century—watched the established denominations struggle through the 1930s as its own influence grew.

While No Depression in Heaven stresses the power of the Protestant establishment, it also incorporates the beliefs, critiques, and aspirations of those outside the establishment, especially as they took advantage of the establishment’s faltering social power and moral authority in the waning years of the Great Depression. Church records and government files provide the backdrop for interwoven narratives drawn from oral histories, denominational papers, charity files, letters to public officials, union records, songs, social science surveys, and the personal records of the region’s charitable and religious leaders.

When the Great Depression began, southern white Protestants stood at the peak of their power. They had spearheaded a drive for national prohibition and concluded that they possessed considerable political clout, at least on moral issues. Southern Protestants believed themselves to be the conservative moral compass of the nation, and they found it natural to take up campaigns for comprehensive education, public health, labor reform, racial reconciliation, and moral legislation. Southern churches were the only source of charity and social services for many rural people and were a significant charitable resource for city dwellers as well.

Yet the Great Depression and the New Deal transformed southern Protestantism. Religious leaders struggled to respond to a crisis that no one yet understood. Many staked their hopes at first on a great revival, confident that people chastened for their excesses in better days would turn to the church in their anguish. But the revivals did not come, and the crisis only deepened. Premillennialists declared the end near, radicals called for revolution, and both seemed to have a better grip on the sorrows of their people than did the Protestant establishment. Denominational leaders struggled to keep churches open and charities afloat, turning away many more needy souls than they helped. They clamored for the federal government to intervene.

When Franklin Roosevelt took office on the promise of abolishing Prohibition and establishing a social welfare program, southern Protestant leaders recognized the threat to their power. But the magnitude of the economic crisis had overwhelmed their resources and their ability to define poverty as a moral problem. Many remained preoccupied with a futile attempt to salvage Prohibition, but the majority of southern religious leaders praised Roosevelt for alleviating the widespread suffering and easing the burden of charity on struggling churches. Roosevelt’s ability to frame the depression in moral and spiritual terms encouraged them, and many soon claimed the New Deal itself as a religious achievement.

Southerners in Congress helped to shape the region’s new federal programs to the contours of Jim Crow, and white Protestant clergy often declared themselves its local guardians. Yet fissures in Jim Crow appeared as black southerners made their own appeals to the state. Black and white people who once had nowhere to turn save the churches could now take their troubles to the federal government instead. White clergy nonetheless expressed enthusiasm for New Deal relief and works programs, and they overwhelmingly endorsed the 1935 Social Security Act. For the time being, most white clergy trusted that they still held enough moral and social authority to guide the course of the New Deal in the South, while black clergy fought to ensure that the New Deal benefited their members as well.

The Great Depression and the New Deal fractured the southern Protestant establishment. Many liberals and moderates found a home in the New Deal coalition, often as agents of the state rather than of the church. They helped to shape New Deal policy and in so doing forged tenuous relationships with the region’s displaced black and white sharecroppers and the Christian socialists who publicized their cause. The southern Christian left operated largely outside the region’s churches, but it claimed a hold on the New Deal and pressured the Roosevelt administration to address the region’s deep-seated racial and economic injustices. At the same time, members of the growing Church of God in Christ allied with mainline black activists who also pushed the federal government to address the needs of black southerners. The conservative Democrats who made up the majority of the Protestant establishment could not decide whether the expanded federal government was their partner or their competitor, but by the late 1930s, they began to lean toward the latter. Although they maintained a strong presence in the New Deal coalition, many white baptists and Methodists turned away from reform and instead sought to preserve white supremacy in the region and in their churches. They crafted protests against federal power in terms of religious freedom and surely were surprised to find themselves in agreement with the barbs launched at Roosevelt by their tendentious fundamentalist rivals.

By the end of the 1930s, conservative elites within the southern Protestant establishment had already begun to rewrite the story of the Great Depression. No more had their churches faltered in the face of suffering, bewailing a spiritual famine and ignoring a physical one. No more had they cried out, overwhelmed by the sorrows around them, for the federal government to intervene where they could not. No more had they heralded Roosevelt’s New Deal as the embodiment of biblical ideals.

Now the New Deal represented a threat to white supremacy, a danger to the very foundation of white southern Christianity. Most white Protestants would not yet abandon the New Deal outright, nor would they pull their churches away from the Democratic Party, in part because their allies in Congress had already begun to gut the New Deal’s works and relief programs to fund the war. But those who suffered the least in the Great Depression’s darkest years chose to pretend that no one had really suffered all that much, that there was no need for the federal government to step into a world so self-sufficient and serene that “we didn’t know we was poor.”

Excerpted from "No Depression In Heaven" by Alison Collis Greene. Published by Oxford University Books. Copyright 2015 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Alison Collis Greene

Alison Collis Greene is Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University.

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