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Jesus and the Great Depression

American Christianity paid a high price during the 1930s. What will happen now?

Updated: 10 October 2008

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I was in a newspaper newsroom during the Crash of 1987. Twenty-one years later, I'm still in the news game and now we have the Crash of 2008.

The events of recent weeks are something that your grandchildren may ask you about in 20 years. In recent days, we have seen persistent comparisons to the 1930s. That sent me onto Internet search engines to find out what was going on in American Christianity during the 1930s and the Great Depression.

Here's a glimpse of interpretation, written in 1965:

The depression had a devastating effect on the Churches as well as on the nation. In the optimistic flush of the ?20's many congregations had built new edifices far too large and expensive. When the depression hit, they found themselves unable to pay. Most carried their huge debts; a few rejected their obligation, thus bringing shame on the Christian Church. Colleges and publishing houses, missionary enterprises, and the social work of the Churches were all hard hit by the depression. Many an institution of the Church lost its endowment in the financial crash and had to close or had to drastically cut back its activities.

But the physical effects of the depression were only part of its devastation. It left deep spiritual and mental wounds. It destroyed the utter self-confidence of the ?20's, and it gave birth to a despair and lack of confidence. What an opportunity for the Churches to interpret the meaning of this event! Yet, the Churches profited little in terms of growth. There was no surge of a repentant people to the Churches. There was no appreciable increase in the numbers of churches. There was no great revival which swept the nation.

This narrative was written by Jerald C. Brauer, the late theologian and divinity dean from the University of Chicago. (NYT: Obituary)

Dr. Brauer addresses the issue of the church during the Great Depression in Chapter 17 of his book (online version) Protestantism in America.

Dr. Brauer continues:

Perhaps that was good. The Churches did not lose members because of the catastrophe; neither did they make great gains. They did seem to grow in their depth of understanding the meaning of suffering and sacrifice in the Christian life. This was no time for an emotional outburst that would sweep millions into the Church. It was a time for sober reappraisal of the kind of message the Church had preached and of its relevance for modern life.

While the larger Protestant denominations were busy with their reappraisal and their ministering to the spiritual needs of the nation, there was one segment of Protestantism that profited greatly by the depression. This was the group of Churches usually called "sects." They stressed the radical, emotional conversion of the sinner and the new life lived in all holiness. They stressed the presence of the operation of God's Holy Spirit and the rebirth through him; thus, they were called Pentecostals. Some of them spoke with strange, unintelligible utterances, most practiced faith healing, and all advocated a rigorous moral life. Among these were such groups as the Nazarenes, the Assemblies of God, and the Holiness or Pentecostal Churches.

Another type of Christianity that had wide appeal at this time of dire national distress was the adventists. It believed in the immediate return of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as William Miller had in the 1840's. One of the most rapidly growing of such groups was that called Jehovah's Witnesses. Founded by Charles Taze Russell at the beginning of the century, it professed to be no Church and had no ministers. The leadership was later in the hands of " Judge" Rutherford, who, like Russell, turned out thousands of pamphlets and tracts.

Witnesses were to be found on every street corner passing out their paper, The Watchtower. Nobody is certain how many members they have, for they will never release figures. However, their message of the immediate coming of God's judgment met with great appeal in an age disillusioned with the disappointments of life. It gave many faith, courage, and hope. Their slogan, "Millions now living will never die," had great appeal. Even though life was very hard, it would soon be ended, the evil would be punished, and the saints would be blessed. They refused to fight in any wars or to salute any flags. Their only loyalty was to Christ, and for him alone they were prepared to fight. Because of this, they were always under suspicion in most communities. Nevertheless, they grew.

Though the Protestant Churches did not experience a large increase in membership, except for the extreme sectarian groups, they too went through a profound and invaluable experience as a result of the depression. For too long they had preached and taught a rather shallow message which was a watering down of the full insights of the gospel. No age perfectly comprehends God's message of judgment and redemption, but some ages become so smug in their interpretation of that message that they fail to stand under it. They often pick that side of it which justifies their own wellbeing and earthly possessions.

Though liberal theology and the social gospel contained many valuable elements necessary for their age, they also played into the hands of the age by their emphasis. People of the ?20's were convinced that Christianity meant literally following the Golden Rule – doing to others as one would wish to be treated; that it stood for the gradual building of the Kingdom on earth by men of good will if only men would exert enough good will; and that through friendliness and kindness that Kingdom was slowly being built in America.

Suddenly the Protestant Churches were confronted with the stark reality of the failure of their dreams. Under all the supposed goodness and friendliness of the prosperous ?20's were to be found greed and pride. Man suddenly was shown to be no higher on the moral scale, no less selfish than his medieval brethren. In place of a new stage in the Kingdom of God men had arrived at a shattered economy. The consequence was a new look at some old Protestant doctrines that had been largely ignored – sin, faith, and justification were once more relevant.

I've been fond of the saying, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." So after you say a prayer for your church and your portfolio, but sure to work for economic justice.

If you were alive during the Great Depression and have a faith story of survival to share, email me at the address below and I'll post edited versions on the CT blog of what I receive.


Here's some additional perspective from Nazarene expert, David Felter:

There is one discrepancy in your article that I believe is worth clarifying. You cited the work of Jerald C. Brauer, the late theologian and divinity dean from the University of Chicago, and his acknowledgment of the growth surge of the Pentecostal churches immediately following this catastrophic event.

Unfortunately, Dr. Brauer was guilty of inaccurately labeling the Church of the Nazarene as a Pentecostal sect. While the Church of the Nazarene experienced solid growth through the period subsequent to the Great Depression and beyond, it is inaccurate to lump it in the same sectarian camp as the Pentecostal churches. Our history at first glance seems to parallel the history of many American Pentecostal churches in that they have their origins in the 1907 Azusa Street awakening in Californina, and the Church of the Nazarene experienced its amalgamating foundation in 1908, one year later. The antecedent roots, however, draw from differing streams in terms of theological emphasis. The Church of the Nazarene recognized the erosion of concern for the poor and the marginalized of society. Its founders determined to resist the pressures to create architectural monuments, and took the Good News to the streets and corners of the world where the Light of the Gospel had either dimmed or had never shined in the brilliance of reconciliation, hope and transformation. Arguably, these two traditions converged at the intersection of holiness and holy living; one emphasizing empowerment, tongues-speaking, and the flamboyance of unrestrained emotional connection with the God who is Wholly Other. The Church of the Nazarene, on the other hand, saw holiness as "perfect love." Such love would worship God without reservation and connect to others in a spirit of love, seeking the same good for them as they sought for themselves. Holiness would mark devotion, loyalty, and commitment; it would also mark compassion, mercy, and charity.

That these two trajectories are parallel and not identical is a mater of record. Additionally, the Church of the Nazarene prior to the Great Depression, for a brief period in its history subsequent to its founding as a denomination in 1908, had the term "Pentecostal" in its name. Because of the association with tongues-speaking and other aberrations, the denomination removed the term, becoming the Church of the Nazarene.

Finally, the Church of the Nazarene is clearly within the normative Christian tradition as a part of the Wesleyan-holiness trajectory. The Patristic Fathers influenced the theological insights of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Phineas Breesee was originally an ordained Elder in the Methodist connection. Hence, the sectarian label does not apply either historically, theologically or ecclesially to the Church of the Nazarene.

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