No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta
Reviewed by Philip D. Byers, Graduate Student in History, University of Notre Dame
Through sheer happenstance, I had the good fortune to begin reading Alison Collis Greene’s book No Depression in Heaven only days after concluding Marilynne Robinson’s recent novel, Lila (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014). While Robinson’s eponymous protagonist lives in the 1950s, much of the book involves her struggle to process memories from her past, memories of want and of penury, of shame and of suffering. In Greene’s heart-rending descriptions of Depression-era poverty, I found many analogues to Lila’s plight. Along with content, however, the two authors share other qualities that made the pairing especially rewarding. Like Robinson, Greene possesses a literary sensibility that lends her tale a great amount of texture. She paints colorful scenes of Beale Street in Memphis and the landscape of the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, while leavening her analysis with memorable figures like Fighting Joe Jeffers and Arenia Mallory. Even more important, perhaps, Greene shares with Robinson a moral sensibility, an impatience with theodicies that dismiss suffering with a wave of the hand and some empty platitude about stick-to-itiveness.
In No Depression in Heaven, Greene identifies how this callous approach has infused certain historical treatments of the Great Depression. Such accounts proffer a “myth of the redemptive depression,” in which “the deserving poor, left to their own devices, would find their way out of misery without government help” (200). Proponents of this view (Greene cites books by Marvin Olasky, Jim Powell, and Amity Shlaes as prominent examples) take their cues from Depression-era southern Protestants, revisionists who began altering their stories of the 1930s before the decade had even concluded. Their “sanitized” narratives denied the necessity of federal intervention; rather, “those who suffered the least in the Great Depression’s darkest years chose to pretend that no one had really suffered all that much” (7). To counter those histories, Greene draws upon a base of church records and government archives while consulting less common sources, as well: oral histories, union records, surveys, personal correspondence, and even lyrics from Blues songs all work together to evoke the ambience of the Delta.
With the help of such material, Greene constructs a chronological account over six chapters that tracks the region from the lead-up to the Depression through the end of the 1930s. Greene shows that Delta residents had already struggled for decades before the stock market crash in 1929, living as victims of a “revised form of plantation capitalism that concentrated land and power in the hands of fewer and more distant owners” (14). Racial violence also defined the region and era, with black sharecroppers facing a surge of lynching and threats through the 1920s. Malnutrition plagued Delta farmers, a problem only exacerbated by a severe drought that began in the summer of 1930. What the market crash and the bank runs destroyed, however, was the already-limited charitable capacity of the Delta’s richer denizens, its churches, and its civic organizations. By the spring of 1931, charities like the Salvation Army could not keep up with demand, even as they served whites almost exclusively.
To ease their suffering, Delta residents considered balms both religious and political. To the extent that religious leaders addressed the misery at all, these clergy tended to “fram[e] it as a religious crisis with religious solutions,” a message that too often “paper[ed] over the very real troubles people faced” (37-38). Some churches proved an exception to this rule, providing congregants both an outlet for their grief and a forum in which they could try to make sense of it. Holiness, Pentecostal, and independent churches – those outside what Greene labels the “southern Protestant establishment” – proved especially helpful in this regard. Often lacking a full-time preacher or even a building for regular meetings, these religious bodies provided Delta tenant farmers with a flexibility to match their itinerant labor: “Men and women on the move needed a religious life that they could carry with them” (42).
Yet even as religious explanations for the Depression persisted, other Delta residents began seeking political solutions, debating over “how, and not merely whether, the federal government should intervene” (68). Reactions in the Delta to New Deal interventions ranged widely and depended on a host of interacting variables, including the specific New Deal program in question, the unique concerns of differing Delta constituencies, and ever-shifting local political alliances. Still, Greene highlights at least two recurring themes, both relating to questions of authority. First, religious leaders sought to take credit for New Deal innovations, linking them to Social Gospel principles or to antecedent papal decrees (102- 103, 116). Second, southern whites’ support for the New Deal correlated directly with their belief that they could shape federal policies to shore up local Jim Crow power structures (118, 168). In both instances, opinions changed when white leaders felt their authority threatened. For instance, as New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins sought to sever all ties between public monies and private aid organizations, religious leaders worried increasingly “that New Deal programs might undermine the power of the churches and sever the ties between clergy and their communities” (145). Likewise, white Southerners began to abandon the New Deal once it became evident “that Roosevelt’s administration would not altogether bend to Jim Crow” (195). Many members of the Protestant establishment thus grew increasingly willing to cooperate with their former enemies, the fundamentalists, as newly shared political convictions helped initiate “the patterns of a religious realignment that would take decades to resolve” (193).
Artfully told, the story in No Depression in Heaven still raises several questions both for historians and for a wider reading public interested in the fusion of religion and politics. Those two terms, in fact, provide an excellent place to start. The book’s subtitle frames the monograph as a study of religious transformation, and Greene attends to religious difference with admirable detail; the appendix that charts the numerous southern denominations and associations provides future scholars with a valuable resource. Yet the transformation described here seems more political than religious. As members of the southern Protestant establishment evinced greater willingness to cooperate with fundamentalists, the common ground in question issued not from Depression-informed changes in theology, church polity, or patterns of worship, but in mutual belligerence against a perceived external threat to local moral authority. To be sure, “religious” and “political” are increasingly contested terms with increasingly murky boundaries. In the interest of clarity, however, it may be more accurate to frame the story as a tale of political transformation within religious communities.
As central as it proves to these discussions of authority and transformation, the concept of the “southern Protestant establishment” also requires additional consideration. Greene introduces the term in the book’s first pages, describing it to include “the wealthy and middle-class members of the region’s major denominations” – specifically the Episcopalians, Methodists, Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (5). This again, however, seems like an instance in which politics matter more for the analysis than do religious traits. Repeatedly, the term functions to demarcate class differences, with establishmentarians evincing “scorn and ignorance … regarding the faith of the rural poor” and dominating positions of influence within civil society institutions (41, 48). Likewise, these elites clung to religious explanations for the Depression longer than did others because it preserved their “carefully constructed social order” (56). None of this undermines Greene’s basic claims about church, state, and the distribution of aid. It does beg the question, however, regarding the necessity of “Protestant” in the construct “southern Protestant establishment.” Does the term function mainly as a cultural marker that denotes as much about ethnic heritage (for example, “white,” but not “Catholic” or “Jew”) as it does about the actual influence of religion? As a class grouping, the concept performs helpful work, but I often wondered as I read if the term might obscure more than it reveals about religious sensibilities.
While those topics might pose the most interesting fodder for religious historians, surely the most challenging material for policymakers and engaged citizens involves the messy church-state nexus and approaches to poverty relief. Greene’s extensive evidence leaves little doubt about one frequent point of dissension: private charities did not possess the infrastructure or the resources necessary to distribute the type of aid that the Depression required (see, for example, 66-68, 122). Despite Harry Hopkins’s best efforts, however, the onset of World War II quickly renewed ties between public resources and the private (often religious) charities that distributed them, and cooperation with voluntary organizations only increased in the decades to come (197-199). If the overarching efficacy of that type of cooperation remains more a philosophical question than an historical one, what Greene reveals is a concrete example of manifold ways in which power and local prerogatives can corrupt such a system. Too often, Delta establishmentarians charged with facilitating poverty relief used their positions to achieve alternative ends. Ignoring the truly destitute, especially if they were women or racial minorities, these elites deployed aid in ways that would stabilize their own social positions. Temptations to corruption surely plague all in positions of authority, be they local or federal, civic or clerical – Greene’s text includes several examples of political compromise that undermined aid. Yet given the pretense of the promises they make, religious actors surely bear a greater blame when they transgress. No Depression in Heaven thus provides an account both historically rigorous and morally compelling.