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The American Religious Depression, 1925–1935*

  • Robert T. Handy (a1)

Extract

“It is too early to assess the impact of the Great Depression upon American Protestantism,” wrote Robert Moats Miller in his recent study of American Protestantism and social issues in the period between the world wars. No doubt it is too early for any overall assessment, yet it is becoming steadily clearer that American religion passed through an important transition in the depression period. If we are to gain a fuller understanding of developments in American Christianity since the 1930's, then serious attention needs to be given to that bleak period. Inasmuch as our understanding of times long past are significantly influenced by our definitions of the present situation, attempts to deal with that particular period of crisis in our recent past may help us more adequately to see the whole story of American religion in fairer perspective. Furthermore, a number of recent dissertations, articles and books have dealt in whole or in part with the period between the wars; they provide guidance for handling the vast array of sources relevant for an understanding of religion in the depression, supply material for at least prcliminary interpretations, and point to the need for further analysis. This paper is one effort to suggest some interpretative guide lines for further exploration into an important topic.

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References

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1. American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919–1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), p. 63.

2. “The Recovery of the Religious Sentiment,” in Vergilius Ferm, ed., Contemporary American Theology: Theological Autobiographies (2 vols., New York: Round Table Press, 19321933), II, 367.

3. Atlantic Monthly, 143 (0106, 1929), 378.

4. Turner, Fennell P. and Sanders, Frank Knight, eds., The Foreign Missions Conference of North America … 1926 (New York: Foreign Missions Conference, 1926), pp. 125–47.

5. “Some Conditions in North America that Affect Foreign Missions,” in Leslie B. Moss and Mabel H. Brown, eds., The Foreign Missions Conference of North America …1934 (New York: Foreign Missions Conference, 1934), p. 148.

6. Research Memorandum on Religion in the Depression (New York: Social Science Research Council, Bulletin 33, 1937), p. 51.

7. Based on a study of the figures by the Rev. Donald A. Crosby, whose assistance in the research for this paper I acknowledge with thanks.

8. Current History, XXXIII (10, 1930), 25.

9. Fry, C. Luther, “Changes in Religious Organizations,” Recent Social Trends (2 vols.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933), II, 1046.

10. High, Stanley, “The Need for Youth,” in Moss, Leslie B., ed., The Foreign Missions Conference of North America, 1929 (New York: Foreign Missions Conferene, 1929), p. 152.

11. “What the Church Has to Say to Business Men About Foreign Missions,” in Leslie B. Moss, ed., The Foreign Missions Conference of North America, 1928 (New York: Foreign Missions Conference, 1928), p. 85.

12. Home Missions Council Annual Report 1928 (New York: Home Missions Council, 1928), p. 80.

13. Kincheloe, , Research Memorandum, pp. 133 f.

14. Ibid., p. 51; Recent Social Trends, II, 1055.

15. The U. S. Looks At Its Churches (New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1930), p. 58.

16. Weber, H. C., Evangelism: A Graphic Survey (New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 181 f. I have had the opportunity of seeing charts plotting the “evangelistic index” and summarizing membership trends prepared by the Rev. Harold Edgar Martin; in general they all show decline beginning about 1925 and not showing significant upturn until the middle 1930's.

17. The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel: Social and Political Liberalism in American Protestant Churches, 1920–1940 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954), p. 70, quoting Hough, Ellis J., “Terrors of the Protestant Ministry,” Presbyterian Advance, XL (01 30, 1930), 18.

18. American Protestantism and Social Issues, p. 47.

19. The Confessions of a Puzzled Parson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928), p. 191.

20. Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life (New York: Macmillan, 1927), p. 2.

21. “What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920's” American Historical Review, 64 (1959), 833. See also the perceptive article by May, Henry F., “Shifting Perspectives in the 1920'sMississippi Valley Historical Review, 43 (1956), 405–27.

22. Theism and the Modern Mood (New York: Harper and Bros., 1930), p. 6.

23. The Great Tradition of the American Churches (New York: Harper and Bros., 1953), p. 196.

24. Belief Unbound: A Promethean Religion for the Modern World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), p. 20.

25. The Modern Temper: A Study and A Confession (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1929), pp. 191 f.

26. Hart, Hornell, “Changing Social Attitudes and Interests,” Recent Social Trends, I, 403.

27. America Comes of Age (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1927), trans. by H. H. Hemming and Doris Hemming, pp. 33, 38f.

28. “American Protestantism Since the Civil War. I. From Denominationalism to Americanism,” Journal of Religion, XXXVI (1956), 1.

29. Cf. Chap. III, “Christina Americanization,” of my We Witness Together: A History of Cooperative Home Missions (New York: Friendship Press, 1956) pp. 6482.

30. Lynd, Robert S. and Lynd, Helen Merrell, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1929), p. 406.

31. “Let Religious Education Beware!” Christian Century, 44 (1927), 362.

32. Faith and Nurture (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), p. 41.

33. Confessions of a Puzzled Parson, p. 14.

34. A Christian Manifesto (New York: Abingdon Press, 1934), p. 202.

35. Lynd, Robert S. and Lynd, Helen Merrell, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1937), p. 295.

36. American Prolestantism and Social Issues, p. 63.

37. “Christian Education,” in Samuel McCrea Cavert and Henry P. Van Dusen, eds., The Church Through Half a Cenutry: Essays in Honor of William Adams Brown (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), pp. 243 f.

38. Douglass, H. Paul and Brunner, Edmund deS., The Protestant Church as a Social Institution (New York: Harper and Bros., 1935), p. 208.

39. Research Memorandum, p. 1.

40. Pope, Liston, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), pp. 126, 128; Middletown in Transition, p. 297; Boisen, Anton T., “Religion and Hard Times,” Social Action, V. (03 15, 1939), 835.

41. E.g., cf. Boisen, loc. cit.; Clark, Elmer T., The Small Sects in America (rev. ed.; New York: AbingdonCokesbury Press, 1949), pp. 1620, 218 f., 230.

42. Horton, Walter Marshall, Realistic Theology (New York: Harper and Bros., 1934), p. 35.

43. “The Evangelicals' Dilemma,” Atlantic Monthly, 136 (0712, 1925), 368–74.

44. Christian Century, 50 (1933), 1403.

45. Cf. Ahlstrom, Sydney E., “Continental Influence on American Christian Thought Since World War I,” Church History, XXVII (1958), 256–72.

46. “Organized Religion,” American Journal of Sociology 38 (07, 193205, 1933), 907.

47. “Calm After Storm,” Christian Century, 56 (1939), 479.

48. “Religion,” American Journal of Sociology, 47 (07 194105, 1942), 894.

49. America Comes of Age, p. 46.

50. Middletown, p. 406.

51. Wayne Wheeler, as quoted by Carter, Paul A., The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel, p. 37.

52. Religion in 20th Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 18.

53. “Beyond Modernism: A Sermon,” Christian Century, 52 (1935), 1552.

54. Niebuhr, H. Richard, Pauck, Wilhelm, and Miller, Francis P., The Church Against the World, (Chicago: Willett, Clark and Co., 1935), p. 102.

55. Ibid., pp. 1 f.

56. “The American Protestant Churches and the Depression of the 1930's” (Th.M. Thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1950), p. 125.

57. Bureau of the Census, , Religious Bodies: 1936, I (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1941), 51.

58. The Catholic Spirit in America (New York: Lincoln Mac Veagh, The Dial Press, 1927), p. vii.

59. The Story of American Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 613.

60. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1955), pp. 139 f.

* Presidential address, delivered before the American Society of Church History, December 29, 1959, in Chicago.

The American Religious Depression, 1925–1935*

  • Robert T. Handy (a1)

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