No Depression in Heaven

The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta

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Alison Collis Greene
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2015.
     336 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199371877.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Alison Collis Greene’s No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta delivers even more than its ambitious title promises. While it is decidedly a history—the appendix and notes make up a third of the text—it is also a framework for understanding contemporary arguments about the current and future state of the social safety net and an argument for the importance of the study of history for today’s politicians and church leaders.

Greene’s story focuses on the Delta region, an area of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi which was already reeling with the effects of flooding and drought by the time the stock market crashed in 1929. Post-Reconstruction, the Delta was a stronghold of both black and white Protestantism and white supremacy. It continues to be one of the most religious regions in the nation, even as the people there face continued poverty, epidemic methamphetamine addiction, poor health outcomes, and inequities rooted in racial disparity. The city of Memphis, regularly filling with and then emptying of residents from the rural counties around it, maintains its reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Greene tells the story of the Depression’s ravaging of the region with respect for the people, and deep engagement with the economic, political, and cultural factors that shaped why the Depression, and its aftermath, took the shape they did there.

Indeed, while No Depression in Heaven is a history of how religion changed in the Delta, it is also a thoughtful reminder of how interpersonal and structural racism, capitalism and economics, environmental degradation, and national, state, and local politics worked together to create a society marked by economic disparity and its attendant human suffering—hunger and malnutrition chief among them—all kept in place by white supremacy, and specifically anti-black terrorism. The Depression, which exposed some of the trouble with loosely regulated markets, had the potential to disrupt these patterns. Religion was one institution of life in the Delta which had to respond to the overwhelming changes economic disaster wrought.

In her analysis of religion of the region, Greene, a professor at Mississippi State University, excels without overwhelming non-specialists with granular details. (As evidence of this, of the twenty-eight abbreviations defined in the front matter of the book, more refer to New Deal programs than to religious organizations.) She crafts a text that will be accessible to scholars in a wide range of fields, including U.S. history, economic history, cultural history, and geography; heritage studies; American studies; and Southern studies. In her focus on religion, Greene begins with a point of fact: the scope of economic turmoil during the Great Depression was unparalleled, even in a region familiar with poverty, so that, in the words of one native of the region, “the hungry fought the hungrier over already gnawed bones” (15). Religious institutions, which had served as a main dispenser of relief, as well as moral instruction, (and shaming) of the poor, were broke. Churches could not meet congregants’ needs, much less the needs of those outside their doors. With their own funds depleted, churches lost some sense of authority in their communities. Additionally, the widespread nature of the disaster exposed the fact that poverty was not a consequence of immorality, but one of environmental factors (floods and droughts) and market forces (a reliance on cotton that kept tenant farmers planting cotton up to their front doors, with no room to grow their own food) and economic structures (plummeting stock markets, bank closings, disappearing credit) that went far beyond an individual's control. As the Depression reverberated up the economic hierarchy, it became harder to blame “lazy” or “irresponsible” or “immoral” poor people for their troubles.

In this way, government relief was a great relief, financially and otherwise, to both black and white churches, which broadly supported the New Deal. Yet this support came at a cost for white churches: they lost the sole right to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor—a power wielded to maintain white supremacy. As the government stepped in, it became a competitor for control and authority over locals’ lives. Additionally, white establishment Protestants lost power as other groups—black Baptists and Methodists, Catholics, Memphis’s Jewish population, and the growing Pentecostal and charismatic groups, including the Church of God in Christ, which was born in the region—stepped forward to fill the social, spiritual, and financial gaps that establishment Protestants could not.

In the end, not all religious leaders were happy with the deal they had struck or the way that the New Deal had transformed the relationship between citizen and government, illustrated most starkly in the Delta, but occurring all over the nation. The people, writes Greene, “looked to God, and then they looked to Roosevelt” (2). While Roosevelt left much of the dispersion of relief to local officials (white authorities who continued to favor whites), a new consciousness about labor and the ability, and indeed duty, of the government to intervene began to form. The Delta became the place where, against a backdrop of terrorism, black and white tenant farmers banded together to unionize and demand change. Government intervention had proven that social change was possible. By the end of the decade, as the country began to recover, many establishment leaders turned against the policies which had relieved the region’s mass suffering, understanding that, with the worst behind them, they no longer had to risk losing social control. Thus began the work of crafting “the myth of the redemptive Depression” (194), praising the Depression generation for their grit, rather than seeing the recovery as the work of relatively effective state intervention and a budding welfare system. Greene’s goal is to bring that second story, which highlights the suffering of those most vulnerable, forward again. In light of the summer 2016 flooding that has destroyed large parts of Louisiana, a state where voters have broadly accepted rhetoric against federal intervention, in part because of fear that federal intervention could dismantle racial hierarchies, this goal is especially important.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

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