From Dust They Came
Government Camps and the Religion of Reform in New Deal California
Series: North American Religions
- ISBN: 9781479823635
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: October 2023
The untold story of the federal government’s Depression-era effort to redeem Dust Bowl refugees in rural California through religion
In the midst of the Great Depression, punished by crippling drought and deepening poverty, hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains and the Southwest to look for work in California’s rich agricultural valleys. In response to the scene of destitute white families living in filthy shelters built of cardboard, twigs, and refuse, reform-minded New Deal officials built a series of camps to provide them with shelter and community.
Using the extensive archives of the federal migratory camp system, From Dust They Came tells the story of the religious dynamics in and around migratory farm labor camps in agricultural California established and operated by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration. Jonathan H. Ebel makes the case that the camps served as mission sites for the conversion of migrants to more modern ways of living and believing. Though the ideas of virtuous citizenship put forward by the camp administrators were framed as secular, they rested on a foundation of Protestantism. At the same time, many of the migrants were themselves conservative or charismatic Protestants who had other ideas for how their religion intended them to be.
By looking at the camps as missionary spaces, Ebel shows that this New Deal program was animated both by humanitarian concern and by the belief that these poor, white migrants and their religious practices were unfit for life in a modernized, secular world. Innovative and compelling, From Dust They Came is the first book to reveal the braiding of secularism, religion, and modernity through and around the lives of Dust Bowl migrants and New Deal reformers.