Religion 1931-1939

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Religion 1931-1939

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


American religious institutions on the whole have historically held deep concern about the structure and activities of society. Knowing that a perfect society cannot be achieved, churches have long sought to shape social order in an ongoing process consistent—as they saw it—with the will of God. Churches, whether wisely or misguided, have attempted to confront what they considered the evils in American life. The will of God, however, is often difficult to read. A vocal minority of Protestant leaders blamed the misery of the Great Depression on a cruel and competitive society. In resolution after resolution they called for a change in the social order of the United States. Conversely conservative church members believed the churches needed to concentrate on preaching God's commandments and preparing for the afterlife.

American Catholics formed their ideas of social justice from papal encyclicals (letters from the Pope). In 1931 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno that outlined a program of massive social reform. Although no unanimous opinion of American Catholics existed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (served 1933–1945) New Deal reform legislation was highly similar to the Catholic Church's teaching on social and economic issues.

American Jewry in the 1930s not only faced the social and economic difficulties wrought by the Great Depression, but were deeply involved with their fellow Jews abroad, particularly in Germany and its surrounding countries. Although many Americans sympathized with the plight of the European Jews under growing Nazi oppression, they also feared bringing more immigrants needing jobs to America, which could further worsen economic conditions.

For black Americans in the Depression, churches remained the center of community life. For many in the large industrial northern cities, however, life became desperately poverty ridden. Independent, so-called storefront churches, appeared promising to lead impoverished black Americans to a better way of life.

Whatever road the different faiths took, churches certainly displayed great concern for the major issues confronting society during the Depression. This chapter will look at the social and political relationship of churches to American society as affected by the Depression. It will not attempt to explore the theological controversies of the decade.

Issue Summary

The stock market crash of October 1929 followed by the Great Depression brought severe economic hardship to many Americans. By 1933, 25 percent of the workforce was jobless amounting to over 12 million people. As President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) proclaimed the Depression would be short-lived and believed government should not get directly involved in economic affairs of private business, he called on private charities and local relief agencies to assist the most needy. The amount of assistance needed by the jobless and poor soon overwhelmed these organizations. As desperation mounted Hoover's popularity greatly declined and Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt handily won the 1932 presidential election. Upon entering office in March 1933 Roosevelt introduced a vast array of social and economic programs for the next few years collectively known as the New Deal. The programs addressed almost every aspect of American life and greatly expanded the government role in people's daily lives. As social issues of caring for the needy rose to historic levels, the various religious denominations responded to varying degrees to the cries for help.

Political Labels Prevalent in the 1930s

To understand discussions about the stands of various religious denominations on social issues certain political labels used extensively in the 1930s, such as liberal, left, socialism, communism, radical, conservative, right, and capitalism must be understood. These terms are not to be confused with the labels of liberal and conservative as applied to theological (religious) thinking.


Pope Pius XI issues the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno calling for governments to pass laws that benefit the general public good, that use of private property should take into account the overall good of the people.
March 1932:
Roman Catholics, Jews, and Protestants meet in Washington, DC, to discuss ways to promote social justice by providing social services for the needy and better wages for workers.
Dorothy Day distributes the first issue of the Catholic Worker designed to address social problems including poverty, labor, and racial discrimination issues.
The bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church meeting in a General Conference express the need for a revised social order.
December 7, 1932:
The Federal Council of Churches in Christ in America, an organization of Protestant churches, issues its Social Ideals of the Churches that 16 statements on how society and capitalism should operate for the common good of all.
March 1933:
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise organizes a gathering at Madison Square Garden to protest the treatment of German Jews by the Nazi government.
The Catholic-led Legion of Decency is formed to rate movies.
November 1938:
Germany carries out Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, in which German Jews' businesses, synagogues, and cemeteries are destroyed.

On the whole people who called themselves liberals generally supported Roosevelt and New Deal programs. They favored reform legislation as social insurance programs for aiding the unemployed, social security, and unemployment insurance. They supported minimum wage and maximum work hours, aid to organized labor, increased regulation of business, extension of government into the power generation field, taxation based on income levels, and support for farm prices. Socialists generally advocated collective or actual government ownership of business or of the production and distribution of goods so as to more fairly spread wealth among the people. Communism was an economic and political system where all property was in theory collectively owned by all and controlled by a one party government. Radical was a term used to describe an individual who tended to favor extreme political views or practices such as communism. Liberals are "left" of center, with center referring to political moderates, while leftists are all those who "lean" only slightly left of center or embrace an ideology as far left as communism.

At the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives generally opposed government regulation of business, labor unions, the entry of government into social insurance programs, and believed individuals should take care of themselves without government help. Most conservatives did not support Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Those individuals who are spoken of as being "right" of center or "right wing" are conservatives.

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States where goods and businesses are privately owned. Prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined mainly by competition. One of the theories on which capitalism operates is the concept of supply and demand. This economic concept describes the relationship between the amount of commodities a company produces and the amount of that commodity consumers are willing to purchase. This relationship influences the price of the commodity. Therefore the greater the demand and more limited the supply of an item the higher the price goes up.

Protestantism in the Depression

Protestantism is a Christian religion, that is, its members believe in Jesus Christ. The largest Protestant groups or denominations in the 1930s were Baptist, Methodist, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples, Episcopalians, Holiness Movement, and Congregationalists. Catholicism is also a Christian religion but is not part of the Protestant denominations.

The economic depression of the 1930s was a catastrophe that upset the values of, and in many cases, the very existence of Americans. Within only a few years of its onset in fall 1929, Protestantism felt the full weight of the Depression. Budgets were slashed, membership decreased, ministers were dismissed, and churches were closed. The bitterly difficult time also included the end of Prohibition. Prohibition, called "noble in motive" by President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933), had been stridently supported by many Protestants.

Depression Effects on Church Administration

Under the pressure of the Depression churches faced declining income, building debts, loss of staff, and the need for enlarged social services. Church finances began to feel the effects of the Depression in late 1932 and heavily in 1933 and the following years. Large numbers of churches were heavily in debt at the beginning of the Depression due to new construction. As a result congregations had to make focused efforts to meet interest and principal payments and church leadership had to promote special drives to meet financial obligations. As reported by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, in March 1936, total gifts to its Protestant churches fell dramatically in 1933, 1934, and 1935, paralleling the drop in national income.

The economically forced lay-offs of directors of religious education and other support personnel in churches greatly increased duties of the pastor for watching over his congregation and also carrying the burden of church administration alone. The pastor increasingly relied on and directed a body of volunteers. The presence of crisis in the homes of church members created new demands of counseling to which ministers responded. Some ministers reported becoming more in touch with their members' lives during the Depression. Although being brought closer to their people, some regretted the resulting reduction of time for reading and study.

Social Services

The Depression years brought the church many problems in the field of social services or philanthropy as it was most often called in the 1930s. To local churches philanthropy meant aid to its members, to its community, and cooperative undertakings with community and, later, federal government agencies. Such services could include operating soup kitchens, providing temporary shelter, helping with job searches, and providing more personal aid to its members. The economic crisis pushed social services during 1932 to the limit. Relief activities greatly increased while churches and individual families wrestled with problems of how to meet increasing demands with reduced incomes. Everywhere churches had been making a significant contribution to their communities at large and often referred to their relief work as "caring for their own."

As greater amounts of help were required to meet the needs of the Depression's unemployed, churches began to question the ability to be effective. Protestantism divided over the central issue: should churches maintain and increase their own social charities or should they look to government community agencies? Some groups as the Lutherans favored church organizations to providing social services while other groups wanted to use resources to support governmental agencies. Churches involved themselves more with relief and aid to the poor in the earlier days of the Depression, than in the later days. As the Depression had wore on, some clergymen stated they had fewer calls not because people needed less but because the need was so great and continuous that the needy themselves were aware that only the government could provide adequate aid. Church members, especially ministers, aided in collecting and distributing information on the conditions of people in their areas and also organized local hearings which stimulated public opinion to demand action of government to bring relief.

The best known form of social work carried on by Protestant churches was carried out through institutions. In the United States Protestant churches supported approximately 340 hospitals, 310 homes for the aged, and four hundred institutions for children or child-placing organizations—largely through donations by its members. Although funding for these institutions declined by about 26 percent in the early 1930s, as members had less money to contribute, they were still able to maintain operation. In contrast there was an even greater decline in funding support for actual church expenses. For the Methodist Episcopal, Congregational and Presbyterian, U.S.A., the decrease for church expenses in 1930–1935 was much more at 38 percent. The decline was mostly through the drop in donations from members, many of whom had lost jobs or seen their incomes go down.

Local Church Efforts

Communities did their best to give relief to families in need. Few churches actually threw open their doors to the homeless, as health authorities frowned on this practice. Gifts to charitable groups, however, such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), provided support for housing homeless men and women. Local churches undertook various responsibilities such as operating employment bureaus, canvassing for jobs, distributing coal, wood, food and clothing, and running recreational and educational programs.

As the Depression wore on Protestant church groups advocated development of Protestant charities to match long established Catholic and Jewish charities. Protestant church groups had come to feel the inadequacy of their loosely organized philanthropy and relief efforts. Conversely other Protestant groups advocated for the government to fund all relief and philanthropy. They felt the effort was beyond the churches and some reasoned the church should concentrate on advocating social legislation to eliminate the causes and effects of poverty around them. Social legislation could include a range of assistance for those in need such as financial assistance for the aged after retirement, the unemployed, or the ill, and health-care for those who could not afford it. This attitude was reflected in the many church pronouncements and resolutions on creating a fairer social order. A number of groups also actively supported proposals for social legislation, including the YWCA, the YMCA, the Council of Women for Home Missions, and the Bureau of Christian Social Relations of the Woman's Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Protestants as well as members of other denominations made strong efforts to provide relief to those most affected by the Great Depression. They opened soup kitchens, offered temporary shelter, and provided assistance in finding jobs. Aid for their own church members would often go beyond these measures as well. The decision to help not only came from a strong religious spirit of helping those less fortunate than themselves, but also because the Depression struck fear in many. With millions out of work in America by 1932 almost everyone had a relative, close friend, or fellow church member who was jobless. Many wondered that it might be themselves soon looking for help, therefore this daily fear led them to help those already affected. Soon the church organizations were overwhelmed with the magnitude of suffering and could no longer satisfy the need for relief. Though unable to cure the nation's suffering, their relief was greatly welcomed and comfort to those who did receive it. A number of denominations reorganized and strengthened their departments of social service including the Northern Baptists and the Congregationalists with their new National Council for Social Action. Yet, overwhelmed by the need, others felt all the church could hope to do was to return to its business of preparing souls for the afterlife.

Cooperation with the New Deal Alphabet Agencies

An example of church and government cooperation appeared in New York City in the mid-1930s. Officials of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency formed in 1933, approached the New York City Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church with a suggestion. The WPA hoped to operate their educational, artistic, social, and gymnastic classes in church centers.

Many churches were reluctant at first, fearing they could not pay additional heat and light charges. Some denominations had already decided that they did not desire to cooperate with these education programs developed outside the religious realm. Nevertheless the Methodist Episcopal churches did open their centers to the WPA with varying results. Some were successful in integrating WPA workers and church workers together and encouraged WPA to open more coordinated projects, such as nursery schools.

To the Left

The Protestant church's political and social attitudes in the 1930s reflected the temper of the 1930s. It concerned itself with the nation's economic problems, and restructuring a social order to help relieve the problems. Protestant churches approached Depression politics and issues from many different directions and levels of effort. The churches' positions on how to deliver relief from poverty seemed to break up along geographic lines, as northern church constituents often took a more liberal political and social stance, while the southern wings of the same denominations demonstrated a decidedly more conservative bend. To make their outlooks known, churches issued resolution after resolution. The resolutions provided general guidance for church leaders and members but were not enforceable. After 1929 fractions of many denominations moved to the left. A large number of clergy became extremely critical of unregulated capitalism. A significant minority believed a new social order with a move to socialism was the only way out of Depression miseries.

Although a discernable swing to the political left by 1930 was typical of many Protestant denominations, within each denomination this swing was fairly minor. Left leaning activists and their supporters were relatively few in number but they operated with zeal and an energetic focus. Of the individual denominations the Methodists were most clearly planted to the left of center in American Protestantism. The bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, representing the northern Methodist, were horrified at the toll taken on Americans in the first year of the Depression. They declared that fundamental defects existed in a country where unbearable poverty and distress existed amid plenty.

Though not as vocal as the Methodists, the Baptists, particularly Northern Baptists, also urged every effort be made to find a cure for the nation's economic status that bred massive unemployment. They looked to a more Christian social order to replace the profit motive. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, did not speak in such terms. They appeared reasonably content with the established economic order and entertained no thoughts of socialism. Similar differences in philosophical thought prevailed through most other Protestant denominations. Northern Presbyterians made general pronouncements questioning an economic order that produced breadlines and apple vendors, while Southern Presbyterians made mild statements about concern over poverty. The Episcopalian Department of Christian Social Service faced the problems of the Depression from the view of middle-class liberalism. They were critical of abuses of capitalism but were not calling for its discard.

The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, a federation made up of 23 Protestant denominations spoke out for reform of American society. Wasting no time, in 1930 the council tackled unemployment by holding a conference on the Permanent Prevention of Unemployment, forming a nationwide Committee on Religion and Welfare Activity, and making April 27, 1930, "Unemployment Sunday." The Council advocated unemployment insurance and public work programs and admonished businesses for not setting aside sufficient funds to aid those who lost their jobs. The Council advocated cooperation and mutual helpfulness over competition and private gain.

Two years later, at the 1932 General Conference, Methodist leaders called upon members to become more active in helping solve the social and economic troubles plaguing the nation. The Kingdom of God, they warned, could not be built where many lived in poverty and a few enjoyed a cruel and absurdly abundant wealth. In addition, believing the New Deal programs embodied the social ideas they had long advocated, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, without ever directly calling for Protestants to vote for Roosevelt in the 1932 elections, warmly supported the Roosevelt's call for reform and recovery agendas.

Support continued after Roosevelt took office in March 1933. Leaders at regional Methodist conferences, most of who were friendly to the New Deal reform, spoke out on the social issues confronting the nation. The New York East Conference took an advanced position on social issues. They suggested that capitalism must be brought under some form of social control, which to some meant socialism. In contrast a separate organization, the Disciples of Christ, generally supported reforms in economic democracy but talked little of the demise of capitalism. The Disciples journal Christian Evangelist, however, edited by Willard E. Shelton after 1934, emerged as a champion of New Deal reforms. Most Unitarians remained middle of the road; yet its journal Christian Register swung sharply to the left advocating an end to uncontrolled capitalism, even supporting government control and ownership of the nation's resources. The Christian Register's stand illustrated how frequently the religious press was to the left of denomination membership in general.

By 1935, 25 months into President Roosevelt's New Deal, the Methodists' New York East Conference called the reform efforts insufficient and demanded that capitalism be discarded and replaced with an economy more regulated by government and founded on Christian principles. Region by region they called for basic changes in American society. New England annual conference deplored greed of private profit. Missouri Methodists held millions were doomed under the present system. Wisconsin and California Methodists called the foundations of capitalism unchristian. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, saw the need for reformation of the social order but did not suggest any reforms that hinted at socialism. At the conservative end of the spectrum, the journal Arkansas Methodist appeared to not support much of the New Deal.

Despite the above trends, in the 1930s most Protestant clergy remained in the center or even to the right of center. Only a significant vocal few came to embrace socialism as the only hope for a better, fairer, more Christian America. Their socialist ideas ranged from a vague sort of Christian socialism based on cooperation, love and sharing to an establishment of a socialistic society with state owned production and distribution, and even to a radical revolutionary socialism akin to communism.

Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick of the nondenominational Riverside Church in New York City fell into the first category. One of the most respected ministers in the United States, Fosdick was critical of competition and the abuses of capitalism but stopped short of calling for a socialistic system. Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell also favored some sort of socialized economy built on the goodness and rational thinking of Americans. Like Fosdick, McConnell stopped short of being a genuine socialist. Further left, Kirby Page, an ordained Christian minister and prolific writer of books and articles interpreted the social teaching of Jesus as non-violent socialism. He looked for a Socialist heaven to be established on earth. Moving into the radical area was Presbyterian Claude Williams, whose work to organize tenant farmers in Arkansas cost him his pastorate. His close alignment with the Communist party, however, caused the southern Tenant Farmers Union to expel him.

Fosdick, McConnell, Page, and Williams illustrated the range of Protestant thinking from a Christian liberalism to socialism to the edges of radicalism. All of these men, witnessing the misery of the Depression, each in their own way displayed their passion for social justice. On the whole they represented the most idealistic thought of American Protestantism, but in reality few Protestant clergy walked down the socialist path.

More About… Roosevelt's Religion

To a question concerning the religious affiliation of his family, President Roosevelt responded: "In the dim distant past they may have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants. What I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God. I hope they were both" (quoted in Flynn, p. 3). Roosevelt's answer illustrated his tolerance for religious differences and his hope for cooperation among church groups. Roosevelt's father was an Episcopalian, the religious affiliation that the President also claimed. Yet, according to his Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, Roosevelt admitted to preferring a Baptist sermon to one of an Episcopalian. Further Roosevelt often referred with pride to his cousin, Catholic Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Baltimore, known to the family as "Rosey" Bayley.

Difficult as it was to assess the exact religious beliefs of so complex a man, Roosevelt apparently accepted the fundamental tenets of Christianity. His lack of theological background, however, left him open and receptive to a wide variety of faiths.

President Roosevelt despised bigotry, the intolerance of beliefs different from one's own. For example, during Alfred Smith's run as the democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 1928, Roosevelt defended Smith's Catholicism saying there was no reason why a Catholic could not be President. Roosevelt, the governor of New York at the time, reminded citizens in a speech in Buffalo that Americans of all faiths fought and died side by side in World War I. He admonished anyone who cast his ballot in the interest of intolerance as a truly "miserable soul."

Standing apart from all others, Reinhold Niebuhr, minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America, exercised an incredibly powerful influence on American and European Protestant thought. Niebuhr, a uniquely gifted writer and speaker, spoke of combining religious zeal with reason and an understanding of justice. Niebuhr urged liberals to side with labor movements. By the late 1930s he turned his energies to halting fascists regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Niebuhr remained a dominant figure in religions and political affairs for decades.

Overall Protestant denominations, at least portions of each of the denominations, by their pronouncements and resolutions expressed considerable concern for the American social order. This movement was revealed in their inter-denominational church organizations.

Conservatism of Churches

Although Protestantism during the Depression flamed with socialistic speech and resolutions, there were always multitudes of politically conservative clergy to keep the fires somewhat contained. The liberal ministers did influence public opinion, but their social and economic resolutions rarely led to much concrete action. Conservatives eagerly pointed out the limited nature of the pronouncements. Many believed that liberal resolutions were often passed simply to quiet a vocal minority with the understanding they would be forgotten as soon as the meeting adjourned.

The great number of liberal and even radical resolutions passed reflected the great gap between the thinking of some clergy leadership and the laity (nonclergy church members). Such laymen were often not well represented in church leadership, and the official pronouncements were more the opinions of ministers than the viewpoints of the general membership of the congregations. In fact few of the great leaders of social Protestantism had congregations. Instead they were more likely to be seminary professors or church press editors. Denouncing capitalism was easier from behind a desk than in front of a Sunday congregation. The Sunday sermon was the least likely place for radical social pronouncements.

At least in the earliest years of the Depression many ministers chose to ignore the economic breakdown, hoping confidence might soon be restored. In some church journals as late as the fall of 1930 and even into 1931 it was impossible to tell a depression existed. If the Depression was acknowledged, it was blamed on an angry God. From the pulpits came the message that not more legislation but more attention to religion would lead America out of the Depression. The message rang out—return to God, keep His commandments, and all would be well.

The spread of socialist sentiment alarmed many prominent clergymen. Methodist Episcopal Bishop Warren A. Candler criticized the Left swing and turned to the conservative Southern faithful to save American churches from socialism. Distinguished Episcopal leader Bishop William Manning, Methodist Bishop Edwin Holt Hughes, Methodist Dr. Christian F. Reisner of the New York East Conference and Presbyterian Dr. Guthrie Speers all defended capitalism. In addition to individual clergymen official church organizations championed capitalism. In 1938 the Southern Baptist Convention hailed the American economic system as the best in the world. The Methodist Protestant Church in their 1936 Conference retreated from its socialist position. Increasingly the church press questioned those criticizing capitalism. Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Southern Baptist papers reflected the more conservative viewpoints. Likewise most of American Protestantism was unalterably opposed to godless communism. For that matter, most liberals were also strongly opposed to communism. Even as conservatives organized to defend their views and condemn the policies of the New Deal and radicalism in the churches, the most prevalent argument dominating Protestant churches was an old one. Many charged that churches should only be concerned with aiding the salvation of individual souls. Any pronouncements on politics or economics were "meddling" in areas where churches had no business. This debate between socially conscious religion and personal salvation religion continued throughout the decade of the Depression.

Protestants and Labor

The interest of the churches in economic and labor difficulties during 1933–1934 centered around the programs of the New Deal, especially the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Section 7 of the act guaranteed the right of workers to organize and negotiate as a group the working conditions with employers, which is called collective bargaining. Many church pronouncements by various denominations and by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America strongly commended the announced goals of the New Deal. The churches heartily supported the purposes of the New Deal to establish emergency relief programs, to restore employment, to establish minimum wages and maximum hours, to abolish child labor, to distribute wealth and income more fairly, and to guarantee labor the right to organize. These goals were all in line with the social ideals and objectives of the Protestant churches.

The Federal Council consistently supported the American worker. Many other organizations, some with Catholic and Jewish members, frequently aided in mediating between labor and management. The Methodist Federation for Social Service, the Church League for Industrial Democracy, the Congregational Council for Social Action, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, and the National Religion and Labor Foundation all played roles in strike mediation. The Methodist Federation for Social Service in 1934 sharply challenged the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Most Protestant denominations passed resolutions urging the settlement of industrial disputes by means of arbitration.

Churches have long supported the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively. The rights of labor were even more strongly supported by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The great inequality of bargaining power led some ministers to give active assistance to labor organization efforts. In some industrial sections of the country parish houses were made available for union meetings and ministers would speak, stressing how the social ideals of churches were compatible with labor organization.

Most churches supported labor rights while others did not. Some churches had an honest desire to win the friendship of and cooperate with labor. A majority of northern church journals and approximately half of southern church presses acknowledged labor's right to strike. There were some differences of opinion however. Northern ministers were more sympathetic than their southern counterparts. National leaders were more consistently supportive of labor's rights. Overall churchmen of national fame tended to be more sympathetic to labor than local clergymen. Action of clergymen at the local levels was inconsistent. Large city ministers were more outspoken and active than those in small towns but many exceptions existed. Generally clergy sided with labor but some at times sided with management. There was often a gap between national denominational pronouncements and actual applications. Clergy in numerous instances and without public recognition, however, helped to bring about peaceful settlements between labor and employers.

Presidential Elections of 1932 and 1936

In 1932 the Protestant churches were not openly committed to either Democratic candidate Roosevelt or Republican incumbent President Hoover. In 1928, however, they had explicitly opposed Roman Catholic Alfred Smith. Historians look at the church press and its editorials for clues as to candidate preference. Editorials, although not openly attacking Roosevelt, leaned in favor of Hoover, and the chief reason Roosevelt was not favored was because of his opposition to Prohibition. Although the Protestant press also criticized Hoover for his evasive stand on Prohibition, the press reasoned that a "damp" president was better than a "wet" one. Papers published many more editorials on Prohibition than those focused on ending the Depression. Consequently when Roosevelt emerged as a landslide winner in the elections it was clear many Protestants did not lean in the same direction as the Protestant press. It was obvious many Protestants had voted for Roosevelt.

By the election of 1936 Protestants had witnessed Roosevelt in action for four years. Only one church paper openly supported him for reelection, the Christian Century, a Chicago weekly at the fore-front of Protestant liberalism. The outspoken liberalism of Protestant church resolutions often did not reflect general Protestant congregations. For example, 78 percent of the Congregationalists, considered a liberal Protestant denomination, voted for Republican candidate Alfred Landon. Many Protestants believed that Roosevelt's New Deal policies were leading to the build-up of a powerful centralized government bureaucracy which squandered the money of taxpayers upon those who were lazy and would not earn their own living. Although no statistics exist indicating what percent of Protestants voted for or against the ultimately successful Roosevelt, it was evident by 1936 that even though he gained almost 61 percent of the popular vote that a large element of American Protestantism, particularly its leaders, were becoming hostile to Roosevelt and his programs.

End of the Protestant Era in America

Some religious leaders had relied on the perception that previous depressions had pushed men toward religion and many hoped people would be reminded that the spiritual must dominate over the materialistic order. This was not the case, however, as church attendance continued to decline. Once the Depression hit its depths by 1932 and 1933 few American urban areas remained in which Protestant forces were significantly influential enough to religiously represent the larger community.

Although strong Protestant Congregations still participated significantly in community life, the domination of Protestants in American history came to an end during the Depression. Many smaller, newer religious movements outside the mainline denominations offered alternatives to those dissatisfied with the long dominant churches. Pentecostal and Adventist groups experienced rapid growth. American Catholics became more prominent figures in the mainstream as some rose to high-level positions in President Roosevelt's administration. Protestant dominance persisted longer in the South and Midwest with more homogenous populations than in the culturally diverse Northeast and large urban areas. Protestant denominations and institutions did carry on through years of war and peace drawing millions into its fold, but the dream of a Protestant-dominated America had faded.

Catholic Social Thought and the Great Depression

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in late 1932, Catholics generally believed the American economic system should reflect the values of Christianity by exhibiting compassionate care for all people. Catholics used these values as standards with which to judge the various measures of the New Deal. This concern for social justice was the result of three major factors: the 1919 "Bishops Program for Social Reconstruction," the 1931 Quadragesimo Anno, and the work of prominent Catholics including Reverend John A. Ryan and Reverend Haas. Each factor is described below.

The first factor influencing Catholic social thought were two documents issued by church leadership in the early twentieth century. In 1919 the bishops of the United States published the "Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction." The document outlined a program of massive social reform including minimum-wage laws, social insurance programs such as unemployment and insurance for the elderly, and labor empowerment in the workplace. A second document which Catholics reference throughout the Depression and New Deal era was issued in 1931 by Pope Pius XI, the Quadragesimo Anno. Known as a papal encyclical, which is an official letter from the Pope stating the Catholic Church's position on timely social issues and offering guidance for Catholic living, the document played a vital role in Catholic interpretation of Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

American Catholics who took their religion seriously formed their social ideas directly from the encyclicals or indirectly from interpretations by their bishops, priests, or the Catholic press. The church historically strove to make religious faith relevant to social justice. The Quadragesimo Anno, the second factor influencing Catholic social thought, reaffirmed the ideas of a previous papal encyclical that Pope Leo XIII had issued 40 years earlier, the Rerum Novarum. The Quadragesimo Anno called for the government to have in place laws and institutions that benefited the general public and individual well being; it defended private ownership of goods, but such ownership needed to take into account the overall good of the people. The encyclical stated that both individual and social obligations went with the ownership of property and upheld the right of government to interfere for the common good. Pope Pius XI called for a living wage for families, opportunity to work for all able and willing, a distribution of a nation's wealth for the general public's advantage and encouraged labor organization. The document basically condemned laissez faire (free from government regulation) capitalism. Laissez faire capitalism had concentrated massive power and wealth in the hands of a few resulting in a cruel life for many people. To improve economic conditions for the masses, Pius XI would substitute cooperation and partnership of labor and capitalists leaders through formation of vocational groupings or guilds.

The fact that presidential candidate Roosevelt had actually quoted from the Quadragesimo Anno proved to many American Catholics that Catholic social teaching was affecting the country. Many felt Roosevelt's outspokenness endorsing basic Christian social reform principles took a great deal of courage.

The third factor influencing Catholic social thought was the actions of certain Catholic leaders. During the 1932 presidential campaign Roosevelt, impressed with the 1931 encyclical, quoted from it during a speech in Detroit. Roosevelt referred to the encyclical as one of the finest documents of modern times. Reverend John A. Ryan, a professor at Catholic University and, from 1919 to 1944, head of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), concluded that Roosevelt and Pope Pius XI had similar social doctrines in caring for the common man and those members of society most in need. He became a staunch supporter of candidate Roosevelt. Ryan possessed a sound knowledge of economics and an awareness of what it would take to move a frightened American society in a moral direction.

By 1932 many American Catholics, both laypersons and clergy, were horrified at the economic collapse. Dissatisfied with President Hoover's attempts at solving the Depression, a statement from American Catholic leadership published under the NCWC on November 12, 1931, called for the American government to adopt and apply elements of the Quadragesimo Anno. The NCWC, directed by the bishops of the United States, met frequently each year to discuss public affairs. In their November statement the bishops expressed concern for the victims of the Depression and urged federal and state governments to immediately establish direct forms of relief. To further deal with the Depression, they proposed a joint meeting of government, labor, and business. Within months Reverend James Myers of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the key organization of Protestant churches, and Rabbi Edwards L. Israel of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a key Jewish organization, joined with NCWC in issuing an additional statement. Deploring the practice by some businesses of cutting wages in the economic crisis, the statement called for a more equal distribution of wealth and income with planning and control of entire industries.

In addition to Ryan, other Catholic leaders called for relief from unemployment, a redistribution of wealth, and more action by the federal government to combat the Depression. Father Charles E. Coughlin, known as the Detroit radio priest, came out early in support of Roosevelt, urging a direct attack on the Depression miseries by the government. Director of the National Catholic Conference of Social Work, Reverend Francis J. Haas, suggested in July 1932 emergency measures involving massive federal spending and increased taxes on high incomes and inheritances. Reverend Edmund A. Walsh, Vice-President of Georgetown University, a Catholic institution in Washington, DC, called for better wages for laborers to combat the advance of communism in the United States. The National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC) held their annual convention in September 1932 and attendees echoed economic reform demands. Additionally they pointed out the failure of Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide effective emergency funds. The NCCC urged immediate direct relief funds. In November 1932 Mayor Frank Murphy of Detroit emphasized applying the papal encyclicals to the economic crisis.

When all votes were counted in the November 1932 presidential election Roosevelt was the overwhelming winner. The Depression and desire for a change affected Catholic voting as much as other Americans voting. Roosevelt even did better among Irish Catholic and Italian voters in Boston than the Catholic Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928. Roosevelt likewise showed impressive strength in large urban areas with big Catholic populations such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and New York City. Clearly American Catholics vigorously supported the energetic leadership of Roosevelt and eagerly anticipated what Roosevelt would soon offer the country.

Catholic Support for the Roosevelt Administration

As President Roosevelt's programs of relief, collectively known as the First New Deal, unfolded over the first one hundred days of his administration Catholic response was enthusiastic. The Catholic hierarchy and press represented the legislation of the First New Deal as utilizing Catholic social teachings and the papal encyclicals. President Roosevelt carefully cultivated the friendship of the American Catholic leadership and kept himself available to the church.

Four cardinals—William Cardinal O'Connell of Boston, head of the American Cardinals, Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York, an old acquaintance who had dined with Roosevelt before his inauguration, George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, and William Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia—visited the White House in May 1933 to personally thank Roosevelt on behalf of many Catholic institutions and organizations for his early and fine achievements.

The Catholic Press was practically unanimous in its praise for the Roosevelt's Administration first hundred days. The press consistently represented the First New Deal legislation as putting the papal encyclicals into action. Roosevelt addressed the National Conference of Catholic Charities and commented, "With every passing year I become more confident that humanity is moving forward to the practical application of the teachings of Christianity as they affect the individual lives of men and women everywhere" (Flynn, p. 58).

A sharp increase in the number of Catholic individuals appointed to high-level government and judicial posts garnered even more support for Roosevelt. Before Roosevelt few Catholics had been appointed to presidential cabinets or to any level of the judiciary, however, Roosevelt reversed these trends. Catholics James A. Farley and Thomas J. Walsh were appointed to the Cabinet—Farley as the postmaster general and Walsh as attorney general. Several diplomatic positions also went to prominent Catholics. Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy, a devoted Roosevelt supporter, was appointed as governor-general of the largely Catholic Philippines and Robert H. Gore as governor of Puerto Rico. A number of priests were asked to serve in New Deal agencies. Reverend John A. Ryan was seated on the Advisory Council of the U.S. Employment Service and the Advisory Committee of the Subsistence Homestead Division in the National Reconstruction Administration. Roosevelt appointed Reverend Francis J. Haas to the National Labor Board, who would later serve on numerous labor committees and boards.

Catholics on Finance

Catholics, along with non-Catholics, experienced relief when President Roosevelt declared the bank holiday immediately upon his inauguration and followed quickly with the Banking Act of 1933. With people unable to repay loans made for homes and farms because of lost jobs or decreased wages, the nation had been experiencing widespread bank failures. With the loss in funds on hand, some banks could not keep up with the demands for withdrawals as people needed their money to live. The number of banks declined from 25,000 in late 1929 to only 14,000 in early 1933. Almost 40 percent of the nation's banks had either closed or merged with other banks.

With the public having lost confidence in the national banking system, on March 6, 1933, President Roosevelt declared a "bank holiday." This proclamation closed all banks for eight days to prevent the public from withdrawing more money. Under Roosevelt's direction, Congress then passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act that would restore confidence in the banking system. This action provided some assurance that those banks allowed to reopen were on firm financial footing. Only two months later, still addressing the banking problems, Congress passed the Banking Act, commonly known as the Glass-Steagall Act, on June 16. The act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which provided federal insurance for individual bank accounts up to $2,500. The FDIC insurance program provided even more confidence in banks by the public. Importantly the Banking Act restructured how banks operated by separating their commercial banking activities from their investment activities.

Most Catholics praised Roosevelt's banking actions as vital to stopping runaway greed in America. According to the Catholic Herald these actions were a "New Deal in which the cards are not stacked by greed and power against the people and their government" (Flynn p. 61). The Catholic magazine, Commonweal commented on the New Deal's monetary policy stating it was "public control, through the government of money and credit rather than the system of banker's control" (Flynn, p. 63).

The demand for government oversight of the stock market was also a key point of interest in finance. Catholic leadership strongly backed the Senate's investigation of Wall Street carried on vigorously by its Chief Council Ferdinand Pecora of New York. The administrative council of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) supported the resulting Securities Act passed in May 1933 giving the government a considerable measure of control over the buying and selling of stock. The Commonweal commented that Roosevelt's New Deal monetary measures were in line with Pope Pius XI's call for monetary reform in the Quadragesimo Anno.

American Catholics on Agriculture

As important as the finance problems were involving banking and the stock market many other problems facing the New Dealers also captivated American Catholic thought. Although most Catholics lived in large urban areas, the Catholic hierarchy extensively addressed the plight of the farmer. The Rural Life Bureau of the NCWC put forth their considerations on the current state of agriculture. The Bureau's philosophy on agriculture problems revealed a uniquely Catholic line of thought. In keeping with Thomas Jefferson and President Roosevelt's love of rural life, Catholics promoted rural living for its social stability and the opportunities it afforded to live a "truly Christian life." Catholic thought perceived that the crowded city living conditions led to unstable personal relationships, while rural life promoted large stable families. Catholics eagerly supported back-to-the-land movements that arose in the Roosevelt administration. The bishops stated that the Depression was partly the result of the industrial revolution that had pushed people off the land and into crowded cities and called for a return to independent life of the farm. In 1932 and 1933 the Catholic hierarchy endorsed proposals of domestic land allotment plans, various payments to farmers to help raise agricultural prices, and reduction of farm mortgages.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), a major agricultural measure passed on May 12, 1933, had the strong support of the Catholic Church as did Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture Henry Wallace. Reverend Maurice S. Sheehy, a professor at Catholic University and a close friend of Reverend John Ryan, noted that Wallace often quoted the papal encyclicals. Although often confused by the complexity of the agricultural issues, Catholics praised Roosevelt's spirit of experimentation. The Catholic Rural Life Conference held in October 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin endorsed the AAA and subsistence farming (growing what was needed for a family to live on).

As the control policies of the AAA unfolded certain issues arose in the Catholic communities. By October 1934 the National Conference of Catholic Charities made a plea on behalf of the small farmers of the country. The AAA had been geared to helping large farms that the government believed had a chance to survive, but Catholics stressed the need for attention to the small family farm and a subsistence homestead movement. Not only was rural poverty continuing to drive families off their land, but the crop reduction measures of the AAA and the increasing cost of farming equipment had caused more farmers to lose their land and fall into tenancy (renting, not owning land).

The Catholic leadership again urged back-to-the-land movements and return to small farm ownership and subsistence homesteads. Reverend Schmiedeler urged farmers to cooperate and support rural resettlement attempts. The Catholic Rural Life Conference held in Rochester, New York, October 1935, supported Senator John Bankhead of Alabama in formulating legislation to aid tenant farmers and farm laborers in becoming genuine landowners. During 1936 President Roosevelt appointed Reverend Ryan and Schmiedeler to the Special Committee on Farm Tenancy, chaired by Henry Wallace. The Bankhead legislation and work of the Special Committee resulted in the Bankhead Jones Farm Tenancy Act of 1937. The Act created the Farm Security Administration that between 1937 and 1947 made loans of $293 million to aid 47,104 farmers.

As complex as the problems of agriculture were, the Catholic hierarchy realized all through the 1930s that agrarian problems went hand in hand with the nation's industrial problems.

American Catholics, the NRA, and Labor

Passed by Congress on June 16, 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act was formulated by the Roosevelt Administration and created the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA was commissioned to create a set of codes to regulate the entire spectrum of industrial operation from labor to production to distribution. Across the United States Catholic organizations heartily endorsed the NRA. They urged parishioners to shop at stores and do business where the NRA's "blue eagle" logo was displayed. The NRA was considered a plan of recovery based squarely on Christian principles of the papal encyclicals and in recognition of Catholic social teaching. Both the NRA and the encyclicals defended the idea that government should intervene to relieve the country of economic disaster; both rejected the laissez faire theory of unregulated business and industrial practices and would substitute industrial rules of order; both condemned cutthroat competition to the blatant detriment of the common good; both called for the formation of groups or guilds, as Roosevelt called them, with voluntary memberships; and, both advocated a living or, at least, a minimum wage. The major difference pointed out by Reverend John Ryan, was that the NRA did not provide for as much participation by labor with management as the encyclical had suggested. Reverend Frederic Siedenourg, ex-dean of Detroit University, commented that Roosevelt's NRA was not trying to destroy capitalism, but rather, to humanize it "to meet the needs of the people during the depression" (Flynn, p. 88).

Many Catholics played an active role in the NRA's administration. Reverend Ryan served as one of three members of the Industrial appeals board formed to hear small businessmen's complaints about the NRA. Reverend Francis J. Haas served in several prominent positions in the NRA's labor department. Numerous Catholics both from the church leadership ranks and the laity served throughout the country on various NRA boards. This considerable Catholic involvement explained the dismayed reaction of Catholics when the Supreme Court declared the NRA invalid in May 1935.

Apparent from the strong Catholic support of the NRA, was the American Catholics' support of labor rights. This support was rooted in the church's membership consisting primarily of lower working classes and immigrants. Catholics backed Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins's progressive ideas to improve working conditions. Many priests played active roles in mediating the labor disputes of 1933 and 1934. Many, however, felt the NRA had not supported effective unionization of workers, and they argued for a wider role for labor rights. Catholic spokesmen vigorously defended labor's right to freely organize and supported labor legislation. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner-Connery act, specifically upheld the union, elected by a majority of workers in free elections, as the sole bargaining agent for all a company's workers. It prohibited employers from engaging in anti-union activities and established the National Labor Relation Board.

Association of Catholic Trade Unionists

To influence the direction in the rise of industrial unions Catholics formed the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) in 1937. The ACTU was formed around a kitchen table in New York City in the winter of that year. The early Actists, as they called themselves, studied the Pope's social encyclicals. Most members were well acquainted with Catholic social doctrine. Some were intellectuals such as John Cort, a Harvard graduate and convert to Catholicism, while most were already involved in union activities. Martin Wersing and Edward Squitieri, both Utility Workers Union (UWU) members were deeply affected after a member, fired for union activity, killed himself when he could find no work. Some Actists labored in unorganized industries and wanted to learn how to organize. Another, George Donahue, wished to help clean up the International Longshoremen's Association which had felt the impact of gangster infiltration. Actists also included members of locals who wanted to rid their unions of communists. Whatever the motives for joining ACTU, they all believed Pius XI encyclical pointed the way to help labor bring a fairer order to American industry.

The Actists evolved quickly from study to action, by creating several workers' schools in New York City. They began a newspaper, formed a speaker's bureau to teach Catholic social doctrine, and won support of the U.S. Catholic leadership. At the end of 1938 the ACTU had chapters, schools, and union structures in New York, Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and the state of New Jersey. During its 13 years of existence the ACTU ultimately established 20 chapters, taught thousands of local union activists, organized extensive union conferences, published several newspapers, established legal defense, and elected members and supporters to local and international union offices. The ACTU was a significant force in the U.S. labor movement.

American Catholics and Social Security

The Social Security Act was signed by President Roosevelt on August 15, 1935. The act established a cooperative federal-state unemployment compensation system, established old age insurance which commonly became known as social security, and allowed for direct relief payments to poverty stricken elderly, the destitute blind, crippled, and dependent children. President Roosevelt, in a letter addressed to all of America's clergy in September 1935, asked for their help in seeing that the Social Security Act was carried out in a way reflecting its high ideas. He requested they communicate with him about conditions in their communities.

Catholic endorsement was swift and widespread. For example, Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York praised the elements of the act as vital to man's happiness on earth. President Roosevelt wrote to the National Conference of Catholic Charities stressing the need of their cooperation to aid in the goal of national security. Mary L. Gibbons, a director of the New York Catholic Charities Bureau hailed the Act as an important first step in a much-needed national social security system. The 1935 convention of the National Council of Catholic Women backed the Act, and the Catholic press also supported the aims of the measure and felt it was in accord with the spirit of the papal encyclicals.

The 1936 Presidential Election

When all the votes were counted in the 1936 presidential election President Roosevelt achieved an overwhelming victory. Voters cast 27 million votes for Roosevelt compared to 16 million for Republican candidate Alf Landon and 900,000 for third party candidate William Lemke of the Union Party. Fears that Catholics might defect from the Democratic party had proved to be groundless. Two well-known Catholics, 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith and Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Detroit "radio priest," had both moved away from supporting the Roosevelt administration over the past four years. Many had wondered how many Catholics would follow them.

Smith believed the Democratic party and Roosevelt had violated state rights with the push for ever-growing power of the central government. Smith went even further and charged that the New Deal and Roosevelt were communist-oriented. Smith shifted his support to Republican Alf Landon and appeared to be indirectly attacking the Catholic leaders who had frequently endorsed the New Deal programs. As the election proved, few Catholics ended up following Smith.

The most dangerous Catholic defector from the Democratic Party was Father Charles Coughlin. Father Coughlin charged that the Roosevelt Administration had communist tendencies. He played on the fears of those who greatly feared Communist influence in the U.S. government—communists infiltrating the New Deal was his favorite tirade. Coughlin was also openly anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish). Because Coughlin was a Catholic priest, the church was deeply concerned over his impact on the Catholic image in America. Coughlin presented difficult problems for the Catholic Church, which was deeply embarrassed by his speech. Many Americans began to equal Coughlin's remarks as the official position of the church. Yet if the church attempted to silence Coughlin, his fanatical followers would desert the church.

As the 1936 election neared Reverend John Ryan took on the task of public defender of the Roosevelt Administration. Ryan denied emphatically the accusation that Roosevelt or his administration was under communist influence. In fact he pointed out, it was the programs of the New Deal that thwarted the growth of communism in the United States. In a national radio address on October 8, 1936, Ryan urged his audience to not vote "against the man [Roosevelt]…who has brought about more fundamental legislation for labor rights and for social justice than any other President in American history" (Flynn, p. 228).

Apparently many Catholics agreed with Ryan, Gallup polls estimated over 70 percent of Catholics voted for Roosevelt (Flynn, p. 233). Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Rhode Island—states with large Catholic populations—all gave Roosevelt a larger majority in 1936 than in 1932. Roosevelt also won with convincing majorities in the 12 largest U.S. cities, where most of the Catholic vote was concentrated. Catholics not only voted for Roosevelt out of gratitude for his New Deal programs but also because of the recognition he extended to Catholics through governmental appointments and his conscientious communication with American Catholic leaders. The relationship between the Catholic Church and Roosevelt was mutually favorable. Roosevelt won the political support of a majority of Catholics and Roosevelt helped Catholics integrate into the mainstream of American national life.

American Jews and the Great Depression

The field of Jewish interests and activities encompassed much more than strictly religious matters for Jews in the United States. American Jews maintained a network of numerous charitable and social organizations and educational institutions. They were also deeply involved with the welfare of their fellow Jews abroad including the efforts to rebuild a national Jewish homeland in Palestine. As the nation's economy collapsed following the stock market crash in October 1929, however, American Jews had to focus on surviving the Depression. The full impacts of the economic crisis struck home in 1930 when the privately owned Bank of the United States in New York City went out of business, becoming bankrupt. Approximately 400,000 Jewish account holders lost their savings. Its failure and subsequent indictment of its officers shook the confidence of Jewish wage earners of New York's Lower East Side.

The Depression had two major effects on Jewish life in America. First the Jewish community had to apply their energies to prevent the dissolution of charities and schools that had been created in previous years. Secondly the Jewish rise into the middle class was undoubtedly set back.

The impact of the Depression was felt in the Jewish charities. Whereas in the previous decade considerable sums were available for the building of synagogues, hospitals, and community centers, now all went to relief efforts for newly poor and unemployed Jews. With demands for services steadily rising while contributions were declining up only the most desperate people in need received aid. During the first nine months of 1931 charities recorded an average 42.8 percent increase in relief recipients nationwide. In Minneapolis and Baltimore the rise in assistance requests was over 15 percent. By 1932 over 50,000 Jews were unemployed in Chicago and requests for welfare from Jewish charities increased two hundred percent.

The effects of the Depression compelled the charities that depended on philanthropic fund-raising efforts to consolidate. The formation of so-called community federations consisting of large combinations of various charities and social service organizations accelerated. Of the 145 Jewish federations established by 1936, 48 began in 1931. In Philadelphia the Jewish federation joined with similar Protestant and nonchurch groups in a cooperative campaign that formed the basis for the later United Way.

The decline in fund raising also severely impacted the amount of federation funds available for overseas relief and for land purchases for immigrant resettlement in the Middle East. Soon, as with all voluntary charities, the need for economic assistance in America became too heavy a burden and the charities turned to the federal government for help. By 1934 between 70 and 90 percent of Jewish families who had formerly received Jewish charity relief, received government relief.

Jewish educational institutions also felt the economic upheaval. To American Jews education was of the utmost importance and seen as a way to advance in American society. Albert B. Schoolman, President of the National Council for Jewish Education, reported in May 1932 that the Jews of the United States spent over $6,000,000 annually for Jewish education. The Jewish community was shocked only one month later after its eighth annual commencement exercises, when the Hebrew Union College for Teachers in New York City announced that the school was closing because of lack of funds. The school which had been in operation for nine years had graduated 176 students and had a current enrollment of 2,000. Subsequently nearly all Jewish educational institutions slashed their budgets.

Perhaps the most painful adjustment for American Jewry as a result of the Depression was the loss of the American dream of bettering oneself. American Jews in the early twentieth century found it very difficult to get jobs because of discrimination. To help overcome this form of discrimination during the 1920s Jewish families had been investing in formal education and training for their young adults. Many students were compelled to halt their education in support of their families. Merchant fathers, unable to compete with chain stores, joined the unemployed. For those in business many Jewish merchants sold luxury goods such as furs, jewelry, and furniture. Since many Americans could no longer afford such items, Jews were some of the first to feel the economic contraction. The number of Jewish-owned jewelry stores dropped by half between 1929 and 1933, as did fur stores and their suppliers.

Due to the high level of education in Jewish communities many Jewish young adults were doctors and lawyers. Many of them now drove taxicabs at a time when the use of cabs had drastically declined. Jewish lawyers were likely to be the first to be let go from a firm, and had no hope of finding other law positions.

The dream of attaining middle-class status faded away for many Jews. For others, in order to get a good position with a firm, some Jewish men and women resorted to the tactic of "passing" which meant hiding their Jewish background. Those who did not have stereotypically Jewish physical features could "pass" themselves off as something other than Jewish and acquire employment. Not until Roosevelt's 1941 executive order that established the Commission on Fair Labor Employment Practices did discrimination in employment against Jews decline.

Although just as caught up in surviving the Depression as the general public, American Jews watched as dark clouds gathered in Germany. Jews in the United States not only struggled with the economic situation at home, but became profoundly disturbed by Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany.

Attention Turns to Europe

In 1932 the Jewish community's greatest concerns lay with the economic depression in the United States, but during the following two years that concern shifted to the rise of Hitler in Germany. The Jews of the United States were heartened as many Americans expressed their condemnation of events in Germany. Nevertheless yet another difficulty American Jews had to contend with was growing anti-Semitism in the United States. The German situation and the rising tide of anti-Semitism had a more profound effect upon American Jewry than did the Depression.

As Adolf Hitler took control of the German government in January 1933 Americans were experiencing the depth of the Depression. Their thoughts and energies were focused on the economic collapse of America. Nevertheless the German Nazi regime would soon alarmingly become a major concern of not only America's Jewish population but Protestants and Catholics as well.

Alarmed as the Nazi government began to arrest and imprison German Jews, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of the Free Synagogue in New York City organized a protest meeting at Madison Square Garden in March 1933. Fifty thousand people attended, including speakers Bishop William Manning of the Episcopal Church and Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell. No one had imagined at the time that the Nazi government's goal was to eradicate Jewish people. In 1935 Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of German citizenship and of protection under the law. Hitler effectively used propaganda to convince the German people that their failure in World War I and Germany's subsequent economic troubles could be blamed on the Jews. German Jews became the "scapegoat." On November 9, 1938, responding to an assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish youth frightened about the fate of his refugee parents, the Nazi government ordered the first major attack, or pogrom, on Jews throughout Germany and German-occupied Austria. Violence ensued throughout Germany. Jews were attacked and killed, their businesses were destroyed, synagogues were burned, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, and the first 30,000 Jews were arrested and transported to concentration camps. The event became known as Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass," in reference to the broken panes of glass in Jewish shop windows. While the Kristallnacht was planned by the government, the German people, convinced by Hitler that Jews were the cause of their troubles, energetically participated. Condemnation of the action was widespread throughout America. In addition to the outrage of the American Jewish community prominent Protestant and Catholic organizations denounced the Kristallnacht. Although Americans were sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Germany, the United States had consistently failed to take action to relieve the situation throughout the 1930s.

Inaction, Political Worries, Immigration Policies

Between 1933 and 1941 there would be no formal protest by the American government of German policies against the Jewish people. Although President Roosevelt and State Department officials deplored Nazi treatment of the Jews, two considerations weighed heavily. First was the question of the proper official and diplomatic response. If the Roosevelt administration formally condemned Germany, they would be accused of interfering in German internal affairs and damage already strained relations. Furthermore Roosevelt feared that such official protests would increase hostile actions by Germany toward Jews in retaliation.

The second and highly complicated question was how to deal with the thousands of Jews from Germany or German-controlled areas who sought entry into the United States to escape the persecution. During 1933–1941 the basis of U.S. immigration policy rested on the National Origins Act of 1924. The 1924 Act established quotas of immigrants from all nations except for countries in the Western Hemisphere. Only 150,000 immigrants were allowed to enter the United States per year. Those who wished to emigrate had to obtain a visa from American consular officers in their respective countries. To do so applicants had to produce proof that they had sufficient assets of their own or provide guarantee of support from someone in the United States and provide passports, birth certificates, and police certificates. For Jewish refugees, many of the mandatory documents were difficult or impossible to obtain. In addition, with the Depression tightening around America, President Hoover in 1930 instructed American consuls to pass judgment carefully on each applicant to weed out those who were likely to become a public charge (dependent on social services of local governments). "Likely public charge" was referred to as LPC. Roosevelt allowed the Hoover LPC directive to stand for nearly four years until January 1937 when he ordered consuls to not operate under the idea of keeping visas to a minimum and to use probability, not mere possibility when enforcing the LPC clause.

The yearly immigration combined quota for Germany and Austria was 27,370. For the years 1933 through 1942 far fewer actually immigrated, amounting to only five percent of the quota in 1933, then increasing each of the following years to 65 percent of the quota in 1938 and finally one hundred percent in 1939. The percentage declined slightly to 95.3 percent in 1940 then plummeted to 17.4 percent by 1942. Actual immigration numbers varied from 1,450 individuals in 1933 to 27,370 in 1939. The total number of Jews admitted as immigrants from 1933 to 1943 was 168,128. Of these, 97,325 came to the United States from Germany.

During the nine years from 1933 to 1941 the immigration laws were not changed. Those in Congress in favor of liberalizing the laws for humanitarian reasons were thwarted by those who actually argued for more restrictive provisions. Those favoring more restrictive measures argued that with unemployment rampant there was no room for new immigrants. Neither side succeeded in changing existing law.

Roosevelt also declined to alter the immigration quotas for largely political reasons. Public opinion polls indicated that as late as December 1938, despite almost unanimous condemnation of Kristallnacht, 83 percent of Americans would oppose a bill allowing for the admission of more immigrants above current quotas.

Americans were opposed to allowing more immigration into the United States for several reasons. First the United States was suffering the worst economic depression in history. Millions were unemployed or on relief, and new immigrants would surely add to the problem. Although 94 percent disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, Americans remained steadfast in the belief that new immigrants would pose economic threats in the United States.


Another major reason Americans refused to allow their leaders to open borders to Jews was a long held negative attitude by many Americans. Rumors had long abounded that Jews were greedy, dishonest, rudely aggressive businessmen. These rumors had been fueled by auto industry magnate Henry Ford, who, beginning in 1922, launched an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign in his newspaper the Dearborn, Michigan, Independent. The newspaper claimed Jews plotted to take control of everything from the League of Nations to American politics to baseball, music, and movies.

In the late 1920s Ford apologized but the damage had already been done. Meanwhile the racial hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, had revived talk of Jews as "Christ killers," referring to the death of Christ at the hands of Jews. A poll in March 1938 revealed that 19 percent of Americans would support a campaign by an anti-Semitic political candidate for public office. Although in subsequent polls that figure dropped to 12 percent, many believed up to 25 percent of Americans sympathized with a campaign against Jews in the United States. Members of Christian churches also appeared to harbor such attitudes. As many as 121 anti-Semitic organizations existed in the United States and Protestants dominated most of them. Notable outspoken anti-Semitic Christian leaders were the Reverend Gerald B. Winrod of the Protestant group Defenders of the Christian Faith, and Gerald L.K. Smith, who organized several anti-Semitic groups toward the end of the decade. Although an embarrassment to the official Catholic leadership, radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin and his Christian Front were openly anti-Semitic. All of the anti-Semitic fervor proved detrimental to easing immigration quotas.


A combination of economic conditions, political considerations, immigration laws and American attitudes proved disastrous to those Jews trying to flee the Nazis and escape to the United States. Only one-half as many Jews were able to immigrate to the United States in the 1930s as had immigrated in the 1920s. The Nazi persecution and the hopeless status of the Jews convinced many Americans that Palestine was the last chance for European Jews, and it inspired the collection of funds to get Jews to Palestine. Those who looked to Palestine as the Jewish national home were called Zionists. The Joint Distribution Organization, established in World War I, raised ever-increasing sums from the Jews of America to assist thousands of Jews being uprooted as a result of Nazi persecution. Many Jewish Americans, who previously believed the Jews should make their home in the United States, realized Palestine might be their people's best hope.

By 1938–1940 growing hostility against Jews in Europe had caused the Jewish social network to focus primarily on Jewish self-preservation. The Yearbook of Jewish Social Work, published by the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds had shown that the demand for services provided by homes for the aged, general hospitals, and clinics was at an all time high. Yet both the Council and the National Conference of Jewish Social Welfare turned to the financing of overseas relief and refugee programs. They asked for unprecedented levels of contributions to meet emergency conditions in Europe. In 1939 the United Jewish Appeal for Refugees and Overseas Needs was formed and combined several groups: the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Distribution Committee, the United Palestine Appeal, and the National Refugee Service, Inc. Over $15,000,000 was raised in 1939 and distributed between the organizations. Sums were given also to the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America for Protestant refugees that were also fleeing war conditions in Europe and to Pope Pius XII as a memorial to Pope Pius XI for Catholic refugees.

The Black Church

The churches of black Americans, long the center of black community life, continued to play a central role in the Great Depression years. Many had ventured North in the early years of the twentieth century in search of a better life. Black churches had sprung up throughout the North. Most of the larger religious denominations had some black members, almost always gathered in their separate black church congregations. The great majority of black Christians both in the North and South belonged to the Baptist and Methodist denominations. Northern black congregations were stretched to the limit to accommodate the migration to the Northern cities that continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Large black denominations became separate members of the Protestant organization the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. The Federal Council created the Commission on Race Relations in 1921. George E. Haynes, educator and sociologist, led the commission for approximately 25 years. He attempted to guide his people through the difficult Depression years and help white churches better understand their fellow black Christians. Within local communities, however, there was almost no meaningful interrelationship between white and black Christians. In 1936 the percentage of church members in the black population was slightly higher than of the white population. Forty-four percent of the black population were members of black churches while 42 percent of the white population were church members.

The fastest growing black denominations during the Depression years were smaller independent, "store-front" churches. In the early years of the Depression black Americans found their jobs had evaporated as they were replaced with white men. Few had skills and many were illiterate, and as a result blacks became trapped in the crowded ghettos of New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The tenement buildings in which they lived were racked with disease, poverty, and hopelessness. Faced with such severe conditions many looked for leaders to help solve the problems and provide hope. Although the older major black churches continued to grow in significant numbers and played central roles in black community life, various black religious sects emerged. Major new groupings were Father Divine's Peace Mission, rival group Bishop Charles E. "Sweet Daddy" Grace's United House of Prayer for All People, and W. D. Farad Muhammad's Nation of Islam.

Father Divine's Peace Mission came into prominence about 1930 in New York. Leader George Baker adopted the name Father Divine. Divine preached that heaven was on earth not in the hereafter. He also preached charity to all, sternly opposing racism and racial discrimination. He promised a higher status for blacks, and promised resolution of want and poverty. In 1931 neighbors protested that the large crowds he attracted were disturbing the peace. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. Two days later the presiding judge died and Father Divine supposedly committed, "I hated to do it." His followers believed he was actually God. He purchased hotels and gave his followers, who were required to leave home and family, food and shelter for modest sums. In 1934 he claimed 72 "heavens" had been established, and by 1939, 152 "heavens", mostly around New York, were open. Divine's Peace Movement claimed that it had many millions of adherents, however, in actuality numbers estimated between 3,000 to 25,000.

Another "savior" was waiting in the wings in 1930, a mysterious Mullah (Muslim religious leader) who called himself W. D. Farad Muhammad. He told a handful of black listeners that he had come from Mecca, the holy city of Islam, to teach the truth about white men and to prepare blacks for the final battle between good and evil, black and white. Farad went as quietly as possible from house to house in Detroit listening to the problems of the destitute black people. His electrifying manner soon caught the attention of many. The fame of the Prophet, as he was called, grew, and he established the first temples of Islam in Detroit. Farad taught that Christianity had enslaved black men and taken them away from their native land and religion, Islam. Animosity toward whites was not all that Farad preached. He also taught cleanliness, thrift, and hard work. He established a school where homemaking, Negro history, and Muslim subjects were taught.

Elijah Poole, son of a Baptist minister and originally from Georgia, had been attracted by Fahad. Poole's leadership qualities quickly became apparent to Fahad and he was given the new name Elijah Muhammad. Fahad had first appeared on July 4, 1930, and disappeared approximately June 30, 1934, never to be seen again. Elijah became the new messenger of Islam and the movement spread from the initial temple in Detroit to almost every major city in the country where a large black population lived.

The actual numbers of members of the black religious sects remained small compared with the bulk of membership of more mainstream organized religion. The larger black dominations included the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, Colored Primitive Baptists, and the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The communal bond was extremely strong for black Protestant groups and they did their best to ease devastating social conditions of members through the 1930s. Church attendance was very high and served as a focal point for the lives of many black Americans.

Holiness Movement

While many major religious denominations struggled with making ends meet in the economic collapse of the Depression and tried to retrench and hold on, several smaller churches began a spectacular growth pattern. Holiness and Pentecostal churches had originated in the second half of the nineteenth century and very early twentieth century. The so-called Holiness movement emerged after the Civil War in response to the belief that large mainstream denominations had become spiritually lax and had given in to worldly affairs. The movement advocated return to old Bible truths. Holiness churches believed in a literal interpretation of the bible, expected Christ's return any day, focused on strict moral values, and had an interest in faith healing and always stressed missionary work. The Pentecostal doctrine in addition emphasized the Holy Spirit among them evidenced by their ability to speak in tongues (different languages). Pentecostals were encouraged to roll in the aisles in emotional response to religious experiences, gaining the nickname "holy rollers."

The Holiness churches had always ministered largely to poorer Americans. Their freedom, informality, excitement, and claims of healings brought joy and assurance to Depression-weary Americans. Their sense of religious certainty, resistance to upper and upper middle class standards, and their warmth drew in many Americans of the lower and lower middle classes. Some churches doubled or tripled in size.

By 1939 the Holiness Movement churches claimed over one million members, a number almost as high as Episcopalian membership and almost half as high as Presbyterian membership. The largest Holiness Movement churches included: Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of the Nazarene, Four-square Gospel, Salvation Army, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Volunteers of America, and the Pentecostal Churches—Pentecostal Church, Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the black Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

Contributing Forces

Prior to World War I involvement of religious denominations in social reform in the United States had a brief history. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were only a few social reformers and theology students interested in the "Gospel," or religious teachings as a social reforming force. Among these were Catholic reformers who had been teaching and writing about social issues such as labor injustices since the late-nineteenth century. In 1910 Catholic social workers founded a network, known as Catholic Charities, to organize and coordinate the many Catholic charitable institutions across the nation. In 1907 German Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch wrote his bestseller Christianity and the Social Crisis which described his viewpoint on the role of religion in public life. The so called Social Gospel movement gradually began to appear in most leading Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish church organizations.

Post World War I

The 1920s became a decade of economic prosperity. Standards of living were on the rise for most American families. The automobile, radio, and electric refrigerator became increasingly available to many. Employees in the rapidly expanding fields of business, science, and technology were enjoying new levels of prestige and success. Women, having won the right to vote, played larger roles in society outside the home. Possibilities on these numerous fronts seemed unlimited.

Churches shared in the prosperity; they built beautiful new structures with generous donations. Ministers Harry Emerson Fosdick and S. Parkes Cadman brought their messages to not only their own congregations but across the nation via radio. Despite the energetic spirit of the time, the decade also presented problems for the churches. Traditional moral standards and religious values came under attack by intellectuals, such as writers Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, and university professors such as William P. Montague. Montague referred to the essential elements of Christian religion as "super naturalism." Criticism abounded of America's moral standards, long defined by mostly Protestant denominations, as repressive and old-fashioned. A large segment of American society became indifferent to organized religion and fewer people attended church.

Nevertheless the idea of the Social Gospel of the early-twentieth century years hung on in many denominational bodies. Many made commitments to helping families and various service activities especially activities serving youth. Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism all responded to the cultural climate and challenges of the 1920s from their unique viewpoints.


In regard to reforming the social order in the 1920s, the Protestant Church appeared to lose part of the zeal it had exhibited previously when aggressively crusading for Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920. Although still earnestly supported by numerous Protestants, many Americans refused to abide by the unpopular law that contributed to growing lawlessness and gangsterism. A growing number of Protestants thought church should confine itself to prayer, hymn singing, and to sermons preparing mankind for "judgment day" rather than focusing on social issues. Secondly, rather than reform the growing social injustices, America's Protestant churches turned their attention to the sins of the individuals. Dancing, profanity, Hollywood movies, skimpy female clothing, card playing, and illegal drinking all shocked church leaders and became the topics of countless sermons.

Third, to most conservative American Protestants, life was prosperous and there was very little in American society that needed reforming. America's industrious, self-reliant, and righteous people were being rewarded by God with riches such as radios, refrigerators, and indoor plumbing. The Protestant church generally supported the business community and even attempted to copy its techniques. Pastors took courses in advertising and dreamed up slogans such as "Business Success and Religion Go Together." Church attendance for some was a way in which to meet the best people that also offered the attainment of peace of mind. Virtually all leaders of industry and politics were Protestants who attended church regularly. Their charity was reflected in the amount spent for new church buildings, which exploded from 60 million dollars in 1921 to 284 million dollars in 1926. John D. Rockefeller contributed greatly to the building of the Riverside Church in New York City. Some large churches had multi-million dollar structures, with operating budgets as high as a quarter million, and possessed valuable real estate. Protestant churches were caught up in and intertwined with the economic prosperity of the 1920s decade.

While typical 1920s materialistic attitudes existed within church congregations, to think that materialism completely overwhelmed American Protestantism is incorrect. A sense of social justice also existed. For example when the YMCA adopted its "Social Creed of the Churches," which included statements calling for justice in the industrial workplace, businessmen severely criticized it. The business communities circulated a letter saying anyone who contributed to the Y's fundraising was subverting America's economic order. Many Protestant leaders including Harry Fosdick vocally resented the intimidation by businessmen, and both Methodists and Presbyterians denounced the businessmen's action. Furthermore Fosdick stated that repression of organizations attempting to humanize working conditions inside factories could result in social revolution. Countless leading ministers and religious

More About… Churches and Movies

Although the hundreds of movies produced in the 1920s were silent, they "spoke" volumes as they depicted murder, rape, drug use, and sexual misconduct. Churches and politically conservative individuals became very concerned about the movies and their effect on the United States population, particularly on the young. Thousands of people demanded that the government censor the motion picture industry. In response the industry, in 1922, created the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) that later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and was headed by Will Hays.

Once the chairman of the Republican National Committee and President Warren Harding's (served 1921–1923), Postmaster General in 1921 and 1922, Hays was a Presbyterian elder and presumably knew sin when he saw it. Hays was to institute codes to clean up the film industry and therefore block attempts to establish a new government censorship agency. The MPPDA agreed in 1927 to 11 "don'ts" for film production. Ten "don'ts" dealt with sex and nudity and one with illegal drug traffic, and for several years the general public was appeased.

By 1930, however, fearing the economic impact of the Depression and realizing the potent effect of new talking films, the industry began producing films with a great deal of violence and sex. The industry hoped these films would bring in large audiences to stave off reduction in the industry's income. In response the MPPDA or the "Hays' Office" as it was known, created a 1930 Production Code. The Code established more extensive "don'ts" including showing sympathy towards crime, ridiculing law and justice, and showing methods of crime as theft. Vulgarity, obscenity, sex, profanity, dancing, and cruelty to women, children and animals were all confronted. Religion and its ministers were to always be shown in a favorable light. The 1930 codes, however, were widely disregarded.

Protestant churches and publications protested the further decline with more standards but were too disorganized to be effective. Their largest organizations, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and the Federal Motion Picture Council in America, Inc. were strictly volunteer groups. The highly organized Catholic Church then entered the controversy, and in 1934 the American Catholic bishops created the Legion of Decency. Members of the Legion pledged ".… to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality" (Bondi, p. 443). Joining the Legion became a regular part of Catholic behavior for the next thirty years. The threatened boycott of any movie deemed objectionable was powerful.

The Legion worked out a four-part category system:

  • A-I: Morally unobjectionable for general patronage
  • A-II: Morally Unobjectionable for adults
  • B: Morally Objectionable in part for all
  • C: Disapproved

Joseph I. Breen, an assistant to Hays, was able to enforce the MPPDA's Production Code of 1930 with support of the Catholic Church. The Breen Office as it was now called along with the Legion of Decency certification forced the film industry to monitor itself and adhere to the moral codes. The restrictions were so effective that in 1937, of the 1,271 titles reviewed by the Legion only 13 were rated C and all of those were European or independent productions.

In addition in 1936 Pope Pius XI's only encyclical of the year Vigilante Cura dealt with motion pictures. The papal encyclical received commendation from prominent individuals within the motion picture industry. The Legion of Decency enjoyed the confidence of Americans in general for years as it promoted the cause of decency in motion pictures.

press editors warned that churches tending to focus on their materialistic wealth and catchy advertising and sermons were in danger of losing their souls.

Further the religious press wrote widely and critically of the problems in American society. Two journals representing the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, an organization of 23 Protestant denominations, the Federal Council Bulletin and Information Service examined social problems. The Christian Century, the most influential Protestant journal, scrutinized every aspect of life in America and demanded that society adhere to Christian morality. The publications of each individual denomination ranged from liberal to conservative in their attitudes on society's ills and admonished church members to live out their faith in actions. Some of the more liberal publications came from the Methodists, Unitarians, and Disciples, while the Presbyterian and Lutheran press were generally more contented and conservative. Although much was written of society's problems, Protestant denominations had no network of charitable organizations in the 1920s.

Protestants and the Election of 1928

The presidential election of 1928 was between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat "Al" Smith. Both men had "rags to riches" stories, and had lived the American dream of rising from a lowly social status to the heights through hard work. Their backgrounds, however, were very different.

Hoover was born in Iowa of Quaker parents whose ancestry went back to colonial times. Educated at Stanford University, Hoover had served as secretary of commerce in both the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Though not taking a solid stance on Prohibition, Hoover, a conservative, was considered by the voting public as a "dry," a person who supported Prohibition, in the controversy.

Smith was born into a Catholic family of immigrant stock in New York City. Although poorly educated, Smith had been considered a brilliant governor of New York. Perhaps more important Smith was a "wet" and opposed Prohibition. None of Smith's attributes appealed to the average Protestant, especially Protestants in the rural West and South. Historians have debated at length whether or not Smith's Catholicism turned the election against him. The campaign was marred, however, by anti-Catholic bigotry. Vicious and false charges were made against Smith because of this Catholicism. Prohibition was the issue that most likely sealed the Protestant vote for Hoover, however, Smith also advocated protection of civil liberties, not a popular theme at that time when property rights were held more important. It was the most important issue of the election and Protestants by in large came down on the "dry" side. Ultimately the election reminded Catholics that they still held second-class status in a Protestant America. Hoover had captured 58 percent of the popular votes and 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87. Many Protestants saw Hoover's victory as an indication that the United States was still a Protestant nation.

The Roman Catholic Church in America

The Roman Catholic Church sharply resisted the secular trends of American society. The Catholic Church in the United States had gained an increased sense of unity coming out of the experience of World War I. Self-confidence and growing strength marked American Catholic leadership. Even though already America's largest Christian church, Catholicism still appeared to not feel fully at home on American soil. The perception that the United States continued as a Protestant nation remained strong.

Feeding this perception was the fact the Catholic Church attempted to isolate its faithful from much of America's worldly cultural environment by educating its students in Catholic schools and congregating its people in Catholic societies and unions. The Catholic school system was impressive. The right of parents to educate their children in private schools was upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1925, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. As Catholic-educated children grew up and began to move up the economic scale, they gave to funds to build new expensive churches and schools. By 1928 there were approximately 2,500,000 students in 10,000 Catholic schools; two thousand of them were high schools.

Illustration of growing Catholic strength and unity in the United States also came as Catholic leaders from around the world met in Chicago in 1926 for the twenty-eighth international Eucharistic Congress—the first such gathering in the United States. Twelve cardinals attended and approximately 400,000 American Catholics attended the conference.

Catholic Charities

From the earliest years even before the United States was founded, Catholic missionaries and religious orders provided charitable care for widowed, sick, and orphaned settlers. For example in 1727 Ursuline nuns cared for orphans; in 1809 Sister Elizabeth Seton opened a free school and orphanage for poor children; and, during the nineteenth century, religious orders established both child care and care of the aging and local parishes provided needed services within their neighborhoods. These were the first Catholic "charities."

By 1900 Catholic charities supported many institutions providing care to needy people, children, elderly, the sick, and disabled, and prisoners. In 1910 feeling an urgent need to bring a sense of solidarity to the various endeavors, Catholic social service workers convened the first National Conference of Catholic Charities. The organization formed took on the name Catholic Charities. A network of Catholic Charities bureaus was established and 35 bureaus were in place across the nation by 1922. The bureaus' goals were to reduce poverty, support families, and build communities. With the onset of Depression of the 1930s the Catholic Charities already had a network in place to assist Americans. Likewise American Jewry would develop mutual aid networks by the 1930s.

American Jewry

By the end of the Civil War (1861–1865) approximately 150,000 Jews lived in the United States, most of whom were of German descent. The trend to reform and liberalize, or somewhat Americanize Judaism, ran strong and became known as the Reform movement. Dietary laws were relaxed, English was increasingly used in sermons, and Sabbath services often were held on Friday.

Although recognizing the need for adjustment to the times, the pace of change of the Reform Jews was occurring too quickly for some Jews. Jewish scholar Isaac Leeser feared important ties with the past were being lost. Under Leeser's guidance Historical or Conservative Judaism evolved. Conservative Judaism was dedicated to preservation of historic knowledge and practices presented in the teachings of the prophet Moses and expanded by wise men of Israel.

By 1880 the American Jewry numbered approximately 250,000. At this time a vast wave of immigration began. The great majority of the Jewish immigrants came from eastern and central Europe—Russian, Poland, Austria, and Romania. Most were poor and many were fleeing the dreaded pogroms in Russia. Having been reared in close-knit Jewish communities they were suspicious of the ways of America's Reform and Conservative Jews. Most spoke Yiddish, a German dialect with Hebrew and Slavic influence and written in Hebrew characters. Not feeling at home in Reform or Conservative synagogues, they formed their own Orthodox institutions. By 1900 approximately 1,000 Orthodox synagogues had been established. In 1896 an Orthodox theological seminary (religious school of higher learning) was formed and it eventually became Yeshiva University of New York.

In the early-twentieth century Conservative Judaism grew stronger and became a mediating force between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews. As the Zionist movement arose at the turn of the century much discussion and controversy was stimulated. Zionism was the idea that a Jewish homeland should be established where Israel now exists. Reform Jews opposed Zionism, saying America was their Zion, while conservative Jews generally supported Zionism. Orthodox believed only a Messiah (spiritual leader from God) could restore Jews to Israel. Nevertheless all Jews of America did believe in the need for an American Jewish network of support organizations. All three groups banned together for support of mutual aid, philanthropic, defense, and labor organization for American Jewry. The networks, although not large, were akin to Catholic Charities. In World War I Jewish groups worked together in such organizations as the Jewish Welfare Board in support of the war. By the late 1920s over four million Jews lived in the United States.


Long prevalent in other parts of the world, anti-Semitism began to surface in the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century. Rumors that some international conspiracy by Jews to control the world's finances spread. Some Americans began to speak in racial rather than religious terms. Some church people began to fear Jews were eroding the Christian character of the United States. Even some Christian publications reflected this attitude with articles bordering on anti-Semitism. Certain Christian groups singled out the Jews for attempted conversion to Christianity. Increasing numbers of American Jews were finding themselves targets of hate mongers.



Protestants were split into liberal and conservative camps. Geography was a factor in the differences between perspectives. Protestants of congregations of large northern cities tended to be much more liberal than their southern counterparts. Liberal Protestants blamed the industrial practices of the 1920s for the wide gaps in American society. They saw abundant production of food and starving people; banks bulging with money and severe poverty; tons of idle machinery and millions of unemployed; mountains of coal, and freezing people. To correct this picture many liberal Protestants believed that some sort of reconstruction of the social order was essential. Denominations with large factions of liberal Protestants were the Methodist Episcopal church (the northern branch of the Methodist denomination), the Northern Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists.

Within all denominations were considerable numbers of political centrists or conservatives. Congregations often had views far to the right of their denominations' leaders. Many failed to even support the formation of church social service bureaus. Likewise by the mid-1930s many refused to support Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Some viewed the unemployed as "dead-beats" upon whom they did not want to waste their money or taxes. Churches with considerable conservative populations were the Southern Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians.


In June 1933 in Washington D.C. Cardinal Patrick Hayes endorsed the New Deal and from reaction in the Catholic press it appeared all American Catholicism seconded his remarks. Also Roosevelt's good will toward the Catholic Church seemed to set the church in a better light in the general public's mind. Catholics believed the previous four U.S. presidents had neglected them. Even Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, while he would later turn against Roosevelt, praised the president's accomplishments.

When in the mid-1930s Coughlin began to personally attack the president as communistic the Catholic hierarchy was embarrassed. This embarrassment no doubt caused Catholic leaders such as Reverend John Ryan and other members of the hierarchy to take an even more pro-Roosevelt position. Catholics as a whole viewed the Roosevelt-Catholic relationship as mutually beneficial. Catholics helped Roosevelt to be re-elected in 1936 and Roosevelt helped Catholics move into the mainstream of American political life.

Catholics and Powerful Centralized Government

In 1932 at the depth of the Depression almost all Catholic spokesmen agreed that the overwhelmed private charities and seeming helplessness of state and local authorities to offer aid dramatized the need for federal action. Roosevelt's New Deal was welcomed.

This perspective represented a sharp break for Catholics who had long viewed constitutional limits on government as fortification against potential anti-Catholic persecution by the government. Therefore those Catholics, mindful that for all practical purposes Catholicism still retained a minority status, stressed the temporary nature of a more powerful federal government. They warned those new federal powers must be rescinded once the crisis passed. By 1938 as the Depression seemed less severe, Catholic leaders almost universally held grave concerns about the further growth of the federal government.

At a Glance Inter-Faith Relations—1932

For the first time in history, on March 7, 8, and 9, 1932 Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestants met in Washington, DC, to discuss areas of conflict and to create ways to promote justice, understanding, and cooperation between the groups. Registered attendees, numbering 475, first discussed situations in their individual American communities then attended various sessions on schools, preaching, local community goodwill, religious teachings, and journalism. Follow-up local conferences of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants were held in cities coast to coast. The year 1932 is historically thought of as a time of unprecedented cooperation between the faiths due in part to the harsh economic conditions facing their people and their churches. The National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America united in issuing a statement on the unemployment situation and in support of relief efforts. Communities became accustomed to Catholics, Jews, and Protestants uniting on social service projects through the decade.

Fear of a Revival of Anti-Catholicism

Some Catholics in the 1930s feared a revival of anti-Catholicism. This fear stemmed from the fact that Catholics in the 1930s were touting and adhering to the Pope's social teaching closer than ever before because they seemed to directly address problems of the Depression. This adherence in the non-Catholic population seemed to challenge American individualism, freedom of thought, and belief in the democratic process. As a result, Catholics invariably sought to justify their position by stressing the respect and love of American traditions. Time and again they pointed out the compatibility of "true Americanism" and orthodox Catholicism. Professions of loyalty to fundamental American values were widespread.

More About… Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker Movement

The Catholic Worker Movement arose from the depths of the Great Depression as an unofficial effort to put church doctrine in practice among victims of social injustice and gather them into a force for change. The story of the Catholic Worker in the 1930s is the story of a remarkable journalist and Catholic convert, Dorothy Day, and Peter Maurin, a French immigrant immersed in ideas of Christian social reform.

As a young journalist Dorothy Day spent most of her early adult years traversing the country and world searching for a meaningful way to meet the political, social, and economic needs of everyday people. Always deeply interested by religious concepts, Day actively and passionately searched for a way to not only make sense of her own life but to find a way to advance the livability of all people. Shortly after the Catholic baptism of her illegitimate daughter, Day herself was baptized as a Roman Catholic on December 28, 1927.

For several years after Day's baptism she migrated from job to job, including writing scripts in Hollywood. While living in Mexico City for a time, she recorded the despair and poverty in the city and submitted a series of famous articles for publication in Commonweal.

In 1932, as the harsh realities of the Depression became apparent, Day went to Washington, D.C. to report on the hunger marchers on an assignment for Commonweal. Day was dismayed that American Christianity was not helping the hungry men, women, and children. Further, that it was the communists, not the Christians, who had organized the marches.

When Day returned to New York where she met Peter Maurin. Born in France in 1877 Maurin was educated by the Catholic order, the Christian Brothers, and took preliminary vows to join the order. After a few years of teaching, however, he became involved in Sillon, a democratic Christian movement that swept through France in the early twentieth century. Growing disillusioned he left France for Canada, then turned up in New York in the late 1920s, preaching Christian poverty and service. He talked ceaselessly of Christian reform and was beloved by all he came in contact with.

Together Day and Maurin formed a perfectly balanced system. Maurin had a plan he called "utopian Christian communism, " which Day immediately recognized as a bridge to her own commitment to the poor. Maurin's vision balanced Day's practical impulses and merging their energies they established the Catholic Worker movement. First they created the newspaper The Catholic Worker, which by the end of 1933 had a circulation of 100,000. The social program put forth was three-fold and included round-table discussions where communists, radicals, and priests talked about issues of the day. Another aspect of the plan focused on Houses of Hospitality where men and women lived cooperatively in voluntary poverty, meeting the needs of the destitute. The third phase of the program proposed self-contained farming communes. In the next five years, the Catholic Worker grew phenomenally. Feeding over a thousand people a day, Houses of Hospitality were started all over the country.

Conflict and controversy were no strangers to the movement. While Maurin tried to avoid the issue of labor unions because he thought they were unchristian, Day endorsed 1930s union activity. Catholic Workers walked picket lines in the days of union organization and strikers and union organizers were housed and fed by Catholic Workers. Day and The Catholic Worker not only advocated justice for the American worker but also responded to the international war situation.

Both Day and Maurin found Christian teachings totally incompatible with war and said so. The Catholic Church officially refused to oppose the growing military conflicts and Day continued to encounter resistance as the United States drifted into war. By the mid-1940s The Catholic Worker circulation had dropped to 55,000.

Day remained active and outspoken until her death in 1980. After a lifetime of voluntary poverty she left no money for a funeral so the Catholic archdiocese of New York paid for it.

Furthermore American Catholics drew off limits boundaries around certain economic controversies of the day. Unlike the most liberal Protestant leaders, no important Catholic leader challenged the doctrine of private property. Few questioned the acceptability of profits and competition as long as they were limited by a vague idea of the common good. Likewise almost all stressed their opposition to communism.

An Awakened Catholic Laity

The most conservative Catholics still viewed the church and its rigid hierarchical structure as a central influence in their life. Perhaps the most significant change, however, in perspective in Catholic life due to the severe conditions of the 1930s was an awakened laity.

Just as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement preached, Catholic men and women began to realize that they each were responsible for every man's welfare. Sensitive laymen rebelled at the idea that only Catholic clergy could care for its people. Everyday Catholics took action to help others including fellow parishioners. Many Catholics began to view their church as a place where far more space and freedom to act existed than before the 1930s.

American Jewry

American Jewry was hit doubly in the 1930s. Not only did the Depression confront them with the same serious economic problems as all Americans, but their difficulties were compounded by the ominous events in Germany. The Jewish people, having long put stock in the value of human ability, strongly supported the New Deal policies. The Jewish community held the New Deal in high esteem, and it was widely believed that Jewish journalist Samuel Untermeyer had conceived the name "New Deal." To show their support American Jews gave Roosevelt an ever greater percentage of their vote in each presidential election, 1932 to 1944.

After 1933 American Jewry's perspectives centered on intercession for Jews abroad. Their request for government intercession and refugee admittance for German Jewry appeared like special pleading in light of the severe unemployment in America. Nevertheless they were compelled to continue to plead their case. Likewise they collected large sums of money, which rather than distribute to the needy at home they sent abroad for relief of European Jews. It was interesting that Jewish voters strongly supported Roosevelt into the 1940s even though he failed to energetically move on the refugee issue.


In the 1920s many Americans looked back at World War I with revulsion. Many felt lives and money had been expended for little reason. Waves of antiwar sentiment swept through many Protestant churches, especially during the first half of the 1930s as domestic issues dominated the American scene. Many felt the United States had its hands full trying to deal with internal economic problems. War was not just condemned, it was totally refuted as unacceptable under any circumstances, which was an idea that became part of the social Christianity of the decade.

Pacifism was deepest in the Protestant communities, where clergy vowed America should never again be used in a warlike way. They regretted their support of the war effort during World War I. Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas had actually refused to support World War I and had moved from his antiwar stance to the Socialist Party, an organization that he believed could help prevent wars in the future. Thomas was the first editor of the pacifist magazine The World Tomorrow, the voice of the antiwar group the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The FOR had members from the left wing of Protestantism. Some Protestants joined the left-leaning League Against War and Fascism headed by Methodist minister and professor at Union Theological Seminary, Harry F. Ward.

By 1935 as fascist regimes such as Hitler's began aggressive ventures across Europe, pacifists split. Some believed war could be used as a last resort but others clung to strict pacifism and refused to support any forceful opposition. The FOR and Socialist party split along those lines and both ceased to be forces. The League split also along similar lines, but officially it supported armed force against fascist powers. The staunch pacifist members of the League left, but many others had no problem working with Communists to stop the fascists of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr believed force could be used to bring justice to the world. Many other prominent Protestants, however, held fast to their pacifist commitments. Leaders such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Haynes Holmes, and Bishop Francis McConnell all continued to insist that if Christian principles were applied the "other cheek" must be turned. "Peace" churches such as the Mennonites also remained steadfastly opposed to any war.

The Roman Catholic Church members, many with close ties to family and friends in Europe, were more accepting of the use of force. The Catholic Church had long ago accepted that some wars were justified. Yet there were different outlooks within the church. Prominent Catholic Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, insisted Christians, especially Catholics, must oppose all killing.


At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the United States emerged as the most powerful country in the free world, taking on a major role in global leadership. By the late 1950s and 1960s the churches of America focused on the nation's failure to live up to its own ideals, especially racial equality and religious tolerance. Often church organizations, having established social action organizations during the nation's time of need in the 1930s, again attempted to begin to rectify long-prevalent social wrongs.

In the 1950s and 1960s the most important religious and political interaction came in the civil rights movement. African American churches and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. provided leadership. As the movement reached crisis proportions in 1963–1965, King called on Catholic clergy, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis to demonstrate and support blacks and civil rights legislation. Another effort of church organizations emerged from mid-1960s to mid-1970s concerning the war in Vietnam (1964–1975). Although some supported the war effort many church groups joined in protest over what they viewed as an illegal and immoral war. Liberal elements of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, also worked for improved religious tolerance, women's rights, and economic equality.

The liberal civil rights efforts were countered with a growing movement and resurgence of social religious conservatism beginning in the later 1960s and 1970s. Catholics who were dismayed by the liberalism of their church, ultra Orthodox Jews and Zionists who saw interests in Israel as dwarfing issues in the United States, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of fundamentalist Protestant groups all resisted civil rights movements and demanded a return to basic spiritual rather than political issues. This new religious right became a force to be reckoned with. Religion and political debates raged late in the twentieth century over issues such as prayer in the public schools, abortion, and gay rights. Catholic forces joined Protestants in anti-abortion campaigns. On economic and social policy issues, however, the Catholic Churches leaned more to the left while Protestant churches generally remained to the right of center. But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a prime concern for churches was genetic engineering and the human race.

Notable People

Charles E. Coughlin (1891–1979). Newly ordained Catholic priest, Father Charles E. Coughlin was appointed in 1926 to a suburban parish, Shrine of the Little Flower, in Royal Oak, Michigan. On Sunday evenings Father Coughlin began a radio program from a Detroit radio station, the Radio League of the Little Flower. His effort to engage more people was highly successful as his parish grew rapidly. A gifted speaker, he focused on religious and moral issues. After the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression Coughlin's radio talks ranged into current topics. He established an independent network of stations from which he broadcast his message through much of the United States attracting not only a Catholic audience but a large Protestant audience as well.

Coughlin endorsed the earliest policies of President Roosevelt's New Deal and Roosevelt actually consulted with him a few times. Roosevelt, however, did not follow Coughlin's advice on money matters. Roosevelt refused to return to the silver standard and Coughlin was embarrassed when it was revealed that the Little Flower was one of the largest silver holders. Apparently Coughlin was playing the market in silver.

In November 1934 Coughlin organized the National Union for Social Justice. Estimates suggest that about one million people belonged to the organization at its peak. Coughlin claimed he and his followers blocked the United States from joining the World Court in 1935. Not only was he an ardent isolationist, but he began making anti-Semitic statements. By 1936 Coughlin began an attack on President Roosevelt charging Roosevelt was moving the nation toward communism. Social Justice, a newspaper established by Coughlin in 1937 reflected his now openly anti-Semitic and fascist views and he supported Adolf Hitler at the beginning of World War II in Europe in 1939.

Although an embarrassment to the Catholic Church, he was not silenced until 1942 with government pressure. He continued at Little Flower unit until 1966, when he retired.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969). Born in Buffalo, New York, Harry Fosdick was raised as a Baptist. At the young age of seven he pledged his life to Christian service. A gifted student he graduated head of his class from high school and from Colgate University, at the time a small Baptist college. Fosdick studied for a year at Hamilton Theological Seminary where a leading liberal Baptist theologian, Professor William Newton Clarke, greatly influenced Fosdick's thinking. Shortly, Fosdick transferred to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a seminary on the cutting edge of religious thought. The interdenominational Union had just severed ties with the Presbyterian Church.

In 1915 Fosdick accepted a professorship at Union but interrupted his teaching for a short duty overseas during World War I. Although he had strongly supported America's entrance into the war, he returned to the United States an avowed pacifist. Although a Baptist, Fosdick's preaching career started in 1918 in New York City's historic First Presbyterian Church where his outstanding oratory skills caused the church's sanctuary to regularly overflow. In 1925 he accepted a call to Park Avenue Baptist Church, the home church of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. By 1931, with Rockefeller's monetary support, a grand new interdenominational church, the Riverside Church, was completed in Morningside Heights in New York City. Riverside Church was one of the largest congregations in the country with over two thousand members. Fosdick's message reached the rest of the United States beginning in 1927 by way of radio. His National Vesper Hour established him as dean of America's radio preachers.

Fosdick was considered a mainstream religious liberal. While rarely at the forefront of any social crusade, he was never far back, always speaking of economic and racial justice.

Francis Joseph Haas (1889–1953). Francis J. Haas studied at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was ordained into the priesthood in 1913, and graduated from the Catholic University of America in 1922 with a Ph.D. in Sociology. Haas became expert in the field of social reform and was appointed director of the National Catholic School of Social Service in Washington, DC. In 1933 with the inauguration of President Roosevelt, Haas moved into government service in the area of labor relations. Haas first served on the National Recovery Administration's Labor Advisory Board and the General Code Authority. He also began in 1933 his work as a labor dispute mediator on the Nation Labor Board. Haas was chief author of the Haas-Dunnigan Plan that ended the Minneapolis trucker's strike in 1934. After a two-year assignment back at Milwaukee's St. Francis Seminary, Haas returned to government work where he served in a variety of capacities involving labor including on the Labor Policies Board of the Workers Progress Administration (WPA), and as White House emissary attempting to halt a split between labor organizations, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). During World War II, President Roosevelt appointed Haas as chair of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Throughout his career Haas wrote many articles concerning higher wages, collective bargaining, and improved working conditions.

John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964). Holmes, a minister and civil liberties activist, was ordained in the American Unitarian Association in 1904 and served in the Church of the Messiah in New York City until it was destroyed by fire in 1919. During World War I Holmes had become a staunch pacifist. He rebuilt his church both physically and philosophically based on these pacifist views, renaming it Community Church and splitting it from the Unitarian Association.

Holmes' ministry in New York was committed to liberal social and political causes. He insisted the church must play a central role. He helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920 and served as its chairman from 1939 to 1949, replacing minister and activist Harry F. Ward. Holmes advocated pacifism and civil liberties including racial equality. In the 1930s Holmes continued his fight for civil liberties. He also became even more passionate about keeping the United States out of war. As war came inevitably he assertively condemned all totalitarian states and helped force all communist-leaning individuals from high positions in the ACLU.

Francis John McConnell (1871–1953). Son of a Methodist minister, Francis J. McConnell became one of the most well-known and respected liberal Protestant leaders of his time. After serving as the minister of several Methodist Episcopal Churches (the northern branch of the Methodist denomination) in Massachusetts and New York, McConnell was elected as a bishop in 1912 of the denomination and moved to Denver, Colorado. There he became chairman of the unofficial and often radical Methodist Federation for Social Service. Moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1920, he directed his attention to labor disputes and called attention to the inhumane 12-hour day of steel workers. McConnell became bishop of the New York City area in 1928 and was subsequently elected president of Federal Council of Churches of Christ, the most influential federation of Protestant churches. McConnell supported Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas in 1928 and 1932. During the Depression of the 1930s, McConnell lectured widely and wrote, continuing his advocacy of what he called a democratic socialism.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). Born in Wright City, Missouri, Reinhold Niebuhr grew up in Missouri and in the German-American town of Lincoln, Illinois. He decided to follow his father, a German Evangelical Synod of North America minister, into the same ministry. Niebuhr attended Yale Divinity School in 1914 and 1915 where he established his theological liberalism.

Niebuhr immersed himself in the study of social and political affairs, and in 1922 he became an editorialist and contributor to the Christian Century, a liberal Protestant weekly in Chicago. In the 1920s he urged liberals to take the side of labor in the disputes between labor and the ruling capitalists. Niebuhr believed a social movement could not be built only by a faith in reasonable actions by man. Rather only a social movement sparked by a religious base and an understanding of social justice could hope to succeed.

In 1928 Niebuhr accepted a professorship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1929 Niebuhr joined the Socialist Party and unsuccessfully ran for the New York State Senate. As the Great Depression deepened he ran for Congress in 1932 but did no better. The message to Niebuhr was clear, the Socialist Party was not an acceptable means to a social movement for most Americans. He remained in the party but did not take an active role after 1932. Instead Niebuhr turned to writing, lecturing, and religious pursuits. He authored Moral Man and Immoral Society in 1932, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics in 1935, and later the major works of Beyond Tragedy (1937) and The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes, 1941 and 1943). In 1933 German theologian Paul Tillick was ousted from Nazi Germany, which greatly influenced Niebuhr's theological thinking.

By the late 1930s he put aside his efforts for social reform to focus on establishing united fronts to stop Hitler and Mussolini in Europe. Lecturing widely in England at the end of the 1930s, including as a Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, Niebuhr cemented his reputation as the most influential Christian thinker of the time. In 1941 he founded and edited the Christianity and Crisis, an "interventionist" newspaper as an alternative to the pacifist Christian Century. He also founded the Union for Democratic (UDA), an anti-fascist, noncommunist, pro-labor, educational group. Niebuhr was active on many fronts during the war including attempting to facilitate the entry of more European Jews into the United States.

In 1944 Niebuhr published The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness which provided the philosophical basis for the new Liberal party of New York. It also provided the basis for the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), an outgrowth of the UDA. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Niebuhr. Niebuhr was one of the last great liberal Protestant orators of the twentieth century.

Father John A. Ryan (1869–1945). Born in Vermillion, Minnesota, to Irish immigrant farmers, John Ryan was thoroughly steeped in a rich culture of Irish Catholicism and American populism (belief in the importance of the common man). As a youth he devoted himself to preparation for the priesthood, and in 1887 he entered St. Tomas Seminary in Minnesota. There he immersed himself in Catholic social teachings, particularly Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Ryan, ordained into the priesthood in 1898, went onto receive his doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, in 1906. Immediately published as a book, his thesis A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects was a standard of Catholic social thought in America in the twentieth century. In 1915 Ryan began a lifelong teaching career at Catholic University. Ryan authored the Bishop's Program for Social reconstruction in 1919, another standard in Catholic social thought.

In his work, Ryan, as head of the Social Action Department of the new National Catholic Welfare Conference, encouraged businessmen and labor to cooperate. Having been further influenced by the Pope's Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 and elevated to a monsignor by Pope Pius XI in 1933, Ryan became an out-spoken defender of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal policies. Roosevelt appointed Ryan to the Industrial Appeals Board of the National Recovery Administration in 1934. Ryan also staunchly defended Roosevelt from attacks by Father Charles I. Coughlin who accused Roosevelt of being pro-communist. Mandatory retirement brought Ryan's academic career at Catholic University to a close in 1939. Ryan was a leading American Catholic presence in the fight for social justice.

Harry F. Ward (1873–1966). Born in England, Harry Ward joined his uncle in Utah in 1891. Already espousing social reform, Ward, along with his uncle tried to convince parishioners to care for and minister to the poor. Educated at the University of Southern California, Northwestern, and Harvard, Ward settled in Chicago as head resident of the Northwestern Settlement House. The settlement house was a neighborhood social welfare organization providing various forms of social assistance including friendship clubs, childcare, counseling, and even job training classes to the surrounding community in that part of the city. Ward became a Methodist minister in 1902 and served at several churches in the Chicago area where he developed both a religious and social response to the inequality he saw all around him.

In connection with the creation of the Methodist Federation of Social Service, Ward authored in 1907 what became known as the Social Creed of the Churches. The creed attempted to articulate social Christian ethics as equal rights for all, improve working conditions and wages for laborers, arbitration of labor disputes, abolition of child labor, and foster a more socially responsible attitude. The Federation of Social Service attempted to put the creed into practice. Ward served as its general secretary from 1911 until 1941. The Federal Council of Churches of Christ adopted the Social Creed in 1908. Roman Catholic and Jewish religious bodies would also echo many of its guidelines in their own pronouncements. Through the next quarter century, historians claim much of the 1930s New Deal legislation was based on the creed and other pronouncements.

Ward joined the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City as a professor of Christian ethics in the fall of 1918, teaching there until 1941. In 1920 Ward co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for the defense of civil rights.

Yet another socially active organization of which Ward was a member was the American League against War and Fascism, a mass movement for peace and also served as its president. All major denominations joined and supported the League, however, the Communist Party was also a member and by the mid-1930s the League was widely accused of being communist. The League disbanded in 1940 but Ward became a target of conservative charges that he was a communist. After retiring from the Union Theological Seminary Ward continued to write and lecture until his death.

Stephen Samuel Wise (1874–1949). The descendant of six generations of rabbis, Rabbi Stephen Wise was a prominent figure in both national and international Jewish affairs. At the age of 23 Wise helped found the Federation of American Zionists. Wise was one of the first rabbis of the Reform movement to support Zionism, the return of Jews to Palestine.

In 1907 Wise began the Free Synagogue of New York and became involved with reform of New York City politics. He became close friends with the Reverend John Haynes Holmes. In the 1920s together they fostered interfaith cooperation and also attacked corruption in the city government of New York. In that same decade Wise oversaw the growth of the American Jewish Congress from a temporary wartime grouping to a permanent organization dealing with Jewish issues and humanitarian reforms. He also founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York as a liberal alternative to the Hebrew Union College, the official Reform rabbinate.

Wise recognized the danger that Adolf Hitler posed very early and organized efforts to encourage opposition to the Nazi's regime. In 1933 he organized a rally of over 50,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City and also helped to organize a boycott of German products and attempted to halt American participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

As the Nazis increasingly persecuted the German Jews, Wise tried throughout the 1930s to have immigration restrictions eased. Unsuccessful, he then turned to securing Palestine as a homeland. He lived to see the establishment of the State of Israel and American recognition of the new Jewish State in 1948.

Primary Sources

Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech titled "The Philosophy of Social Justice Through Social Action" on the campaign trail in Detroit, Michigan, on October 2, 1932. In the speech he quotes the 1931 papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and a statement by Rabbi Edward L. Israel (quoted in Roosevelt, Volume One, pp. 778-780)

It is becoming more and more clear that the principles of our religion and the findings of social sciences point in the same direction. Economists now call attention to the fact that the present distribution of wealth and income, which is so unbrotherly in the light of Christian ethics, is also unscientific in that it does not furnish purchasing power to the masses to balance consumption and production in our machine age.

And now I am going to read you another great declaration and I wonder how many people will call it radical. It is just as radical as I am. It is a declaration from one of the greatest forces of conservatism in the world, the Catholic Church. I quote, my friends, from the scholarly encyclical issued last year by the Pope, one of the greatest documents of modern times:

It is patent in our days that not alone is wealth accumulated, but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few, and that those few are frequently not the owners but only the trustees and directors of invested funds which they administer at their good pleasure.…

This accumulation of power, the characteristic note of the modern economic order, is a natural result of limitless free competition, which permits the survival of those only who are the strongest, which often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience.

This concentration of power has led to a three-fold struggle for domination: First, there is the struggle for dictatorship in the economic sphere itself; then the fierce battle to acquire control of the Government, so that its resources and authority may be abused in the economic struggle, and, finally, the clash between the Governments themselves.

And finally, I would read to you from another great statement, a statement from Rabbi Edward L. Israel, Chairman of the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. H ere is what he says:

We talk of the stabilization of business. What we need is the stabilization of human justice and happiness and the permanent employment of economic policies which will enable us to preserve the essential human values of life amid all the changing aspects of the economic order. We must have a revamping of the entire method of approach to these problems of the economic order. We need a new type of social conscience that will give us courage to act.…

We so easily forget. Once the cry of so-called prosperity is heard in the land, we all become so stampeded by the spirit of the god Mammon, that we cannot serve the dictates of social conscience … We are here to serve notice that the economic order is the invention of man; and that it cannot dominate certain eternal principles of justice and of God.

And so, my friends, I feel a little as if I had been preaching a sermon. I feel a little as if I had been talking too much of some of the fundamentals, and yet those fundamentals enter into your life and my life every day …

And so, in these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice—the only path that will lead us to a permanent bettering of our civilization, the path that our children must tread and their children must tread, the path of faith, the path of hope and the path of love toward our fellow man.

Social Creed of Protestant Churches

The Council's Commission on the Church and Social Services presented the Social Ideals of the churches to the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. The presentation and adoption of the creed took place at the Quadrennial meeting of the council held in Indianapolis, Indiana on December 6–9, 1932. This creed was originally based on Methodist Minister Dr. Harry F. Ward's Social Creed of the Churches, which he penned in 1907. Ward's creed was first adopted by the Federal Council in 1908 and appropriately revised periodically. Below are selected positions of the 1932 Social Statement (quoted in Weber, Yearbook of American Churches, 1933, pp. 319–320):

Adopted at Indianapolis, December 7, 1932

  1. Practical application of the Christian principle of social well-being to the acquisition and use of wealth; subordination of speculation and the profit motive to the creative and cooperative spirit.
  2. Social planning and control of the credit and monetary systems and the economic processes for the common good.
  3. The right of all to the opportunity for self-maintenance; a wider and fairer distribution of wealth; a living wage, as a minimum, and above this a just share for the worker in the product of industry and agriculture.
  4. Safeguarding of all workers, urban and rural, against harmful conditions of labor and occupational injury and disease.
  5. Social insurance against sickness, accident, want in old age and unemployment.
  6. Reduction of hours of labor as the general productivity of industry increases; release from employment at least one day in seven, with a shorter working week in prospect.
  7. Such special regulations of the conditions of work of women as shall safeguard their welfare and that of the family and the community.
  8. The right of employees and employers alike to organize for collective bargaining and social action; protection of both in the exercise of this right; the obligation of both to work for the public good; encouragement of cooperatives and other organizations among farmers and other groups.
  9. Abolition of child labor; adequate provision for the protection, education, spiritual nurture and wholesome recreation of every child.
  10. Protection of the family by the single standard of purity; educational preparation for marriage, homemaking and parenthood.
  11. Economic justice for the farmer in legislation, financing of agriculture, transportation and the price of farm products as compared with the cost of machinery and other commodities which he must buy.
  12. Justice, opportunity and equal rights for all; mutual goodwill and cooperation among racial, economic and religious groups.
  13. Repudiation of war, drastic reduction of armaments, participation in international agencies for the peaceable settlement of all controversies; the building of a cooperative world order.

President Roosevelt Reaches Out to Religious Charities

In the following address of October 4, 1933, before the National Conference of Catholic Charities, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke on the need for cooperation between religious charities and the government during the harsh times of the Great Depression (quoted in Roosevelt, Volume Two, pp. 379–381). He spoke, quite simply, on the need for faith.

… A democracy, the right kind of democracy, is bound together by the ties of neighborliness.

That tie, my friends, has been the guiding spirit of your work for the sick, for the children in need, and for the aged and friendless. And you who have participated in the actual day-to-day work of practical and useful charity understand well that no program of recovery can suddenly restore all our people to self-support. This is the time when you and I know that though we have proceeded a portion of the way, the longer, harder part still lies ahead; we must redouble our efforts to care for those who must still depend upon relief, to prevent the disintegration of home life, and to stand by the victims of the depression until it is definitely past.

The Federal Government has inaugurated new measures of relief on a vast scale, but the Federal Government cannot, and does not intend to, take over the whole job. Many times we have insisted that every community and every State must first do its share.

Out of this picture we are developing a new science of social treatment and rehabilitation—working in out through an unselfish partnership, a partnership between great church and private social service agencies and the agencies of Government itself.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Identify and describe the types of responses the various religious denominations in the United States made to relieve the economic suffering brought on by the Great Depression. What trends were apparent through the 1930s in perspectives of various denominational church leaders toward the New Deal programs of President Roosevelt?
  • What denominations are present in your community? Do they offer certain forms of social services to their members and to the community in general?



Flynn, George Q. American Catholics & the Roosevelt Presidency, 1932–1936. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.

Handy, Robert T. A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

——. A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Kincheloe, Samuel C. Research Memorandum on Religion in the Depression. New York: Social Science Research Council, 1937.

Landis, Benson Y., ed. Yearbook of American Churches: 1941 Edition. Jackson Heights, NJ: Yearbook of American Churches Press, 1941.

Levinger, Rabbi Lee J. A History of the Jews in the United States. Cincinnati: Commission on Jewish Education, 1949.

Miller, Robert M. American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919–1939. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

O'Brien, David J. American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume One, 1929–1932. New York: Random House, Inc., 1938.

——. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two, 1933. New York: Random House, Inc., 1938.

Weber, Herman C., ed. Yearbook of American Churches: A Record of Religious Activities in the United States for the Year 1932. New York: Round Table Press, Inc., 1933.

——. Yearbook of American Churches: A Record of Religious Activities in the United States for the Years 1933 and 1934. New York: Association Press, 1935.

——. Yearbook of American Churches: A Record of Religious Activities in the United States for the Years 1935 and 1936. New York: Yearbook of American Churches Press, 1937.

——. Yearbook of American Churches: A Record of Religious Activities in the United States for the Years 1937 and 1938. Elmhurst, NY: Yearbook of American Churches Press, 1939.

Further Reading

Blantz, Thomas E. A Priest in Public Service: Francis J. Haas and the New Deal. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

"Catholic Charities U.S.A.," available from the World Wide Web at

Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1987.

Feingold, Henry L. A Time For Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920–1945. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. University Park, PN: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

"Jewish Defense League," available from the World Wide Web at

"National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America," available from the World Wide Web at

Nawyn, William E. American Protestantism's Response to Germany's Jews and Refugees, 1933–1941. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Nelsen, Hart M., Raytha L. Yokley, and Anne K. Nelsen, eds. The Black Church in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971.

O'Grady, John. Catholic Charities in the United States. New York: Arno Press, 1971.

Seaton, Douglas P. Catholics and Radicals: The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists and the American Labor Movement, from Depression to Cold War. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1981.

Skinner, James M. The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933–1970. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1993.

Strong, Donald S. Organized Anti-Semitism in America: The Rise of Group Prejudice During the Decade 1930–40. Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941.

The League of American Writers. We Hold These Truths … New York: The League of American Writers, 1939.

Troester, Rosalie R., ed. Voices From the Catholic Worker. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993.

See Also

Everyday Life ; Prohibition Repealed

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Religion 1931-1939

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