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date: 25 May 2019

Summary and Keywords

The Great Depression of 1929–1941 brought not only economic and social crisis, but also forced families, churches, and religious organizations to reckon with individual and social suffering in ways that they had not done in the United States since the Civil War. This reckoning introduced a period of both theological and institutional transformation. Theologians wrestled not only with the domestic depression, but also with international instability as they faced questions about pacifism, economic and racial justice, and religious persecution. Ordinary people prayed for rain and revival. Many turned to their religious communities to wrestle together with the troubles they faced, or turned from those communities in disappointment and despair.

During the decades before the Great Depression, religious institutions across the United States had expanded their charitable efforts and their social reform campaigns, but the Depression wiped out the support for that work just as Americans needed it most. The New Deal brought a new set of questions about the relative roles of church and state in welfare and reform and introduced a period of religious ferment and church–state realignment. At the same time, the discontent and dislocation that the Great Depression wrought on local communities meant that individuals, families, and communities wrestled with deep theological questions together, often in ways that fractured old religious alliances and forged new ones. For American Jews and some Catholics, events in Europe proved even more troubling than those at home, and local communities reorganized around international activism and engagement.

Keywords: Great Depression, New Deal, charity, welfare, theology, social reform

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