- No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta by Alison Collis Greene
For the past decade, shaped by current fascinations with the Christian, corporate Right, historians have concentrated their scholarship on probusiness dynamics in the South's (and nation's) pulpits and pews. While invested in this inquiry, Alison Collis Greene pursues a different goal. In her well-orchestrated book, she seeks to elucidate the phenomenal range of attitudes toward markets, [End Page 427] governance, God, and the common good that once made the South a hothouse for many gospels. Amid the crises of the Depression, one particularly embattled sector of this region—the Mississippi Delta—nurtured a vast repertoire of political visions and daring and creative dreams of a future in which the interests of hard-working, God-fearing people could rule.
Collis Greene offers four claims, each of which play on the interpretive flexibility of her book's title. First, she argues that the Depression transformed the political soul of the South; blighted by failing farms, families, and economies, Delta residents searched for redemption in new places. "It was time for a higher power to intervene," they believed, and so "They looked to God, and then they looked to Roosevelt" (2). No longer able to save the poor or themselves through old-fashioned voluntarism, Delta residents "re-envisioned the relationship between church and state and re-evaluated the responsibilities of each for the welfare of the nation and its people" (3). Amid reassessment, Collis Greene asserts, churchgoers sought escape from the Depression in a dizzying array of movements, most of which placed trust in Washington. Although right-wing backlash also emerged from this mix, she stresses the contingencies and "striking religious, ethnic, and political diversity" of experience that made the eventual rise of the southern Religious Right no sure thing (3).
Collis Greene's second evocation of her title relates to this point: that the troubled Thirties sparked a spiritual fervor that transcended traditional boundaries. Depression had no decisive hold over people, for theirs was an irrepressible zeal focused on heaven. Collis Greene shines when describing this fervor, and revealing the myriad means rank-and-file Delta citizens, black and white, embraced to address society's trials. With the flare of a novelist and the urgency of a reformer, she guides the reader through grassroots America's encounter with catastrophe, pausing frequently to underscore common people's burdens but also to highlight their resilience and empowerment in the fight for survival. Gospel music, folk hymns, and the blues; fire-and-brimstone revivalism, fist-pounding preaching, and led-by-the-spirit Pentecostal worship; "social gospels," in which a human Jesus was held high as an example of civil service, and "socialist gospels," in which a radical Jesus occupied center stage: "In this multitude of ways large and small," Collis Greene submits, the Delta's denizens calibrated a faith in the divine to their needs and desires in the here-and-now (47). Her careful and poignant rendering of this process and the ravaged local contexts in which they unfolded (from the streets of Memphis to the cotton farms of Mississippi County, Arkansas) is social history at its best.
To her credit, Collis Greene also carefully and poignantly maps out the ways that the Delta's "religious elites"—wealthy Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Southern Baptists—responded to the Depression with their own bundle of interests and innovations, as men and women shaken by their "faltering social power and moral authority" (5). In this third facet she shows how some of these elites combatted social dislocation by encouraging a progressive politics of reconstruction. "Many liberals and moderates," she explains, "found a home in the New Deal coalition, often as agents of the state rather than of the church. They helped to shape New Deal policy and in so doing forged tenuous relationships with the region's displaced black and white sharecroppers and...