Alison Greene is Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Mississippi State University. This interview is based on her new book, No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write No Depression in Heaven?
AG: The book asks questions that have mattered to me for a very long time, and in that sense I can’t really imagine having written anything else. But the more practical story is pretty simple: I was late choosing a dissertation topic that matched the more amorphous interests and questions I went to graduate school to pursue (take heart, indecisive graduate students!). My third year in the PhD program, I was reading for comps, pretty sure that I didn’t want to write a dissertation from any of the research I’d done up to that point, and really tired of history books. For some reason, I did not find this condition particularly alarming. Rather than buckling down I started taking breaks to read fiction—with the rule that the fiction fit the period I was reading.
So it was that in a single day I read Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal and reread Grapes of Wrath. And then I wanted to scrap the rest of my exams list and just read everything I could find about the Great Depression, and most especially about religion and the Great Depression—because it seemed so obvious from those two wonderful books that there would have been religious upheavals connected to the economic and social ones of that period. And then it’s the usual story: I was amazed how little had been written about religion and the Depression, realized that that moment in American history was my home, and I’ve been immersed in it ever since.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of No Depression in Heaven?
AG: The Great Depression and New Deal remade American religion just as it remade the nation’s politics and social order. Southern voluntary and religious aid—already scanty—collapsed with the onset of the Depression, religious activists across the theological and political spectrum demanded the New Deal and helped shape it, and all this upheaval prompted heated debates about the relative place of church and state in individuals’ lives and eventually reshaped southern churches’ engagement with politics, and with each other.
JF: Why do we need to read No Depression in Heaven?
AG: Well, let me give you two very different reasons, because I think it’s a book that does two very different things.
First, it’s a book about religion and politics, and although I did not set out to write a book that had something to say to contemporary political debates, I think the book does that. There’s a lot of handwringing about the relatively small (and steadily diminishing) portion of the federal budget that goes to social programs. Opponents of a federal safety net claim that churches and voluntary agencies could take better care of people and make them behave better in the process. Welfare historians have already shown that this is not the case, but what really struck me was how quickly the limited, patchwork aid that churches and religious agencies offered before the Depression fell apart. More interesting still was that they just seemed stunned by the whole thing. So it’s a book about how that happened, and what happened after that, and I think it provides some context for contemporary debates about a safety net.
Second, it’s a book about how a wide swath of ordinary people in one place—Memphis and the Delta regions of Mississippi and Arkansas—encountered a crisis they could scarcely comprehend. That’s what drew me to the topic to start, and even as my sources carried me further into politics than I planned to go, I worked hard to anchor my narrative in the experiences and struggles of people—across lines of class, race, ethnicity, denomination and religion—who endured real suffering and loss during the Great Depression. Folks spent a lot of time just bewildered, trying to understand the suffering and sorrow and loss around them. I linger over that sense of uncertainty and fear, because it’s so easy now to look back and say, oh, we know how the Depression ended, and really it wasn’t that bad, and look how prosperous the next decades were! But in the moment, people were just trying to make it, and then to make sure nothing like what they were experiencing would happen again, and for many southerners religious communities were the places where they did that work. I hope that No Depression in Heaven says something about why that is, and what that meant.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AG: I’ve been drawn to the study of religion since I was eleven years old, although I didn’t know enough then to know that’s what I was doing. My dad was a minister of a small church, and that church was pretty much my world. And then, very suddenly and for what I still believe to be some very silly reasons, he wasn’t a minister anymore and that world vanished overnight—except we still lived in the community. It’s an altogether minor and ordinary trauma as far as such things go, and we’re all the better for it. But it left me with a lifetime worth of questions about how religious communities work. In college at UNC, I took—and loved—every course I could find in Hebrew Bible and the anthropology of religion. But my questions were always of the “where did that come from?” and “how did we end up here?” variety. In graduate school, with the help of four wonderful mentors—Glenda Gilmore, Jon Butler, Skip Stout, and Beverly Gage—I found history and never looked back.
JF: What is your next project?
AG: My next book, God’s Green Earth: Religion, Race, and the Land in the Modern South, focuses on the racial and religious underpinnings of debates about the relationship between people and the land. Its characters are the farmers, rural reformers, civil rights activists, grassroots theologians, and civic leaders who fought from the turn of the twentieth century to beyond the civil rights era to shape the region’s approaches to agriculture, conservation, and the environment. For me, the project started with a group of southern Christian socialists who formed an organization called Friends of the Soil. They linked activists across the South and West together “to lead men to regard the earth as holy and man as the steward of the Eternal,” as they put it. On a more practical level, Friends of the Soil responded to the organic racism of southern agrarians and western farmers by demanding resource conservation and land redistribution. Those activists are my way into a bigger story about how nineteenth-century Protestantism, capitalism, and racism intertwined to create notions of land ownership that emphasized owner over inhabitant and profit over preservation. Friends of the Soil and other movements both within and without Protestantism later challenged the religious justifications for capitalism and racism and fought to reshape American ideas about land ownership and environmental stewardship. I’m just venturing into environmental history, and it’s a whole new challenge—and a lot of fun. Just like this interview! Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about the book.