Church History
Great Depression
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Great Depression

A stock market crash in 1929 triggered a series of economic disasters across the world that widened poverty, devastated financial institutions, and weakened international trade. This widespread crisis, known as the Great Depression, touched virtually every country in the world. At the time, about 90 percent of Church membership lived in the United States, where the Depression lasted about a decade. Much of the remaining membership lived in Canada, Europe, the Pacific Islands, Central and South America, and Asia, where some of the worst effects were seen. Nearly every congregation of the Church experienced heavy stress on members’ livelihoods and sustenance, prompting both local and general responses from the Church. 1

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Great Depression: Breadline

Bread line in New York City during the Great Depression.

Women serving in the Relief Society played a key role in caring for the poor and coordinating welfare programs before and during the Depression. In Germany, where financial stress was compounded by the country’s obligation to pay reparations after World War I, regular Relief Society events like sewing drives and handwork bazaars became a crucial early response to the crisis. 2 Women and men added musical performances, dancing, poetry reading, and speeches to the bazaars and fundraisers, which lifted spirits while raising funds for the poor. 3 During the initial economic downturn in the United States, members of the Relief Society collected donations and volunteered at canning plants and sewing shops. Bishops and Relief Society leaders worked together to identify families in need and distribute goods to the poor.

Latter-day Saints cooperated with local and state governments, Protestants, Catholics, and private relief agencies to assist the needy. For example, Utah governor George Dern appointed Presiding Bishop Sylvester Q. Cannon as chair of the State Advisory Council of Unemployment, which reviewed response strategies based on various measures, including the Church’s house-by-house employment survey of Salt Lake City. The state government also utilized the Relief Society’s Social Service Exchange as a clearing house for various charitable efforts. This collaboration was led by Amy Brown Lyman, who was serving as first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency. 4 But as the crisis continued and caseloads began to exceed the capacity of the Relief Society Social Service Department, leaders at the stake and general levels looked to expand welfare programs to better support Church members. 5

In the Pioneer Utah Stake, where average personal income had dropped by nearly half, stake president Harold B. Lee piloted programs to improve storehouse inventory and provide work opportunities. Noticing the success of this stake’s response, the First Presidency called on Lee to head a General Church Security Committee and develop a Churchwide welfare plan. In 1933 and 1934, the committee designed a plan modeled in part after the Relief Society’s welfare programs to administer aid in times of emergency while cultivating personal resourcefulness and financial independence. 6 This new Church Security Plan, announced in 1936, marked the beginning of the Church’s modern welfare program.

Many countries suffering through the Depression implemented various recovery strategies, such as reforming banking institutions, canceling interest payments on debt, sponsoring infrastructure projects and welfare programs, and making direct payments to the unemployed. Great Britain and the United States introduced new regulations and securities programs to prevent market panics and protect exchanges. By the mid-1930s, most depressed countries began to rebound, and by 1939, production and average personal income reached levels similar to 1929. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 introduced a new economic emergency, this time compelling industries in many countries to accelerate production in support of the war effort. 7 New banking standards, reduced international trade, and the early effects of the war brought the Great Depression to a close. 8

Related Topics: Welfare Programs, Relief Society, Amy Brown Lyman, Harold B. Lee

Notes

  1. Donald Q. Cannon and James B. Mayfield, “Welfare and Humanitarian Aid, 1936–Present,” in Brandon S. Plewe, ed., Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2012), 148–51.

  2. See Topic: World War I.

  3. Cologne Branch Relief Society Minutes and Records, 213, LR 1868 14, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; see also “Germany: ‘We Had Another Working Hour This Week,’” Global Histories, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/global-histories/germany/stories-of-faith/de-02-another-working-hour.

  4. Thomas G. Alexander, Utah: The Right Place, rev. ed. (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2007), 314–15, 332–33.

  5. Cannon and Mayfield, “Welfare and Humanitarian Aid,” 148; Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer, “The Depression Years: 1929–1939,” in California Saints: A 150-Year Legacy in the Golden State (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1996), 283–300; Evelyn Hodges Lewis, Interview, 1979, OH 553, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  6. Harold B. Lee, “Church Security: Retrospect, Introspect, Prospect,” Improvement Era, vol. 40, no. 4 (Apr. 1937), 204–10; see also Topic: Welfare Programs.

  7. See Topic: World War II.

  8. Peter Temin, “Great Depression,” in Joel Mokyr, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).