A Reversal of Fortunes: Economic Crisis, Protestant Decline, and the Rise of a New Evangelical Era

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Alison Collis Greene, Mississippi State University
In May 1930, Sutton Griggs and his congregation at the prominent Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis defaulted on their mortgage. A famous writer and minister, Griggs had lost his savings in the stock market crash of 1929, and his church’s fortunes followed his. He could not save the church, and the cavernous building soon echoed with the voices of a new body of worshippers. Charles Mason, founder of the pentecostal Church of God in Christ and a minister in one of its Memphis churches, purchased the historic structure from Griggs’s creditors. While the Baptists in the city struggled to survive the Depression, the Church of God in Christ grew from eight to twenty-five congregations in Memphis alone and expanded even more rapidly into the urban North and Midwest.

The transfer of a celebrated Baptist church to pentecostal hands in the early years of the Great Depression illustrates a less abrupt but more dramatic shift in power from established black and white denominations to pentecostal and evangelical churches over the ensuing decades. Until the Great Depression, the nation’s established churches were on an upward trajectory in both numbers and influence. But the Great Depression crippled the Protestant establishment, which slipped from the center of charity and social reform to the periphery. At the same time, the economic crisis made room for evangelical and pentecostal churches that emphasized individual salvation and authentic religious experience. While the established churches struggled to maintain programming and participation, upstart evangelicals and pentecostals employed creative techniques and a core of committed volunteers to keep church operations afloat and expand membership. While it would be decades before evangelicals and pentecostals rivaled their established counterparts in numbers and national influence, the Great Depression marked the beginning of a gradual transition of power from the mainline to its upstart rivals.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>