Breadlines and Storm Clouds: The Century 1930-1937

by Dean Peerman

Dean Peerman is a senior editor at the Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  August 29-September 5, 1984, p. 795. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In the opinion of the Century’s editors, the 1929 depression signaled something more basic than a temporary malfunctioning of the capitalist system; it was indicative of fundamental flaws in the system itself. And in the war to follow, editor Morrison’s own position differed from that of both Niebuhr and Kirby Page, though it was closer to Page’s.

When the stock market crashed in October of 1929. The Christian Century was not unduly distressed; in fact, it viewed what had happened on Wall Street as potentially salutary, offering the American public “the privilege of sobering up” after a two-year “speculative debauch.” But the Century was hardly alone in thinking that the crash could teach a much-needed lesson; such public figures as President Herbert Hoover, former President Calvin Coolidge, John Maynard Keynes and Henry Ford thought so, too. The gloomiest forecasters predicted nothing more than a recession, to be followed by a sharp upturn within a few months. The New York Times did not even pick the market collapse as the top story of 1929, instead choosing Richard Byrd’s South Pole expedition. In January 1930, Andrew Mellon, secretary of the treasury, “could see nothing that is either menacing or warranting pessimism”; Hoover announced in May that “we have now passed the worst”; in September the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, declared that “the business horizon is clear.” But by then several million people were out of work and banks were failing all over the country, and by 1933 -- in the depths of the Great Depression --  the number of unemployed had reached 16 million, or about one-third of the available work force.

As the depression deepened and human suffering on a massive scale ensued, it became increasingly evident that the nation was in the grip of a grave economic and social crisis -- one that would not soon abate. In a memorable account epitomizing that crisis, Century Managing Editor Paul Hutchinson described a demonstration in which 20,000 men marched in pouring rain through Chicago’s downtown area shouting, “We want food!”; they then assembled on the lakefront for a mass meeting in which they stood ankle-deep in mud (November 9,1932).

In the opinion of the Century’s editors, the depression signaled something more basic than a temporary malfunctioning of the capitalist system; it was indicative of fundamental flaws in the system itself. For that system, based on acquisitiveness and unrestrained competition, inevitably resulted in an unfair distribution of wealth. And although the market crash was more a symptom than a cause of the crisis, the church had been complicit in the speculative frenzy that precipitated the crash: “The people who were gambling most recklessly sat in its pews, and never felt the slightest incongruity between their presence at worship on Sunday and their luck in the profit-chase during the rest of the week” (November 25, 1931).

As a remedy for “the breakdown of our competitive order,” the Century, in a March 11,1931, editorial, came out strongly in favor of a managed national economy:

It is time to cry aloud for an end to the era of laissez faire and the unhindered individualism of profit-seeking production. It is time for the preaching of a new evangelism -- the evangelism of the voluntary liquidation of the competitive system in order that there may be a planned economy which shall insure to every person in the nation an adequate supply of the goods of life.

Although few specifics were given for such an economic plan -- and no suggestions on how to bring about the “voluntary liquidation” of the old system -- the magazine was clearly championing a socialist ideal. In the same issue theologian John Bennett gave reasons why Christianity and socialism need each other. And the very next week an editorial titled “Two Years of Mr. Hoover,” while finding the president to be a man of conscience and courage, nonetheless took him to task for his “almost naïve confidence” in private and competitive enterprise and his “morbid fear of socialism.”

It might seem surprising, then, that Editor Charles Clayton Morrison endorsed Hoover for re-election in 1932. But Morrison believed that despite the Republican incumbent’s adherence to “rugged individualism” and his overly cautious approach to the depression, he would be more liberal -- or at least more responsibly conservative -- than Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The editor feared that if elected, Roosevelt would go to the White House “under enormous obligations to the most sinister Randolph Hearst”; the Hearst “black shadow” would be cast over his entire foreign policy (October 5, 1932). Also, if Hoover had unfortunately retreated to an equivocal position on the prohibition issue, Roosevelt was all too unequivocal -- on the wrong (i.e., the wet) side. (Repeal of prohibition came about in 1933, but it was no doubt inevitable, regardless of who was elected in ‘32. Nonenforcement, bootlegging and disdain had taken their toll, turning a Protestant triumph into a major defeat and shaking Protestant self-confidence. With hindsight, the Century editorialized that the 18th Amendment was an inadequate, unwise and undemocratic method of effecting federal control of the liquor traffic; but this was a noticeable change of tune, for the magazine had long supported the amendment.)

Again in ‘32 Norman Thomas was the Socialist candidate. Morrison much admired Thomas and shared most of his views, but he regarded the two-party system as essential to American government, corrupt and self-seeking though that system might be. No third party could be effective, he felt, unless it displaced one of the major parties -- in which case it would become a competitor for power, with its idealism and sincerity certain to be “diluted with opportunism and corrupted with the lust of office and the greed for the spoils of office” (October 19, 1932). Managing Editor Hutchinson, who in 1932 joined the socialist Chicago-Call-to-Action Movement, did back Thomas that year -- a fact that was not acknowledged in the Century, however, until after the fact, in a casual reference in a book review (October 3, 1934).

In a series of editorials beginning in the spring of ‘32, the Century envisioned and promoted a different kind of third party -- a party without candidates, a party representing disinterested political principles rather than special interests. Intended to influence the two-party system constructively, the Disinterested Party would serve “as the organized and effective agency of progressive policies conceived and projected only for the well-being of the whole body politic,” and it would be “protected against decadence by its renunciation of officeholding and patronage.”

The presence in our body politic of such a party is the only means by which democracy can be saved from its present moral chaos, from the tyranny of entrenched interests, from the insolence of a predatory officeholding party system, and from the peril of a fascist dictatorship of big business, on the one hand, or of a communist dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other [December 31, 1932].

The Disinterested Party would exist only for its platform, and it would endorse only those major-party candidates who accepted that platform. It would be a changing platform, responsive to the changing conditions of the nation and the world. The platform planks for ‘32 embodied a number of Century concerns: U.S. adherence to the World Court protocol; U.S. entry into the League of Nations, provided that its covenant be amended to eliminate military sanctions; U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union (which was granted a year later); the safeguarding of the rights of conscientious objectors (including those denied citizenship, such as Canadian-born theologian D. C. Macintosh of Yale Divinity School); the abolition of compulsory military training in state-supported educational institutions other than military and naval academies; emergency measures for relief and public-works employment; the securing of constitutional rights for minorities; the reduction of gross inequality of income by steeply progressive rates of taxation on large incomes; “progressive socialization of the ownership and control of natural resources, public utilities and basic industries”; “the nationalization of our entire banking system”; and so on (June 8, 1932).

During the ‘30s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though himself a Century contributing editor at the time, became more and more critical of the kind of social-gospel liberalism that the journal had championed for decades. With his brand of neo-orthodoxy Niebuhr was endeavoring to transform and reshape the social gospel rather than dispense with it entirely, but he deplored what he saw as its shallow optimism, its naïve idealism, its moral absolutism. His objection to the proposal for a Disinterested Party foreshadowed more intense debates that were to come. From the standpoint of political realism, said Niebuhr, the proposal is “pure moonshine.”

It represents the inevitable confusion of middle-class intellectualism which imagines that political changes are achieved by the united efforts of good people who bring pressure to bear upon traditional political parties. Such a hope completely ignores the economic basis of politics and the political inefficacy of nonpartisan action [November 9, 1932].

A lengthy editorial comment appended to Niebuhr’s criticism contended that the Century shared his presupposition about the economic basis of politics and that in several ways he had misconceived the magazine’s thesis concerning the Disinterested Party. In any case, nothing like that party was ever launched on a truly national scale, although something resembling its modus vivendi may be seen today in various states in independent-voter organizations.

Put on the defensive by Niebuhr’s assaults on liberalism, the Century sought to counter him in various ways. For example, it argued that liberalism, contrary to its critics, is not a system of doctrines but simply a method of inquiry -- a free method unbound by orthodoxy’s rigid and authoritarian norms. Moreover, it maintained, Niebuhr himself relied on that method; he surely had not arrived at his views via fundamentalism. The magazine was right in saying that Niebuhr was essentially a liberal, but it was wrong in reducing theological liberalism to a method, for liberalism manifestly had doctrines and presuppositions of its own.

Roosevelt’s margin of victory in 1932 was so large that he was not beholden to William Randolph Hearst or anyone else. Relieved that their fears had been unwarranted, the Century’s editors became more and more enthusiastic about the new president and his New Deal policies. This support was not uncritical, however. Perceiving the president to be a trial-and-error experimenter more inclined to tinker with capitalism than to replace it, the magazine voiced concern that he might not move far enough toward socialism. Singling out capitalism as “the reason of our misery,” it hoped that Roosevelt would have the courage to carry out a government takeover of business should that prove necessary.

The Century interpreted the results of the off-year elections of 1934 as giving Roosevelt a clear-cut mandate that said, “Go left, Mr. President, go left”; it asserted that “many features of the 1934 election suggest that a union of forces for a vigorous offensive in support of an avowedly radical program is not impossible” (November 14, 1934). Of the “alphabet soup” of federal agencies initiated by Roosevelt, not all found equal favor with the publication; it was, for instance, doubtful about the National Recovery Administration long before the Supreme Court pronounced that agency s death sentence (even so, it carried the NRA eagle sign on its second page for many months). But the Century lauded the government’s taking a direct role in the development of natural resources in such innovative projects as the Tennessee Valley Authority. Concluded Managing Editor Hutchinson in a three-part series on the TVA: “The projectors of this many-sided venture have a real chance to produce, on a scale to command imitation, a new order of life for this country” (April 25, 1934).

How was this “new order of life,” this new economic system, to come about? According to the Century, “the new system calls pre-eminently for an economic man of cooperative, unselfish self-restraint, operating in a limited market determined according to a social plan,” and the only agency in the United States capable of calling forth that individual was the Christian church: “The function of the Christian church is to provide the new economic man whose birth and growth will match the birth and growth of the new economic system.” This, the magazine affirmed, “is the moment for which the social gospel has been waiting” (October 11, 1933). Furthermore: “If the Christian church once sees what is involved, it will find here the most challenging moral issue with which it has ever come to grips, the issue of persuading its members to the actual renunciation of profits, voluntarily, on behalf of the general good” (August 30, 1933). The paper was also of the opinion that “the step from the Roosevelt system to a true and candid socialization of the economic system would be a much easier one to take than is generally realized” (January 17, 1934).

Critics on the Century’s left differed with the magazine on how to reach the goals they shared with it; its notion of “revolution” was for them too evolutionary and too painless. The New Deal did not, in their estimate, constitute the hardest step in bringing about a socialized economic system; the idealistic weekly was sidestepping the crucial issues of class conflict and the factor of coercion in effecting social justice. And they were highly skeptical about the possibility of persuading middle-class Protestants -- most of whom were to the right of Roosevelt -- to forego profits voluntarily.

By 1937, however, labor had made such gains, “corporation buccaneering” had been so greatly curbed, and the administration had so radically reformed American capitalism that the Century was no longer calling for even an evolutionary revolution; it was already under way.

Once it became clear that the new capitalism would not be left entirely in the hands of capitalists, Editor Morrison seemed able to live with it. The Century was less politically ideological in 1937 than it had been in 1933 and 1934. But if it largely accommodated itself to Roosevelt’s domestic programs and policies, it was often uneasy with his foreign policy (except for his “good neighbor” policy toward Latin America, which it heartily approved of). Even in endorsing him for re-election in 1936, the magazine expressed “profound disquiet” over his “big navy proclivities.” Noting that “all along the international horizon flashes the lightning of coming storm,” the editors worried about the weaknesses of the nation’s neutrality legislation and wondered whether its farmers and industrialists would be able to resist the moneymaking opportunities of wartime situation (November 11, 1936). As domestic policy and foreign policy seemed to merge in an armaments policy designed as a “quick fix” to restore prosperity and end unemployment, the peace-oriented journal found the cure worse than the malady. Apprehensive from the time of Roosevelt’s “portentous” talk in Chicago in October 1937 about quarantining Japan -- and fearful of a ‘‘repetition of the folly of 1917” -- it broke with the president, eventually terming him the Führer of an inchoate fascism.

Calamitous though the depression was for the U.S., the Century’s editors gave no less attention during the ‘30s to major happenings abroad -- and most of those were calamitous, too. The depression itself had disastrous consequences elsewhere, especially in Europe, and in Germany the economic predicament and the resulting social malaise contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Events such as Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and its gradual penetration of China proper, coupled with Italy’s mid-decade conquest of Ethiopia, demonstrated the virtual uselessness of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, even though almost all of the world’s nations -- including Japan and Italy -- had ratified it, thereby proclaiming their renunciation of war. Having labored long and hard to promote and publicize the peace pact, the Century was hard put to acknowledge its ineffectiveness. Nonetheless it did so, saying that the pact was part of a peace structure based on the unsound presupposition that the plighted word of nations may be trusted, and that it had lost prestige since it was negotiated (October 16 and November 6,1935). During this period the Century followed closely the. progress of Mahatma Gandhi’s effort to gain India’s independence from Britain; though that effort had its ups and downs, it was one development on the international scene that the journal could be positive about. Primarily because of his espousal of nonviolent resistance, the Mahatma became a model of religious heroism for the Century and many of its readers. When he caused a split in his movement by putting the independence struggle “on hold” in order to crusade in behalf of his country’s “untouchable” castes, the paper lavished praise on him:

He has once more challenged the spiritual stupor of mankind. He did it before with his claim that the achievement of vast national purposes is not dependent upon resort to force. Here he penetrates to an even more greatly needed spiritual principle, namely, that the doing of justice must precede the gaining of justice. He stands in the direct succession of that prophet who saw that judgment must begin in the house of God, and of the even greater prophet who saw that blessing at the altar requires a prior establishment of right relations with the socially wronged [October 3. 1934].

The editors found Gandhi to be an embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount, but frequent contributor John Haynes Holmes went even further and touted him as “the Christ of modern times” (November 25, 1931). Understandably, this was too much for some readers, who sent in letters objecting to Holmes’s deification of the Indian leader, however noble and saintly he might be.

Initially, Century editors, like many other observers, underestimated the Nazi menace. In 1932, when Hitler was offered the chancellorship of Germany but seemed unlikely to be able to form a Reichstag majority, the magazine maintained that the Nazis no longer threatened to function “as a genuinely fascist party” (November 30, 1932). The next year, when Hitler did accede to the chancellorship, it editorialized that the necessary compromises of parliamentary politics had already taken the terror out of him (February 8, 1933). It saw him as no more than “a demagogue and a great political orator” --  hardly a man equipped to give Germany “that strong leadership it wants so badly.” Moreover: “The real German revolution is yet to come. . . . The third reich will certainly come, but Hitler is not likely to go down in history as its founder’’ (March 15, 1933).

Shortly, however, the extent of Hitler’s triumph, and the gravity of the situation thus brought about, was all too clear. It was a triumph, said the Century, that the allies had brought on themselves -- by refusing to take “the road of conciliation” and by making of the Versailles Treaty “nothing but a victors’ vengeance, a “brutal betrayal” of the German people’s confidence. “We who defeated Germany helped to make Hitler” (May 10, 1933). The journal denounced the Nazi regime’s “unspeakable brutalities” against Jews, urged the U.S. government to provide haven for refugees and deportees, and called for a boycott of the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. It kept tabs on the worsening circumstances of Germany’s Protestant churches, and it commended the 6,000 pastors who dared to speak out against Hitler’s creation of a state-controlled “German Church.” At the same time it rebuked the pastors for opposing not Nazi totalitarianism in tow but only its encroachments on organized religion; they were making a truly heroic stand, but “the cause which they champion is not the fully Christian ideal” (February 7, 1934). By 1935 the Century was excoriating Hitler in unequivocal terms: “The madman of Berlin has cast away the last shred of pacific pretense and has thrown down the gauntlet to Europe.” But though German rearmament, along with the increased military budgets of the allied powers, made war an “acute possibility,” it was not inevitable: “The nations of Europe are all armed to the teeth, and still they cannot compel Germany to observe the terms of an unfair treaty. Something more is needed than weapons and more weapons, soldiers and more soldiers. Honest and equal disarmament has not been proved futile, for it has not been tried” (March 27, 1935). For the Century of Charles Clayton Morrison, war was never inevitable until the shooting began. “War, even in these dangerous days, is still as unnecessary as it is wicked” (April 8, 1936).

But when the hoped-for disarmament did not materialize -- and as Europe seemed to rush toward the precipice -- the magazine took refuge in neutralist sentiment. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 -- a war that was a kind of dress rehearsal for World War II -- it declared that its sympathies were “wholeheartedly” with the duly elected republican government; it detested “this Franco revolt,” which was going forward in large part because of aid from fascist Germany and Italy. Nonetheless, “it is the duty of the United States to maintain a zone of sanity in a world going mad by keeping out of war of any description in anyplace” (January 27, 1937). Ultimately -- and ironically, given the publication’s longtime internationalist stance -- that neutralism was hard to distinguish from isolationism. It held to that position until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Recoiling remorsefully from the churches’ all-out support of militarism and nationalism in World War I, many mainstream Protestants committed themselves, in varying degrees, to Christian pacifism in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Denominational assemblies decried war as contrary to the will of God and the mind of Christ; thousands of pastors and students signed pledges vowing never to take up arms; the interdenominational pacifist organization known as the Fellowship of Reconciliation flourished. Reinhold Niebuhr, more and more convinced that the law of love cannot be an absolute guide of conduct in social morality and politics, defected from the ranks of the FOR early in 1934 and became a kind of bête noire to pacifists -- especially to those who claimed that pacifism was politically adequate. That same year, however, Niebuhr was also at pains to differentiate his neo-orthodox thinking from that of Karl Barth. Although Barth himself was one of Hitlerism’s “most determined foes,” Barthian theology abetted Hitler’s type of reactionary politics: “Here,” said Niebuhr, “religious absolutism which begins by making the conscience sensitive to all human weakness ends in complacency toward social injustice” (June 6, 1934).

The Century absorbed a Christian socialist periodical, the World Tomorrow, in August of that year, and its editor in chief, Kirby Page, a noted pacifist, became a Century contributing editor. Niebuhr and Page had been colleagues on the World Tomorrow; now both were on the Century’s masthead, presenting sharply contrasting points of view in the magazine. But partly as a result of the Niebuhrian onslaught, Page, though staunchly adhering to pacifism, gradually relinquished the claim to political relevance; for the Christian, pacifism was the way of the cross, the way of discipleship. The rationale was not peace at any price, but love at all costs.

Editor Morrison’s own position differed from that of both Niebuhr and Page, though it was closer to Page’s. He shared the pacifists’ convictions about the sinfulness of war, but he did not eschew the use of force in all circumstances and he never joined the FOR, despite numerous invitations and entreaties; he thought of himself as a pragmatic noninterventionist rather than as an absolute pacifist. His peace stand stemmed from his conception of the church, and to him the church was a distinctive amalgam of religion and culture, best exemplified in America. His primary concern was to prevent the church from becoming captive to secular forces, to preserve its freedom of action as an instrument of the social gospel --  and “the most acute aspect of the church’s subservient relation to the political state . . . is that of war.” Widespread renunciation of war would go far toward persuading both church and society of the fact that “the Christian allegiance is to a sovereignty which transcends all other sovereignties” (May 30. 1934). Going to war, Morrison felt, would mean the destruction of democracy and morality at home; America would no longer be true to itself, would no longer be the Promised Land: “We have discovered that our goodness, our moralism, is in large measure the expression of our relative detachment. . . . We are no more virtuous than others. The difference is a difference in circumstances (October 20, 1937). Different circumstances? To Niebuhr, that claim suggested a special blessing, a special grace, for America, and it smacked of self-righteousness.

The decade of the ‘30s saw the gradual disintegration of the social-gospel synthesis. At first the traumas of the depression afforded a rallying cry for church liberals, but divisions soon developed over the question of class struggle and the use of coercion -- divisions that were to deepen as the world situation darkened and war loomed on the horizon. “Crisis theology,” or neo-orthodoxy, was making inroads even in the pages of The Christian Century, and by decade’s end Morrison himself was calling for a “new liberalism,” for the old had become static and sterile -- an instance of arrested development. In any case, to his credit, he continued to open the Century’s pages to a wide variety of viewpoints -- even the views of those who, like Reinhold Niebuhr, often looked upon the magazine’s editorial opinions and proposals as “pure moonshine.”