My God and My Neighbor

Jul 10, 2024

The Trying Thirties

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Imagine a time when the economy was devastated but morality was strong, a decade when one out of four people were unemployed and bedroom scenes and nudity were not allowed in movies. This was life in America in the 1930s. Times were hard, but those trials built character. Financially it was the age of the Great Depression; spiritually it was a time of great revival. Learn how the “Roaring Twenties” led to the “Trying Thirties” and see how the church not only survived but flourished in this era of American history in this episode.


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Kerry Duke: Hi, I’m Kerry Duke, host of My God and My Neighbor podcast from Tennessee Bible College, where we see the Bible as not just another book, but the Book. Join us in a study of the inspired Word to strengthen your faith and to share what you’ve learned with others.

In Ecclesiastes chapter one, verse nine, the Bible says, “The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” The longer you live, the more you will appreciate that verse and the more you will see how true it is.

History does indeed repeat itself. Sometimes, as we look back to the past, we tend to long for what we call the good old days. And that’s understandable, because there is a great deal of pain in the present. And to escape that stress we tend to either long for the future and hope for better days ahead or we look back to the past and we imagine that things were perhaps better than they actually were.

There’s a warning about that in Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 10. That verse says, “Do not say, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” Now, it might appear on first reading that this verse is telling us not to think about the past and not to learn from the past, especially the mistakes of former days.

But that verse cannot mean this because the Bible tells us that we should regard the lessons of the past. We should learn from our experience and from the actions of other people as well. Romans 15 verse 4 says, “Whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” There are several things that are probably involved here in this passage.

First of all, we sometimes assume that things were better in the past than they actually were. And we tend to forget about the bad things that were in the past. So, in reality, when we look to the past, we might be able to say that it was better then than it is now. That may be possible. But at the same time, there were problems then. And we tend to overlook those, especially when we’re under a lot of stress.

But another thing to consider here is the fact that God’s hand may be in history when it comes to one period being better than another period of time. But sometimes we have the tendency to live in the past if we spend too much time thinking about the question, “Well, why was it better then than it is now?”

Just as we can make a mistake by being anxious about the future we can make a mistake by trying to live in the past instead of dealing with the reality, though painful, of the present situation. So we can, and we should, learn from the past just like we should learn from our own experiences in life.

Now, sadly, many people don’t. They quickly forget. They want to put their troubles behind them as soon as possible and get back to their lives as they normally were experiencing them especially when it came to having fun and being entertained. And that’s why most people keep making the same mistakes. There’s an old saying that we learn from history that we don’t learn from history. It’s true.

And with that in mind, let’s look at the 1930s in light of the Bible, and I’m calling it the trying 30s. We’ve talked about the roaring 20s—a time of gain, a time of money, a time of prosperity, a time of entertainment, and a time of sin, a boom time, a boom period in American history. But what goes up must come down.

Payday someday. And that day came in October of 1929. The stock market lost billions of dollars. The unemployment rate at the end of 1929 was 3. 2%, but by 1933, it was 24. 9%, that is, one out of every four people was unemployed. Times were hard. People didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have a lot to eat, sometimes not even enough to eat.

So what did people do? Well, some took their own lives out of despair. Some people turned to crime to make a living. And other people just learned to survive day by day. If you’ve talked to somebody who grew up in this period, or even later, you may have heard them say something like this: “We were poor, but we didn’t know that we were poor.”

But as the Bible shows in many passages, hardships and trials can make us better. And they can forge and build character that would not exist otherwise. And that’s true of people who made it through this period. They had an amazing ability to adapt to and to endure hardship as adults. They learned to save money.

We today know how to spend money. They knew how to save it. They learned to work hard. They learned to get by on a little. They learned to be content with what they had. And those are virtues that are sorely missing in our society today.

But there are some verses that come to mind when you think about this contrast when you look at this path that American society took, going from the roaring 20s to the Great Depression of the 30s. One of them is Galatians 6, verse 7. The Bible says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Too many people lived for pleasure in the1920s, and they paid a price for it in the 1930s. Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.

Another passage that comes to mind and that is especially fitting is Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verse 6. There is “a time to gain and a time to lose.” It won’t always be a time of gain, just as it will not always be a time of loss, but this was definitely a time of loss in the 1930s.

And then another passage that applies is Proverbs chapter 16 verse 18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” There were many people during the 1920s that thought that the American economy was invincible and they found out the hard way and they suffered because of it.

And so did many people across the country who had very little to begin with. This was a time of great suffering. This was a time of great loss, and it was a great challenge and trial to the American people.

And then, as if the market crash wasn’t enough, came the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s. The United States government had encouraged farmers to move to the Midwest and use millions of acres to plant wheat and corn, which they did by government grants.

But they got in a hurry and they became greedy. They stripped the land and then drought unexpectedly set in. People lost money. They lost their income from the farms. They lost, in many cases, their homes. They lost livestock. Sometimes they even lost the lives of family members. And many of them lost hope.

Some people thought it was so bad that it must be the end of time. But the United States was not the only country affected by this depression. It affected the whole world. I remember talking with a man who was born in Germany, who grew up during our Great Depression, and he made the statement to me once, “We had our Great Depression too.”

Germany was still paying war reparations from World War I. And their economy suffered from the U. S. market collapse. But there was something that was looming at this very time. There was trouble that was on the horizon. One historian said, “Germany appeared to be on the brink of civil war. The young Weimar Republic was wracked by armed street fighting, waged mainly between communists and Nazis. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, suicides, and malnourishment all skyrocketed. Six million Germans, which was 40 percent of the working population, were unemployed, and thousands found themselves without a place to live. Anxiety and fear gripped the masses of unemployed men. One third or more of German workers were unemployed.”

This was a national crisis. And, as history teaches us, it is in the time of a crisis that the real danger often appears. In January of 1933, the Parliament building in Berlin burned four weeks after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Hitler and the Nazis were given almost complete control to capture the perpetrators.

German citizens lost many of their freedoms from that point forward, their freedom of speech. There was also very tight gun control and many other stringent regulations. We sometimes look back and ask, how could a madman like Adolf Hitler rise to such power? How did he do this? And the answer is the lesson of history is very clear.

They used propaganda. They used fear. They flooded the media, printed, radio, film, schools, churches with false information, they used intimidation and control. They either used or created a crisis, and then they offered a government solution, and that’s when this tyranny began in Germany in the 1930s which was to affect and threaten the whole world.

But as serious as this physical conflict was, the real battle was a moral and spiritual battle within. In Ephesians chapter 6, verse 12, Paul said, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

And much of that moral battleground was in the area of entertainment. Radio was popular in the 1930s, and so were movies. The Golden Age of Hollywood was in this period of time. The silent movies of the 1920s now had sound to them, and although the 1920s were tame compared to today, concerned citizens in America objected to the indecency in that period of time of movies, and so that led to the creation of the 1930 Hays Code for Motion Picture Production.

Now this was not a government law. This was more of a gentleman’s agreement between the producers that they would not include certain materials in those movies. So let’s read from the Motion Picture Code of 1930 sometimes called the Hays Code. First of all: “Crimes against the law. These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime, as against law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.”

“Murder. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified. Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.”

In the area of sex, “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” How many movies have you seen? How many movies do you know of that have been produced in the past 30 years that have upheld the sanctity of the institution of marriage that have even shown marriage as God created it in a good light?

Well, the production code that used to be in effect in America said also that pictures “shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing. Number one, “Adultery. Sometimes necessary plot material must not be explicitly treated or justified. or presented attractively.”

Number two, “Scenes of passion should not be introduced when not essential to the plot. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown. In general, passion should be so treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.”

And then, under the heading of obscenity, we have this in the Hays Code of 1930, for movies in America. “Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion, even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience, is forbidden.” Under the heading of profanity, the Hays Code said, “Pointed profanity, this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, unless used reverently, or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.”

And then, in regard to the clothes that were worn by actors in movies, under the heading of costume, the Hays Code said, number one: “Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture. Number two, undressing scenes should be avoided and never used, save where essential to the plot.”

Number three, “Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.” And number four, “Dancing costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.” And then under the heading of dances, number one, we read, “Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden.”

Number two, “Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.” Now this was the standard agreed upon by movie producers in the 1930s. Then, in regard to religion, “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith. Number two: “Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains…Locations. The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy. National feelings…The use of the flag shall be consistently respectful.” And under the heading “titles: salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.” So these are just a few excerpts from the Hays Code, the 1930 motion picture production code.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all movies in the 1930s, and especially in the decades that followed, actually adhered to all these restrictions. There were some that pushed the limits. There were some that ignored at least parts of this code as many as they could.

For instance, in 1939, there was a famous movie which used a profane word toward the very end, and that word went off like a moral earthquake in society. It shocked moviegoers across the land and probably pleased and entertained quite a few more. But at any rate, the use of that one instance of profanity in one single movie in 1939 set a precedent. It created a trend or a pattern. And so movies that came along after that look back at that reference point and said, “If they used that curse word then, why can’t we use it now? And if they used that curse word, why can’t we use another?”

And so this began to get worse and worse until movie makers began to follow the lead of society, which was becoming more and more immoral, less and less concerned about decency until in 1968 this code was discarded. It was abandoned because by the time of the 1960s, people weren’t paying any attention to it anyway as far as movie producers were concerned.

And there was a growing appetite in society to actually listen to and to watch that kind of garbage in movies. It’s amazing how that one word, one violation of a rule, can lead to such a pattern in society. Here’s the way the Bible says it. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 6, Paul asked, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”

But there were righteous, God fearing people who would not allow this kind of moral corruption to go unchallenged. They believed in what the Bible says in Isaiah 58 verse 1, where God told the prophet, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins.”

We see this especially in journals like the Gospel Advocate in the 1930s, and I’ll be reading from some of those articles. That sounded forth the alarm about the moral corruption in the United States. One of these is in the September the 8th issue of the Gospel Advocate in 1932. That article is entitled, “The Disintegration of Family Life.”

And here’s how it reads. “Great concern is felt for the sanctity and perpetuation of the home. Amidst the many changes that are coming over modern thinking and custom are those which affect family life. The situation is such as to arouse the gravest concern. The seat of the difficulty lies in the reduced influence of Christian teaching. However regrettable this statement may be, yet it is a fact. If the insistence of the church were heeded, our homes would be secure. But other voices are reaching the attention of the public. Dr. Charles A. Elwood of Duke University, in a paper read before the Conference on the Christian Way of Life last summer at Delaware, Ohio, called attention to some current teachings which have had damaging effect upon family welfare.”

The article continues, “Dr. Elwood insists that freedom, happiness, and romance are the qualities which have stolen away the heart of the people.” Quote, “The seeking of these things at the expense of the other values of life is what is undermining the whole ideal of marriage and the family. Our young people, for the most part, still remain idealistic, only they have lowered their ideal from the religious one to that of personal happiness. And in the pursuit of this lower ideal, they are often blundering and mistaken. The morality of emancipation and self expression, which they have learned from current literature, philosophy, and life, seems to offer to them a certain road to happiness. The fault is in the whole spiritual climate of our civilization. And women are not to be blamed for showing the effects of living in this spiritual climate any more than the men are to be blamed. Freedom has usurped the place of discipline in our social life, personal happiness the place of noble human society, romance the place of spiritual love, and sex the place of spiritual satisfaction.”

The author of the article goes on to say, “The correctness of his view is hardly to be questioned. The family is set adrift because its members are allowed to follow their own desires without being chargeable to public censure. The atmosphere does not stifle immoralities in social life. Immoral people do not feel the sting of ostracism. They misbehave and yet find delightful social relationships. Their misconduct is either explained or excused.”

The writer continues. He says, quote, “We cannot change marriage and our family life for the better until we change the spiritual climate of our civilization. We must find some way of building the institutions of marriage and the family upon genuine love, self-control, and a sense of social obligation and spiritual satisfactions. In other words, if we wish a Christian civilization, we must find some way of making these fundamental social institutions serve the larger and higher life of the family. Dr. Elwood does not believe that the stability of the home in our day can be secured by appealing to individuals only. He thinks the question relates to our present day civilization and says the problems of marriage and the family, as we have seen, are rooted in the general problem of our civilization.”

The writer continues saying, “The destruction of marriage and the home means, in fact, the decline of those qualities which pertain to culture, rectitude, and ethics. courage, self sacrifice, honesty, and all that goes into the formation of a people to render them strong and progressive. In an effort to restore and maintain the family and the home, the church has a primary place. It must continue its earnest insistence upon marriage vows, Parental responsibility and the unity of the household. Beyond doubt, the Church is going to be compelled more and more to enforce its standards of marital fidelity. It cannot regard its responsibility as discharged when it merely speaks its mind. The household of faith must be made up of people who are members of homes of fidelity. Laxness, incongruent relations, must not be allowed to drift into the society of God’s people. The church cannot long exist unless it observes the apostolic rule to put away and to put aside unworthy members. If the standards of the unbelieving world come to control the habits of church members, there can be no way of saving the home.”

And then in the April 9th, 1936 edition of the Gospel Advocate, John Allen Hudson wrote an article entitled. “The Movies Again.” It reads, “Willard E. Shelton in the Christian Evangelist issue of February the 6th, Made some observations on the movies and their moral results. He says, two years ago, there was a tremendous upsurging of popular wrath against the movie industry and its products. The result was a measure of reform on the part of producers and their self-imposition of a more rigid code of morals. Another result was generally a higher standard of excellence in pictures. But the movies still remain a public  question, and charges are still made that, by and large, they are a malevolent rather than a beneficial influence in American life. Perhaps it has been somewhat extreme for reformers to charge gangster pictures with direct responsibility for juvenile delinquency, but that the movies have been guilty of pandering unnecessarily to sex appetites and false idealisms? It seems so patent that it can be scarcely denied, and that this pandering has some sort of effect on the characters of the 70 million people who each week in this country attend the movies would also seem manifest.”

Hudson continues, “The movies, in common with all things in life, are subject to criticism. Vigilance can never be relaxed if human society is to survive. And we must remember, even as Senator Morris Shepard said of the Prohibition fight, that the moment vigilance is relaxed, evil will return. And this will happen in any form where evil can show itself. The movies are no exception. They traduce the innocence of childhood and pervert sex instincts for many youths. If good people will show enough of their repugnance for filth in all walks of life and in all phases of modern culture, the stream of human conduct can be kept pure. To this writer, it is evident that when one becomes sensible about the problems of living and tries to be a Christian, much in the entertainment world will cease to have appeal. Christianity will run filth out just as water poured into a barrel of oil will run the oil out. Righteousness and unrighteousness cannot abide in the same heart. A fountain does not send forth sweet water and bitter.”

And then on April the 20th, 1939, in the Gospel Advocate, G. C. Brewer continued a series of articles for young people.

This particular article points out the confusion of our age, and it is as insightful as it is alarming. It reads, “Another thing that presents a difficulty for young people of our time is the chaotic confusion that exists today. There is no universally accepted standard in anything.” Let those words sink in and think about how long it has been since he wrote those words in 1939.

If he thought that things were divided then, what would he say today? And sometimes today we think that things are chaotic, confused and very divided with every man being a law to himself, which oftentimes is true morally and civilly as well. But the pattern has been in place for a long time. What did he mean in his day when he said that there is no universally accepted standard in anything?

He explains, “Of course the Christian standard is the same that it has always been: the life and character of Christ and the teaching that is given in the New Testament. But the world is small today. And the nations are brought close together and peoples that live on opposite sides of the globe are in direct and constant communication.”

If he thought that people were in direct and constant communication in his day in 1939, what would he say about today? He would probably add the word instant communication. But he went on to write, “The Christians of earth are in the decided minority.” He talked about how that we “live side by side with unbelievers who quote “through the press and the picture shows have more to do with molding sentiment and creating conditions than we have. They set the customs and we either have to follow or separate ourselves from many of our associates and be found in the small and unpopular groups. This condition, of course, prevailed in the beginning of Christianity, and it has prevailed at other times in the history of Christianity, but this is a new condition in our country.”

Again writing in 1939: “Our parents and our grandparents did not know this condition and therefore did not have this problem. In their day, the people of their communities were in agreement as to what is moral and what is immoral. They may have differed in their creeds, and they may have debated denominational doctrines, but they still stood together on moral issues.

The authority of the home was recognized. And things that were immoral were forbidden in the homes of all first class citizens. Parents could permit their children to go away from home with the understanding that the parents of another child would exercise oversight and control over the visiting one as much as over their own children. Thus, parents helped each other, and young people were safeguarded, chaperoned, and instructed on all sides. But today,” he says, in 1939, that is, today “your child may visit the home of your brother in the church, and there be encouraged and encouraged to partake of things that you have taught him are wrong. If this does not confuse young people and lead them to disregard what anybody tells them, and find out for themselves what is right and wrong, then what sort of condition would put young people in that position? Because of these things, our sympathy goes out to the young people of our times, and our heart’s desire and prayer to God is that we may be of some service to them in solving their problems.”

Now, I realize that a study like this can be discouraging because of how far things have gone and how seemingly hopeless things are today. But let’s put this whole thing into some perspective by using the Bible. Is there hope? The Bible says, first of all, that we can be forgiven of our sins. In Acts 2 verse 36, the people asked, what shall we do? And they were told, “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins.” And then in verse 47, the Bible says that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Thank you for listening to My God and My Neighbor. Stay connected with our podcast on our website and on Apple, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Tennessee Bible College, providing Christian education since 1975 in Cookeville, Tennessee, offers undergraduate and graduate programs.

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