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The Damned

A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-1939

by Edward Robb Ellis
Coward-McCann, 571 pp., $10.00

Hard Times

by Studs Terkel
Pantheon, 450 pp., $8.95

The Block

by Herb Goro
Random House, 186 pp., $10.00

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

by Anita Bryant
Revell, 159 pp., $3.95

In May of 1934 [Billy Graham’s father] lent a pasture to some thirty local businessmen who wanted to devote a day of prayer for Charlotte because the depression had spread spiritual apathy in the city…. During that day of prayer on the Graham land, their leader, Vernon Patterson, prayed—as [his father] would often recall between Billy’s rise to fame in 1949 and his own death in 1962—that “out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”

—John Pollack, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography

Of course. Billy Graham was first raised up when Charlotte tried to pray itself out of the Depression, God having so clearly looked down His nose at the world that he could choose for us even then the prophet who takes our minds off our national sins. If we begin to think of the Depression again, it is not so much because we fear its return as because we have begun to understand that our America was born then.

Our President is the son of a Depression storekeeper. He is our most admired citizen, first on a list that had certainly to be prepared in advance by the Gallup people, since the admirable are not in that condition of national surplus where the names of heroes leap spontaneously to the mind of any man stopped on the street. Mr. Nixon is not given to recollecting occasions which reflect on the ways of God and the stewards of His economy. But as witness to the permanent wounds of a childhood in a small and failing store, we may freely substitute Hubert Humphrey who, the parts of Gallup’s list being interchangeable, would now, with better news from California in November of 1968, be our most admired American.

Humphrey’s place in Edward Robb Ellis’s splendid history of the Depression is as a young man who had to leave college to help his father in the family drugstore in Huron, South Dakota:

Sullen, disgusted, feeling trapped, Hubert went about his work mechanically, eager to get back to college, to escape a prairie turning into a desert. Seventy-two dust storms in South Dakota in one year—that was too much. One day, unable to control the ferocity that was building up inside himself, Hubert smashed a dozen glasses in the sink behind the drugstore. Hubert adored his father but even this deep love was not enough to hold him in South Dakota. The elder Humphrey, sympathizing with his brilliant son and wishing to ease his tensions, offered him half ownership in the family business. Hubert replied, “I can’t stay. These dust storms—I just can’t take them anymore. I’m so tense I’m sick all the time. I get these pains and I know it’s because of the worry. But the depression, the dust, the drought—they’re wearing me out.”

The young man developed a lifelong habit of vigorously dusting everything within reach.

We remember other habits, some as affecting, all as understandable. There was the basic depression underneath all those strenuous assertions of cheer; Humphrey, like Mr. Nixon, had one of those childhoods which make it a necessity to remind oneself to smile. What is otherwise inexplicable in anyone so likable is that indifference to the cruelties of Saigon or Chicago. Reality was the intruder the Depression trained its children never to notice; otherwise we should be surprised at how many of the persons who lived through those days insist to Studs Terkel that they never saw a breadline. And, last of all, there was the avidity, baffling in a populist, of Humphrey’s clutch at the good opinion of the associations of bankers, manufacturers, and publishers: remembered Failure still submitted its triumph over that sin to Success, the only proper judge. Bob Leary, a cab driver, tells Studs Terkel about his father who was out of work for two years:

He never forgot it. I guess it does something to somebody being out of work so long. It destroys your confidence in yourself. Not that it destroyed my father’s self-confidence. But I could see how it affected his outlook on life, his reaction to success. He was inordinately impressed by men who make it in business. It’s my feeling the depression had something to do with this.

Billy Graham is our second most admired American. It is a badge of his origins in this moment of our birth that he should have begun his evangel as a Fuller Brush salesman.1

Just to get the brush, most of them would let us in,” remembers Grady Wilson, his partner then and now:

Sometimes they’d just let us talk and we’d each slip in a little bit of sermon to round things out. At least half the time, they’d take the sample, and, as soon as we started with the message—business or religious—they’d slam the door in our faces and tell us to get the blazes out of there. Now, brother, that sure was a test of your Christian patience. Never seemed to bother Billy. You just couldn’t stop that fella.2

The religion of the Depression is defined for us by Herb Goro in The Block, his examination of persons in the East Bronx who had never known anything else. “You’re lucky if you have a good job,” the Block’s Pentecostal minister tells Goro. “You have time to get rich or get some money, but who doesn’t believe in God he won’t become rich.”

Billy Graham brings that spirit to us intact from the years of his birth in the Depressed Jesus. “Stand along the track, don’t come on the grass,” he abjures in Shea Stadium in the moment of invitation. “Today is the day of salvation. He died for you. Take the little things to Him—your boy friend, your girl friend, problems in the office. You’ll be amazed at what God can do for you.”

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the testament of Anita Bryant and it reminds us that, in sacred studies, the Exemplary Life has an importance for teaching second not even to the Word. The saints in Graham’s calendar run to notables either dimly remembered or never noticed; persons who have not heard of Miss Bryant might need to be told that she was voted “The Number One Female Recording Artist,” that she was second runner-up at the Miss America Pageant of 1958, that she is the first woman to head Freedom’s Foundation in Valley Forge and the first ever to appear in the same year on the podiums of both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions.

Miss Bryant was born in Oklahoma in 1941. She was not completely a child of the Depression; but the circumstances which led her family to concentrate all its hopes of rising on her talents do call to mind those fathers desperately drilling their tiny sons at basketball in the Harlem playgrounds. Her parents moved to Oklahoma City when she was nine so that she could have singing and dancing lessons. She had a career at ten:

Looking back now I marvel at how the Lord sent me more opportunities every time I showed him I could take a little more responsibility.

In moments of stage fright, she says, “I told myself God would simply have to help me once again.”

On opening night of the high-school senior performance of South Pacific, she prayed:

Lord you know what I’ve got to do tonight…. Help me always to live my Christian testimony, especially as I perform on the stage. And, oh, yes, Lord, please help me remember my lyrics.”

Each night, from my heart, I know He heard me tell Him what I had so often said to Mother. “Lord, I really do want to become a star.”

Then she won a chance to fly to New York and be seen on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts.” Her pastor was dubious; would she compromise her Christian testimony? “Lord, please guide me, I prayed. I really do want you to do Your will for me.” Then there grew in her the peace beyond understanding:

I knew just as well as I have ever known anything in my life that God fully intended me to travel with Mother and appear on the Talent Scouts program. What God really wanted of me, I realized, was my submission. Of course He wanted me to have my professional opportunity, but He also wanted me to go, perform and act in full obedience to my inner guiding from Him.

Going out in submission to His will, I watched as He opened doors to me that I never dared hope would open. For example, after my “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” appearance, I got to visit his popular morning show every day.

She did not win the Miss America contest, because God “had a wonderful new door for me to enter instead.” He had intended her for the Don McNeill “Breakfast Club.” And, “as that year wore on,” her recording of “Till There Was You” moved “up to the million mark in sales.”

Again I could see the Lord’s hand guiding my life. Had I won the Miss America Pageant, according to the terms of the contract, I could not have performed (certainly not have recorded) for a year. During that time, Miss America’s appearances and performances are under the strict sponsorship of the pageant, and her talent belongs to them exclusively.

In time she married Bob Green, a Miami disc jockey. “God stepped in and took over and Bob felt led to confess Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.” Thereafter, “We both knew that God wanted Bob” to become her manager, and he seems indeed manfully to have undertaken the vocation of Holy Procurer. It was his idea, for example, for her to mix sacred and popular songs in her repertoire:

Bob, you don’t know how hard it is for me to do this,” I stammered. “It’s easy for me to get up in public and sing a pop song, or get up in front of church and sing a sacred song, but to put those two images together…. For one thing it really wouldn’t be commercial. You’re going to get a lot of people who wouldn’t want me on certain television shows because they’re going to say, she’s too religious, too fanatic. On the other hand it could hurt my church image as much as the pop image.”

But, as Bob had predicted, her album of hymns and ballads

…did reach a far wider audience than we could have imagined. It became a sure, steady seller that continues to do well, and, in so doing, gives my Christian testimony as I really wanted to do.

The pilgrim’s path spread out by Him Who knows what can be commercial led her at last to the White House and the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Mr. Johnson’s dinner for Henry Cabot Lodge. Before she sang, “I retreated to an office and sank to my knees”:

  1. 1

    Caroline Bird has reminded us how the Fuller Brush Company was almost the only temple of the American Dream that still managed to keep shining during the Depression. “At a time when money was scarce, thousands plodded from door to door peddling books, magazines, vacuum cleaners, pressure cookers, and other nonessential consumer articles…. Companies, increased sales at little expense by inducing the unemployed to sell on a commission basis. The harder the times the better the talent that sales managers were able to enlist. Albert C. Fuller reports that the sales of his Fuller Brush Company…jumped from $ 15,000 to $ 50,000 in the doldrum month of August, 1932, alone and grew at the rate of a million dollars a year all through the Depression.” (The Invisible Scar, David McKay, 377 pp., $7.95)

  2. 2

    As cited in Billy Graham and Seven who Were Saved by Lewis W. Gillenson, Trident, 210 pp., $4.95.

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