This Week in AG History -- Sept. 11, 1937
The Great Depression of the 1930s devastated many segments of American Christianity. Historian Mark Noll has noted that mainline Protestants not only faced economic uncertainties, but also theological uncertainties as liberal theology had begun to replace historic Christian beliefs. Many mainline congregations, schools, and ministries had to close or drastically cut back. Their institutions, funded by endowments that disappeared with the Wall Street crash, were running off the fumes of the past.
However, there was a noticeable exception to the decline of religious institutions in the 1930s: evangelical and Pentecostal churches made significant gains. According to Noll, these “sectarian” churches “knew better how to redeem the times.”
A statistical report on the Assemblies of God published in the Sept. 11, 1937, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel provided evidence of this numerical growth. For the biennium beginning in 1935 and ending in 1937, the number of Assemblies of God churches grew from 3,149 to 3,473 (an increase of 10 percent), and the number of ministers grew from 2,606 to 3,086 (an increase of 18 percent). A partial count of members of Assemblies of God churches indicated growth from 166,118 to 175,362 (an increase of 6 percent). If a complete census of the churches had been conducted, the report noted, the membership tally would have been higher.
The growth rates from 1935 to 1937 were not an anomaly. The Assemblies of God reported significant numerical increases throughout the Great Depression. In September 1929, the Assemblies of God reported 1,612 churches with 91,981 members in the United States. By 1944, this tally increased to 5,055 churches with 227,349 members. During that 15-year period, the number of Assemblies of God churches tripled and membership almost tripled.
This growth did not happen by accident. Assemblies of God pioneers during the Great Depression laid a foundation for the expansion of the Assemblies of God, often at a tremendous personal cost. Of today’s seven largest AG colleges and universities, four were started during the Great Depression: North Central University (1930); Northwest University (1934); Southeastern University (1935); and the University of Valley Forge (1939).
It was during these hard times that Assemblies of God scholarship blossomed. Myer Pearlman (1898-1943), P. C. Nelson (1868-1942), and E. S. Williams (1885-1981) wrote many of the influential theological books in the midst of the Great Depression. Pearlman and Nelson literally worked themselves to death, their health breaking under the strain of constant writing, teaching, and preaching.
The AG’s foreign missions enterprise was centralized and strengthened during the Depression. This change encouraged coordination of efforts and accountability. The AG published its first Missionary Manual in 1931 and in 1933 the AG began providing funding for a missions staff at the national office. While the Great Depression made finances tight, the Foreign Missions Department (now AG World Missions) trumpeted that it did not have to recall any missionaries because of shortage of funds. When other denominations were retreating, the AG was making significant advances in missions.
Large-scale population migrations forced by the economic upheaval of the 1930s resulted in the unplanned evangelization of new regions. Pentecostals who left the Midwest during the Dustbowl established numerous Assemblies of God congregations in the western states. Pentecostals left the rural South and migrated to northern cities and started congregations in almost every major city. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the U.S. returned to Mexico, including many new Pentecostal believers who, in effect, became indigenous missionaries to their homeland. In the providence of God, the painful social dislocation of the 1930s helped bring about the rapid spread of Pentecostalism. Like pollen scattered by a strong wind, Pentecostal refugees planted churches wherever they happened to land.
Faced with the social chaos and financial uncertainty of the Great Depression, it would have been understandable if Assemblies of God leaders had chosen to not invest in church planting, missions, and education. However, the difficult times reminded believers that Christ’s second coming could be imminent, and that the harvest fields were ripe. Visionary Assemblies of God leaders viewed the economic crisis as an opportunity, leading the Fellowship to engage in ardent prayer and great personal sacrifice to advance the Kingdom of God.
Read the full report about the growth of the Assemblies of God from 1935 to 1937, “A Good Report Maketh the Bones Fat,” on pages 2 and 3 of the Sept. 11, 1937, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• "The Prophetic, Priestly, and Kingly Anointings," by Gayle F. Lewis
• "He Sent His Word and Healed," by Arthur W. Frodsham
• "News from War-torn China," by W. W. Simpson
And many more!
Click here to read this issue now.
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.