This is not the world’s first experience with economic uncertainty. The Great Depression, a 10-year period beginning with the stock market crash on October 24, 1929, was a significant event in history.
What did the pages of the Review contain during that time? To find out, I scanned pages of the old black volumes that fill the shelves of our office. I also visited adventistarchives.org to peruse the digital archives. I restricted my research to 1929 through 1939.
The pages reflected the editorial leadership of F. M. Wilcox. Articles on Fundamental Beliefs, end-time events, and Christ’s second coming were prominent. I found a home section, missions, and Current Events, a regular feature by associate editor F. D. Nichol. He commented on topics from secular news, adding spiritual and prophetic emphasis. Certainly the financial news affecting the world and the church would be there. It wasn’t.
So how did the Review address the economic fragility encompassing the world?
It didn’t. At least not for some time. But in the November 27, 1930, edition, we read this:
“An unusual Autumn Council has just closed. . . . Business depression, with its consequent toll of unemployment, has not for many years been so marked and so gripping as in the present hour. . . . As in the individual life, so in the work of God’s church, these very conditions are part of the ‘all things’ that ‘work together for good.’ As with trials and privations in the individual life, so it is with the church. They come to minister to us, to draw us back as a body of believers to the fundamental recognition that God still lives in His heaven, that the purposes and destinies of His church are secure in His hands, and that nothing can stay the power of our God in its operation upon human hearts and lives and in the extension of the interests of His kingdom upon the earth.” 1
In the same issue General Conference vice president W. H. Branson wrote:
“It was most inspiring to see the leaders from the great North American base of mission supplies struggling with the problem of balancing the budgets for our far-flung mission fields in this time of depression. . . . Several days were spent by the large Budget Committee, made up entirely of representatives of fields not receiving appropriations, in wrestling with this problem. The appeals for help from the great mission fields were heart-rending. . . . After every possible source of supply was drawn upon, union and local conferences came forward and pledged to turn thousands of dollars of surplus funds into the mission treasury in an effort to make up the shortage.
“Finally their report was made up and rendered, and it was found that in spite of the present serious depression, and with the resultant shortage of tithes and mission funds, they had been able to grant the fields for 1931 94 percent of the amount they are receiving this year. . . . To us it seems nothing short of a miracle of grace, that in such a time of depression as this the Advent people can thus keep up a constant and nearly uniform flow of means to the great mission lands of earth.”2
It became obvious that the Review’s emphasis was not on what individuals should do to survive, but on how members should work together to stay mission-focused. By November 24, 1932, a vote was taken at Autumn Council:
“WHEREAS, The past year, in spite of unprecedented financial depression, has been the most fruitful in the winning of souls in the history of our work, resulting in a total of 34,859 baptisms in the world field and bringing our membership to the number of 342,435; and,
“WHEREAS, The protecting hand of God has been over our institutions, both at home and abroad; and,
“WHEREAS, The work in the mission fields has advanced in spite of heavy cuts in the budgets, and our missionaries are staying courageously by the work;
“Resolved, That we express our sincere gratitude to God for His manifold blessings which have brought success to the work in such a time as this.”3
Financial challenges continued. By 1933 W. H. Williams, General Conference undertreasurer, wrote:
”The financial situation which we face throughout the world has brought us to a full stop so far as adding institution to institution and making large expenditures for equipment are concerned; but we have not stopped our evangelistic advance, and never has God worked so mightily for His people in foreign lands, and thousands are being born into this truth.
“It may be this thing which we call depression is God’s way of readjusting the purpose and spirit of His people to new levels of devotion and sacrificial service. God is shaping events in the mission fields. The developments which are taking place can be explained on no other grounds than that God has set His hand to the finishing of the work.
“Our great concern at this time is to hold our mission lines and let God work. This should be our watchword, and become a household phrase in every Seventh-day Adventist home.”4
Faith and inspiration continued, as F. D. Nichol wrote in the July 5, 1934, issue:
“For Adventists to become discouraged over the demoralized condition of the world—the chaos of international relations, the difficulty in maintaining budgets in view of the depression—is really to deny our faith. Our belief calls for us to gather courage from catastrophe and richness of faith from the bankruptcy of the world.“5
U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s Second New Deal began in 1935, but the church had not wavered from its task. “We can rejoice in God,” said M. E. Kern (GC secretary), “that neither the Great War, which engulfed the whole world twenty years ago, nor the great depression, which followed after, has stopped the onward march of the Advent message in its saving mission for a lost world.”6
Finally, in 1937 a report from Africa: “During recent years the world has experienced the perplexities and problems resulting from the great financial depression. Our own work has been severely tested, but today we are, as it were, on the other side of the Red Sea, and we can sing with Miriam and the Lord’s host the song of praise and thanksgiving as we see what God has wrought.”7 World War II began in 1939, eventually ending the Great Depression.
The pages of the Adventist Review are not the place to find lament. “Steady on” was the cry of leaders and lay members alike as they leaned into God for their needs. May we today find similar encouragement that no matter what happens, the same God who led the church then still leads us today.
Merle Poirier is operations manager for Adventist Review Ministries.