Lessons from the Great Depression

“Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15) As we learn from Scripture, life is more than possessions. Life is about relationships. For example, the children that came out of the Great Depression learned to focus on relationships: with God, with family and with others. They learned to deny the self-gratification that comes from material things.

One man remembers his father speaking of the long lines of people waiting for government hand-outs. He shared a remembrance with his young son of a crowd of men in Chicago fighting over a barrel of garbage – food for their families. Another remembered catching his father behind their Massachusetts home, heartbroken and crying. He said, “My dad was the strongest man I knew, but the Depression brought him to his knees.” Still other children recall playing the “eviction game” in nursery school. The children would pile up toy furniture in one corner of the room, then pick it up and move it to another corner. “We ain’t got no money for rent, so we move. Then we get the sheriff on us, so we move again.”

Harsh economic conditions continued through World War II. Children from those years, such as my own parents, grew up knowing austerity as a way of life. I recall my mother showing me food ration coupons and my father telling me about the food garden behind their house. When I was a girl, my grandmother still lived in that house and the vegetable garden was still there, producing. Dad told me stories about taking mashed potato and sugar sandwiches to school for lunch. Mom would regularly advise me to, “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
On the other hand, most people growing up during those years fondly recall the sense of community; of neighbors helping neighbors. They shared ration coupons, food and clothes. To this day, people of that era – or well trained by their parents from that era - are frugal and thrifty. We were taught not to buy things simply because “we could use” them, but to only buy things we couldn’t live without. That was the lesson of the war years, but these days we live in a time of indulgence and wealth. Now, more than ever, we need God.

James Cash Penney, who built the JCPenney department store chain, lost all his personal wealth when the stock market crashed in 1929. He had to borrow against his life insurance policies to make payroll. The stress took a toll on his health and he finally checked himself into a sanitarium for treatment. While in the chapel there, he heard the hymn “God Will Take Care of You,” and became a born-again Christian. We hear stories of suicide during the Depression years because of financial devastation, but there were many more stories of people who came to God during the adversity, indeed, because of the adversity. Penney himself was once quoted as saying, “I would never have amounted to anything were it not for adversity.” Truly, what is important is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and soul (Matthew 22:37).

(Susan Lockhart)
Scripture references from NIV unless otherwise noted.

Based on Freedom from Our Self on December 29th, 2018 - Watch Sermon