How Mississippi Baptist churches struggled during the Great Depression
Copyright 2022 by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
During the Great Depression, nearly every church had financial struggles, whether the church was large or small. First Baptist Church in Natchez had already begun a new building when the stock market crashed, dedicating their building in 1930. Unfortunately, the debt of approximately $25,000 proved a heavy burden during the depression, and it took them until 1945 to pay it off. The pastor, W. A. Sullivan, asked that his own salary be cut, and the difference be applied to the church debt. Despite this and other sacrifices, in January 1932 the church was unable to pay the interest on their loan. To avoid default, the church took out another loan to pay the interest on the first loan. It was not until 1939 that the financial situation improved enough that they began to pay down the principal on the debt; it took the Natchez church until 1945 to get out of debt1
First Baptist Church in Clinton borrowed money to build a new building in 1923, but struggled to pay the debt, as it was a small church, with a large majority of the members being college students with little income. The Clinton church’s building debt was a third of its income when the Great Depression came, and the church had little means to pay. In April 1933, the deacons recommended that the pastor serve a month without pay, and that payments to the debt be deferred for six months, paying only the interest. It would be another ten years before they finally paid the debt.2
Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson was a large congregation of 1600 members in 1930, but many members lost their jobs and left Jackson seeking work elsewhere. The hard times caused them to appoint a five-man committee to present a plan to cut expenses. At first, they proposed moderate cuts, eliminating salaries for choir members, getting rid of one telephone, and urging “strictest economy” in electricity and water use. But as offerings continued to fall, they slashed other salaries and stopped purchasing Sunday school literature.3
When the Great Depression started, C. J. Olander was pastor of several churches in the Rankin County area, including First Baptist of Brandon, Bethel, Fannin and Pisgah churches, and he started the church at Flowood. Olander wrote later, “The depression became so severe that the members [at Flowood] moved out for the time being and came back and reorganized.” The Brandon Church paid him $450 a year. To supplement his income, Olander sold milk to townspeople and kept a good garden for food. In 1935, Olander went to the Delta to pastor five churches at once, even though a friend warned him that if he went there, “you will never be heard of again and the folk will starve you to death.” Olander said, “It was bad, it was bankrupt, yet today as a result of that ministry there are six full time churches. There was Morgan City, Tchula, Blaine, Cruger, Sidon and Harmony.”4
Some churches managed to thrive despite the Depression. A. L. Goodrich was called to pastor First Baptist Church, Pontotoc, just 30 days before the banks closed. Rather than let it dampen his spirits, Goodrich focused on sharing the gospel and helping his community. The energetic pastor joined local civic clubs, he took leadership positions in his Association and the State Convention, and he organized the “Pontotoc Cotton Plan” to give hundreds of dollars to the Mississippi Baptist Orphanage. God blessed the church with an increase of 232 members during his years as pastor, 1931-1935. The Pontotoc church’s Sunday night worship attendance was equal to morning worship; they started three choirs, paid off an old debt and installed a pipe organ.5
Dr. Rogers is currently writing a new history of Mississippi Baptists.
1 “A History of First Baptist Church, Natchez, Mississippi, 1817-2000,” Unpublished document, Archives, Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission, 17-19; Daniel A. Wynn, “History of First Baptist Church of Natchez,” in Forward to Freedom: The 175th Anniversary Celebration, First Baptist Church, Natchez, Mississippi, April 26, 1992.
2 Charles E. Martin, A Heritage to Cherish: A History of First Baptist Church, Clinton, Mississippi, 1852-2002 (Nashville: Fields Publishing, Inc., 2001), 93-96.
3 Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 183.
4 Tom J. Nettles, The Patience of Providence: A History of First Baptist Church Brandon, Mississippi, 1835-1985 (First Baptist Church, Brandon, Mississippi, 1989), 69, 72-73.
5 The Baptist Record, January 3, 1935, 5.