The Great Depression and the Expansion of the Assemblies of God

Sunday school

Sunday school class of 315 people, Assembly of God at Kennett, Missouri; circa 1931

This Week in AG History —September 11, 1937

By Darrin J. Rodgers
Originally published on AG News, 11 September 2018

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.

Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200


Filed under History

2 responses to “The Great Depression and the Expansion of the Assemblies of God

  1. Roger Fortner

    I have been studying the Pentecost movement along the Missouri-Arkansas border starting in the 1920’s. The isolated churches of the area accepted Pentecost because they were open to it and were close to God in their daily life. When the depression hit it seems like their dependence on God grew and so did their churches. These were independent churches who never joined an organization. One great example is the Cycamore Log Church the still stands near Branson. It started in a spmall community under a brush arbor. When winter came they realized that they needed a real church so since they didn’t have enough money for a building they cut trees and soon had a log Church. The church still has services and is tribute to Gods service. I plan to write a small paper and will give a copy to you when done.

    • Thanks, Roger! I’d appreciate reading your research. Please consider depositing at the Heritage Center local church histories and other items you locate. We collect materials from the broader Pe
      ntecostal movement. I am grateful for the consecration of our Pentecostal pioneers!

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