The untold story of the federal government’s Depression-era effort to redeem Dust Bowl refugees in rural California through religion In the midst of the Great Depression, punished by crippling drought and deepening poverty, hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains and the Southwest to look for work in California’s rich agricultural valleys. In response to the scene of destitute white families living in filthy shelters built of cardboard, twigs, and refuse, reform-minded New Deal officials built a series of camps to provide them with shelter and community.
Using the extensive archives of the federal migratory camp system, From Dust They Came tells the story of the religious dynamics in and around migratory farm labor camps in agricultural California established and operated by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration. Jonathan H. Ebel makes the case that the camps served as mission sites for the conversion of migrants to more modern ways of living and believing. Though the ideas of virtuous citizenship put forward by the camp administrators were framed as secular, they rested on a foundation of Protestantism. At the same time, many of the migrants were themselves conservative or charismatic Protestants who had other ideas for how their religion intended them to be.
By looking at the camps as missionary spaces, Ebel shows that this New Deal program was animated both by humanitarian concern and by the belief that these poor, white migrants and their religious practices were unfit for life in a modernized, secular world. Innovative and compelling, From Dust They Came is the first book to reveal the braiding of secularism, religion, and modernity through and around the lives of Dust Bowl migrants and New Deal reformers.
Jonathan H. Ebel is Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and author of G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion.
Over the course of his career, Ebel has brilliantly excavated the entangling of American religious and secular beliefs, and From Dust They Came, about New Deal migrant camps where progressive administrators cautiously evangelized modernity to migrants with a diverse and sometimes riotous set of religious beliefs and practices, is a masterful book containing deep resonances with contemporary debates.
~Philip Klay, author of National Book Award winner Redeployment
With his close reading of government camps for displaced workers, Ebel shows how modern American religion is not only discernable, but perhaps best understood as it manifests in purportedly secular spaces. From Dust They Came carefully attends to the best-laid plans and raucous refusals prompted by economic and environmental disaster. In so doing, it makes an important contribution to conversations about religion, secularity, and the persistent American impulse towards reform. Highly recommended.
~Jennifer Graber, author of The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West
Essential reading for anyone interested in the New Deal. Ebel deftly illustrates how the federal government's secular purpose to reform and remake the migrants for a modern, capitalist world clashed with the evangelical, biblically literate migrants who organized their own social and cultural world within the structured spaces of the camps. This is an important study that surely will become a classic.
~R. Douglas Hurt, author of The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century
In an innovative perspective on church and state relations, Ebel asks us to return to the New Deal era to better understand the reforming spirit. Of special note is the inclusion of the camp residents’ voices as they pushed back against the modernizing program through their poetry and songs as well as their commitment to Pentecostal forms of worship. From Dust They Came is a sensitive exploration of what Ebel calls ‘mission communities’ that is lyrically written and meticulously researched.
~Colleen McDanell, Professor of History and Sterling McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies, The University of Utah