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“Out of the Realm of Despair”: Famine Relief in 1940

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 05, 2011

Few American presidents have been as thoroughly unpopular at the end of their terms as Herbert Hoover, who served from 1929-1933. Unable to stem the economic failures that began with the collapse of Wall Street in his first year in office – brought about by events and policies in existence long before his election – he is unfairly seen as the cause of the Great Depression and remembered in the early 20th century label of “hoovervilles” for homeless camps.

What we too often forget is Hoover’s tremendous success in humanitarian service. He may have saved more human lives than any other person in world history. Hoover headed efforts to feed starving Belgium in World War I and directed the American Relief Administration and led efforts to ameliorate the Russian famine of 1921. He served as a one-man FEMA following the flooding of the Mississippi in 1927, organizing funding and services from private organizations to combat malaria and typhoid in the flood zones. (I recognize, however, that the services of these and other project were far from perfect, especially in matters of racial discrimination.) Following Nazi occupation of Poland and during the term of American neutrality, which ended in December 1941, Hoover created the Commission for Polish Relief (aka “the Hoover Commission”); his similar Finnish Relief Fund aided the citizens of that country, purchasing food supplies in Scandinavia and running the Allied blockade to prevent starvation there. Some 35 million free meals were provided to Finish children in those months.

All of that took money, of course. Hoover’s genius was in recognizing a need, convincing the world to help, and creating efficient procedures for getting food where it was most critically needed.

And all of that is context for the telegram Hoover sent to Heber J. Grant early in 1940, after the Church had made a $2,500 contribution to one of his funds:

I think I realize the many problems of relief which the Mormon Church faces among its own people, and the whole country knows of and admires the effective way in which it is solving its serious problems at home. I can therefore on this occasion pay sincere tribute to the Mormon Church for its support of the Macedonian call for help from across the sea.

As in all great undertakings, this work upon which we are engaged has its discouragements. What the Mormon Church has done and is doing for this fund lifts us out of the realm of despair.

In addition to the formal donation from the Church itself, Mormons contributed to Hoover’s funds in other capacities. The Salt Lake County committee alone (of which President Grant was a member) dedicated itself to raising $25,000 for famine relief in those years.

Debates about the cause of the Depression or comparisons and contrasts to current political and economic leaders and policies are off topic for this post. Let’s talk about humanitarian efforts, and about combining our efforts with those of others.



9 Comments »

  1. Oh, but Ardis, I woke up this morning just itching to debate the causes of the Depression and to compare it to our current economic situation! (Sigh.)

    My excellent high school history courses gave me a nuanced, appreciative view of Hoover, but I’ll refrain from comparing him to anyone in our current political life.

    So, on to humanitarian efforts. The local (ward and branch) efforts are amazing and of great benefit to so many people. My husband is currently serving as ward financial clerk, so I get to see just a bit of what goes on in the ward, and it is truly inspiring.

    Someone was complaining recently on one of the blogs about the church welfare system as being greatly inferior to the United Order (or something to that effect), but I am firmly of the opinion that it was established by revelation every bit as much as the systems attempted during the times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

    Comment by Researcher — October 5, 2011 @ 7:30 am

  2. I think you’re right, Researcher (about the church welfare system — not about your unspoken comparisons between the Depression era and today. No, no, those are just plain wrong). I think perhaps we’re less aware of the power and efficiency and inspiration of that plan now that it seems to be mostly a matter of funds collected and distributed privately than it was when wards and stakes actually produced so many commodities by the labor of members, but the help provided and the spirit in which it is given is no less effective or divine than it ever was. Thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 5, 2011 @ 7:39 am

  3. I’m with you and Researcher, Ardis. The success of the church’s welfare program for members is amazing. Having been in a position to see the inflows and outflows on a local level was remarkably eye-opening to me — from the generousity of some contributors (one family told me they decided in a family council that if they didn’t have to really sacrifice something it wasn’t enough, and that showed in their regular contribution) to the generousity of the recipients (generous in their gratitude and acknowledgement of the source of the sacred funds; I had one sister who had not eaten in three days tell me, “No, bishop! Those are for people who are really needy!”).

    I remember reading Elder Pace’s book which included the story of his investigating how to have the church contribute to Ethiopian relief in the 1980s and determining that Catholic Charities was the right conduit, and how he worried about whether his proposal would be accepted by the brethren. I was glad they were!

    Comment by Paul — October 5, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  4. What need or lack of need for a comparison, everything is FINE.

    I really enjoyed watching the show in-between conference sessions about the church welfare system. I knew that the program was huge but seeing some of the production facilities and the produce gathered (come on, that pile of potatoes was almost awe-inspiringly HUGE) really touched me. I have always loved serving in the local Bishop’s Storehouse.

    I hear from many people who are in an absolute panic about the economy today who are not members of our church, and I am comforted by the programs we have in place to help others (members and non-members alike).

    I am constantly amazed at the good people can do when we get our acts together without fighting about something and do it!

    Comment by Cliff — October 5, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  5. ” when wards and stakes actually produced so many commodities by the labor of members”

    I’m thinking there’s still a lot of this going on, for example the annual ‘weeding’ of the beans and the spring and fall maintainance of irrigation pipes (if you ate pinto or lima beans from the Bishop’s Storehouse, the stakes in Northern Colorado probably helped produce those)… and the constant turns at humanitarian canning down at the Aurora Cannery (it was Peaches two weeks ago and Pears just yesterday). The members are still actively involved in getting food out to those in need.

    One of the eye opening things for this new RS president is participating in the distribution of goods to folks in need… every other Friday morning it’s almost like a grocery store is set up for two hours in our stake center gym. We work together to unload tons of food from the truck, lay out the items, distribute the orders, and clean up. Poof! Now you see it, now you don’t. And so many people are helped, members and non members both.

    It is a good thing.

    Comment by Coffinberry — October 5, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  6. I am so impressed to see the Church add temporal relief to the needy as one of the missions of the Church. I know we’ve discussed it here at Keepa before, but I just want to reiterate my thoughts on it. I had the great opportunity to help with the relief in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I wear that service as a badge of honor. It was amazing to see the Church in action there. I am also impressed with the humanitarian aide the Church sent to Europe after World War II. What I find incredible about that is this came so shortly after the Church had established its welfare program. What a huge undertaking! I liked President Uchtdorf’s comments in the Priesthood session about that. Even my 12 year-old son was impressed by that. (We ended up talking about that on the way home.)

    One last comment, regardless of the debate about the Hoover presidency, one cannot argue that his humanitarian work was outstanding and praisworthy.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 5, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  7. That should read: “One last comment, regardless of the debate about the Hoover presidency, one cannot argue that his humanitarian work was not outstanding and praisworthy.” I hope I got that right.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 5, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  8. Mostly, Steve. I’ll sell you an “e” to add to “praisEworthy.” : )

    One minor interesting historical note: I saw just a few minutes of the documentary on Prohibition last night, and heard FDR promising to “balance the Federal budget” if elected. Whether he actually meant it, or just said it to win votes, I suspect that nobody–not Hoover, not FDR, not Santa Claus himself–had any idea how to fix the mess that the U.S. was sliding into.

    But FDR was jaunty, and upbeat, and maybe that helped people feel more hopeful.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 5, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  9. I’ve seen the church’s recent measures to increase capacity at the local Bishops Central Storehouse. A BCS is a warehouse that distributes to various local Bishops’ Storehouses.

    Ummm….. it’s a BIG deal. Impressive.

    Comment by Bookslinger — October 5, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

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