Jonathan H. Ebel, "From Dust They Came: Government Camps and the Religion of Reform in New Deal California" (NYU Press,2023)


From Dust They Came: Government Camps and the Religion of Reform in New Deal California (NYU Press, 2023) tells the story of the federal government’s Depression-era effort to redeem Dust Bowl refugees in rural California through the religion of reform.

During the Depression hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains and Southwest to look for farm work in California. Seeing destitute white families living in filthy shelters, reform-minded New Deal officials built a series of camps to provide shelter and community. 

Drawn from the archives of the federal camp system, Jonathan H. Ebel tells the story of the religious dynamics in and around the farm labor camps, making the case that they served as mission sites for the conversion of migrants to more modern ways of living and believing, centered around ideas of virtuous citizenship based on a foundation of seemingly secular values such as cleanliness, hard work, and family life. The migrants, particularly those who came from charismatic and conservative Protestant faiths, sometimes had different ideas about right living. 

Ebel shows how the New Deal program was animated simultaneously by humanitarian concern and by the belief that these poor white migrants and their religious practices needed to be transformed for them to achieve a better life in a modernized, secular world. 

Recommended reading: 

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.

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Meghan Cochran

Meghan Cochran studies human systems of belief as a technologist and student of religion, business, and literature.
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