Country Life Movement
A broad effort in the earlier part of the twentieth century to stimulate, organize and sustain improvements in all aspects of American rural life. The Country Life Movement coalesced in the Progressive Era with a presidentially appointed commission; flowered in organizational expression through the mid-twentieth century; and waned amidst the demographic, technological and global economic changes of the later twentieth century.
The rural public and political movements of the late nineteenth century were important precursors, but the Country Life Movement differed from Populism and strident agrarianism in its general confidence in modernization, its embrace of scientific advances, and its urbanized methods. Led by professors from landgrant universities, authors, bureaucrats and educated clergy, the Country Life Movement remained one step removed from daily rural life. Its major contribution was to frame rural issues for the increasingly urban public agenda.
The Country Life Movement saw its beginning in the Commission on Country Life established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and chaired by Liberty Hyde Bailey. Along with a similar commission that birthed the forestry service, the Commission on Country Life was a prototype to later social intervention by the executive branch of the U.S. Government. The Commission on Country Life held 50 hearings in rural places across the United States and drafted their influential Report of the Commission on Country Life in 1910. Describing the decrepit aspects of rural life, the Commission identified a number of issues to address: the rights of workers on the land; distribution of land ownership; regulation of rural economics; stewardship of forests, soil and water; health; women on the farm; education; cooperation; the church as a social institution; and personal character and leadership issues. It envisioned the renewal of country life through a stable rural population democratically engaged; a robust coalition of local and state institutions; and federal regulation to bolster and protect the former. Congress failed to approve funding to carry out the Commission’s recommendations, but the members of the Commission and their collaborators took the vision of a modernized rural population into other organized expressions.
Liberty Hyde Bailey was exemplary of the movement. A well-rounded scholar, his interests ranged from horticulture to cultural studies. He was the son of a farmer and state legislator in Vermont, and the grandson of an abolitionist. Bailey’s family included Revolutionary War veterans, Puritan Congregationalists, and many more farmers. He joined the faculty of 20-year-old Cornell University when he was but 10 years older than that, and served for a half century. Bailey saw little or no contradiction between scientific evolution and faith, and in 1915 he wrote an early ecological treatise entitled The Holy Earth. His sense of humankind’s role on earth included “to exercise ourselves even against our own interests,” and would lead, he thought, to “sincere relations with the company of created things” and “conscious regard for the support of all [people] now and yet to come.” He foresaw a “vast religion of a better social order,” and the Country Life Movement very much followed in the vein of its early leader (Bailey, 1915).
The American Country Life Association (ACLA) was an organizational expression of the Country Life Movement. Holding conferences from 1919 to 1976 (annually except for 1947-1950), the ACLA drew together a variety of rural organizations and key individuals who worked for the improvement of rural life. Its first president, Kenyon L. Butterfield, declared that “The Country Life interest is…. the welfare of men and women, of boys and girls, in respect to their education, their health, their neighborliness, their moral and religious welfare.” Those “most precious things in the world,” along with “economic justice” for the farmer, were the foundation for “a rural democracy” (Butterfield, 1919). The ACLA aspired to highlight and support “the choice things of the spirit” alongside economic improvement. Hence, rural education and the rural church were prominent constituencies for the ACLA. Across the years of conference proceedings, the issues that were prominent in rural sociology departments and extension services of land-grant universities received attention, along with the dramatic economic and social changes of the mid-twentieth century. The ACLA waned, suffered financial problems and finally held its last conference in 1976.
Efforts in rural home economics, 4-H and extension services were part of the Country Life Movement, as were the young academic disciplines of rural sociology and rural economics. When the National Association of Soil and Water Conservation districts began in 1935, it was not only because of the Dust Bowl and the stellar work of Hugh Bennett, but also because of the broad movement of concern stimulated through the Country Life Movement. From within the growing bureaucracy of the United States Department of Agriculture, those who wished to advocate for rural life in general contributed to the wealth of meetings, speaking and writing that comprised the Country Life Movement.
Religious leaders from the mainline Protestant denominations were a major part of the Country Life Movement. From the presence of “Uncle” Henry Wallace, a Presbyterian preacher on Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life, to the prolific rural sociology by Edmund deS. Brunner, who focused long and hard on the rural church and its communities, the Country Life Movement and a corresponding Rural Church Movement aided one another. Protestant leaders wrote volumes about modernizing rural church organizations just as their urban counterparts advocated a robust institutional church. They called for responsible engagement in community life and the civil order by the clergy and churches, which amounted to a rural Social Gospel. The northern Presbyterian denomination appointed Warren H. Wilson to oversee a department of the rural church in 1908, the first of several denominational offices active in the Country Life Movement. A sense of crisis infused the mainline Protestant literature, as the churches struggled with the migration of their population to urban and suburban areas as the twentieth century wore on. But the intensity of such concerns helped to sustain the Country Life Movement overall.
Roman Catholic leaders were also prominent in the Country Life Movement. Edwin V. O’Hara joined the other Progressives in the early days of the movement. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) that O’Hara founded held its first meeting in conjunction with an ACLA conference. A prolific director named Luigi Ligutti at mid-century united domestic rural concerns with international rural issues through the worldwide reach of the Roman Catholic Church. Ligutti started with an agrarian colony in Depression-era Iowa, and ended as an agricultural officer for the Vatican, but along the way influenced a number of leaders in the Country Life Movement. W. Harold Bishop led the Glenmary Missioners to contextual engagement in Appalachia and prominent contributions to rural religious demography. Religious intensity again helped the Country Life Movement to sustain itself and to make contributions to both scholarship and regional concerns.
In the 1960s and 1970s, one of the leaders of the Country Life Movement articulated another vision for integrating modern and traditional ways of life. Calling it “symbiotic community,” E.W. Mueller called attention to the interdependence of the city and countryside, and led a Center for Community Organization and Area Development that covered a large radius around Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Several years the president of ACLA, and the rural church executive for the fourth largest denomination in America, Mueller combined economic, sociological, ecological and religious thinking in his effort to sustain the value of traditional living and working together within a world shaped by larger economic patterns. Much like Bailey and the others before him, Mueller led people and organizations to adjust to the radical changes happening to rural America.
Broad public discoveries of rural issues by the federal government, such as in the New Deal and during the Great Society legislation, provided an outlet for much of the energy that had gone into the Country Life Movement. From those eras one may trace major declines in the Country Life Movement per se, but also diffusion of its efforts into other avenues. The Country Life Movement’s sense of “the holy earth” and promotion of wise land use blended into soil and water conservation during the Depression and finally into ecology after the 1960s. Similarly, its focus on justice for agricultural laborers was subsumed in major movements for rural labor in the ensuing years. The Country Life Movement’s emphasis on efficiency and improvement in education was overtaken by school consolidations and modernizations. The economy continued to be globalized, with the ensuing drop in independent farmowning citizens who would have comprised the rural communities and Jeffersonian democracy the Country Life Movement originally idealized. The broadly civic and modernized mainline Protestant and Catholic churches that the Country Life leaders envisioned were outstripped by independent churches and denominations emphasizing individual morality and otherworldly goals. Those who still resonated to anything like a Social Gospel found broader social and political movements to receive their commitments and energies.
Through most of its existence, the Country Life Movement was almost entirely limited to men who were White, educated and tending to be upwardly mobile. That was part of why the movement never really spoke for the rural population as a whole. But it did provide collaboration for segments of government, education, industry and religion that seldom fully coordinated on behalf of rural America.
— Gilson A.C. Waldkoenig
- Bailey, Liberty Hyde “Some Reminiscences of the Development of the American Country Life Movement.” Mimeograph Series No. 33. Ithaca, NY: Rural Church Institute, Barnes Hall, August 19, 1943.
- Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Holy Earth. 1915. Republished New York: Christian Rural Fellowship, 1943.
- Bailey, Liberty Hyde. Report of the Commission on Country Life, 1910. Republished Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.
- Bowers, William L. The Country Life Movement in America, 1900-1920. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974.
- Butterfield, Kenyon L. “The Work of the Committee on Country Life.” Proceedings of the First National Country Life Conference, Baltimore, 1919. Edited by Dwight Sanderson. Ithaca, NY: National Country Life Association, 1919.
- Danbom, David B. Born in the Country. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins: 1995.
- Ellsworth, Clayton S. “Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission,” in Agricultural History 34:4 October, 1960.
- Madison, James H. “Reformers and the Rural Church 1900-1950.” Journal of American History 73:3 (November 1986): 645-668.
- Swanson, Merwin L. The American Country Life Movement, 1900-1940. Ph.D. dissertation: University of Minnesota, 1972.
- Swanson, Merwin L. “The Country Life Movement and the American Churches.” Church History 46:3 (September 1977): 358-373.
- Waldkoenig, Gilson A.C. Symbiotic Community: E.W. Mueller’s Approach to the Rural Social Crisis. Lanham, MD: UPA, 1996.
- Wunderlich, Gene. American Country Life: A Legacy. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003.