America's Famine

From Issue: R&R – March 2020

Unlike many nations in human history, America has never really known want. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s does not begin to compare with the famines of antiquity that devastated entire civilizations and resulted in the starvation of millions of people. With such extreme prosperity dominating the United States, the average American cannot even begin to fathom the kind of hunger that has characterized large segments of humanity throughout history. Who can even conceptualize eating one’s own children? Yet such has not been uncommon in world history (cf. 2 Kings 6:28-29). In an article that appeared in National Geographic magazine in 1917, Ralph Graves surveyed historical occurrences of famine all the way back to the Egyptian pharaohs. The portrait is horrifying. For example, Graves observed:

Probably in no other country in the world has a people been brought to such a low ebb of morality or become so completely lost to all semblance of rational humanity as in the series of famines which swept over Egypt during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, under Mohammedan rule.1

Cats, dogs, and horses were extremely expensive, women abandoned their jewels as worthless, and desperate people resorted to cannibalism—even selling human flesh in the market place. Babies were kidnapped for food, if not eaten by their own parents. Even the graves were ransacked for food.2 Savagery and moral degradation were the order of the day.

A famine in 1069 in England was so severe that peasants, no longer able to find dogs and horses to eat, sold themselves into slavery in hopes of being fed by the master.3 In 1314, a famine in England brought such misery and suffering that bodies lined the roadsides, everything imaginable was eaten (including dogs, cats, horses, and babies), and when new felons were cast into prison, starving inmates would tear them to pieces for food.4 France was plagued with devastating famines from the Middle Ages to the Revolution resulting in the death of millions. Staple fare included grass, roots, white clay, and exhumed bodies. The potato famines of Ireland in 1822 and again in 1845 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.5

“The pages of India’s history are black with the blotches of famine.”6 From 1770 to 1900, 22 famines resulted in the death of 15 million. Likewise, China has been particularly susceptible to famine, with 45 million dying during four famines from 1810 to 1849. Russian peasants died by the thousands in famines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.7 During the 20th century, some 70 million people died from famines worldwide, including 30 million dying in China in the 1958 famine. Several famines afflicted the Soviet Union, including the Holodomor, a famine inflicted on Ukraine in 1932-33 by Stalin. Famine disaster struck both China and Bengal during World War II, while more recent famines include the Biafran famine in the 1960s, the disaster in Cambodia in the 1970s, the Ethiopian famine of 1984, and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.

Americans can hardly even contemplate the possibility that America could ever be subjected to such conditions. Yet, the Bible teaches that when people reject God and His Word, they set themselves up for disaster. In contrast to these shocking accounts of a lack of minimal sustenance to maintain human life, consider the far more catastrophic effect of a famine of spiritual sustenance: the Word of God. When any civilization lacks access and attachment to God’s thinking and God’s directives, a truly severe famine will ensue. This dearth will, in turn, merit a corresponding physical famine. As God declared to the population of Amos’ day:

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).

This description bears a striking similarity to the conditions now plaguing America. While Americans wallow in their plenty, a vast plague of spiritual starvation has swept across the land. Hear the words of God through Jeremiah warning another nation 2,700 years ago:

The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it…. “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good’” (Jeremiah 18:7-12).

And hear the words of God through Moses to another nation 3,500 years ago: “I will heap disasters on them; I will spend My arrows upon them. They shall be wasted with hunger, devoured by pestilence and bitter destruction” (Deuteronomy 32:23-24). We must ask this sobering question: Will America’s spiritual famine facilitate national disaster?


1 Ralph Graves (1917), “Fearful Famines of the Past,” National Geographic, 32[1]:75, July,

2 Ibid., p. 79.

3 Ibid., p. 81.

4 Ibid., p. 82.

5 Ibid., pp. 83,86.

6 Ibid., p. 86.

7 Ibid., p. 89.


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