Following the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, Frances Craig, a Sunday School teacher at Travis Park Methodist Episcopal Church, in San Antonio, Texas, saw the comfort people found in short devotional readings. She urged her pastor, Dr. Paul Kern, to write a collection of devotionals. In the weekly church newsletter, Kern began suggesting daily scripture readings alongside short notes to encourage people to read the Bible. Mrs. Craig never forgot the impact of that daily guidance in Bible reading.
At the same time, Grover Emmons, a clergyperson of the Methodist Episcopal Church who had served in France and the Far East, was also being prepared for his future role in developing The Upper Room daily devotional guide. In his ministry, Emmons saw that believers around the world have a common commitment to Christ. He dreamed of a devotional book that would be available and usable for all, “to cultivate an acquaintance with God.”
In early 1934, Emmons came to Nashville, Tennessee, to work as the director of home missions, evangelism, and hospitals for the Board of Home Missions.
In December 1934 Grover Emmons gave a report about the committee’s work on “the matter of a publication for devotional use in the home.” The following motion was brought to the board:
. . . To publish a quarterly devotional booklet to be sold in the local church through the Missionary Committee and to bear the imprint of the Commission [on Home Missions, Hospitals, and Evangelism]. This is to be an experiment for one quarter, details to be referred to Dr. Emmons . . .
At the time, Frances Craig served as a volunteer director on the Committee on Devotional Literature for the Board of Home Missions, and she took news of the project back to San Antonio and asked the Philathea Sunday school class (a group of more than 100) to pray for the devotional project.
Dr. Emmons began to develop the structure of the magazine; daily entries would include a quoted scripture verse, a suggested scripture reading, brief comments, a prayer, and a closing thought for the day. Individuals were invited to provide content for the daily entries and the emphasis was on personal stories of everyday people. When Frances Craig received a letter asking her to write entries for the new magazine, she knew that her prayers were having effect—production of the magazine was underway.
Grover Emmons and Bishop Arthur J. Moore talked to pastors and leaders of all denominations throughout the United States and shared the vision for the little magazine: reestablish the “family altar”—the practice of daily prayer and Bible reading in the home.
The new magazine would not be just a Methodist publication but a gift from Methodists to the larger church. Dr. Emmons envisioned a devotional aid that was not doctrinal but inclusive, centered not on differences but on beliefs that Christians hold in common.
Attending a church conference in Richmond, Virginia, Grover Emmons heard Reverend John W. Smith speak about the power of God descending on Jesus’ disciples as they prayed in an upper room. Dr. Emmons was inspired: the magazine would be called The Upper Room.
In early 1935, 100,000 copies of the first issue (April-May-June 1935) sold out quickly. The staff ordered 160,000 copies of the second issue and 211,000 of the third issue. By the seventh issue, the print run was half a million copies.
Almost immediately after the magazine’s publication, readers began writing and sending in devotionals that spoke of their personal faith stories. By 1938, the magazine was publishing meditations written by ordinary readers, not just invited writers. With the January–February–March 1939 issue, less than four years after the first issue, circulation reached an astounding one million copies.
Today, The Upper Room daily devotional guide is a familiar item on kitchen and bedside tables around the country. Over the years, that little, beloved magazine has sparked a global ministry that now reaches millions around the world in over 100 countries in more than 30 languages.
Upper Room Ministries has grown to include print and digital publications, a museum and chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, and experiences like The Walk to Emmaus, The Academy for Spiritual Formation, and The Upper Room Living Prayer Center.
Joining friends at The Upper Room in morning prayer on Facebook Live has been an anchor in the storm during recent weeks. In the chaos of trying to figure out how to do ministry in strange and uncertain times, it was a compelling call to stop, breathe, listen, and be in community with those who gather "where the world meets to pray." Join us each day for morning prayer.