Editor’s note: CT’s June cover story considers the use and abuse of oil from a Christian lens.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus frames a stark choice between God and money, declaring, “You cannot serve both” (Matt. 6:24). His warning has not exactly fallen on deaf ears in the modern United States, but it hasn’t kept many awake at night either. American believers have for generations possessed a buoyant confidence—one might call it a faith—in their ability to make money without being mastered by it. The righteous can pursue riches, so long as their hearts are in the right place.
Such bits of conventional wisdom have a history. In recent years, scholars have delved deeper than ever before into the longstanding synergies between American Christianity and American capitalism. Their efforts have yielded a wealth of excellent studies focused on everything from Wal-Mart to Chick-fil-A, from spiritual celebrity to Christian nationalism, and from the origins of fundamentalism to the rise of prosperity megachurches.
Darren Dochuk’s landmark book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, at once builds on this important body of work and represents its most stunning achievement. Authors rarely deliver so fully on their titles. Through the stories of believers hot in pursuit of both God and “black gold,” Dochuk indeed opens a breathtaking new window onto the making of the modern nation.
Sparring Spirits of Capitalism
Oil is not incidental to Dochuk’s narrative. Its distinctive qualities, ranging from its hiddenness and explosiveness to its extraordinary value, make it an essential player. Dochuk underscores this point from the outset, characterizing the book as “the religious biography of a natural resource with outsized—and seemingly otherworldly—importance.”
Many oilmen experienced the moment of discovery as a kind of life-changing miracle. But if the quest for crude sometimes turned their minds heavenward, it always unfolded in the context of more mundane legal frameworks. The “rule of capture” proved especially key. As Dochuk explains, “[it] guaranteed the right of each driller who had access to a common pool to drain as much crude as he could, at dizzying rates and on his terms.” By incentivizing relentless competition, the law laid the groundwork for the perennially bitter, high-stakes rivalry between major and independent oilers that stands at the very center of this story.
The feud began in the late 19th century and soon developed into a momentous battle for the nation’s soul. It pitted shifting ecclesial and political camps against one another, to be sure, but at the root lay what Dochuk evocatively calls “sparring spirits of capitalism.” On one side were the major oil companies and their “civil religion of crude,” represented throughout the book by the Rockefellers. On the other were the independents and their “wildcat Christianity,” embodied here by the likes of Lyman Stewart and J. Howard Pew.
The former got off to a fast start thanks to the cunning of John D. Rockefeller, a devout Baptist whose Standard Oil Company quickly outmuscled its competitors. Rockefeller regarded crude with awe. But he was determined to leave nothing to chance. While he cherished the idea of free enterprise, he nevertheless used his commanding position to impose control and order on an industry prone to free-for-alls. Rockefeller’s ruthless business instincts were both reinforced and redirected by an unshakeable sense of divine calling. “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God,” he once declared, adding, “Having been endowed with the gifts I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”
By the 1890s, Rockefeller’s star was rising faster than ever in the world of American philanthropy too. During that decade he underwrote the founding of the University of Chicago, which boosters conceived as the premier Baptist institution of higher learning in the world. But even more importantly, he hired Frederick Gates, a former pastor, to manage his charitable enterprises. Rockefeller was a lifelong patron of missions at home and abroad, but in the early years, his gifts had been more scattershot than systematic. Gates persuaded the pious tycoon that if he truly wanted to change the world, he needed to be more strategic.
Gates would find no more enthusiastic ally in this work than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose own deep faith steeled a commitment to improving society. Like many other turn-of-the-century believers, Junior was skeptical that an older philosophy of reform—which imagined individual regeneration as the linchpin of progress—was capable of addressing modern problems. He wanted to use his family fortune to, as he put it, “cure evils at their source.” Through the Rockefeller Foundation, he convened experts and funded new initiatives such as a Department of Industrial Relations, which he hoped would bring the nation’s prolonged industrial war to a speedy end. Meanwhile, he provided financial backing to a wave of new ecumenical institutions devoted to structural approaches to social reform. Pouring dollars into fledgling organizations such as the Federal Council of Churches and the Interchurch World Movement, he became the chief patron of the Protestant social gospel.
The Theology of the Oilfields
The Foundation’s work helped to blunt widespread criticisms of big oil’s corporate conduct, but it did nothing to endear the Rockefellers to their wildcatter nemeses. Independents like Lyman Stewart resented all attempts to control the industry, let alone to build God’s kingdom on earth. Stewart prized untrammeled freedom and saw a personal, all-powerful God at work behind developments in the oil fields, not to mention the world beyond. “Whereas Rockefeller rationalized industrial capitalism,” Dochuk reflects, “Stewart reenchanted it.” As far as Stewart was concerned, his fortunes tracked with his faithfulness. When later in life he reflected back on a period of significant financial struggle, he chalked it up to the fact that he had stopped tithing. “At the end of the six years referred to,” he informed his children, “I was ‘dead broke.’”
Such inferences were commonplace among wildcatters. Dochuk finds evidence of enduring affinities between independent oil and those veins of Christianity that emphasize mystery, wonder, and dramatic divine intervention. Spirit-filled churches and oil derricks cropped up in close proximity to one another in Pennsylvania, Texas, and everywhere crude was found. The theological paradigms that resonated most deeply in the oil fields were a far cry from those that held sway in the ivory tower.
One case in point: dispensational premillennialism, an intricate theory of the end times that sprung from a tendentious reading of Scripture and yet seemed almost second nature to someone like Stewart. As Dochuk explains, “It combined a speculative spirit with supreme trust in the supernatural, engineering sensibilities with alchemic obsessions, and it was premised on a view of the world that expected ebbs and flows in fortunes, human powerlessness in the face of giant forces, and a general slide toward cataclysm.”
For Stewart, the ascendance of the Rockefellers and their more liberal brand of Christianity was a sure sign of the coming apocalypse, and he sought to counter it with all his might. He gave money to Southern California’s Occidental College in the hopes it would offset the damage being done by the University of Chicago Divinity School, which he regarded as “the greatest school of infidelity in America.” Meanwhile, he and his brother Milton masterminded the publication of The Fundamentals. These articles defended a variety of traditional Christian views, ranging from the Virgin Birth to the authority of Scripture.
But as Dochuk argues, drawing on the incisive work of historian Tim Gloege, the whole design of the project, which circumvented the authority of denominations, reflected a distinctly modern and radically individualistic understanding of Christianity. What many styled the “old-time religion” was, in an important sense, decisively new. This innovative vision gained yet more steam when Stewart—discouraged by developments at Occidental and still eager to provide the nation’s faithful remnant with a trustworthy alternative to liberal seminaries—gave money to found the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, commonly known as Biola University.
By that point, both wildcat Christianity and the civil religion of crude were on the move—and not just in the United States. Dochuk’s story ranges across continents. Oilmen of every stripe sought to realize dreams of global influence, and he traces their scramble for profits and contests over truth as they played out in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and beyond.
Independents found a fast friend in Ernest Manning, the evangelical premier of Canada’s oil-rich Alberta province. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the majors broke through thanks in no small part to the work of William Eddy, the son of a Presbyterian missionary. Out of the ecumenical social gospel of his parents’ generation, Eddy fashioned a pluralist vision of international development, one that empowered him both to build bridges with the Saudi regime and to extend the reach of big oil. During the Eisenhower presidency this “moral alliance with Muslims” gained sanction in the halls of power, but it was never without significant detractors. Jealous of Aramco’s profits, indignant about its compromising relationship with a Muslim regime, and intensely loyal to Israel, independents fought determinedly against American dependence on Saudi crude. The Cold War sometimes made for unwieldy alliances. But in general, independents’ outrage about the majors’ international exploits only fueled the fire of a wildcat-led domestic revolt.
Wildcatters had long despised Roosevelt, Rockefeller, and all that those names stood for, and by mid-century they had found a champion who could carry the fight into the next generation. His name was J. Howard Pew. A ferocious critic of the New Deal, with its regulatory apparatuses and welfare programs, Pew had only disdain for the social Christian vision that undergirded it. He leveraged his fortune to spread a libertarian gospel centered on faith and free enterprise. He was joined in these efforts by an ecumenical coalition of independent oilers, including the likes of Ignatius O’Shaughnessy, a Catholic and major patron of the University of Notre Dame. But the reach of Pew’s money was especially astounding. While he eagerly gave to mainline ministers who fought ardently against political and theological liberalism, even more significant was his part in bankrolling the rise of neo-evangelicalism.
Pew cultivated close partnerships with leading clergymen such as Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham and gave major gifts to help get organizations such as Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) off the ground. The latter’s activities, especially, underscored that the new evangelicals were, from the very beginning, as interested in politics as they were in theology. As Dochuk persuasively shows, the NAE was not just a churchly association but “also a political federation binding together anti-New Deal churchmen.” Graham’s ministry helped to strengthen and extend these ties. He forged a vast network of personal relationships in Western oil patches and grew especially close with a number of leading Texas wildcatters. “By the mid-1950s,” Dochuk shows, “corporate and church associates had constructed an interlocking movement for independent oil and the new evangelicalism.”
In the following decade, that movement began to achieve long-sought breakthroughs. A turning point came in 1964, as independent oil’s preferred candidate in the Republican presidential primary, Barry Goldwater, defeated the odds-on favorite, Nelson Rockefeller. While Goldwater went on to lose in the general election, there could be no doubt that, as Dochuk writes, “the wildcat wing served notice that its brand of religiosity and politics was ascendant.” Pew would not live to see the final culmination of his life’s work, but at his funeral in 1971 Billy Graham—whose portrait hung alongside that of Herbert Hoover in Pew’s Sun Oil office—gave the benediction.
In the ensuing decades, wildcatters and their evangelical allies completed a once-unthinkable takeover of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, hemmed in on both the right and the left, and facing new challenges abroad, the political and religious establishments in which the Rockefellers had invested for generations continued to crumble. The story is far too complicated to unravel entirely here, but suffice it to say that by the time Sarah Palin was leading public chants of “drill, baby, drill,” the successors to Stewart and Pew had long since declared their mission accomplished.
Historians will be talking about Dochuk’s book for a very long time to come. His work in unearthing expansive relational and financial networks, which crisscrossed the oil industry and the seats of economic, political, and religious power, is an invaluable contribution on its own. But as his narrative makes clear, the payoff of that work in terms of explaining seminal developments on both the national and global stages is extraordinary. For these reasons and more, Anointed with Oil is an instant classic and a must-read for all students of modern United States history.
There are even deeper matters to ponder here too. Like any good epic, the story told in these pages leads out toward larger questions: about the shape of a moral economy, about the extent to which dollars should drive theological developments, and about the possibilities and limitations of all human efforts to change the world. Such questions take on more urgency by the minute, as the routine functioning of contemporary global capitalism edges the planet ever closer to environmental catastrophe. The Sermon on the Mount may not contain all of the answers, but in a moment such as this, its cautions about the dangers of money hit all too close to home.
Heath W. Carter is an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press).