Big Oil, Little Oil, Big Presbyterians, Tiny Presbyterians

Darren Dochuk’s new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, continues his study of American Protestantism’s financial profile. A very simple way of putting his findings is to say that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil financed mainline Protestant organizations and J. Howard Pew (and other small oilmen) sustained evangelical Protestantism. In his own words:

By the late 1940s, Howard was not only bitter about major oil’s global expansion at the cost of U.S. domestic production (and with Washington’s privileging of that trend), but also about how the Rockefellers were reshaping society with their mammoth charity. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his sons were, by now, heading a multifaceted foundation that sought to provide humanitarianism and economic development on an international scale. In Pew’s mind, it was the Rockefellers’ brand of ecumenical, interdenominational and internationalist (“monopolistic”) Protestantism, and its prioritizing of science and structural reform over personal matters of the soul that was responsible for the nation’s secular slide. Determined to offset the Rockefellers’ modernistic gospel, in 1948 Pew helped his siblings incorporate the Pew Memorial Trust to “help meet human needs” through support of “education, social services, religion, health care and medical research,” then christened his own, the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, whose charge was even bolder: “to acquaint the American people with the values of a free market, the dangers of inflation, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “promote the recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom.”

That stance in opposition to Protestant modernism and ecumenism prompted Pew to be a major backer of the neo-evangelicals (later just plain evangelicals) at institutions like Fuller, Christianity Today, Billy Graham (Inc.), and Gordon-Conwell:

the Pews rigorously protected personal liberty in theological terms. Howard continued that tradition in the Cold War years. While serving as chair of the National Lay Committee in the National Council of Churches, he agitated against the “collectivist” drift in Presbyterianism and America’s Protestant mainline.

He found another way to push back by funding pastors, seminaries and lobbies associated with “new evangelicalism,” the loosely coordinated movement that would lay the groundwork for the religious right. In one respect, new evangelicals sought simply to continue a fight against liberal “modernist” trends in American Protestantism and society that self-identified “fundamentalists” had waged in the previous half century. Thanks to the unmatched financial support of independent oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the brother tandem at the helm of Union Oil Company of California (whose own hatred of the Rockefellers knew no bounds), fundamentalists had proved highly successful at constructing an alternative infrastructure of churches, missionary agencies and schools that resisted progressivism’s pull. Yet new evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists, wanted to engage rather than recoil from mainstream society—they sought to redeem it rather than run from it. The number of institutions within the new evangelical orb that would benefit from Pew’s millions would be spectacularly large, including illustrious representatives such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals and evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his friends were known to lean on the “big boys” of southwestern oil for financing, among them the superrich Sid Richardson and Hugh Roy Cullen. But J. Howard Pew was the biggest backer among them.

The thing is, confessional Protestants fell between the cracks of categories like liberal and evangelical Protestants, but also sometimes drew fire from oilmen like Pew. (Machen actually preached at the union congregation in Seal Harbor, Maine, at the invitation of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the place where the Machens and Rockefellers worshiped while on vacation.)

When the OPC began, its original name was the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with “in America”). That was a bridge too far (aside from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions) for mainline Presbyterians. In 1935 while J. Gresham Machen and other board members belonged to the PCUSA, opposition to conservatives could use ecclesiastical courts. But once Machen was convicted of breaking church law and excommunicated, the only recourse to stop his efforts was the civil courts. And so, the PCUSA brought a civil suit against the new Presbyterian communion and asked the judge to force the new communion to change its name. Here was part of the PCUSA’s reasoning (humor warning):

It is impracticable and impossible for the plaintiff church to recover in damages what it has suffered and is likely to suffer from the aforesaid acts done and threatened to be done by and on behalf of the defendant church. The plaintiff church is powerless to prevent the resulting injury to its property and enterprises, or to avoid the resulting loss in donations and financial support which may be diverted from it, which injuries are immediate, continuous and irreparable, and incapable of computation or estimate. (Bill of Complaint, reprinted in Presbyterian Guardian, Sept. 12, 1936)

To put readers’ laughter in perspective, here are some figures to keep in mind for comparison between the PCUSA and the original OPC:

At its first General Assembly the [OPC] counted only thirty-four ministers, with roughly thirty congregations and 5,000 members. Funds were so scarce that the minutes of the first five General Assemblies do not even include financial reports. No doubt the ministers themselves bore most of the expenses of the denomination and its proceedings, with help from congregations. The only mention of finances at the third General Assembly, for example in 1937, was in connection with the costs for printing the minutes and agenda, and the budget of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Printing costs were $137 and the receipts from churches and ministers were only $122, leaving a deficit of $15. Because the Committee on Home Missions was the only agency with a real budget, the delegates passed along the rest of the bill to Home Missions. But that committee was not exactly flush. Their expenses for the first year came to just short of $13,000, with receipts totaling a little more than $13,000. In fact, the Committee on Home Missions’ budget was the OPC’s denominational budget. In addition to picking up the expenses of printing the General Assembly’s minutes, the Committee also footed the bill for renting the hall where the Assembly met. Thus, by the end of its first year the OPC’s total assets, if the balance of the Committee on Home Missions’ bank account is any indication, were $221.54.

In contrast, the PCUSA’s wealth and stature were truly staggering. In their complaint against the OPC the officers of the mainline denomination listed their resources to show how much they had to lose if a new church came along with a similar name. The PCUSA had close to 9,000 congregations, with just under 2 million church members, and 9,800 ministers. The church had approximately 1,600 home missionaries with an annual budget of $2.5 million and trust funds totaling just over $33 million. The PCUSA’s efforts in foreign missions were also large. They counted 1,300 missionaries with an annual budget of $2.9 million and trust funds totaling a little more than $18 million.

The [OPC] did not even send out their first foreign missionaries until 1938 and then could only manage support for eight, a number figure that included wives. (DGH, “Why the OPC: The History behind the Name)

What does this have to do with big oil or J. Howard Pew? The first two names on the Bill of Complaint were:



This does not mean that Pew was aiming for Machen and the OPC. He likely signed this complaint as part of his responsibilities as an elder in the PCUSA.

But, the man who funded so much of the neo-evangelical world, the friend of so-called conservative Protestants, was right there in the legal proceedings against other conservative Protestants, the ones who were the most Presbyterian of all the Protestants (minus the Covenanters, and Associate Reformed). And one reason that Pew might have favored Graham et al and not had much regard for Machen was the the latter’s understanding of the mission of the church was not going to abet the political and economic policies that Pew wanted the federal government to pursue. Graham and the neo-evangelicals, sorry Mark Galli, wanted to be evangelicalism for the nation. That earned them Pew’s support.


Why Machen Left the OPC

He died (on this day eight decades ago).

Machen’s reasons for being a critic of the PCUSA — to the point that some thought he was impossible and failed to show Christian charity — were clear in his testimony before the Presbytery of New Brunswick (you know, the one that the Synod of Philadelphia created to make the revivalists feel welcome), the body that tried, found him guilty, and excommunicated him from the mainline church:

Suppose a minister obtains his ordination by promising to support the boards and agencies, as he is required to do by the plain intent of that addition to the manual of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and by the plain intent of the action of the 1934 General Assembly. Suppose he later becomes convinced that the boards and agencies are unfaithful to their trust. Let us even take an extreme case. Let us suppose that he has become convinced that those in charge of the boards and agencies are guilty of actual embezzlement. That case, is, of course, entirely hypothetical, but an extreme case does illustrate plainly the principle that is involved. Let us insist upon putting that extreme case. Here is a minister who has promised that he will, as long as he remains a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., support the boards and agencies as they are established by successive General Assemblies. He he has become convinced that those boards and agencies are positively dishonest, even with the kind of dishonestly that is contrary to the criminal laws of the land.

What course of action is open to such a minister? He is convinced that the boards and agencies are dishonest. The general assembly is convinced that they are honest. What shall he do in such a situation? . . . Only two courses of action are open to a minister who is in such a quandary.

In the first place, he may continue to support boards and agencies which he holds to be dishonest. That course of action would plainly involve him in dishonesty. An honest man cannot possibly recommend to people that they should give to agencies which he hold to be dishonest.

In the second place, a minister who is in such a quandary may withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. That plainly means evasion of the solemn responsibility which he has as a minister. I really wonder whether those who advocate this action of the General Assembly have ever thought this thing through. Do they really mean to tell us that just because a majority in the General Assembly has made a mistake one year and has placed in charge of the missionary funds of the church men who are dishonest, therefore a minister should withdraw from the church and allow that dishonesty to go on? I say that such conduct is an evasion of a solemn responsibility. No, it is the duty of a minister in such a situation to remain in the church and to seek by every means in his power to bring about a change in that policy of the General Assembly which he regards as involving dishonest. Meanwhile (and this should be particularly observed), he cannot for any consideration whatever give a penny to what he regards, rightly or wrongly, to be a dishonest agency; and still less can he recommend to any other persons the support of such an agency. . . .

I could never promise to support any human agency as a condition of my being ordained. I could not promise to support the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which I believe now to be sound in the faith. . . . It is at the very heart and core of my ordination pledge, in accordance with the law of the Presbyterian church, that I should repeatedly examine any agency that appeals to me for support in the light of the Word of God, and support it only if it is in accord with that blessed Word. Moreover, in determining whether it is in accord with that Word, I must be governed by my conscience, as God may give me light, and not by the pronouncements of any human councils or courts.

If that is contrary to Presbyterian law, then I should certainly be removed from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. But all the glorious history of the Reformed faith should teach a man if the Word of God does not teach him, that it is not contrary to Presbyterian law but is at the very heart of Presbyterian law. (Statement to the Presbytery of New Brunswick, 347-48, 349)

Those in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, eat your hearts out.

Would the PCUSA Hire Me?

What if I claimed to be channeling God’s Spirit, the way that More Light Presbyterians say the Holy Spirit descended upon the PCUSA’s General Assembly during its recent vote to allow Presbyterians ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages in state’s where gay marriage is legal. (If you’ve got the Spirit, feathers and all, why does state law restrict your ministry?) I mean, by those Spirit-led rules, why would a search committee object to an Orthodox Presbyterian trying to secure a post on the pastoral staff of a PCUSA congregation? Sure, it would be odd. But the economy has yet to rebound fully and the PCUSA still marshals lots of financial resources. Even more, the PCUSA, as it indicated in its recent vote, tries not to discriminate against the marginal and oppressed. The OPC may not be oppressed, though the PCUSA’s 1937 suit against the OPC for choosing a name (i.e., Presbyterian Church OF America) too close to the mainline denomination’s collection of initials sure looked like sour grapes. But Orthodox Presbyterians are surely not mainstream. If the PCUSA wants real diversity and to demonstrate real love, why not call an Orthodox Presbyterian? This would be perfect, by the way, because the Greek and Hebrew I learned and have long since forgotten would not be needed in a church that runs according to the Spirit.

Could it be that the PCUSA actually discriminates against religion the way that a team of researchers recently found:

Résumés that made no religious reference, that listed a generic student group, received about 20 phone calls and e-mails from employers for every 100 résumés sent. This was 20 percent more callbacks than the average of the other seven groups.

The Muslim résumés were the big loser. Résumés that listed involvement in a Muslim student group received only 12.6 phone calls and e-mails from employers for every 100 sent. This was about 40 percent fewer callbacks than the control group résumés. Simply adding Muslim to a résumé decreased employer interest substantially.

The remaining six groups fell in between the control group and Muslims. Among them, the pagan résumés did relatively well, the atheist résumés did relatively poorly, and Jews, evangelicals, Catholics, and Wallonians were in the middle. (Our New England findings were published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility in 2013; our Southern research was published recently in Social Currents.)

So yes, religious discrimination in hiring seems to be very, very real. Our study seems to confirm a social norm in America: that religious expression should be compartmentalized and private, something kept at home or brought out only in specific, limited circumstances. Publically identifying oneself with a certain belief system can be a faux pas with real and negative consequences. This norm applies to a wide range of religious and irreligious expressions. As such, both the proselytizing evangelical and the adamant atheist are suspect.

In point of fact, everyone discriminates (especially when they buy a car) and Americans might live together a lot less frustratedly if they gave up the hokum about being open minded and simply advertised truthfully about what goods or truths they actually believe and advocate. The PCUSA’s problem (as if there’s one) isn’t that it discriminates. It’s that it doesn’t know that it does.

Long Before David Barton, We Had American Presbyterians (to conflate the kingdoms)

From J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (1994)

Once the Revolution had been firmly identified as the first crusade of the American civil religion, it became necessary to canonise the zealots who had brought it about. The Founding Fathers, where possible, were turned form political opportunists, propagandists or self-seekers of tepid or heterodox religious belief into the Luthers and Calvins, the Melanchthons and Zwinglis of the Novus ordo seclorum. With some exceptions, like the now-notorious Tom Paine, each became the subject of a secular epiphany. Especially was this true of the unlikely figure of George Washington, a stolid man of limited imagination and still more limited religious faith, but now repeatedly hailed (without irony) as the Moses or the Joshua of a redeemed people. On his election to the Presidency in 1789, the Presbyterian General Assembly presented him with a congratulatory address, professing to draw particular comfort from Washington’s personal piety:

Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity, and religion is the surest basis of virtue. We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief Magistrate, a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the christian religion, who has commended his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of Piety, and who in his private conduct adorns the doctrines of the Gospel of Christ, and on the most public and solumn occasions devoutly acknowledges the government of divine Providence.

Washington’s reply was all they could expect. He championed religious toleration, acknowledged their prayers, and coupled an ecumenical Deity with a lively regard for the value of religion as a social cement:

While I reiterate the possession of my dependence upon Heaven as the source of all public and private blessings; I will observe that the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry and oeconomy seems in the ordinary course of human affairs are particularly necessary for advancing and confirming the happiness of our country.

By the first centennial, the image of the Revolution as a holy war had expanded within the folk memories of the American sects to the point where the division and ambiguities within those denominations were forgotten. Presbyterians pictured the war as a Presbyterian crusade which sanctified martial heroism, turned the heterodox rhetoric of the Founding Fathers into the idiom of revivalist preaching, traced in the ‘apparent chaos’ of armed rebellions ‘the will of God. . . working toward order and organisation in a constitution depicted in terms reminiscent of the millennium. (389-90)

Peter Lillback got it honestly.

Clark goes on to observe an irony that continues to afflict “conservative” Protestants who do not oppose civil religion as they should, nor are as wary of the broad churchism that almost always traffics with baptisms of civil authority:

. . . this homogenisation of the position of colonial denominations acted to secularise the historical interpretation of the Revolution and to drain the role of the sects of its immense signficance: if most men, regardless of denomination, eventually seemed to have endorsed the Revolution, then the Revolution’s values and causes must by definition have been irrelevant to religious differences.

In other words, confusing the kingdoms brings into the kingdom (the earthly city sacralized) people who are not kingdom people while it empties the church (the foretaste of the heavenly city) of those attributes that make the church unique (and that divide the churches into different communions). It is, in the words of Vernon Dozier, a “big bowl of wrong.”

If You Can Put A Woman in the Pulpit, You Can Self-Serve the Lord's Supper on the Moon

Thanks to Joe Carter comes a link to the news story about Buzz Aldrin’s observance of the Lord’s Supper (by himself no less) on the moon. Because NASA was receiving flack from Madalyn Murray O’Hair for the astronauts on Apollo 8 reading from Genesis, the federal authorities decided to let Aldrin commune on his own without a radio broadcast of the event.

But the Presbyterian Church that supplied Aldrin with elements and utensils has not kept the event silent:

. . . at Webster Presbyterian church – the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated every July, known as Lunar Communion Sunday. Pastor Helen DeLeon told me how they replay the tape of Aldrin on the moon and recite Psalm eight, which he had quoted on his return trip to Earth (“… what is man that thou art mindful of him”). The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him. Judy Allton, a geologist and historian of Webster Presbyterian church, produced a paper, presented at a Nasa conference, arguing that communion could be an essential part of future manned space travel. She claims that rituals such as Aldrin’s communion “reinforce the homelink”.

Perhaps if the PCUSA congregation (was it PCUS or UPCUSA then?) had had the sense to see the problem with private observances of the Supper, they might have also detected the anomalies of ordaining a woman. I do wonder if Christian readers of this story will be more inclined to see this as evidence of secular government run amuk than an instance of liberal Christianity.

(Will this get me any blog-cred with the Baylys? I’m not holding my 2k breath.)

American Presbyterianism Then and Now (mainline anyway)

Thanks to our southern correspondent, I saw a short piece at the Presbyterian Layman’s website on something called “Narrative on the State of Religion.” The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) of Presbyterians (the most recent group to leave, sort of, the PCUSA) was debating whether to re-institute these reports. Each congregation was expected to evaluate its spiritual health and send its “Narrative” to presbytery. Jim Singleton, a leader within ECO, opines that the PCUSA in 1925 stopped using these narratives and resorted to numerical statistics as a measure of congregational health.

Here is the list of questions sessions used for the old Narrative reporting:

Attendance upon the service of the sanctuary by members and others;

Proportions of families that observe family worship;

Observance of the Lord’s day by the members;

Home-training of the children in the Scripture and in the catechism of the church;

Training of pupils in the Sabbath school in the Scripture and the catechism of the church (Singleton said that during that time, Sabbath school was for non-Presbyterian children. The congregation’s children were to be trained at home.);

Fidelity of the membership in honoring the Lord with substance;

Has the congregation paid its minister fully and promptly the amount promised him?

Have there been any special manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s power in the church either by conversions or by increased activity in church work?

To what extent does worldly conformity exist in the church?

What evangelistic work is done by the church outside of its bounds?

What is the church doing to secure people for the Gospel ministry?

For what it’s worth, this is a remarkably good set of questions for pastors and elders to employ in evaluating their flocks and their own ministry. Singleton’s pointing to 1925 is also of interest since for Old Lifers that year was arguably THE turning point in the history of American Presbyterianism, a time when the PCUSA whitewashed the denomination’s health and started to blame conservatives for the church’s woes.

But I cannot go all the way with Singleton or ECO on the “Narrative” they hope to resuscitate. The proposed Narrative looks like this:

How has the Holy Spirit been evident in your congregation in the past year (through conversions, growth in the fruit of the Spirit or other transformational experiences in the congregation)?

How has your congregation extended itself beyond its bounds through the establishment of new communities of worship and discipleship?

In what ways is your congregation seeking the welfare of the “city” (community) to which we are called?

How has your congregation devoted itself to the poor in this past year? Describe the evidence of the heart of compassion.

How has your congregation sought justice as an expression of the Kingdom of God?

Describe the state of moral expression in your congregation — are you more like the world or more like the participants in the values of the Kingdom of God?

How are individuals, including women, men and people of different ethnic groups, experiencing the call to full-time or part-time ministry in your congregation?

Describe how the idea of ministry as the joy and calling of every disciple is evident in your congregation.

Describe how your employment practices are moving toward an expression of the values of the Kingdom of God.

Explain how your congregation understands its commitment to the larger church through our connectional relationships within the Body of Christ.

Strikingly absent are concerns about public worship, observing the Lord’s Day, family worship, and catechesis. It’s as if the folks at Redeemer NYC were responsible for drafting the new Narrative (though I’m not sure the last item about connectional relationships would have made the cut).

Too bad. The old Narrative was a good idea.