last updated: July 19, 2020
It’s been over a year since I finished "Titan: the Life of John D. Rockefeller", but it remains one of the best biographies I have found, with an incredibly nuanced portrait of Rockefeller and his story. (
Of the many mysteries of John D. Rockefeller -
Among the world’s titans, J. D. Rockefeller presents a very strange case. Like many who reach billionaire status, he has been vilified both during his lifetime and after his passing. Today, many think of him as a cut-throat competitor and industrialist who built the world’s first oil fortune off the evils of big business. But even that short synopsis deals multiple injustices to his story. Of the many paradoxes of John D. Rockefeller, I will use this space to delve into the mystery of his religious conviction, and the many quandaries this caused.
Context: Baptist childhood and 1800s America
John D. Rockefeller was raised as a devout Baptist by his mother, which entailed, alongside the values of utmost honesty and service to your fellow man, a sense of caution for the evils of greed. His father, a travelling snake oil salesman, had not quite passed on the same values. Both parents, though, through positive and negative reinforcement, would leave their son with a strict moral compass to follow for nearly eighty years. This would grant him firm conviction in times of uncertainty, moral justification for sometimes dubious behavior, and fuel for his massive philanthropic undertakings, though his faith seems more duty-driven than anything else.
With an absentee father (who would take his child’s hard-earned cash when he returned) and a childhood of financial instability, it is no wonder that J. D. thought often about money. As a young man (long before his first fortunes), Rockefeller began using a small notebook to meticulously record every expense and income. And once, in an incredibly uncharacteristic fit of frustration towards his boss (when he was but a lowly accountant), he had announced that he would become the world’s richest person. It was already clear that he was a hard worker, and good with numbers (he was in love with the double-entry system), but his ambition went far beyond that of his peers.
Rockefeller grew up in the shadow of the California gold rush, which Mark Twain singled out as the watershed event that sanctified a new money worship and debased the country’s founding ideals. The growing oil industry would kick off a new rush, though this time the prospectors would dig deep into the ground instead of sifting in rivers. It is worth noting that growing urbanization played an important social function as well, as farm boys in uniform were exposed to cities and given titillating glimpses of luxury goods and urban sophistication.
The Puritan paradox
These were forces that Rockefeller himself would have been often exposed to. And yet, the Bible that he read so faithfully warned many times against the temptation of wealth. In this sense, Puritan culture in the mid 1800s provided a strange contradiction, for it advocated certain virtues - hard work and frugality - that made the godly people rich, and these riches, in turn, threatened to undermine that godliness. It was a potential path that Rockefeller was acutely aware of, even as a young man. How to reconcile the tension?
A unique trait of Rockefeller was his habit of holding conversations alone, sometimes to think through a decision, and other times to talk himself out of any non-Baptist views of money, driven largely by a fear of his growing prosperity. In one such conversation, he began to feel that it was a good thing to let the money be his slave, and not make himself a slave to money. He was beginning to understand that one doesn’t own money, one is just given a turn with it. And instead of trying to prolong the length of his turn, he would use it for his own purposes. Except, his purposes would be those of God, so God would reward his efforts as long as he kept to the narrow path.
This conviction came at a cost, though, and Rockefeller never let work take priority over his faith. Early in his career, an employee came rushing to tell Rockefeller that recent rainfall had swelled the river, and flooding waters might sweep away his entire inventory of oil barrels. It was a Sunday, though, and Rockefeller put on his hat with aplomb, said he had to go to prayer, and refused to attend to business. His faith was not misplaced, it seems, as the barrels survived the flooding intact.
Faith in Business
However, he soon began to weave his business success with his religious beliefs. This was a singular but deeply held conviction of his, that would give him incredible confidence when uncertainty sowed fears in the heart of those around him. Namely, that his success was from above, and as a result (and maybe a cause?) he had no choice but to use the fruits of his success for the good of those around him. In his own words, “it has seemed as if I was favored and got increase because the Lord knew that I was going to turn around and give it back.” Eventually, he would tell his Sunday class, “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can.”
He would follow this adage incredibly well, for the most part. First, he seems to have always believed that he was acting fairly, though others would question this deeply. Second, he was incredibly frugal for most of his life, even after he reached the status of richest man alive. He rarely bought new clothes, didn’t indulge in popular nouveau-riche luxuries, like yachts, and lived in a modest-enough home dwarfed by the mansions of other industrialist millionaires. It is worth nothing, however, that his frugality decreased considerably once he got considerably older, as obsessions with golf, automobiles, and landscaping dug into his expenses in the latter years of his life. Finally, he really did give away “all he could,” starting with the simple act of tithing but eventually revolutionizing the entire mechanism of philanthropy.
Tithing is an age-old remedy to greed, and was a regular habit of Rockefeller’s, even when he was only making the meagre allowance of an entry-level book-keeper. Of course, it would go into his little notebook, but never any further. Even as this habit developed into larger and larger philanthropic ventures, he would do his best to follow the Biblical decree to keep his generosity as private and secretive as possible. Eventually, he would give away $530 million (close to $7.5B today) in his lifetime, and built the foundation for generations of further donation (still ongoing today) - making him arguably the greatest philanthropist in American history.
However, philanthropy posed yet another moral quandary. The most perplexing issue for Rockefeller was how to square philanthropy with self-reliance. His constant nightmare was that he would promote dependence, sapping the Protestant work ethic. Staunchly convinced that society meter out just deserts, he believed that the rich had been recompensed for superior intelligence and enterprise, and the poor had been denied that chance by unfortunate circumstance (illness, catastrophe) and poor work habits. Over time, he gradually shifted his funding towards socially acceptable and easily justifiable projects, like medicine and education, instead of the more controversial “temperance” movement and Baptist missionary organizations.
However, he understood the value of directing resources, and that his money would be worthless if not directed well. “John, we have money,” he told his son, “but it will have value for mankind only as we can find able men with ideas, imagination and courage to put it into productive use.” He also insisted on placing scientists, not lay trustees, in charge of expenditures - a revolutionary concept.
His philanthropic efforts would go deeper and wider than most can even imagine, reshaping countless aspects of modern America. As a quick snapshot, $450 million had gone directly to medicine - funding the largest advance in that field, in the history of humanity. Additionally, it was his money that paid for Hellen Keller’s education, sponsored Carl Yung, and funded Spelman Seminary, a school for black women that counted MLK’s mother and grandmother as alumni. Many of his philanthropic methods were also ground-breaking, placing scientists (and not lay trustees) in charge of expenditures, and giving birth to institutions that would eventually enjoy a life totally independent of their donors (like UChicago).
The final fear
Rockefeller’s final and strangest religious paradox lay in his fear of death. As he grew older and more distant from the day-to-day business of Standard Oil, he occupied his mind with philanthropy, various hobbies, and his health. However, he always remained uncomfortable with any hint at his own mortality, making it his goal to live to 100 (he died at 97). When his wife fell ill, he spent months at other homes and in other states - a remarkable change from someone who had been inseparable from his wife. He stuck by strict rituals, famously placing great stores in following the same daily schedule down to the second, and avoided anything that might jeopardize his health.
Taking a bird eye’s view, it seems that Rockefeller’s life followed the very contradiction that characterized Puritan culture, though he proved more successful - or at least, less unsuccessful, than many others. An early sense of religious duty fueled his drive and provided deep confidence in his success. The wealth he accumulated was not spent in wasteful indulgence, except for his later years, and he managed to give away more money, more productively, than anyone before him. However, his sense of religious duty was not deep enough to carry through all aspects of his life, and definitely not far enough to let him grapple with his own mortality. His unending wealth meant nothing was off-limits (a freedom he was adamant not to explore), except for the greatest and most limited resource: time. There are perhaps deeper lessons to draw from this, but at the very least, the reader can begin to appreciate the complex interplay of religion and wealth in the life of J. D. Rockefeller, one of America's most interesting - even mysterious - industrialists.