On Rockefeller, Being Rich and Being Religious

April 3, 2007 at 10:52 pm | Posted in Christianity, Church, Mormon, Religion, Thoughts | 2 Comments

I am currently reading Ron Chernow’s “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.” Mr. Chernow’s book is thought-provoking to say the least. I bought it because I wanted to know more about John Rockefeller. Last year I read David McCullough’s “John Adams” and found an interest in reading biographies of certain individuals. In the case of John Rockefeller, I hardly knew him, beyond him owning Standard Oil, and being one of the richest men in America. I had not heard of Ida Tarbell and her muckraking. (When I asked her, my wife told me all about her—my wife taught middle school social science, she ougtha know:) ). In any case, I’m meandering.

Ron Chernow’s book is thought provoking. In Chapter 3: Bound to be Rich (pg 54-56), Chernow talks about Rockefeller’s youth, his religious upbringing and how it laid the foundation for his business practices. He writes:

With a mostly spartan country education and scant exposure to big-city culture, John D. Rockefeller’s mind was largely furnished with precepts and phrases from his Baptist fundamentalist church. Throughout his life, he extracted from Christianity practical lessons for living and emphasized the utility of religion as a guide in mundane affairs. Over time, the American public would wonder how he squared his predatory bend with his religion, yet much that was preached in the church of his youth—at least as Rockefeller saw it—encouraged his moneymaking predilections. Far from placing obstacles in his path, the religion he encountered seemed to applaud him in his course, and he very much embodied the sometimes uneasy symbiosis between church and business that defined the emerging ethos of the post-Civil War American economy.

Rockefeller never wavered in his belief that his career was divinely favored and asserted bluntly, “God gave me my money.” During the decades that he taught Sunday-school classes, he found plenty of scriptural evidence to buttress this claim. (Of course, his critics would cite many contrary quotations, warning of the pernicious influence of wealth.) When Benjamin Franklin was a boy, his father had pounded into his head the proverb “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings,” and Rockefeller often presented this text to his class. Martin Luther had exhorted his congregation, “Even though [your work] seems very trivial and contemptible, make sure you regard it as great and precious, not on account of your worthiness, but because it has its place within that jewel and holy treasure, the Word and Commandment of God.” Many eminent nineteenth-century theologians took the Calvinist view that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and poverty a telltale sign of heavenly disfavor. Henry Ward Beecher, calling poverty the fault of the poor, proclaimed in a sermon that “generally the proposition is true, that where you find the most religion you find the most worldly prosperity.”


As Max Weber observed, ascetic Christianity was a matchless breeding ground for would-be businessmen. The practice of tithing, for instance, instilled habits of thrift, self-denial, and careful budgeting that were invaluable assets for any aspiring capitalist. John D. Rockefeller was the Protestant work ethic in its purest form, leading a life so consistent with Weber’s classic essay that it reads like his spiritual biography. It might be useful to note some of Weber’s apercus that apply with especial force to Rockefeller. Weber argued that the Puritans had produced a religion that validated worldly activity, with “the making of money by acquisition as the ultimate purpose” of life. They approached business in a rational, methodical manner, banishing magic from the marketplace and reducing everything to method. Because prosperity was a sign of future salvation, the elect worked with special diligence to reassure themselves of God’s favor. Even those who amassed great wealth continued to labor, since they worked, ostensibly, for God’s glory, not for their own aggrandizement. The church didn’t want to be in the position of promoting greed, so it circumvented this problem by legitimating the pursuit of money if channeled into a calling—that is, the steady dedication to a productive task. Once a person discovered his calling, he was supposed to apply himself with all-consuming devotion, the money thus acquired being deemed a sign of God’s blessing.

One by-product of the emphasis on a calling was that Puritans relegated activities outside the religious and economic sphere to a lesser order of importance. The believer wasn’t supposed to search for pleasure beyond the sheltered confines of family, church, and business, and the gravest sins were wasting time, indulging in idle chatter, and wallowing in luxurious diversions. Bent on making money, the good Puritan had to restrain his impulses instead of gratifying them. As Weber remarked, “Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less in spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.” That is, the man who would be rich must be thrifty. People had to regulate their lives. Weber argued, so that self-abnegation could bring forth plenty. A fateful contradiction lay at the heart of this Puritan culture, for the virtues of a godly people made them rich, and these riches, in turn, threatened to undermine that godliness. As Cotton Mather declared of the Plymouth colony in the 1690s, “Religion begot prosperity, and the daughters devoured the mother.” This contradiction posed a central dilemma for John D. Rockefeller and his descendants, who would struggle tirelessly against the baneful effects of wealth.

I would add to what Chernow did not expound on. This fateful contradiction also lies in the fact that in order to make money, someone has to buy into the materialistic things that make people rich. Were everyone thrifty, who would be rich?

I have thought a lot about this particular passage in his biography. Mostly I’m interested in that contradiction. The more I live in this life, the more I discover that it cannot be easily classified, easily understood, and is quite full of such contradictions. To be successful in life, one must put forth an effort to work hard and live a thrifty life, but if everyone did that, how could anyone make the money needed to be successful? If everyone was thrifty, who would buy my products? Our successes in life come from convincing others to break their thrift and purchase “luxury.” But doing so would be to impede upon their religious mantras of thrifty living. It’s just ironic that this cycle is being driven by religion, more specifically Christianity. I keep wanting to know where the “line in the sand” is between living a thrifty lifestyle and buying luxury, but the more I think about it, there is no line in the sand. Live moderately, bridle your passions, and work hard.

I find similar teachings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (though here, “wealth” has a larger, more encompassing definition, to include “gifts” and “talents” as well as service). For example J. Michael Pinegar said:

We have talked of the difficulty of giving willingly when we have little. If we are not careful, we may find it even more difficult to give when we have much. Brigham Young said:

The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear . . . is that they cannot stand wealth. [Life of a Pioneer: Being the Autobiography of James S. Brown (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1900; New York: AMS Press, 1971), 122–23; also cited by Preston Nibley in Brigham Young: The Man and His Work (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936), 128; see also Bryant S. Hinckley, The Faith of Our Pioneer Fathers (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956), 13]

Brigham Young also said, “I like to see men get rich by their industry, prudence, management and economy, and then devote it to the building up of the kingdom of God upon the earth” (JD 11:115).

These statements indicate that Brigham Young was not opposed to wealth, only to its misuse.

I like that the LDS doctrine doesn’t emphasize, like Puritan denominations did (and probably still do to some extent), that monetary wealth is a sign of heavenly providence. God certainly wants us to do our best (as the parable of the talents showed), but the man with two talents was just as blessed by the Lord as the one with five talents, showing that it is more important that we do well in that which we have chosen to do.


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  1. A thoughtful and interesting post!

    I have been found of telling people that there is no religion on Earth that says one may devote himself to the pursuit of money. I am surprised that I am wrong.

    I prefer the ancient Greeks who taught that we all need to be comfortable, and anything beyond that makes us too subservient to money, and less human.

    Rockefeller funded the University of Chicago. One of the reasons, among many, was to provide a counter to the Methodists who had just opened Northwestern University.

    He wanted the University of Chicago to be the Oxford of the Midwest. For many years, all buildings were replicas of the buildings at Oxford, including their placement relative to one another. The buildings still stand, and are still beautiful.

  2. Many eminent nineteenth-century theologians took the Calvinist view that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and poverty a telltale sign of heavenly disfavor.

    That clinches it: God hates me. 🙂

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