The Gospel of Oil
Oil’s grip on U.S. society is as much religious as economic, a new history shows.
September 3, 2019
Sep 3, 2019
15 Min read time
Oil’s grip on U.S. society is as much religious as economic, a new history shows.
Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
Basic Books, $35 (cloth)
As the world gears up for the emergency United Nations climate action summit to be held in New York City later this month, conservative writers have revived an old charge: that eco-activism draws on religious faith, not science. Taunting the sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as a “prophetess in shorts” (to quote one French Republican) or a modern-day Joan of Arc, they have sought to present movement against climate change as analogous to end-times Christianity, with eating meat and flying in airplanes the modern equivalent of mortal sin.
The oilman’s desire to become phenomenally wealthy was often inextricable from his longing to carry out what he saw as God’s work on earth.
These cheap shots carry an unintentional irony. For as historian Darren Dochuk argues in his new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, the search for fossil fuels has itself long been overlaid with Christian commitment. Oil executives themselves historically have been among the most active and enthusiastic promoters of apocalyptic Christianity in the United States, their zeal to drill representing their religious passion as well as their quest for self-enrichment. Over the course of U.S. history, Dochuk writes, oil companies “openly embraced the theological imperatives that informed their chief executives, aligned their boardrooms with biblical logics, and sacralized their operations as modes of witness and outreach.” Because of the heavy investment of the industry in religious faith, oil, for Dochuk, has become more than just a commodity or an energy source. Its “grip on the human condition” is “total”; it has become “an imprint on America’s soul.”
For the sociologist Max Weber, capitalism was defined by the distinctive way that it taught people to approach their work. As he wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), people had to be taught to treat their labor—whatever it might be—with the seriousness of purpose devoted to a calling: to come to their jobs day after day on time, to labor with dedication, and to postpone a life of pleasure. The Calvinist creed—according to which worldly riches were to be sought not for their own pleasures but as evidence of God’s grace, a bulwark against the loneliness and powerlessness of each individual before the divine—taught people how to act in a capitalist order.
Oil is an industry of speculation, of rocky land that hides wonders unseen, of alchemic transformation of the raw materials of the earth into the fuel of industrial society.
Oil, Dochuk suggests, at once underwrote and was fueled by a different system of religious belief. Oil is an industry of speculation, of rocky land that hides wonders unseen, of alchemic transformation of the raw materials of the earth into the fuel of industrial society. As Dochuk shows, many of the men (and they were mostly men) who spent their lives drilling for oil also subscribed to belief systems revolving around the notion that the world contained spiritual paradoxes not comprehensible through science alone. Their desire to become phenomenally wealthy was often inextricable from their longing to carry out what they saw as God’s work on earth.
Although it is studded with characters and written to appeal to a broad audience, Anointed with Oil is not a tidy historical narrative. It covers so much—both chronologically and geographically—that at times its arguments can be hard to follow. But the book is important for the questions it raises as much as the fantastic stories it tells. Implicit in Dochuk’s history is the notion that by looking at the oil industry, we can learn something about the ways that capitalism relies on moral systems that can’t be broken down into simple utilitarianism. And by exploring the cultural as well as economic underpinnings of the energy industry, he suggests that we might also be able better to understand why our dependence on oil has proven so extraordinarily difficult to shake.
• • •
Dochuk opens his story with Patillo Higgins, one of the first entrepreneurs to strike oil in Texas. One Sunday afternoon in 1891, Higgins had escorted a Sunday-school class of eight-year-old girls up to the top of Spindletop Hill to show them springs of water bubbling forth from the rocky ground. While instructing them in this “everyday application of religion,” he had chanced to notice gaseous clouds rising up from the earth as well—a sign that oil might be hiding underneath. Returning to his small town of Beaumont, Texas, he bought the plot of land that held the springs with his church elder.
Oil was a sign of God’s glory—of riches for the prophet who could see through the earth’s surface to glimpse another world beyond.
Higgins was only recently a born-again Christian. His conversion in 1885 had followed on a youth of gambling and brawling (he’d lost his left arm in a shootout and almost been convicted of murder). But nonetheless, he claimed that he wanted to drill for oil so that he could found a true Christian community. When he noticed the fumes rising out of Spindletop, he worked every angle he could to get the backing of the major oil companies. He wrote to John D. Rockefeller, captain of Standard Oil, seeking support for development. Rockefeller was convinced there was no oil west of the Mississippi River and politely declined to help. In the end, Higgins partnered with an independent mechanical engineer to drill on Spindletop, only to be pushed out when Andrew Mellon refused to work with the “one-armed madman,” as he was known.
But Higgins still owned the land—and on New Year’s Day, 1901, a drill team finally struck oil. Three million barrels of oil poured forth in the thirty days that followed, and the population of Beaumont ballooned from 6,000 to 50,000. And a new pantheon of oil companies—Gulf, Texaco, and Sun Oil Company, smaller than Standard Oil but still substantial—rose out of the wells of Texas.
Much of Anointed with Oil is organized around the idea that the division in the oil industry between the independents and the majors (especially Standard Oil, which at its peak in the late nineteenth century controlled nearly 90 percent of all the oil refining in the country) was echoed in two competing versions of Christianity and capitalism: the “wildcat Christianity” of the independents and the “civil religion of crude” promoted by Rockefeller and his firm. On the one hand, Rockefeller was a severe and pious Baptist who believed in the responsibility of those with riches to improve the social order. “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God,” he argued. “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.” Rockefeller taught Sunday school each week for sixty years, went to prayer before attending to crises at the oil fields, shuttered pubs and closed brothels in his oil towns. And he built the mammoth bureaucratic entity of Standard Oil, which he described as the “salvation of the oil business,” its executives “missionaries of light.” He was inspired by the conviction that his refining enterprise could provide “collective salvation” for the industry by introducing rationality where disastrous competition had prevailed. “The Standard was an angel of mercy,” he argued, “reaching down from the sky, and saying, ‘Get into the ark. Put in your old junk. We’ll take all the risks!’”
“I believe the power to make money is a gift from God,” Rockefeller argued.
Opposing Rockefeller were the wildcatters, driven by their own mystical version of faith, one far more ragged and improvisational. They clung to “an absolute essence of pure capitalism” that safeguarded their ability to make money in whatever way they thought best and had nothing but contempt for Rockefeller’s efforts to rationalize the industry or to contain competition. Oil was a way for the past to speak to the present, a sign of God’s glory and of riches for the prophet who could see through the earth’s surface to glimpse another world beyond. Dochuk tells the story of one Montanan coal miner turned aspiring oilman whose correspondence with spiritualists and astrologists drove his quest for oil; they reassured him that by “taking minerals out of the earth” he was “allowing them to transmute into higher forms, synthesize with human need and desire, and serve as further reminders that the universe leaned toward unity.” Oil, the would-be driller came to believe, was the “Magic Wealth Producer!” (as one Texas town’s boosters advertised)—and finding it would allow him to contribute to the spiritualist cause.
Other oil independents, such as Lyman Stewart—one of the founders of Union Oil—subscribed to premillennialism, which held that end times were nigh and the arrival of Christ imminent. The world would soon descend into chaos, evil, and disorder, evidence of which could easily be found in the tumultuous society of the turn of the century. But all was well, for after a period of tribulations it would then be reborn. For Stewart, Dochuk suggests, the worldview of premillennialism rhymed with his life experiences seeking oil: the sense of powerlessness before supernatural, otherworldly forces, the pendulum of fortune swinging wildly to and fro. Stewart went on to imitate his arch-enemy, Rockefeller, in his philanthropic efforts—donating money to support religious education and to fund the publication of fundamentalist Christian texts.
Perhaps the greatest stronghold of “wildcat Christianity” was East Texas, where oil was discovered just as the Great Depression took hold. The oil boom that followed—the largest in American history—at once inspired and helped promote what Dochuk describes as “end-times urgency.” The denizens of East Texas believed they were blessed with oil, charged with using it to build God’s kingdom on earth, and pressed to do so quickly before the gifts that had been extended to them disappeared. Independent oil producers operated a majority of wells in the region throughout the 1930s. Church lots were littered with oil derricks as ambitious oilmen sought to drill wherever they could, while enterprising ministers dreamed of striking it rich; Dochuk describes a congregation gathering to pray over a new well. The “rush to obtain oil,” he writes, “always worked according to earth’s (and God’s) unknowable clock, with depletion (and Armageddon) an inevitability lingering on the horizon.” Their faith was undimmed even after the 1937 New London disaster, in which a gas explosion at a public school newly built for the children of oil workers killed about 300 students. As one religious leader put it in the aftermath, “These dear oil field people can set the world an example for consecration, and they will.” The intense melding of political and religious ideas with economic interest helped to make Texas one of the hotbeds of opposition to Roosevelt and to New Deal liberalism in the years that followed the second World War.
The denizens of East Texas believed they were blessed with oil, charged with using it to build God’s kingdom on earth.
The quest for new oil fields continued as the twentieth century went on, though after World War II the Middle East would displace East Texas as the center of development. Some of the old bitter contest between the majors and the independents calmed as Standard Oil (along with its offshoots Exxon and Mobil) backed the exploration for oil in South America and independent producers used their wealth to fund missionary activity around the globe. The explicitly religious ideas of Rockefeller blurred into the Eisenhower-era celebration of the idea of a Judeo-Christian America powered by capitalism, and the notion that petroleum could link different parts of the world into an organic whole organized around peace and mutual prosperity.
At the same time, some U.S. oil executives continued to preach more militant strands of Christian faith. One manager stationed at the Rockefeller oil field in Saudi Arabia wrote that whenever his Muslim workforce paused for prayer, he did too: “Each day when the Arabs take time to pray, I take time to read a verse or two from the Bible.” There was a Christian “underground” at the company that was expressly forbidden to proselytize among Muslims. Texas oilmen helped to build the Christian right and to support fundamentalist colleges in the postwar years. The manufacturer R. G. LeTourneau, who built heavy machinery used by oil refiners, funded evangelical ministers, including Billy Graham and Charles Fuller, while also championing the cause of free enterprise inside the National Association of Manufacturers. LeTourneau used the factory as a space to proselytize as well, holding lectures and chaplain services to teach workers how technology and faith could rhyme—how grades of steel, for example, mirrored Christian development. LeTourneau went on to acquire land in Liberia and Peru that he would use to found Christian communities organized around industrial development. “Machinery in the hands of Christ-loving, twice-born men can help [Peruvians] listen to the story of Jesus and His love,” he said.
Still, by the early twenty-first century, the old certitudes were running out. Oil independents with their strong ties to evangelical Christianity believed that their fortunes were rising with Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House—but a glut in world oil markets that led to falling prices in the 1980s put many out of business, never to recover. Meanwhile, the oil giants no longer seemed able to promise stable, peaceful economic development to the rest of the world. The fragmentation of the Rockefeller dynasty was the most dramatic example. “Most of the fourth Rockefeller generation have spent long years with psychiatrists in their efforts to grapple with the money and the family, the taint and the promise,” pronounced one 1976 exposé. By the end of the twentieth century, Steven Rockefeller, a professor of religion at Middlebury College, had started to steer his family foundation toward positions that would have horrified his great-great-great grandfather—especially advocacy for environmental conservation.
• • •
For all its ambition, complexity and rich detail, Anointed with Oil leaves the reader with many questions about oil and American politics, and also the relationship between material conditions and religious faith. One problem has to do with the motives of the oilmen. Dochuk portrays them as people for whom religious conviction and self-interest were inextricably bound together. There is a real strength here: it helps us to see the pursuit of oil as closely connected to the larger cultural inheritance of the country. But at the same time, there seem to have been few episodes when their Christianity was put to the test—when they had to decide between acting in accord with faith and making the most money possible. Given this, one wonders about the extent to which their religiosity was cozily self-serving, justifying their ruthlessness. The imperative of acquisition shaped Christianity, as much as the other way around. Today, no doubt, this attitude helps keep carbon burning, despite the consequences.
The imperative of acquisition shaped Christianity, as much as the other way around. Today, no doubt, this attitude helps keep carbon burning.
Another issue is that Dochuk treats both oil and Christianity as constants in American life, in ways that make it more difficult to see how transformative both have been—or to imagine an alternative. In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell chronicled the evolving relationship between carbon-based energy and political democracy, arguing that because of the way work was organized in the mines, colliers had an unusual degree of leverage over economic life. They used this press for social reforms mitigating the precariousness of life in industrial society. The transition to oil thus meant the decline of working-class power. What is more, Mitchell makes the case that the oil companies actively promoted the emergence of a civilization predicated on oil consumption in every way. They celebrated the fiction that oil’s abundance was endless and without consequence, that new wells could always be found and that it would flow forever.
In contrast with Mitchell’s account, the material aspects of the oil industry are treated fairly lightly in Anointed with Oil. The slow creation of a civilization that depends on oil is not entirely visible in his narrative, and neither is its political impact. Nor are the hard, cold economic demands that drove the expansion of the industry as inexorably as any religious faith. In Dochuk’s account, the world today seems hard to distinguish from that of one hundred years ago. Near the end of the book he takes to task journalists and historians who have emphasized the political efforts of the Koch brothers. (Duchuk gives them less attention than he does to many other oil executives, perhaps because of their indifference to Christianity.) “In their quest for impact,” he writes, “they have tended to glance over the long history of emotionally and morally charged crude politics that has created our current tensions”—suggesting that the efforts of the Kochs to shape political life really aren’t so different from those of Stewart or Rockefeller. The book ends with a description of the Texas-based evangelical oil independent Zion Oil, which is searching for oil in Israel—as it says on its website, “drilling for Israel’s political and economic independence”—inspired by passages from Genesis and Deuteronomy. Patillo Higgins would have recognized the project well (though so far it has been fruitless).
To get beyond our dependence on fossil fuels, we will need to stop treating oil as a sacred liquid—to turn away from the melodrama of religious faith.
Certainly the ideological similarities that link the present to the past are important. But in some ways, the extreme importance of oil in American society is profoundly new. A grossly disproportionate amount of the oil ever consumed since the rise of the modern petroleum industry in the 1860s has been burned in the past thirty years. For transport, food, clothing, and the whole world of consumption that powers our economic order, today we are dependent on oil in ways that are historically unprecedented. The terrible consequences of this are growing clearer year by year. Understanding the world created by the true believers Dochuk chronicles requires exploring not only what they thought they were doing, but also what they actually wrought.
When the oil independents of East Texas spoke of the apocalypse, they did not have in mind the literal burning of the earth. The evangelical commitment to oil has let loose a set of transformations that its most devout did not anticipate. Anointed with Oil helps to clarify the twin passions for wealth and Jesus that have brought us to our current dependence on fossil fuels. But it also makes clear that to get beyond, we will need to stop treating oil as a sacred liquid—to turn away from the melodrama of religious faith, and to see our reliance on it with clear-eyed realism as a matter of social and political choices. The comments of one East Texan in the wake of the New London school tragedy come to mind: “When you strike oil, you let loose Hades.”
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
September 03, 2019
15 Min read time