God's Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War

God's Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226509778
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/20/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sarah Ruth Hammond (1977–2011) received her PhD from Yale University in 2010 and subsequently held a position as visiting assistant professor at the College of William & Mary. Her research focused on American religious history. Darren Dochuk is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

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R. G. LeTourneau's Prosperity Gospel

On September 27, 1940, radio listeners across North America tuned in to Ripley's Believe It or Not to hear evangelical industrialist R. G. LeTourneau discuss the financial rewards of his faith. The program opens with a fictional dialogue between LeTourneau, playing his younger self, and a colleague incredulous that God is their chief stakeholder. "The time ... December, 1929, just after the memorable Wall Street crash," the narrator intones. "The place — the office of a small factory in Stockton, California. The owner of the plant is talking with his assistant. They face the unhappy prospect of bankruptcy." LeTourneau says that he intends to spend his last $500 on "one obligation ... my missionary pledge." The assistant gasps, "What? Facing bankruptcy and you're going to use the last of your money for a church pledge? But we owe so much on other things." LeTourneau is adamant: "I told God that as long as I had a dime I would pay that missionary pledge."

Introducing the punch line that made LeTourneau, who designed and manufactured earthmoving equipment, a minor celebrity, the assistant cries, "Why that's actually making God — your partner!!!" LeTourneau says, "Yes, I shall make God a partner in my business." He would henceforth serve both God and mammon by setting aside 90 percent of his salary and company profits for evangelical causes. "[Y]ou have made the Word of God a glorious, practical reality," Ripley tells his guest when the skit ends; then he turns to his audience with his own trademark flourish: "And of such is the work of faith ... Believe It Or Not." "Believe It or Not" is an apt phrase for the unsung story of businessmen such as LeTourneau who financed and mobilized conservative white evangelicals during the Depression and World War II. LeTourneau's star turn on Ripley's challenges popular histories of fundamentalism, which focus on preachers, full-time evangelists, and theologians who drew a sharp rhetorical line between believers and "the world." This scholarship depicts a vibrant, proselytizing, yet deeply insular Protestant subculture whose members viewed the public sphere —"the world" of politics and hedonistic consumption — as hostile to the religious imperatives of saving souls, enforcing doctrinal correctness, and maintaining behavioral purity. Even as they appropriated dress, slang, music, and other aspect of the broader white middle-class culture, evangelicals policed the boundaries between the heavenly and the worldly. Why, then, did a prominent evangelical executive appear on Ripley's secular and frequently scandalous program, sharing the airwaves with Siamese twins and Indian firewalkers? Stranger still, why did Ripley treat LeTourneau's faith as vital and heroic rather than a fossilized freak show?

The collaboration suggests that scholars of American religion have overemphasized the parochialism of early twentieth-century evangelicals and, as a result, overlooked their participation in multifaith or formally secular public spheres. Work, not church, was the site where laymen and often laywomen practiced fundamentalism within the homogenizing norms of a pluralistic society. A widely held belief in the essential Christianity of capitalism served as common ground. LeTourneau's motto, "God is My Partner," meant more than extravagant tithing. It celebrated the all-American icon of the self-made man and the conservative politics that went with it, holding individuals responsible for their fate regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. To be "God's business man" was to adhere to a contractual theology as old as biblical Israel and as binding as a modern commercial agreement. It required obedience to divine commands such as observing the Sabbath; tithing; volunteering for church or evangelistic responsibilities; and adopting an ethos of "fairness" that valued relationships, especially with other Christians, over competitive advantage. God's businessmen maintained a "Christian atmosphere" at work that challenged the conventions of male sociability, observing, if not necessarily enforcing, evangelical taboos against drinking, swearing, smoking, and overt sexuality. God, in turn, rewarded fidelity with profits and punished backsliding with losses. The divine-human dyad eliminated external causes of success or failure. Ripley was no fundamentalist, but he admired the seamlessness of LeTourneau's identities as an evangelical and an entrepreneur. Quoting the Sermon on the Mount — "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify you Father" — he challenged listeners to emulate LeTourneau's pluck and piety.

LeTourneau had a weakness for portraying himself as Horatio Alger by way of Pilgrim's Progress, and get-rich-quick sanctity made good radio. As evangelical fans knew from his writings and speeches, however, being God's partner was neither a simple nor a solitary commitment. Nowhere did Believe It or Not stretch credulity more than in the opening dramatization, which reduced LeTourneau's lifetime in evangelical circles to a road-to-Damascus epiphany. It was in 1919, not 1929, that LeTourneau declared his partnership with God after one of his missionary sisters accused him of caring more about his machines than Jesus. He sought out his pastor, who told him "God needs business men as well as preachers and missionaries." LeTourneau, according to his autobiography, responded with immense relief: "All right, if that is what God wants me to be, I'll try to be His business man." He did not always keep his promise. In 1931, he diverted a $5,000 missionary pledge to his company (Ripley's slashed it to the less regal sum of $500), only to end the year in debt. He concluded that God was punishing his faithlessness and doubled his next offering. Although 1932 proved to be the worst year of the Depression, the business prospered, confirming his belief — ubiquitous among evangelicals — that God was chastising the nation for a collective breach of contract but still offering hope. Only a revival could repair a people's broken contract with God, and it was up to those who recognized the problem to take the lead. LeTourneau settled on the 90 percent tithe of his wealth sometime between 1935 and 1940, launched a side career in preaching, and threw himself into revivalistic laymen's groups such as the CBMCI and the Gideons. Meanwhile, he cultivated local and national politicians as he opened manufacturing hubs across the country, especially in the segregated and anti-union South.

The Ripley's introduction shows how difficult it could be to treat faith and business as bedfellows after a decade of plummeting confidence in capitalism. Setting the scene in 1929 links LeTourneau's financial dilemma to the global economic crisis, but epic individualism displaces organized religion as the way out. The script omits LeTourneau's preacher and moves the "God needs business men" epiphany from a church to an office building, sanctifying the workplace by separating it from the site of communal worship — the opposite of LeTourneau's policy in his plants, where evangelistic services took place once or twice a week. By putting the spotlight on one charismatic man in a program devoted to "oddities," Ripley, with his guest's blessing, wrongly implied that LeTourneau's partnership with God was unique. In fact, it belonged to a tradition that extended at least as far back as the Second Great Awakening, when businessmen such as Charles and Arthur Tappan subsidized preachers like Charles Finney and evangelical social movements such as temperance and abolitionism. A century later, LeTourneau filled auditoriums with laymen who renounced what they saw as the hubris of the New Deal and called America to humility, repentance, and conversion.

Far from abandoning a sinful and pluralistic society, twentieth-century evangelical businessmen such as LeTourneau sought to leaven it through exhortation and example. Their belief in individual redemption as the force behind social progress did not detach them from political questions; in business, private gain and public policy were intertwined with religious truth. These entrepreneurs, managers, and employers believed in the top-down marketing of ideas as well as goods to a passive and pliable population. As expert salesmen, they would help — or supplant — otherworldly clergy to win converts to fundamentalist Christianity. They knew how to think strategically, raise money, organize and publicize large events, and distill complex doctrines into compelling analogies and anecdotes. Theologically, businessmen focused on the bottom line, emphasizing common ground over sectarian conflict to enlarge the fold without compromising the "fundamentals." They demanded cost-effectiveness and strategic thinking from the religious causes they supported, often through personal or corporate philanthropies, and tended them as carefully as other portfolios. Their spiritual authority hinged on success in a marketplace in which earthly and heavenly dividends were one. "The minute I started that partnership [with God], business boomed," LeTourneau told Ripley, listing sales figures into the millions. Ripley applauded. "Mr. LeTourneau, in these troubled times, you are a magnificent example to those of little faith." Poverty was an effect, not a cause, of despair.

LeTourneau was indeed a remarkable man, but he exemplified a breed of fundamentalist whose worldliness was a defining spiritual credential. The turn-of-the-century context in which he learned how to be a Christian businessman reveals abundant evidence of this. So too does his own peripatetic career path, which encompassed designing earthmoving equipment for private- and public-sector projects; building roads, bridges, and dams; and in big-picture terms, helping supply the infrastructures and connective tissues of modern industrialization. The path led him to civic engagement as well, and a politics that leaned heavily to the right. As LeTourneau moved from California to the Midwest to the South, he cultivated powerful political allies and simultaneously benefited from and decried the growth of the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt. He viewed himself as a generous employer, as concerned with his employees' souls as with their standard of living, and held regular evangelistic services on the shop floor while fighting "communist" unionization efforts. By the time he appeared on Ripley's, most of his profits went to the LeTourneau Evangelistic Foundation (LEF), which made him a powerful fundamentalist philanthropist. Whether he knew it or not, LeTourneau was as much a "missionary" as those among his friends and family (his sisters in particular) who assumed that vocation abroad. His "mission field" was small- to midsized companies like his own, and his message was that employers and managers held the tools to build Christ's kingdom.

Worship and Work with the Brethren

LeTourneau's generation was a living link between culturally confident nineteenth-century evangelicalism and embattled twentieth-century "fundamentalism." Jean and Marie LeTourneau, his paternal grandparents, were French Huguenots who came to Quebec as missionaries in the 1840s. After his father, Caleb, was born, they moved five miles across the border to Richford, Vermont, where French-speaking Canadians dominated the population. Jean continued to preach while he and his wife ran a boarding school, a farm, and a sawmill. In 1881, Caleb married schoolteacher Elizabeth Lorimer, another immigrant from Quebec; three of her four brothers were clergymen. Caleb would have inherited Jean's ministry if his older brother had not lost an arm in a mill accident and been unable to manage the farm. Instead he took charge of the family business and became a leader in the Plymouth Brethren Church, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Anglo-Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby. Convinced of the literal truth of the Bible and the need for believers to separate themselves from a fallen world and apostate church, Darby developed the end-times doctrine that would come to be known as "premillennial dispensationalism." He divided world history into seven "dispensations" that began with a covenant between God and humanity and ended with humanity's rebellion. He argued that the earth was currently poised in a "great parenthesis" between Christ's resurrection and the end of the world. This "church age" offered a last chance for the unsaved to repent, and the burden was on believers to convert as many souls as possible. When the clock ran out, Christians would disappear en masse, "raptured" into heaven while everyone else endured the reign of the Antichrist. Holy wars would usher in Christ's kingdom on earth at last.

Premillennialism took hold among many conservative Protestants in Europe and the Americas. Although its claim to be an essential pillar of evangelical truth sparked fierce debate, its influence gave the Plymouth Brethren pride of parentage when fundamentalism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Conservative evangelicals felt pressed to counter emerging theological "modernism," which treated the Bible as a human artifact instead of the literal word of God and concerned itself less with the redemption of individuals than large-scale social reform. Transatlantic revivalist Dwight L. Moody was the most famous antimodernist to adopt premillennialism as an antidote to what he saw as a pernicious trend toward elevating human will over divine omnipotence. Yet despite the evangelistic urgency of their theology, the Brethren did not court popularity. Like other "restorationists," they sought to imitate the early church by centering worship in the local congregation, rejecting church hierarchies, and harboring anticlericalism so deep that some churches were entirely lay run. They practiced conventional evangelical asceticism but distrusted outsiders. Robert Gilmour LeTourneau, born in 1888 and named after Caleb's Brethren best friend and business partner, was the fourth of Caleb and Elizabeth's eight children. As a child, he internalized the magnitude of being in covenant with God but had no idea that premillennialism made the Brethren special. Rather, he recalled visible markers of difference: in particular, the "prosperously dressed and bearded men" who gathered to talk after services.

These bearded men, including Caleb, were church elders and part of a far-flung sectarian business network that took the LeTourneaus from Vermont to Minnesota and then to Oregon by R.G.'s fourteenth birthday. The Minnesota connection was familial as well as religious: Caleb's brother Joshua, a printer in Duluth, hired him and Gilmour to build a house, and the pair became full-time contractors. Joshua introduced the new arrivals to Duluth's Plymouth Brethren, which LeTourneau described as "a closely knit group intensely loyal to the church and to each other." He owed the formative years of his working life to the Brethren's clannishness everywhere. An explosively energetic boy, impatient with book learning and infatuated with machinery, he quit school in eighth grade, insisting to his furious father that he was, at fourteen, a "man growed." By then it was 1902, and, at the invitation of a transplanted Duluth church member, the LeTourneaus had moved to Portland, Oregon. Portland was a boomtown, with midwestern farmers, German and Scandinavian immigrants, and Chinese laborers feverishly industrializing the region. Between 1901 and 1910, the city's population surged from 90,000 to 207,000. Not only was there "a shortage of carpenters" like Caleb, there was also a shortage of strong youth like R.G.

Caleb yielded to his impetuous six-foot, 160-pound precocious son and conspired with Brethren elders to catapult him into adult responsibilities. A "little, soft-voiced" Englishman, Mr. Hill, represented the sect's transnational corporate and religious reach and the answer to Caleb LeTourneau's challenge. Hill owned the East Portland Iron Works and hired LeTourneau to work dawn to dusk in the foundry. Another employer would have left the novice to his own devices, but as an evangelical businessman and a friend of the family, Hill adopted a paternal role. He shielded LeTourneau from workmen's vices by warning the crew that serving him alcohol was a fireable offense. Under Hill's watchful eye, LeTourneau learned to use his advanced vocabulary to "cuss harder without swear words than any man"— a boast that established his tough-talking masculine credentials within the bounds of evangelical propriety. Hill even took LeTourneau on as an apprentice, allowing him to use the machine shop after hours to experiment with new metals and alloys that were transforming the industry. As LeTourneau put it, "the whole science of metallurgy ... [was] dumped on us without warning," and he thrilled to the intellectual and physical labor of practicing chemistry on the fly.


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Table of Contents

Editorial Note
List of Abbreviations

1. R. G. LeTourneau’s Prosperity Gospel
2. Herbert J. Taylor, Rotarian Fundamentalist
3. Corporate Christianity’s Civil Activism
4. The Wartime Vision of Laymen’s Evangelism
5. The Wartime Consolidation of Laymen’s Evangelism


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