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Who do you think we are, Vanderbilts?

The story of plain and modest John D. Rockefeller, Part 2

John D. Rockefeller in 1911 Rockefeller in 1884

Who do you think we are, Vanderbilts?

Last month, I wrote about the rise of John D. Rockefeller. In this concluding essay about his life we’ll see how he tried to move “from success to significance,” as the title of one popular business book puts it. That’s partly a misnomer, because Rockefeller’s success was significant in improving the lives of millions who used his oil in their lamps and eventually in their cars. But with great profits came great responsibility to use money discerningly—and tycoons seem to fail at that more than succeed.

Let’s start with how Standard Oil’s efficiency created a potential political problem. Americans sympathized with small business but not big. They wanted business leaders to have the liberty to build, but they wanted them to lead honorable lives—and Rockefeller did. He was in church every Sunday, unless traveling, and frequently went to church suppers and picnics, but not to theaters. His journalistic reading was the Cleveland Leader and the Baptist Standard. He did read a novel once—Ben Hur—and said he enjoyed it.

When Rockefeller moved to New York City in 1884 he maintained patterns of domesticity, leading family prayers at 7:30 sharp each morning. His children grew up wealthy but generally unspoiled. Once, when spending requests were too high, Rockefeller said, “Who do you think we are, Vanderbilts?” He taught a Sunday school class, “Don’t let good fellowship get the least hold on you. … [E]very downfall is traceable directly or indirectly to the victim’s good fellowship, his good cheer among his friends, who come as quickly as they go.” Family remained.

Rockefeller’s plainness puzzled reporters who expected a giant or an ogre. They seemed surprised to find just a man who was, to quote a reporter from Joseph Pulitzer’s World of March 29, 1890, “well but plainly dressed, a little above the average height, well proportioned, weighing probably 180 pounds, with an intelligent and pleasant countenance, fair complexion, sandy hair and mustache intermixed with gray, a somewhat prominent nose, mild gray eyes, and an agreeably expressive mouth.”

Reporters often described Standard as a terror, but Rockefeller as a terrier—he might bite and hold on, but he was not Rock the Ripper.

Many reporters were prepared to comment archly about the anticipated fanciness of Rockefeller’s clothes, yet they ended up noting he dressed neatly but abstained from rings or necktie pins. Those who investigated further found Rockefeller bought new suits when the old ones were getting shiny, and that he preferred cloth coats (with plain sweaters, if needed) to fur coats. Reporters often described Standard as a terror, but Rockefeller as a terrier—he might bite and hold on, but he was not Rock the Ripper.

Investigative reporters who hoped Rockefeller would throw lavish parties with dogs dressed in tuxedos were disappointed to find him early to bed, early to rise, and eager to avoid society functions. They chronicled that he enjoyed rowing, driving a buggy with his family, and walking in the woods, and preferred bread, milk, and apples to the creations of French chefs. Reporters on Pulitzer’s World were told to skewer the wealthy, but even they had to acknowledge Rockefeller was “modest, retiring, gentle-mannered, and without the human vanities that we associate with great millionaires.”

If all of the new business elite had been like Rockefeller, some class animosities of the 1890s could have been avoided. But as it was, New York boasted a legendarily expensive dinner for dogs, and even socially backward Washington had balls where guests drained hundreds of cases of champagne and hundreds of gallons of terrapin soup. Jewelry fiends like Jane Stanford, wife of multimillionaire Sen. Leland Stanford, wore $250,000 in gems when she went out, kept 60 different diamond rings, and served tea from a pot of solid gold.

But Rockefeller’s wife, Laura “Cettie” Spelman Rockefeller, dressed plainly, like her husband, in contrast with the trends reported on by journalist Frank Carpenter: “We are lavishing fortunes on clothes. There is enough silk worn here every winter to carpet a whole state; there are pearls by the bushel, and diamonds by the peck. … The older the woman, the more giddy she seems to be. She cuts her dresses an inch lower at the bust for every extra ten years, and I blush for the fair sex when I look at the décolleté corsages and fat bare backs of the powdered old dames.” (Carpenter concluded, “Fortunes are spent in paint and powder every season, and had I the income from the rouge alone, I would not have to work to support myself.”)

Rockefeller and his family were not like that. But Rockefeller also was not forthcoming with reporters, some of whom noted he answered questions literally and dodged implications. The New York Sun in 1898 characterized his responses as slow, sparing, and “seldom in response to the meaning of the question put.” But what many reporters ended up noticing, instead of cautious responses or displays of wealth, were Rockefeller’s eyes: “deep-set, rather small, of a steel-gray color, and quizzical, except when he is aroused from the seeming apathy that his face usually expresses. Then the eyes become very bright and look straight at his questioner.”

Within his sphere of using American resources and making this nation’s industry the world’s standard for excellence, Rockefeller showed great foresight. Look, for example, at his record during the 1880s, when, over the objections of many Standard managers, he pushed the company to expand beyond its Pennsylvania and West Virginia holdings to the new Lima field in Ohio. Objections came largely because the base of the Lima oil was sulfur rather than paraffin, which meant kerosene made from Lima oil coated lamp openings with a film of soot.

Rockefeller, however, had confidence Standard chemists would find ways to use the Lima crude, and he was right. Lima oil, turned into lubricants, axle grease, Vaseline, paints, and varnishes, became profitable. The Lima field bridged the era between the decline of the eastern fields and the openings of those in Texas. If Rockefeller had not gone ahead, Standard would have had trouble obtaining enough raw materials when the advent of automobiles turned gasoline into a major product. Without Rockefeller’s leadership, the 20th century’s huge economic boom, which with rare exceptions has ended poverty among Americans who work hard and build strong families, would have been delayed.

Within his sphere of using American resources and making this nation’s industry the world’s standard for excellence, Rockefeller showed great foresight.

It was natural for Rockefeller from 1880 on to receive pleas to show leadership on public policy questions, including issues of poverty fighting and education. His instincts on anything economic were good. In 1887, when he sent a young man $50, he made it a recorded loan, so Rockefeller would have an IOU: “It will be injurious for him to receive from others what he can in any way secure for himself by his own efforts.” He criticized one urban mission for its “policy of feeding all” who came. It would be far better to “give them work and make them earn their food.”

Rockefeller’s grasp of those fundamentals, however, did not help him to be as successful in his philanthropic work as he had been within the oil industry. With ample tithing money, and wanting to do something major for the Baptist churches that had comforted him for decades, he decided to branch out from his quiet church giving and make a big splash by funding the creation of a major new Baptist university.

Rockefeller looked for advice about university-building from fellow Baptists who had advanced degrees and distinguished academic reputations, such as William Rainey Harper of the Morgan Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and Augustus H. Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary. The first problem he ran into, however, was that there was a single standard for purity within university circles, as there was within Standard Oil’s business.

Conservative ministers considered Harper to be a loose constructionist concerning Scripture. Harper did not surprise the conservatives when he proposed Rockefeller’s millions should fund an institution under Baptist auspices but secular in tone. After all, if the Bible could not be trusted, the next best option was to trust the best and brightest brains money could buy.

Frederick T. Gates (left) in 1922 and William Rainey Harper in 1916

Frederick T. Gates (left) in 1922 and William Rainey Harper in 1916 Wikimedia Commons

Strong, on the other hand, was orthodox in his faith and tough-minded in his analysis of what a Christian university should be. He said the university’s tone should be explicitly and aggressively Christian, with only Christian professors allowed. The Harper versus Strong debate was theologically nuanced and beyond Rockefeller’s grasp, so he turned to a third man, Frederick T. Gates.

The choice was curious. Gates for years had been attracted by the social and moral teachings of the Gospels, while quietly doubting their central point, the divinity of Christ. After serving as a pastor in Minneapolis, he had found his real gift in fundraising for Baptist institutions. He wore costly clothes to give the appearance of success, always expressed radiant geniality, and spoke for the high-minded merits of contributing, never mentioning that a particular gift could serve the public relations interests of the donor. (As Gates wrote, the donor’s “own mind will suggest to him the lower and selfish ones. But he will not wish you to suppose that he thought of them.”)

Gates later published his rules for successful solicitation, the truth of which was, “Let the victim talk freely, especially in the earlier part of the interview, while you use the opportunity to study his peculiarities. Never argue with him. Never contradict him. … If he is talkative, let him talk, talk, talk. Give your fish the reel, and listen with deep interest.”

Gates, who first met Rockefeller to request funds for one of his projects, had discerned that Rockefeller, despite his expressions of nonchalance, was worried about his public image and his private giving. Gates listened and realized tithing decisions had been easier for Rockefeller when they involved dimes and quarters rather than millions of dollars. Gates understood Rockefeller was being called to be a statesman, but all he really knew was the oil business and the Baptist church.

Once Gates saw Rockefeller was sure of himself in business but unsure concerning philanthropy, he reeled him in, and Rockefeller soon hired Gates to be his primary grant-maker. This meant that Gates could play the decisive role in determining the nature of the university to be created. He proceeded carefully, because Rockefeller definitely did not want to finance what was clearly heresy.

Rockefeller’s Christianity, as it turned out, did not go very deep.

Rockefeller even expressed initial interest in Strong’s charges that Harper was weak theologically but showed little patience for what seemed to be theological nuances. Rockefeller liked to hear a rousing sermon with precise marching orders. Furthermore, Strong’s suggestions that Rockefeller might be funding a university to improve his public relations infuriated him. Rockefeller did not want to admit his desire for a kinder and gentler press.

Rockefeller’s Christianity, as it turned out, did not go very deep. He liked a precise listing of do’s and don’ts in church. He believed in and practiced family values. But there is no indication he ever developed a clear sense that God—and not man’s work, however meticulous—saves sinners. Nor is there evidence of Rockefeller developing a Christian worldview, a sense of how the Bible can be applied thoughtfully not only in church and family devotions, but also in all aspects of life and within every department of a university.

Without that understanding, and with a need for praise, Rockefeller was easy game for Gates, who put into play one thing he had learned about his prize catch by listening, listening, listening. The secret was this: Rockefeller had moved to New York City but was still suspicious of the East and did not want to be seen as abandoning his Midwest roots. Gates, playing off Rockefeller’s unease, convinced him the new university should be in the wholesome Midwest.

That decision, of course, favored Harper, the theologically liberal Chicagoan, over Strong, the theologically conservative New Yorker. Personal issues also played a part—Rockefeller enjoyed meeting with Harper, who chatted about surface issues, and grew tired of Strong, who pushed Rockefeller to think about the deeper questions of theology—but once the decision about location, location, location was made, Gates’ route to control was greased.

Gates’ prominence meant theological liberalism would be in the saddle. The executive board of the Educational Society, which Gates made the central instrument of Rockefeller’s giving, proposed the new institution be under Baptist auspices but “conducted in the spirit of the widest liberality.” Religion would be centered in the Divinity School, and the rest of what would become the University of Chicago would be thoroughly modern. Rockefeller approved and did not even visit the campus until it was six years old in 1896. Then he heard the students sing, “John D. Rockefeller, wonderful man is he / Gives all his spare change to the U. of C.”

Not everyone thought Rockefeller’s educational philanthropy was wonderful. As Gates acknowledged in 1896, Rockefeller “received many letters from every part of the country complaining of the attitude which the University has seemed to take regarding the Bible.” But the University of Chicago was not intended to uphold Biblical truth, Gates responded, because Rockefeller had “founded in Chicago a secular institution of learning. He had no thought of the University entering the theological arena.”

Of course, by not entering that arena, the University of Chicago went with the flow. University professors from 1890 to 1910 endorsed evolution and other anti-Biblical themes. Rockefeller complained only when theatrical actor Joseph Jefferson was invited to give a speech to the students. Harper sent Rockefeller an apology, noting he did not think by the invitation “we would be understood to be endorsing the theatre in general.” Harper concluded abjectly, “The whole event must be regarded as a mistake.”

Rockefeller had built a university that would teach anti-Biblical ideas, but he could take comfort in not endorsing the theater in general.

Thus soothed, Rockefeller kept giving. From 1890 to 1910, he gave about $35 million to the university; all others combined gave about $7 million. Rockefeller had built a university that would teach anti-Biblical ideas, but he could take comfort in not endorsing the theater in general. Rockefeller’s final grant of $10 million to the university, in 1910, carried with it only one stipulation: 15 percent had to be used to build and furnish a university chapel, because “that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the University group.”

Frederick T. Gates (left) in 1922 and William Rainey Harper in 1916

Frederick T. Gates (left) in 1922 and William Rainey Harper in 1916 Wikimedia Commons

For Rockefeller, the chapel—not the workplace or the classroom—was Christianity. Church attendance, tithing, accuracy in accounts, and the avoidance of theater (along with dancing, drinking, smoking, and card-playing) constituted holy living, with the life of the mind and most other human activities relegated to individual taste. Such thoughts led to the development of a culture that showed sound morality in many respects but lacked deep roots and was easily toppled when new social and intellectual forces arose.

What Rockefeller could have used, after his tremendous economic success, was a vision for a Bible-based, free market society. He understood microeconomics and microethics—pricing and marketing decisions within the firm; fair dealing with employees, suppliers, and customers; tithing and not lying. But he did not have a vision for a way an economy could be efficient without thwarting small businessmen, and the way a college could challenge socialist ideologies by emphasizing Biblical help for the poor through compassion rather than forced redistribution.

Instead, he listened to Gates and other advisers who proposed Rockefeller respond to critics not by enunciating a different vision but by making placating contributions. Ironically, such attempts did not bring Rockefeller glowing reviews, and sometimes even prompted the opposite. Rockefeller in 1905, stung by more books attacking him, sent $100,000 for missions to the liberal Congregationalist denomination. He may have expected to hear earth’s version of a heavenly chorus. Instead, all hell broke out. Led by Washington Gladden, moderator of the National Council of Congregationalists, 30 ministers proposed the denomination should turn down Rockefeller’s “tainted” money and remain “pure.”

He perceived the Bible as a handbook for moral instruction, but perhaps not as a book that displays man’s sinfulness and desperate need for God’s grace.

As debate spread nationwide, Russell Conwell, the minister-public speaker and founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, called Rockefeller “a generous Christian man.” Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, however, spit scorn: “I read yesterday that Rockefeller has been to prayer-meeting again. Tomorrow he will be giving to some college or university. He gives with two hands, but he robs with many. If he should live a thousand years he could not expiate the crime he has committed. There is only one way—eternity the time; and as to the place, you can guess that. He is the greatest criminal of the age.”

He was not. Rockefeller was a man who gained great wealth by paying attention to small things; a world now sliding on oil owes debts of economic gratitude to him. By making it possible for poor as well as rich people to have light at night in the 19th century and mobility in the 20th, he was one of the great philanthropists of his age. In his philanthropy through contribution, however, Rockefeller did not pay attention to critical matters. Foundations he set up with much of his money, like his university, eventually turned their attention to undermining the market system he had mastered.

Overall, Rockefeller kept close accounts, wanted to be judged by those accounts, and expected others to do the same and be evaluated the same way. He appeared to like the idea of God also keeping close accounts because he believed he would come out fine on the balance sheet. He was a fair man to deal with, a man of his word, but it was important to check his words very carefully to see what loopholes he left himself. He perceived the Bible as a handbook for moral instruction, but perhaps not as a book that displays man’s sinfulness and desperate need for God’s grace.

Rockefeller set a high standard of hardheadedness for his business successors to follow, but his vision of pure, coal-hard efficiency also created a risk that they would appear to be hard-hearted. He had a 19th-century gyroscope that kept him faithful in his marriage and in his work, but he was out of his league when dealing with issues of society and culture that would become central during the 20th century.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas.



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Big Jim

What a wonderful and scholarly short work on the life and times of John D. Rockefeller. I enjoyed it very much and learned quite a bit. I found myself rooting for Mr. Rockefeller, as I do for all people everywhere, that he might be found in Christ. But, alas, as your story wound down, it became apparent that Mr. Rockefeller was certainly religious but had not necessarily experienced the rebirth. And so, I'm left with the thought "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." Mat 7:21-23 KJV

Thank you Marvin.


Sir, I thank you for your instruction in history and more, perhaps, for the insightful lesson on the human heart. Deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, the Scripture has it, and thus able to be seduced through its manifold desires that care nothing for moral boundaries.  I could hurt for the lost opportunity for America to indeed be a 'shining city set on a hill', instead of a beacon built near to a rocky shore that lured many unwary onto its reefs.  That was not the light of the Gospel that shone so in their eyes, but the glitter of soul-consuming wealth.  Thankfully, God was not thwarted.  True light went out from this country to many, many in the world. I think of the old China Inland Mission and its breaches into the interior of China.  How many believers today come from families granted the grace of having their torches lit by that great fire?  Would that we might be similarly blessed to take his truth deep into enemy-held territory, with the results left to the grace of the good God