Philanthropy plays part in Darren Dochuk’s history of how oil-industry leaders transformed America

Mar 3, 2020

Organized standardization and independent wildcatting can show up in grantmaking, too.

Darren Dochuk’s well-received new book Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America is a comprehensive history of how Christianity and the petroleum industry together shaped the America in which we live today, including its role in the world and the current internal divisions about its very identity. Walter Russell Mead lauds it as “one of the most original and insightful accounts of recent American history to appear in many years.” Philanthropy plays a part in it.

Dochuk is an associate professor of history at Notre Dame. He previously authored the award-winning From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

As part of its vast examination, his 688-page Anointed With Oil looks at both the organized standardization of the business-minded Rockefeller family’s and the independent, wildcat nature of the Pew family’s pursuits of petroleum. As Mead notes, the different general approaches showed up elsewhere, too. In particular, they appeared as well in much liberal and conservative grantmaking, respectively—including in the Rockefeller and Pew names—and are still echoed today.

Branching out

After the formal resignation of devoutly Northern Baptist John D. Rockefeller, Sr., from the successful Standard Oil Company in 1897, his “giving ultimately pioneered modern practices of philanthropy,” according to Dochuk, though it “was fundamentally an extension of his first love: missions.

“The same zeal for moral outreach inspired Rockefeller’s first grand charitable experiment: the University of Chicago,” Dochuk writes. This substantial support was recommended to Rockefeller by his philanthropic manager Frederick Gates, who also

urged Rockefeller to approach his giving like the big-time oilman that he was. Rather than continue as a wildcatter in the business of evangelism, Rockefeller needed to let his managerial grasp of capitalism and bureaucratic sensibilities translate to his charity. By 1900, Gates and his boss were ready to branch out and use Standard’s profits for more dramatic service to society.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund was later created in 1940 to help complement the work of the Rockefeller Foundation in serving the philanthropic interests of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his five sons.

Reversing the order

Like John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the devoutly Presbyterian J. Howard Pew “had always harbored strong religious and civic commitment,” according to Dochuk. Pew, however, had always “acted on them as supplementary to his business’s bottom line,” that of the successful Sun Oil Company. “[H]e was determined to reverse the order. The engineer-executive became the philanthropist.” In 1948, eight years after the Rockefeller Brothers Fund began, Pew and three of his siblings started the Pew trusts to help facilitate their grantmaking.


While 50 years earlier, Presbyterian oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart “had taken it upon themselves to fund a conservative counterweight to Rockefeller charity,” Dochuk writes, “[n]ow it was J. Howard Pew’s turn. … As a unit, the Pew children were determined to use their fortunes to support conservatism ….”

Pew “was as aggressive about giving his money way as he was about making it,” Dochuk continues. Nearing the end of his life,

he would devote his whole energy to financing a vast network of schools, churches, social agencies, and media outlets that could help him roll back the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rockefellers.

Already in the 1950s, the breadth of Pew’s funding was staggering. Howard had plugged himself into overlapping circuits of antiliberal crusading in the 1930s, and as he shifted his vocational focus  at the dawn of the 1950s, those circuits remained of top concern to his checkbook. He was particularly drawn to agencies that reflected his preoccupation with free enterprise capitalism and Christian libertarianism, values he saw entrenched in his family’s roots, undermined by the Roosevelt administration, and now in desperate need of protection against what he perceived as America’s slide toward socialism. On that score, he sought out organizations run by clerics and corporate types whose expressed purposes were to defend his brand of the American way.

Dochuk cites Pew’s support of Yale undergraduate William F. Buckley, Jr., whose “conservatism was shaped by his father’s wildcat worldview, which mirrored Pew’s.” William F. Buckley, Sr., was an independent oilman who made his fortune with discoveries in Mexico in the 1910s and Venezuela in the 1920s. Pew supported the younger Buckley’s National Review and enthusiastically endorsed it when the first issue was released in 1955.

Differences, including in devotions, and dissipations 

Dochuk more recounts than compares the Rockefellers’ and Pews’ different ways of going about philanthropy, but there are differences. The often university-based or -borne technocratic expertise brought to bear on philanthropic efforts to address social challenges by Rockefeller and others is one way. It—along with all of that which has grown out of it, including avoiding “mere” “band-aids” and self-assuredly taking supposedly proven solutions “to scale”—sure seems to remain favored by the country’s grantmaking establishment. Dochuk does not ask—it’s not the subject of his book—but we can: what hath this wrought?

The seeding of an intellectual infrastructure that can anchor a movement over the long term, signified by the Pew-funded National Review, is another way. It’s perhaps not so favored today, having been supplanted to varying degrees by tempting shorter-term options to yield what’s considered effective in policy-oriented giving. What hath this wrought?

There are notable similarities between the Rockefeller and Pew stories, too. First would be the explicit and passionate religious motivation of the principal donors, for and during both their wealth-generation and its initial subsequent distribution.

Second, and more soberly, would be the dissipation and then outright ignorance of their intent in that distribution over time, after their passing. The wealth originally generated by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and J. Howard Pew, their families, and their companies is now devoted largely to liberal and progressive causes and groups.

In the case of the Rockefellers, “As the heart of the 1970s unfolded and internal and political pressures tore at the cosmopolitan and catholic projects they had assumed in the wake of World War II, the Rockefeller brothers grew disillusioned with their founding visions,” according to Dochuk. Moving forward, moreover, “The sons and daughters of the five brothers had a growing sense that their clan was on the wrong side of the issues and on the wrong side of history.”

If history matters—and to some it still does, though to more it should—Dochuk’s Anointed With Oil informatively and engagingly tells the larger story of which these philanthropy-related subplots are such an important part.