Select Page

This is the second part in our series about money and the Christian church. You may want to go back one episode before you start this one, though this episode can stand on its own.

Chris: The film starts out with a title card reading “Sure Prosperity Is Coming Back”. It was released in 1932 as a newsreel. Newsreels were bits of news that played before other films. There’s even some of the classic old timey music. (Music)

The image of an old man appears on the screen. He’s in a garden. It’s his birthday. He’s wearing a flat topped hat and matching suit. Not sure what color it is because color film was just about to be invented – but not yet.

He walks with a hitch in his step but no cane. A show of strength, over to a chair in front of an ornate wall.

ACTOR 1 “These are days, when many are discouraged.”

Chris: He begins to speak. We have an actor playing his roll in this reenactment.

ACTOR 1 “In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.”

Chris: He’s saying this during the fourth year of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in the US was at 23.6%1. That means that if you were in a room with three other people, one of you probably didn’t have a job. There had been many downturns in the market to this point. At 93, he’s seen plenty.

ACTOR 1 “And now on this, my birthday, I desire to reaffirm my belief in the fundamental principals upon which this country was founded. Liberty, unselfish devotion to the common good, and belief in God.

Chris: Quite patriotic.

ACTOR 1: As a nation looking proudly to our past, where it has been noble, and recognizing with humility our mistakes of extravagance, selfishness and indifference. Let us with faith in God, in ourselves and in humanity go forward courageously resolve to play our part worthily in building a better world”.

Chris: Though the image is in black and white, the man himself was like all of us; complete with shades of grey. To some he represents the classic American hero, pulling himself up by the bootstraps. And to others, he’s the very picture of what is wrong with America. In reality, he’s probably a little bit of both.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron and this is Truce.

The subject of this film reel was the wealthiest man in history. John D. Rockefeller Sr. According to Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, at the height of his wealth, Rockefeller was worth $318.3 billion dollars in today’s money. That is more than twice as much as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world today. Twice. You can support a lot of podcasts with that much money.

I’m guessing that you’ve already had a reaction to the name John D. Rockefeller.

ACTOR 2: He was a crook.

ACTOR 3: God bless capitalism.

ACTOR 4: He got a bad wrap.

CHRIS: We’re in the middle of a multi part series on money. It makes sense to start with John D. Rockefeller Sr. as we explore money, faith and giving.

(music interlude)

CHRIS: John. D. Rockefeller lived long enough to see dramatic changes in the world. He shared a birth year with the daguerreotype – the first commercially practical photography process. Horses were the main means of travel. But the world was about get itself in a real hurry. In 1839, Mr. Rockefeller was born to a religious mother and a huckster father. His dad sold potions and swindled people across the fledgling United State while also keeping a secret family on the side.

Not an auspicious beginning. But from an early age, John started to work. By the age of 12 he was raising turkeys for money. He was tight with his money and in many ways that never changed. At the age of 90 he was still talking about how as a young man he spent $2.50 on a pair of fur gloves. (Titan pg 50)

ACTOR 1: “No, I can’t say to this day what caused me to waste that $2.50 on regular gloves”.

At the age of 16 he hit the streets of Cleveland, Ohio to look for a job. (Titan 44-45) He’d been equipped by 10 weeks of business education and was determined to find work. Good work.

ACTOR 1: “I did not go to any small establishments. I did not guess what it would be, but I was after something big”.

CHRIS: Six days a week for six weeks he hit the streets and sometimes went back to the same establishment three times asking for a position. Finally hired as a bookkeeper for local merchants, Mr. Rockefeller made a name for himself. At the same time he became established at the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church where he regularly volunteered to sweep the floors, stoke the fires and even led Bible studies. (Titan 52). John was even the superintendent of Sunday school for 33 years.

And I thought it was hard to get someone to volunteer for one week.

Just before the age of 20, he was in business for himself with a partner named Maurice Clark. They were commission merchants for foodstuffs. As the Civil War struck, their business was booming. Mr. Rockefeller paid to have someone else take his place in the Civil War and continued to sell in the booming economy.

Then something happened. On August 27th, 1850, Edwin Drake struck oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Oil refineries began popping up all over Cleveland, New York and Pennsylvania.

ACTOR 2: Eureka!

CHRIS: Soon Rockefeller was investing heavily in oil refining; always looking to make the business more efficient and profitable. To control prices and quality, his company got into every aspect of oil refining process. Oil was shipped in barrels, so his company made barrels. There was a lot of plumbing done, so they did that too rather than hire someone outside the company. By 1868, just 6 years after entering the oil business, he and his partners became the largest oil refiner in the world. At this time, many other refineries were cropping up because it was a relatively inexpensive venture to start. And when waste products were left over, they usually just dumped them into the rivers. Which…tended to catch on fire. And as much as Clevelanders love fire roasted fish, John D. Rockefeller Sr. saw an opportunity. They took byproducts that most refiners discarded and found ways to sell those too. The made:

ACTOR 3: Kerosene

ACTOR 2: Lubricating oils

ACTOR 4: Benzene

ACTOR 3: Paraffin

ACTOR 2: Petrolatum

ACTOR 4: Gasoline

CHRIS: That’s right. Gasoline. There was a time when gasoline was just a byproduct of kerosene production.

ACTOR 3: (Whispering) Pssst. Hey. Why don’t you put that gasoline in my car?

CHRIS: (Whispering back) Because you would not have had a car in 1868.

ACTOR 3: (Whispering) Never mind.

CHRIS: The real innovation was to control the transportation of oil. A partner in the business named Henry Flagler began obtaining big rebates from the railroads. Making it tougher for smaller refineries to compete. The Standard Oil Company was officially formed on January 10, 1870. There was a major issue in the market at the time. The prices were unstable. One day they were up, then next they were down. Rockefeller focused his attention on smoothing out the price of oil. He did this by buying up other refineries. Often paying generous amounts. This prompted some people to quickly get in the business in order to get a handsome payout from Standard Oil. They were offered either money or stock in Standard Oil. Those who took the money-up-front option were crushed to see the fortunes they missed out on as Standard Oil grew increasingly more valuable. He made some enemies who wished they took the stock option. The larger the company became, the greater the level of secrecy.

Let’s say that that you have an oil refinery. We’ll just make one up.

ACTOR 2: It’s called the Cincinnati Oil Company.

Cincinnati Oil, your company, is Rockefeller’s competition. So he wants to buy you out so he can have your profits for himself. So he buys your company.

ACTOR 2: I’ll take the stock option.

Very smart. Since your oil refinery is efficiently run, Rockefeller is going to let your existing managers run it. Maybe make a few improvements, but the day to day might look the same. And he’s going to keep calling it Cincinnati Oil. He’s not going to change it to the name of his company. And… this is where it gets sneaky… he don’t want you to tell anyone that you’re owned by Standard Oil.

ACTOR: Okay… why?

He doesn’t want the government to know what he’s doing. By secretly buying up businesses, he’s creating a network of semi independent refineries. There were laws at the time that prohibited companies from owning businesses across state lines. So… the deals were hush-hush. If they called it Cincinnati Oil and kept it under the old management, maybe nobody would notice that Standard Oil was doing business across state lines.

ACTOR 2: Tricky.

CHRIS: It was tricky. He was forming a cartel. A cartel is a group of people or businesses that comes together to control a market and its prices. Rockefeller wanted to do that with oil. We actually have an oil cartel today. It’s called OPEC.

The cartel wasn’t the only way Rockefeller played the market. There was a fair bit of collusion as well. Especially with the railroads. Back then, if you wanted to ship something you sent it by railroad. It was either that or a horse. And horses are slow. They need food, rest, water. Railroads got the job done much faster. Because of that, they controlled commerce.

In 1877, other oil refineries paid $1.44 per barrel. Standard Oil paid just $.80. How could anyone else possibly compete? (PBS) To make it even sweeter, Standard forced railroads to pay them 20-35 cents a barrel of oil that was shipped by a competing refinery. That’s right. If the railroads dared to transport oil that wasn’t Standard Oil, they had to pay Rockefeller for every barrel they shipped. And they couldn’t cross Rockefeller because he was their biggest customer. He owned the majority of refineries. Without his oil money coming in, the railroads stood to lose a lot of businesses. So they discounted his oil, and paid him whenever they shipped someone else’s oil.

So, Rockefeller’s competition saw these shenanigans and got creative. If they couldn’t use the railroads, they’d build pipelines. Make that, a pipeline. The Tidewater Oil company was in a fierce battle to create a pipeline across northern Pennsylvania. To work around the monopoly. Rockefeller couldn’t just sit back and let that happen. It was like a game of Blokus.

SOUND FROM PLAYING BLOKUS

When the pipeline was running west to east, Rockefeller bought land going north to south to block it. That way if the pipeline came to him asking for permission to build on his land he could just say no. When it tried to cross a railroad, which was inevitably owned by one of his friends, he tried to pressure the railroads into not allowing Tidewater to cross the lines. John D. went to local governments to stop Tidewater. He lost. The pipeline was connected. Though in the grand scheme…it did not really matter.

By 1904, 80% of American towns were served by Standard Oil carts. They would take the oil straight to your home or business. Local distributers we strong armed into selling only Standard Oil products.

During this time of great expansion, John D. Rockefeller raised a family and frequently took breaks for an afternoon nap (Titan 122)

ACTOR 4: It’s good to be the boss.

CHRIS: Or to spend time in his garden. Contrary to the rather stern photographs that are easily found on the internet, he was known for being kind to his employees, often asking after sick relatives. He played with his children with great energy while keeping them hidden from the world. One tutor was quoted saying

ACTOR 2: “It was a gloomy horizon, with a heaviness that pervaded the entire household. Silence and gloom everywhere”.

CHRIS: John’s strict Baptist morals forbid him from taking in the theater, playing cards, or smoking and he was a leader in the temperance movement. (Titan 121) There are ample examples of him giving money to all sorts of charities from education for women to black churches. But he and his wife Cettie (pronounced set-ee) did not like to flaunt their money and especially hid it from their children. As a young boy, John D. Rockefeller Jr was forced to wear his sister’s hand me down dresses. The kids were encouraged to keep records of their money in account books. (Titan 124) When the four children asked for bicycles, Cettie only permitted one for all three in order to encourage them to share. (Titan 125).

On March 27th, 1897 he stands up in front of a young mens Bible study class at the Avenue Baptist Church and holds up his very first ledger book from when he was just starting out. Ledger A. It contains a list of all of his purchases even down to a toothbrush. It lists the 6% he gave away as a young man just starting out. And he says:

ACTOR 1: “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can”.

CHRIS: That’s questionable theology.

During his bid to take over oil production, later dubbed the Cleveland Massacre, he made an unlikely enemy in Ida Tarbell. Her father was one of the producers that was squeezed out of the business by Standard Oil. She wrote articles for McClure’s in 1902 railing against Standard Oil accusing them of underhanded business practices like collusion, bribery and unfair business tactics.

Inspired by Tarbell’s writing, the US Supreme Court stepped in and broke up the Standard Oil monopoly in 1911 using the Sherman Antitrust Act. The behemoth was split into many parts which today include companies like ExxonMobil, BP, Marathon and Chevron. Obviously they survived just fine.

After he retired, John D. Rockefeller Sr. continued to give away his vast fortune founding colleges, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission which helped eradicate hookworm from the southern part of the United States, various high schools and a multitude of other endeavors.

This just about brings us back to the beginning of this podcast. In the garden. With the old man. He enters without a cane and tells the nation:

ACTOR 1 “And now on this, my birthday, I desire to reaffirm my belief in the fundamental principals upon which this country was founded. Liberty, unselfish devotion to the common good, and belief in God.

CHRIS: With a country in the midst of a terrible depression, the wealthiest man in the world – probably in history – enters the garden on his own power as a show of strength and determination. He has given so much. And taken so much. He’s paid bribes, strong armed the competition, conspired to shut out rivals and… in the process… revolutionized the oil industry.

Remember… Rockefeller was the head of Sunday school at his church. Even volunteering there as a janitor. He invoked the name of God during speeches. The same guy who did all of those things knowingly broke the law. He squeezed out his competition. Ruined career of Ida Tarbell’s father.

We live in an era of uber wealthy people. Some of whom are Christians. We’re not saying it’s evil to be wealthy and a Christian. However, it does matter how we get our money. Are we doing it ethically? Are we working within the law? Do we respect our employees? Rockefeller Sr. clealy did what he could to crush his competition. He used the power of his secret monopoly to earn an unfair advantage and destroy out other refineries. What message does that send? When people who don’t believe in God read history books and see that this man was a Christian… are they likely to follow Jesus or reject Him?

Rockefeller’s story forces us to ask: What does it mean to be a business person and a Christian? Is it possible to be as ethical in our jobs as we are inside our churches on Sunday? Our legacy speaks louder than words. Louder than the money we donate. Louder than we can protest. We can stand in our gardens and promise hope in a dark time, but are we willing to admit that sometimes our actions stop seekers from finding our true hope?

What do you think? Is it possible to run a successful business and behave in a godly way? Record a voice memo on your smart phone and email it to us. We may even use it on the show.

This episode was written and produced by Nick Staron. Much of our information for this story came from Ron Chernow’s book Titan. Special thanks to everyone who loaned their voice to this episode. We know it’s important that we earn our money ethically. But what about how we spend that money? We’ll be discussing that in our next episode. We’ll have links to the newsreel footage on our website at trucepodcast.com. Once you’re there you can explore our archives, find our social media feeds, and donate money to this show. We’re on Patreon and GoFundMe and we also accept checks. Right now I’m working hard to do this show full time. I didn’t plan to do a fund drive at the same moment I’m asking for money. But I do need your help. Really. If you can’t give, please take some time to tell your friends about the show. It makes a huge difference.

Thanks for listening.

I’m Chris Staron and this is Truce.