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Lyman Stewart and Early Fundamentalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2013


An analysis of Lyman Stewart, California oilman and patron of early American fundamentalism, reveals much about the mutual transformations of American religion and capitalism in the early twentieth century. As an expositor of Victorian moralism and California Progressivism, as a missionary for dispensational fundamentalism, and a leader in industrial extraction, Stewart applied the logics of supernatural religion to his oil speculation and the logics of industrial capitalism to his religious work. As one of the chief architects of twentieth-century fundamentalist aspirations, Stewart pursued dueling objectives. On the one hand, he fought for empire and cultural custodianship; on the other hand, he argued for purity and cultural separatism. It was not theological or ecclesiological beliefs that produced this dual aim, but the commodification of religious work. As oil became transmuted into religious capital, religious work—particularly pastorates, missionary work, and theological education—became commodities that could be bought and sold, regulated, and appraised in terms of both purity and production.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2013 

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1 “Western Securities,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 1925, 17. Pogue, Joseph Ezekiel, The Economics of Petroleum (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1921)Google Scholar, 73.

2 “Her New Mission Opened Yesterday,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1902, A1. Given the increased scholarly attention on economics and religion, Stewart's present anonymity may be short-lived, yet the best biographical treatment of his life remains an unpublished dissertation: Robert Martin Krivoshy, “‘Going Through the Eye of the Needle’: The Life of Oilman Fundamentalist Lyman Stewart, 1840–1923” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Chicago, 1973).

3 By 1914, Stewart had contributed more than two million dollars to religious publishing ventures and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles alone. While this paled in comparison with Rockefeller's gifts to the University of Chicago—in excess of 80 million dollars—it represented enormous sums in almost every other religious context. When placed alongside Stewart's support of individual ministers, his funding of missionaries and mission projects, and his countless smaller contributions, it is hard to imagine a more influential patron of the budding fundamentalist movement.

4 Lyman Stewart conceived of the project of The Fundamentals along with Baptist evangelist A. C. Dixon, who he engaged to edit the series. Although Milton Stewart contributed roughly a third of the funds, he expressed little interest in the project preferring to focus his energies on foreign mission projects. Stewart targeted religious professionals as his audience: “ministers, evangelists, missionaries, theological professors, theological students, Y.M.C.A and Y.W.C.A. secretaries, Sunday School Superintendents, religious lay workers, and editors of religious publications” (Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers, Biola University, LaMirada, California). To achieve this ambitious distribution goal, Stewart's Testimony Publishing Company generated a large (and much envied) mailing list of Christian workers, with over 300,000 names by the time the first volume was sent out. A model for later religious direct mail marketing approaches, Stewart recognized the exclusive value of his mailing list. Even series authors were denied access to the valuable list, as Stewart rebuffed one request by writing: “the committee stands very firm, and is not disposed to concede the privilege to any one of its members of using any portion of its mailing list” (Lyman Stewart to A. C. Gaebelein, January 15, 1913, Lyman Stewart Papers). After setting up the Testimony Publishing Company, Stewart avoided meddling in the editorial operations, leaving the work of recruiting authors and vetting topics to Dixon and the series' subsequent two editors, Louis Meyer and Rueben A. Torrey. For more on the history of The Fundamentals, see: Timothy Gloege, Consumed: Reuben A. Torrey and the Construction of Corporate Fundamentalism (Ph.D. Diss., University of Notre Dame, 2007); Krivoshy, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle”; Marsden, George M., introduction to The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988)Google Scholar; Sandeen, Ernest, “The Fundamentals: The Last Flowering of the Millenarian-Conservative Alliance,” Journal of Presbyterian History 47 (March 1969): 5573Google Scholar; and idem, The Roots of Fundamentalism; British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).Google Scholar

5 In 1949, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles officially changed its name to Biola College, and later to Biola University. In Stewart's lifetime, however, it was called either the Bible Institute or B.I.O.L.A., and this paper retains that usage.

6 A growing body of scholarship has reflected on the interactions of religion and capitalism in American history. One of the first forays into this conversation came with the essays published in Noll, Mark A., ed., God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar. The last few years have seen a bull market run of scholarship on this topic, including: Callahan, Richard J., Lofton, Kathryn, and Seales, Chad E., “Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78 (2010): 139CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dochuk, Darren, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, 1st ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011)Google Scholar; Engel, Katherine Carté, Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, Religion and the Economy: New Methods for an Old Problem,” Early American Studies 8 (Fall 2010): 482514CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alison Collis Greene, “No Depression in Heaven: Religion and Economic Crisis in Memphis and the Delta, 1929–1941” (Ph.D. Diss., Yale University, 2010); Hammond, Sarah R., “‘God Is My Partner’: An Evangelical Business Man Confronts Depression and War,” Church History 80 (2011): 498519CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moreton, Bethany, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: the Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; and Valeri, Mark R., Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 The phrase “millennial capital” was extracted from Jean and John Comaroff's influential anthropological work on twenty-first-century global capitalism. They describe millennial capitalism as: “a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe” (Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12 [2000], 292Google Scholar). However, as oil wildcatters like Lyman Stewart demonstrate, the seeds of this strain of enchanted capitalism were being sown long before the twenty-first century.

8 Scholars of American Christianity and capitalism have most frequently taken their departure from Max Weber's analysis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. While Weber's work is indubitably complex, scholarship has tended to focus on two questions raised by his work: whether Protestantism played a role in giving birth to capitalism in America (or conversely, whether it served as a form of restraint on markets), and whether secular (or secularizing) capitalism has subsequently functioned to replace Protestantism in the wider culture. For a helpful discussion of Weber's role in these conversations, see: Engel, “Religion and the Economy,” 486.

9 While this paper focuses on the relationship between oil wildcatting and American religion, it is important to acknowledge that the American encounter with oil was multifaceted. Alongside the dispensationalism of Lyman Stewart, different experiences of oil enabled the mainline respectability of John D. Rockefeller and the Spiritualism of Abraham James. See, Dochuk, Darren, “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest,” Journal of American History 99 (2012): 5161CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Zuck, Rochelle Raineri, “The Wizard of Oil: Abraham James, the Harmonial Wells, and the Psychometric History of the Oil Industry,” Journal of American Studies 46 (2012): 313336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Black, Brian, Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)Google Scholar, 40.

11 Callahan, Lofton, and Seales, “Allegories of Progress,” 6.

12 Gold offers the closest analogue to oil's role in American economic imagination, although on a smaller scale. Laurie Maffly-Kipp's work on the mining culture of the earlier California gold rush offers a helpful model to think about the consequences of the speculative search for riches: The westward migration . . . with its dependence upon high expectations, risk taking, opportunism, and constant movement, was antithetical to the ethic of evangelical Protestantism that posited a direct correlation between wealth and hard work” (Religion and Society in Frontier California [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994], 120).Google Scholar

13 Historian Darren Dochuk described the logic by which oil and religion became so intricately intertwined for even the more conventional oil barons: “John D. Rockefeller articulated the lingua franca of his age. With unbending faith he announced that the vast stores of oil wealth that he sought “were the bountiful gifts of the great Creator,” a “blessing . . . to mankind” waiting to be employed for His Kingdom on this earth. . . . Finding spiritual inspiration in the way oil was extracted and refined (“the whole process seems a miracle,” he said), he reciprocated by using this tangible evidence of divine blessing to anoint an entire industry” (“Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude,” 54–55).

14 Krivoshy, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 16.

15 Asbury, 'Herbert, The Golden Flood: An Informal History of America's First Oil Field (New York: Knopf, 1942), 209210.Google Scholar

16 Dochuk, “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude,” 54.

17 Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

18 “Oil Argonaut Celebrates,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1923, II5.

19 Welty, Earl M. and Taylor, Frank J., The 76 Bonanza; the Fabulous Life and Times of the Union Oil Company of California (Menlo Park, Calif.: Lane Magazine & Book Co., 1966)Google Scholar, 177.

20 Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

21 Useful descriptions of premillennial theology can be found in Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism; and Weber, Timothy, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983)Google Scholar.

22 Lyman Stewart to George Fisher, June 30, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

23 Lyman Stewart to Thomas R. Bard, August 11, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

24 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, August 31, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers. Stewart's own attempts at prediction led him to seek the most technologically sophisticated means of quantifying and calculating the dates involved in biblical prophecy. For example, in one of his attempts at parsing prophetic time, he wrote: “Mr. Blackstone makes two serious errors in his calculations. First, the period of 2520 years, which is based on the ‘seven times’ as set forth in Leviticus 25, necessarily began when the Jews were deported, and not when Nebuchadnezzar was declared to be ‘the head of gold.’ His other mistake is in following the chronology of Archbishop Ussher, which, I believe, has been generally discredited by scientific chronologists. I have a great deal of respect for the work of the late G. A. L. Totten. He was a profound mathematician, able to make exact astronomical calculations, and thereby demonstrated that every date given in Scripture was scientifically exact. He found no prophetic dates running later than 1928–9.” However, technical proficiency by itself was not enough to secure true understanding, and Stewart cautioned in his next sentence: “His [Totten's] interpretations from his findings, however, were very unsafe” (Lyman Stewart to R. A. Torrey, February 8, 1918, Lyman Stewart Papers).

25 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, August 31, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

26 Lyman Stewart to Rev. George T. B. Davies, August 17, 1911, quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 222.

27 Lyman Stewart to C. H. Stimson, September 17, 1913, quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 351.

28 Ibid., 350.

29 Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

30 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, July 3, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

31 Singleton, Gregory, Religion in the City of Angels: American Protestant Culture and Urbanization, Los Angeles, 1850–1930 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1979)Google Scholar, 54. See also, Engh, Michael E., “A Multiplicity and Diversity of Faiths”: Religion's Impact on Los Angeles and the Urban West, 1890–1940,” The Western Historical Quarterly 28 (Winter 1997): 463492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Quoted in Welty and Taylor, The 76 Bonanza, 114.

33 See, Noble, David W., “The New Republic and the Idea of Progress, 1914–1920,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 38 (December 1951)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rogin, Michael, “Progressivism and the California Electorate,” The Journal of American History 55 (September 1968): 297314CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McGerr, Michael, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

34 Nearly half a century ago Ernest Sandeen made this observation about how a progressive viewpoint shaped the larger projects of Stewart's life: “The Fundamentals might better be described as a typical product of the progressive era. The authors represented there belonged, at least in their own eyes, in the front rank of those defending the American way” (Ernest Sandeen, “The Fundamentals: The Last Flowering of the Millenarian-Conservative Alliance,” 73. Compare also the optimistic activism of Stewart's fellow premillennialist Arthur Tappan Pierson, described in Robert, Dana L., Occupy Until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003)Google Scholar.

35 Lyman Stewart to R. R. Pealer, March 11, 1908, quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 333.

36 Stewart's mostly irenic faith in the potential of religious education was in striking contrast to his business practices, which were often characterized by aggressive, predatory combat. This was perhaps best exemplified by Stewart's relationships with his immediate business partners, which were rocky at the best of times. His chief partners in Union Oil, William Hardison and Thomas Bard, each sought to wrest control from Stewart, and failing that, eventually sold out amidst controversy, threats of lawsuits, hyperbolic accusations of hypnosis, and other sordid controversies.

37 Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

38 Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 345. Darren Dochuk argued that the anti-establishment sentiment of smaller oilmen like Stewart was commonly linked with western cultural values such as freedom and independence: “Convinced that Rockefeller and his East Coast establishment had adulterated the oil industry by promoting collusion at the cost of individual freedom and privileging corporate might over personal drive, evangelicals thrived as warriors for the wildcat philosophy. They also flourished as defenders of Protestant fundamentalism; in their eyes, defending the purity of the church and the purity of oil's founding spirit against the corruption of Rockefeller's ‘big oil’ and ‘big religion’ were shared causes” (“Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude,” 56).

39 Charles R. Erdman, “The Church and Socialism,” The Fundamentals, vol. 4 (1917; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), 104.

40 Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 363.

41 Lyman Stewart to his children, September 4, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

42 Lyman Stewart to Mrs. H. E. Butters, April 26, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 “Evangelization of California,” undated, Lyman Stewart Papers.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, August 15, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

49 Lyman Stewart to Mrs. H. E. Butters, August 26, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

50 Welty and Taylor, The 76 Bonanza, 129.

51 Although historians of fundamentalism have often attributed fundamentalist separatism to theological sources—particularly the ecclesiological doctrines of Plymouth Brethren teacher John Nelson Darby—little evidence exists that lay believers such as Stewart were strongly motivated by ecclesiological debates. However, as Stewart illustrates, the logic of capitalist competition couched in Victorian moral language resonated deeply with many different American religious communities.

52 Welty and Taylor, The 76 Bonanza, 53–54.

53 Halttunen, Karen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982)Google Scholar, 4.

54 Ibid., 4.

55 Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 167.

56 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, September 19, 1910, quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 301.

57 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, March 26, 1914, Lyman Stewart Papers.

58 Lyman Stewart to Mrs. H. M. N. Armstrong, May 2, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers. The feeling of religious animosity between institutions was mutual. Theologian Shalier Mathews of the University of Chicago wrote: “Personally I think the body of pre-millenialists represented by this Institute [BIOLA] and the Moody Bible Institute is doing incalculable injury to the Church of Jesus Christ” (quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 257).

59 Lyman Stewart to Mrs. H. M. N. Armstrong, May 2, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 George S. Fisher to Lyman Stewart, March 21, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

64 Ibid.

65 Lyman Stewart to C. I. Scofield, April 1, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

66 C. I. Scofield to Lyman Stewart, April 6, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

67 C. I. Scofield to Lyman Stewart, April 25, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

68 Lyman Stewart to George S. Fisher, June 30, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

69 As many scholars have noted, the remarkable thing about The Fundamentals is how utterly unremarkable they were in their own time. George Marsden concluded: “nearly everyone who reads The Fundamentals is struck by their relative moderation compared with later fundamentalism” (Marsden, introduction to The Fundamentals, ii).

70 See, Sutton, Matthew A., “‘Between the Refrigerator and the Wildfire’: Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostalism, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy,” Church History 72 (2003): 159188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

71 See, Daniel W. Draney, “John Murdoch MacInnis and the crisis of authority in American Protestant Fundamentalism, 1925–1929” (Ph.D. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1996).

72 “New Bible Institute Faculty Song: Well, What Next?” undated, Lyman Stewart Papers.

73 Lyman Stewart to Rev. J. Hudson Ballard, January 20, 1915, quoted in Krivoshey, “Going Through the Eye of the Needle,” 173.

74 Lyman Stewart to Milton Stewart, July 26, 1911, Lyman Stewart Papers.

75 Engel, 489.