Anointed with Oil: A Conversation with Darren Dochuk
“Anointed with Oil places religion and oil at the center of American history. As prize-winning historian Darren Dochuk reveals, from the earliest discovery of oil in America during the Civil War, citizens saw oil as the nation’s special blessing and its peculiar burden, the source of its prophetic mission in the world. Over the century that followed and down to the present day, the oil industry’s leaders and its ordinary workers together fundamentally transformed American religion, business, and politics — boosting America’s ascent as the preeminent global power, giving shape to modern evangelical Christianity, fueling the rise of the Republican Right, and setting the terms for today’s political and environmental debates.”
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Darren Dochuk about Anointed with Oil, his research and writing processes, and the important lessons that religion and oil can teach us about numerous diverse aspects of our world today.
BackStory: How did you come across this subject – what led you to understanding and focusing on the oil industry and Christianity as such a closely intertwined phenomenon?
Dochuk: My interest in this subject stemmed from professional and personal experiences. While writing my first book—a study of Sunbelt religious and political conservatism—I spent a lot of time in the southwest and in California, where I noticed the overlapping prevalence of evangelical Christianity and oil production. It was not uncommon for me to see oil pumps and church steeples on the same horizon, or encounter powerful oil barons who poured their profits into conservative causes. Having grown up in Alberta, Canada—where there is substantial oil and religion—I sensed there might be a story to tell. So I decided to see how the two interrelate.
Initially I had planned simply to follow the money in order to see how oil capital has supported American Christianity’s institutions, cultural enterprises, and political interests at home and abroad. My book does indeed follow the money, and traces the ways petro-profits (be they attached to the Rockefeller name or other prominent oil families like the Stewarts and Pews) have shaped the institutional structures of modern American Protestantism and Catholicism, and generated some of its most important cultural and political turns; the clash of Rockefeller-supported missionaries and Stewart-supported missionaries in 1920s China, and the “modernist-fundamentalist” crisis this precipitated being one obvious example.
As I dug into the subject, though, I found that there were other connections to flesh out, points of deep contact that I had not imagined at the start. For instance, I found it fascinating how oil’s discovery during the Civil War seemed to guarantee its mythological proportions as a healing balm for a broken society and a catalyst for its political, economic, and religious ambitions on a global stage. In the years that followed, missionaries and oilmen, statesmen and engineers, churches and petroleum companies, naturalized America’s imperial project as God-ordained, and—fueled by petro-dollars and a passion to win souls and discover more oil-rich soil—together helped make the twentieth century the “American Century.”
I was also surprised by the prominence of spiritualist sensibilities in early oil hunting. At a time, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when petroleum geology was rudimentary, average wildcatters leaned on their religious senses to locate crude and, aided by divining rods, went out into the world expecting signs and wonders to appear. Always curious about their physical surroundings, and the minerals they discovered along their paths, Methodist circuit preachers were among the first to note the presence of oil in Southeast Texas. Even today there are evangelical wildcatters using their bibles to locate oil in Israel and the Middle East.
Finally, as I continued to research and write I grew increasingly interested in the local dimensions of oil and religion’s reciprocity. Again, on account of my own experiences growing up in Alberta, I began questioning how grassroots religious life itself is shaped by proximity to crude. Be it Texas or Oklahoma or Alberta: the oil patches of North America truly operate on oil time. In this sense, oil patch communities’ very notions of work, play, and worship are very much dictated by the prerogatives and boom-bust cycles of crude. And their proximity to oil (and in their minds their right to control it) also creates a sense of regional exceptionalism, one that is politically charged. All of these lines of questioning allowed me to flesh out—in ways I didn’t forsee at the beginning of the project—the entwinement of petroleum and religion.
BackStory: When researching and writing this book, how did you keep all these narrative threads, of culture, religion, economics, geopolitics, in balance? Was there some guiding principle you followed to keep everything in focus?
Dochuk: Keeping these various narrative threads in balance was a real challenge, and I would be lying if I said I never worried about how the numerous moving parts in my narrative would cohere. I have always sought to write histories that incorporate multiple voices, perspectives, and scales of vision, from the grassroots to the global, and that use thick detail and colorful stories to get my main points across. One of the best books I have ever read is J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, which looks at the Boston busing and civil rights crisis in the 1970s from the perspective of three different families (African American, white working class, white liberal middle class). It may not necessarily be a model I’ve been able to follow, but Lucas’ illustrious work has always been an inspiration for me.
So Anointed With Oil is my attempt to write in that manner. But still—throughout the early stages of writing especially I found myself flailing a bit, unable to manage and keep all of the pieces of the puzzle together. It was at that point that I decided to focus more on the histories of a few oil families (the Rockefellers and Pews especially) and use their generations-long sagas in the oil business and church as the glue for my broader account. I did not want my book to be as much about white elite men as it turned out to be; yet I felt I had no choice but to foreground these powerful figures in order to provide the reader with some sense of grounding and continuity. It may not have been a “guiding principle,” per se, but this strategy did provide me with an anchor of sorts; whenever I felt I needed to glance at wider structural forces of economic, cultural, and geopolitical changes related to oil and religion I knew I could do so, however briefly, then return the reader to the illustrative tales of oil’s first families.
BackStory: In the book, the oil industry both relies on and buttresses a vision of progress and civilization – you write that “The golden age of America is in the future, in the development of her limitless resources.” I think it’s fair to say that that vision has darkened. How does oil factor into our dimmed modern outlook? And more broadly, what does your book reveal about the narrative of civilizational progress in American history?
Dochuk: As mentioned above, as I got deeper into the archives and started stretching my story back in time to the very beginning of the oil industry in the 1850s and 1860s (I originally planned to start in 1901), I realized just how central oil was to Americans’ envisioning of their nation’s economic, cultural, and political future. During the late nineteenth century, oil was looked upon as the fuel and lubricant that would light the nation’s cities, grease its modern machinery and economic ascent, and fuel its imperial expansion.To be sure, amid America’s excited rush into modernity, other natural resources inspired sacred dreams of their own. Scholars have suggested that turn-of-the-century coal was itself religious for the way it “congealed meanings of progress into one enchanted material.” For western societies especially—Britain and the United States, coal was deemed a suprahuman life force gifted to them as their tool to Christianize a barbarous world. Yet, even at this early juncture oil’s sacred status was special. Summoned, not scraped from the earth, spectacular in its earth-shattering arrival, and deemed a democratic agent for the way it privileged individuals’ free labor with earth’s resources, oil always seemed the purer industrial lifeblood. Oil, then, was a material that easily lent itself to bold, sweeping, and optimistic narratives of civilizational progress, and my book tracks that spirit of progress from the 1860s to the 1970s.
Anointed With Oil tries to demonstrate, then, how one resource—one commodity—could and did elicit grand (and theological) thinking about America’s manifest destiny. Even the most base materials, I suggest in this way, should be accounted for when we, as historians, try to make sense of how Americans viewed their nation’s development on an international scale.
Yet while portraying the long history of oil in this country as a melodrama of sorts (the way countless American powerbrokers and average citizens envisioned it), I don’t mean to brush over the excesses and exploitation that oil and its sacralization by Americans provoked: excesses of wealth and power, the exploitation of natural environments and human labor and lives. To the contrary, I attempt to show how the adoration of oil often led a majority of Americans to glance over its vilest effects on societies, those evident on this side of the Atlantic as well as beyond. I also attempt to show how oil’s seeming omnipresence in American society did not sit well with all citizens. At the very outset of the oil industry, petroleum also served as a caution for some outspoken Americans who sensed that its arrival meant a darker rather than brighter future for humanity. For early critics such as Ida Tarbell, petrocapitalism represented all that was coercive and wrong about modern industry and markets; watching her father lose his business and self confidence as John D. Rockefeller monopolized oil, Tarbell deemed crude a curse as much as a blessing for her society.
So from the beginning, oil generated as much angst and as many dimmed outlooks for modern America as it did notions of American exceptionalism and glory on a global stage. The outlook would grow increasingly more dim in the 1960s and 1970s as oil and the scale of its destruction (witnessed in oil spills in England and California and their blight on nature) would come to stand for everything wrong about modern industrial society. In the decades since, numerous critics have followed Tarbell’s lead and embraced a carbon-free gospel that demands resistance to and the rollback of oil’s hold on modern society. Oil, in their minds, represents a future of disastrous climate change and earth’s catastrophic end, not of some millennial utopia first imagined by oil-obsessed Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
BackStory: You write that “Oil, America’s gift from God, was now America’s gift to the world,” and argue that oil played a central role in America’s sense of exceptionalism and of a global mission. What new lessons can we draw from this understanding of the American Century, and from its end after the 1970s?
Dochuk: As alluded to above, and as my book demonstrates, throughout the twentieth century countless powerbrokers (politicians, businessmen, preachers, government and nongovernment agents) maintained a confidence that “Big Religion” (defined as ecumenical, internationalist, civil, cosmopolitan) wedded to “Big Oil: (defined by integration, combination, and collective effort between state and company in foreign fields) could and would guarantee this nation’s global authority. Of course their dominance in other corporate sectors further buttressed their belief that the United States had reached an unmatched status in the western world as its chief protector. But the sheer financial clout of the U.S. oil industry (roughly eight of the twenty most lucrative and powerful corporations in 1950s America were oil companies) meant it played a unique and special role in shaping America’s sense of its exceptional stature in Cold War times.
Yet as heady as American oil’s supremacy during the Cold War was, the diminishing authority U.S. oil companies and visionaries realized in the 1970s made it painfully evident that the nation’s moment in the sun had come to an end. Oil’s dark side would only grow more pronounced for Americans when the energy crisis of the 1970s made it clear that their hold over the black stuff was no longer hegemonic or beneficent. Rising frustrations with OPEC and its own claims to crude as god-given; festering worry about liberal drifts in energy policy; heightened tensions with Middle Eastern petroleum suppliers; the violent and uncertain remapping of oil interests—and American confidences in the Middle East: these were signs that the fantastic possibilities of oil Americans envisioned and embraced at an earlier time now rested at the root of the nation’s knotty geopolitical involvements around the globe, and served to remind them that their nation was no longer so exceptional.
So by the 1980s, one could say that Henry Luce’s American Century, and its twin pillars of beneficent oil and internationalist religion, had succumbed. Today, it is very clear that the exceptional authority Luce proclaimed for his carbon-rich county is no longer America’s to enjoy alone. Of course, petroleum was a global phenomenon from the start. Still, there is an irony in play. Big oil’s ambassadors who went out into the world to educate peoples in the magical potentials of the black stuff helped spur other theologies of oil’s blessedness, other myths of exceptionalism that are now replying from abroad. Once on the receiving end of American conceptions of God and black gold and their promises of a petro-fueled modernity, it is now oil-rich and religious societies like Saudi Arabia that are spreading that faith.
BackStory: From the theological focus of independent Texas oilmen seeking oil, to the ideas of the mechanical gospel, God and nature have been deeply connected through oil. What can this tell us about the theological and moral dimensions of ongoing political battles around environmental issues?
Dochuk: One of my goals in writing Anointed With Oil was to demonstrate how and why our current battles over energy and environment are so morally charged. The ongoing political struggles over pipelines and the Alberta oil sands touch on religious and moral sentiments that run deep in our histories.
On one hand, for instance, we have champions of the wildcat way—independent energy companies and evangelicals in the Southwest—continuing to espouse an “America First” energy platform that demands fewer federal regulations over western lands and drill sites. Ronald Reagan won the hearts of the oil patch in 1980 by running on a platform of “Let’s Make America Great Again.” “We must remove government obstacles to energy production,” he declared.” “It is no program simply to say “use less energy,” here referencing President Jimmy Carter’s energy program. Reagan traveled to Texas and mingled with preachers and petroleum executives, promising them that the nation would be great again as soon as Washington bureaucrats took a back seat and let rugged wildcatters open up new frontiers of extractive wealth and god-fearing pioneers raise their children in communities calibrated to the morals of an honorable past. It is that very same charge that now animates Donald Trump’s administration and his supporters across Texas, Oklahoma, and the American oil patch.
At the same time, we also see a religious and political fervency that is equally potent on the anti-oil side of the political spectrum. Recent battles over energy and environment have exposed dissent in America’s oil patches over the efficacy of the wildcat imperative. At odds are stalwarts of the old order and young dissenters who demand different handling of “God’s garden.” Countless children of the oil patch are locking arms with environmentalists and joining environmental movements to protest some of wildcat religion’s creations—like the Keystone Pipeline and Alberta Oil sands. One young evangelist for the carbon-free gospel states it simply: “many people see the pipeline as a political or an economic issue, but I see it as a moral issue.” Invoking Charles Finney, another proselyte promises a “power shift” brought on by revival on behalf of the planet.
If we want to make sense of our current moment of political struggle, then, I would suggest we need to foreground a longer history of religiously-motivated and charged contestation over the way Americans—particularly those who inhabit our energy frontiers—encounter, inhabit, manage, and possess land and its resources.
From one of our readers: One thing that intrigued me was the mention of the Young Ladies Oil Company in Chapter 3, said to be created by a group of women. I’d imagine this was a rarity for this time? Is there any other information about the company and what happened to it?
Dochuk: The Young Ladies Oil Company was certainly intriguing; I came across only brief mention of the company, but hoped to uncover more about it as my research unfolded. It was an anomaly for women—let alone “young” women—to be so directly and heavily invested in the oil business. A number of prominent women that I studied inherited their husband’s oil companies and went on to manage their family-owned oil businesses’ wealth. A few oversaw the distribution of corporate profits to religious and educational institutions like Baylor University. And in more modest ways, in local settings (like the family farms) women were often left in charge of the management of royalties generated by the leasing of land to oil companies. But in terms of its direct empowerment of women in the oil business, the Young Ladies Oil Company was indeed a rarity, and I only wish I could have dug up more information about it!
Darren Dochuk is a professor of History at University of Notre Dame. His book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, is out now.