A businessman-missionary’s ‘model of capitalism for third-world societies’

John Fea points us to Darren Dochuk’s fascinating Journal of American History article, “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest.”

Plenty of interesting stuff there about the intersection of evangelical Christianity and the birth and growth of the oil industry. This is something that’s had an influence on American politics well beyond the Southwest:

The ideological and institutional phalanx evangelicals built during the interwar period entered the Cold War era ready to expand its authority. It was at this juncture, in fact, that the relationship between petroleum and Protestantism began furnishing a potent politics. This politics was predicated on what had come before — processes of mythmaking, ideological formation, and institutional consolidation — but it also grew out of a realization that God and black gold needed each other like never before. … Oil and evangelicalism were ready to be revitalized politically, and the ability of the Southwest to bring these two constituencies into communion paid significant dividends.

But here’s the bit that I found most fascinating:

Southwestern missionary agencies and Christian lay leaders willingly lent oil businesses their expertise. Robert G. LeTourneau was not an oilman of Lyman Stewart’s ilk, but as an engineer of earth-moving and oil-drilling machinery he made just as vital a contribution to the evolution of southwestern oil culture. Like Stewart, LeTourneau believed that the Lord’s return was near and that the only way to prepare for it was to study prophecy, defend the fundamentals of the faith, and adopt better strategies of business and evangelistic outreach to penetrate the darkest corners of the secular world. LeTourneau’s technocratic faith also demanded a global vision. In the early 1950s LeTourneau brokered a deal with Cameron Townsend, the founding director of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Peru president Manuel Odria to help complete the Trans-Andean Highway in exchange for a million acres of uncultivated land. Odria hoped this project would give the Peruvian subsidiaries of Mobil Oil and Gulf Oil access to the country’s petroleum reserves; Townsend hoped that it would facilitate expanded missionary efforts into the Amazonian jungles. The plan suited LeTourneau too. He transformed the uncultivated land into Tournavista, a community of natives and missionaries that carried out his plan for a “free” and self-sustaining economy that might be used as a model of capitalism for “third world” societies. And so, in return for their knowledge of undeveloped regions targeted for drilling, oil-friendly evangelicals of LeTourneau’s stature received financial help (and government support) needed to build beacons of Christian democracy abroad.

I want to know more of this history. Tournavista lives on as a remote district in a Peruvian province and is home to about 6,000 people. It no longer seems to be a model society of Christian capitalism. So whatever became of LeTourneau’s grand scheme?

Here some vintage missionary video from Tournavista in the 1950s.

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I grew up watching missionary home movies like this at church, but somehow watching this I was thinking of something else and kept expecting to see the Dharma Initiative logo on everything.

But as much as I want to read more of the actual history of Tournavista, I’m also very eager to read the novel that someone really needs to write about this story — the Mosquito Coast + Poisonwood Bible + Atlas Shrugged + At Play in the Fields of the Lord mashup in which the myths and ideologies Dochuk describes wither in the heat of the Peruvian jungle.

And now I’m somehow hearing Dennis Hopper’s voice in my head: “What are they gonna say about LeTourneau? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? …”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    It’s really interesting how oil tends to intersect with right-wing political and social philosophy. It’s like being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple makes for an even more fervent wish-belief that it was all yer own dern hard work (and not just an incredible accident that all  the beings that lived on the planet millions of years ago conveniently picked a particular place to die to become oil or natural gas).

  • Daughter

    My husband read something once about the alliance of evangelicals and Big Oil that began in the run-up to Prohibition.  Big Oil discovered that many people used moonshine to power their cars, and it made them natural allies of the evangelicals fighting to enact Prohibition (and Big Oil’s money became a big boost for the cause).

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    Henry Ford attempted something similar to Tournavista in Brazil.  His community was built around rubber instead of oil, and his cultural vision was not evangelical but simply middle class American (which, in the interwar period, meant mainline Protestant), but the hubris was the same.  See Greg Grandin’s book Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City for more on this chapter in the history of American industrial colonialism.

  • Daughter

    Is anyone besides me not getting sound on the video?

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I love Fred’s reference to the Dharma Initiative.  Those DI videos were some of the coolest things in Lost, because they were cleverly designed to be obvious propaganda pieces.  You watched them and you just *knew* there were many things the producers were leaving unsaid, that you were watching a slick, polished PR film that was meant to hide the darker currents underneath.

  • Tonio

    Perhaps some of them go further and believe that Jesus will come back only after pollution has rendered the Earth uninhabitable. I’m thinking of how they treat the citizens of Israel as merely props in their End Times drama.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I’m also very eager to read the novel that someone really needs to write about this story — the Mosquito Coast + Poisonwood Bible + Atlas Shrugged + At Play in the Fields of the Lord mashup in which the myths and ideologies Dochuk describes wither in the heat of the Peruvian jungle.

    I am so glad that I have read exactly zero of those books, since this would be one hell of a plot bunny otherwise.  And I’m already stalled out on a completely different Fred plot bunny, since the whole “minor rehab on that house I have to make mortgage payments on but haven’t actually moved in to” is kinda more important at the moment…

  • Magic_Cracker

    Mosquito Coast + Poisonwood Bible + Atlas Shrugged + At Play in the Fields of the Lord

    If only Graham Greene were still with us. He’s the only writer who immediately comes to mind who’d be able to weave so many elements together without losing the human factor.

  • AnonymousSam

    I was strongly unimpressed by The Poisonwood Bible. It’s about three girls who are traveling with their father to a remote region (I believe it’s somewhere in Africa) so he can try to convert the native people to Christianity. The problem is that there are huge language barriers between them. The natives think the religion is barbaric because of its emphasis on death and punishment, and he utterly fails to understand that he’s not getting through to them. Meanwhile, the girls try to adjust to life in an inhospitable land, and ultimately, bad things happen, people die, and nothing they did made any difference whatsoever.

    It’s a very Shoot the Shaggy Dog story. What bothers me is that in the end, in the very last pages of the book and apropos of nothing, one of the people who had died makes an appearance as if nothing had ever happened. It’s obviously supposed to be poignant and mystical, but it’s the one and only sign of any mysteriousness in the entire book and is played so straight that you half-expect the author to correct herself, “But it was only a stranger, who probably got hit by a car later that afternoon. The end!”

  • Trixie_Belden

    It’s not just you – I actually think since it’s  a sort of 50′s vintage home movie, they may have not had any sound.  My dad used to take home movies, and while they were in color they were without sound.  I’m guessing they didn’t have an inexpensive, easily available way to have a mic record sound along with the video film. 

  • Matri

    Perhaps some of them go further and believe that Jesus will come back
    only after pollution has rendered the Earth uninhabitable. I’m thinking
    of how they treat the citizens of Israel as merely props in their End
    Times drama.

    That’s because Word Of LaHaye says so, therefore it’s true. How dare you question the Word Of LaHaye!

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ storiteller

    Perhaps some of them go further and believe that Jesus will come back only after pollution has rendered the Earth uninhabitable.

    Most of what I’ve heard along those lines is that Jesus will come back before pollution and/or climate change has rendered the Earth pretty awful to live in, if not uninhabitable.  Or God would never allow that to happen.  Or humans are too puny to permanently change what God has made.  Or something like that because these conversations never go anywhere productive.  The weirdest was one where we went from talking about my job (communications about alternative fuels) to more oil being produced faster than we think it is because the world is only a few thousand years old in two sentences.  It was a weird Thanksgiving.

    I studied The Resource Curse (more fossil fuel resources equals more corruption) in graduate school, but never knew about the missionary ties.  It would be interesting and sad to look at the connections there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hugo.w.merida Hugo W. Merida

    If any of you still interested in Tournavista fate.  Today is a shanty town abandoned by everyone including the peruvian government.  Still dominated by a religious group that is increasing their political influence to the point of electing the city mayor.

    US Maple Energy has been  operating 22 wells nearby Agua Caliente area for about 15 years and will continue to be there for the next 20 thanks to an exclusive 100 per cent oil rights.

    As far as the great Tran continental highway..still as LeTourneau left it, 50 miles of dirt road which becomes intrasitable during rainy seasons.
    Maple uses the road but does not do anything to improve it..so the Tournavista sons and doughters got the short end of the stick.. that is the Beacon of Christian Democracy with Capitalism…

  • Dhcrosby

    Comments as to the video being without sound are correct. As someone who remembers the scenes from my childhood, I can attest to their reality. I haven’t read the materials cited, so can’t comment on Tournavista’s  relationship to them, but I do have manuscripts relating my parents experience there.


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