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

A businessman-missionary’s ‘model of capitalism for third-world societies’ May 29, 2012

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.

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? …”


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