A Gripping and Sobering Tale: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Rockefeller and the Lessons it Holds

A Gripping and Sobering Tale: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Rockefeller and the Lessons it Holds May 6, 2008

About four years ago, economic historian Ron Chernow completed his multi-year work, Titan (Vintage, 2004). The book’s title mirrors its heft. This is nothing short of a titanic feat. In his capstone text, Chernow has delivered a rich, engrossing, exhaustively detailed portrait of one of history’s most fascinating economic figures, the oilman, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. A lifelong Baptist, Rockefeller represents a complex figure of contrasting qualities. Driven to bend the rules by his need to dominate the oil market, Rockefeller gave hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropic causes. His biography, though daunting in size, thus contains important lessons for Christians and thinkers alike.

I won’t attempt to cover Rockefeller’s life here. If you would like such a summary, check out Wikipedia or some such source. I will say that one sees in Chernow’s portrait of Rockefeller a man who made it his life business to master his market and bring his competitors to submission. Beginning life under an undependable father and a doting mother, it seems that Rockefeller’s life was an exercise in exorcising the ghost of his untrustworthy father and the poverty into which his father’s vagrancy plunged the family. As Chernow describes him, Rockefeller acquired a fixation with the balance sheet of his companies and used the hard data of his businesses to fuel all of his decisions. With a scale of calculation seldom seen in economic history, Rockefeller cleared his way through the Cleveland oil trade in the second half of the nineteenth century, buying up refinery after refinery, amassing a fortune in the process.

Unfortunately, Chernow makes clear that as time wore on, Rockefeller and his associates engaged in questionable practices to advance the company now known to history as the Standard Oil Company (Rockefeller always called it this, even years after his retirement). By colluding with the railroad industry and paying off politicians, Standard Oil was able to able to achieve the status of a trust for decades before Teddy Roosevelt’s men brought it to heel in the early twentieth century. By then, of course, it was far too late. Rockefeller and his fellow leaders were multi-millionaires, Standard Oil was the world’s largest kerosene producer, and even when broken up, Standard Oil subsidiaries formed three of the twentieth century’s largest global companies–Texaco, Shell, Amoco among them.

Rockefeller’s life teaches us many important lessons, as all good biographies do. Though Chernow is far too psychological in his read of Rockefeller, his chronicle reveals the importance of choosing one’s associates carefully. This is a biblical truth–the Proverbs emphasize it–but sometimes we Christians gloss over it. Because Rockefeller allowed liberal-minded Christians to disperse the riches of his fortune, an appraisal of his legacy reveals that it accomplished good, but often not necessarily Christian, ends. The Cleveland native’s millions endowed, for example, the Rockefeller Institute, a medical think-tank responsible for many twentieth-century advances in science that benefited humanity writ large–the virtual elimination of hookworm comes to mind.

Yet while it is surely good for Christians to contribute to the common good–biblical, in fact–we may also say that it seems best for the money of wealthy Christians to go toward primarily Christian causes, in order that it might leave a legacy that stretches past this age into the next. Because Rockefeller’s money was given out by men like Frederick Gates, a lapsed Baptist, it clearly did not accomplish the kingdom work it might have, though it did benefit millions of people in the end.

In addition, though Rockefeller was a devout Christian, it seems that very few of his children and descendants adhered to any form of evangelical Christianity. Rockefeller was no theologian, and would never have claimed to be, but one wonders about the reasons behind this sad family history. He instructed the children in the things of the Lord, as did his wife, but little of it seemed to stick with them. Indeed, his beloved son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., took his stand besides combatively liberal Christians, Harry Emerson Fosdick the most prominent of them. It is of course true that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the faith of parents and their children, but the paucity of biblically minded Christians among the Rockefeller dynasty leaves one puzzled, sadly puzzled, as to how this came to be. Surely Rockefeller’s story serves as a reminder to parents that biblical faith must be lived on every level. It is not enough to teach, for one must live what one teaches. Also, it is not enough to live, for one must teach what one lives. We cannot err on one side or the other, but must combine both in a vital embrace of the gospel that radiates before the watching eyes of our children.

The final note one would make on the titan’s life involves his business ethics. We cannot speculate as to whether Rockefeller’s children fell out of favor with Christianity because of their discovery of the nature of the ill-gotten gains of his fortune, but we can say that it is clear that Rockefeller repeatedly bent the rules to make his millions. His fiscal empire was not rapacious, and it was often fair, and he himself was routinely generous to those whose firms he bought, but there are still blights on his economic record. As a leader, Rockefeller often distanced himself from the directly questionable (or outright wrong) decisions that secured his company’s wealth, but the record shows that he led all the way, whether he signed the note or not. His example calls us to merge our faith with our day-to-day work. Faith and work are not mutually exclusive, and do not occupy self-contained realms. No, faith is to be poured into work, and biblical teachings and ethics are to shape how we live. How sad to see one example of a clear Christian who compromised his ethics in order to serve his ambition. Leadership is leadership, whether it is exercised from a distance or in the heat of the decision.

Titan teaches the Christian a familiar lesson. As much as the world calls to us to sample its delights, we must seek to be great not in earthly things but in God’s kingdom. We may never achieve what some around us do, but in the end, we will have our character. On the last day, that will be a legacy that will not blow away with the wind. Rockefeller was a great man, a man who accomplished incredible things, and we will see him on the other side, where ambition for self and for glory has died and only righteousness lives on.

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  • www.AChristianManifesto.com

    I read through Titan when my 2nd son was thinking of “being delivered” back in 1999. Whenever I see the book on my shelf it still reminds me of his birth.

  • Anonymous

    It would be super nice if someone from the oil companies today were giving back. If they were actually giving the wealth to the needy I would mind the gas price spike so much.
    ~(Cousin) Hannah

  • Al

    This somewhat parallels a man a knew long ago. Successful local businessman. A Christian, yet his kids and grandkids don’t walk with the Lord. Later in his life he told me that he took some short cuts in his business, which he regretted now.

    Salvation is in God’s domain, yet our testimony is so important.