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The Spiritual History of Oil

Anointed with Oil:
How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
By Darren Dochuk
Basic Books, pp. 688, $35.

Oil is a powerful substance that has generated philosophical, moral and spiritual upheaval in our societies for centuries. Present fears and concerns over a climate crisis and ecological destruction have created a circumstance in which oil itself has become symbolically inflamed and controverted. Just as fossil fuel has radically transformed our society it is now being blamed for our alleged ruin, and though our present discourse around oil development is often frenzied and divisive, we might all agree that there are few substances with such potential to create and destroy.

It is hard to think of a better time for Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil. Far from providing yet another thin account of Christianity’s environmental failures, Dochuk explores the deep connections between oil, faith and providence in modern American and the global network American oilers established around the world. The book is beautifully written with clarity, sanity, and sympathy for an enormously complex and controversial subject. Beginning with the early discoveries of oil in 19th century Pennsylvania, Dochuk traces the expanding universe of oil exploration from California to Texas, Canada, Saudi Arabia and around the world. Each step of the way he identifies key figures, people of deep faith who were leaders in their Churches, and often connected to the global missionary enterprise and who saw in oil extraction a means of doing God’s work in the world.

Central to the narrative are the Rockefeller and Pew families, who form a symbolic and theological polarity in the spiritual history of oil. The Rockefellers represent what Dochuk calls the “civil religion of crude,” a vision that drove Standard Oil’s global business and philanthropic models. For the Rockefellers, oil was a means of bringing prosperity, modernization and unity in a divided and unequal world, a vision that fit well with the social gospel of the early 20th century and the ecumenical movement that gained momentum out of the chaos of the First World War. Dochuk observes that John D. Rockefeller’s “embrace of a postmillennial, progressive gospel and concomitant humanitarianism reflected his comfortable standing in the world and confidence in man’s ability to transform it.”

Howard Pew’s Sun Oil, or Lyman Stewart’s Union Oil, on the other hand, represented a contrasting theological order, what Dochuk calls “wildcat” Christianity. These smaller, independent operators saw in oil a deep metaphor for the instability of the world, and the need to rely on a God who gives and takes a way. Wildcat oilers “shouldered the insecurities of the a volatile social and economic system and the conviction that Christians had neither time, need nor ability to restructure the world.” Unlike the postmillennial theology of Rockefellers, the wildcat oil entrepreneurs were most often premillenialists, who were not at all certain about the world’s future, which way history was tending, and when the present order would pass away.

It is fascinating though to read about how oil development both motivated and funded these contrasting divisions, two theological poles that are very much with us today. Rockefeller was a close friend of the famed modernist theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick and one of the foundational supporters of the World Council of Churches, while a wildcatter like Lyman Stewart supported and financed the still legendary tracts, The Fundamentals. Howard Pew had close friendships with Billy Graham and the growing revivalist network in North America which extended its reach deep into the Canadian oil patch as well.

Dochuk pursues these vying trajectories throughout the 20th century and into the present era and in so doing creates a deep, complicated and nuanced context for our present unrest. The easy narrative that a Christian dualism, concealing a more primal greed, led to the despoliation of the earth is unsettled in this book. The early entrepreneurs, modernists and fundamentalists, saw in oil a very earthly force that could potentially change the world for the better and usher in God’s kingdom purposes. We may disagree with their vision but we can hardly deny the practical and theological influence these visions have had on North American Christianity in particular.

However, Dochuk also documents the disappointments of Rockefeller’s vision of “boundless spiritual, human and material uplift” through petroleum, and how it began to crumble under the profound environmental and cultural opposition that emerged in the mid to late 20th century. Likewise, Dochuck poignantly describes the pain and volatility of wildcat boomtowns and the extraordinary  human cost of oil extraction, even as communities grew and prospered rapidly as a result of oil development. The question of whether oil has been a blessing or a curse for American society and Christianity in particular, is left open by Dochuk, though the reader will struggle to reach any simple conclusions.

Anointed With Oil also contains, perhaps, an implicit warning about our hopes for our energy future. While it seems an energy transition of some kind is needed, the reader may recognize the idealistic and spiritual hopes that American oilman and Christian leaders placed in oil, in the current optimism around alternative energies. We seldom reflect on the nature and purposes of energy itself and the kind of people and societies we need it to create. Dochuk has skillfully and subtly raised a number of questions for our contemporary society, and for Christians in particular, with respect to spiritual and aspirational character of energy. Anointed with Oil is essential reading for anyone hoping to grapple with these deeper matters of our current vexation over the future of energy.


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