I began reading “The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth”, the seminal work of Christian fundamentalism, because I wondered how such a document had come to exist. The very first sentence of the very first of the 90 essays sought to explain it all. “In 1909 God moved two Christian laymen to set aside a large sum of money for issuing twelve volumes that would set forth the fundamentals of the Christian faith…” Of course, being a skeptic, that explained nothing to me. But, upon further investigation, I discovered that the two anonymous Christian laymen were Lyman Stewart and his younger brother Milton. And their personal history provided some insight into the movement they had fathered.
Lyman Stewart was the deeply religious eldest son of a tanner. He hated his father’s business and wanted to be a missionary. But, as Jesus before him, Lyman found he would need funds to support his ministry. Then, on the morning of August 28, 1858, almost in Lyman’s own backyard, the foreman of the Pennsylvania Oil Company spotted fresh oil standing in the 69 foot drill hole he had decided the night before to abandon. Within a few weeks this once abandoned well, outside of Titusville, Pennsylvania, would be producing the unheard of bounty of 20 barrels a day. Jonathan Watson, the man who had leased the site to Penn Oil, became the first oil millionaire. In that sudden wealth, Lyman Stewart saw the hand of God.
Yet, it was a risky business, looking for oil. The towers of Ancient Babylon had been constructed in part with asphalt, but even by 1859 there was no explanation of how petroleum, or “rock oil”, was created, nor why it was found where it was. Even today, three out of every four oil fields are discovered because of surface “seeps” of asphalt. Searching for oil beneath the ground remained in 1859 a matter of pure luck - and, if you asked Lyman Stewart, divine intervention.
On December fifth 1858, Layman used his life savings of $125 (equivalent to $3,000 today) to buy an option on a section of land not far from Penn Oil’s big score. But alas, Lyman’s lease proved to be a dry hole. It took this man of faith two years of had work in the oil fields to save up enough cash to finance a second try. In 1861 he joined with other investors in buying another lease. This time Lyman hit oil. But by then over-production had driven the price of oil down to ten cents a barrel, and Lyman and his partners lost their oil stained shirts.
By now chemical analysis had determined that oil had once been living plants and animals. From this it was theorized that oil would never be found in the rocks in which it had formed, the “source rock”. Instead it was theorized that once having formed (some how) it then flowed into a permeable “reservoir rock”, and might be trapped beneath an impermeable “cap rock”.
If there were no cap rock and the oil made it to the surface, it formed a seep. But geologists still had no way of gauging how old oil was. But connecting the work of Scottish geologist James Hutton and the English Naturalist Charles Darwin, whose “Origin of Species” had been published in 1859, it seemed it might be unimaginably old, hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old.
In 1866, after serving in the Civil War, Lyman Stewart returned to the oil fields. This time, however, he opened an office in Titusville, helping other wildcatters negotiate leases from local farmers. On some of the better looking leases, Lyman waved his fee in exchange for a share of any oil found. By 1868 he had amassed a small fortune on the gambles taken by others, and from that he had somehow aquired a reputation as a savvy oil man. Still, by 1869, he was broke again. But he remained convinced that God would not let him fail.
In 1877 Lymen teamed up with a roustabout from the Pennsylvania and California oil fields, named Wallace Hardison. Hardison had made enough money in California oil to fund Lyman for one more try. And Layman hit the black gold again. This time, when they were on top, the pair sold out to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Indiana. In 1883 the Stewart brothers and Hardison packed their bags and moved to California.
The desperate search for oil drove capitalists to take a hard look at the only emperical evidence they had, the
pulverized rocks drawn up from both dry and successful drill holes. In that broken and shattered rock they found the fossils of single celled aquatic creatures called Foraminifera. There are some 4,000 species of Formaminifera in today’s oceans, living from the surface to the bottom mud, from the artic to the tropics. But the fossils of 275,000 different Foraminifera species were found in the drilling cores.
Obviously the vast majority of these little creatures and plants had gone extinct. By studying which species had been found the past wells that had produced oil, these practical capitalists could better judge their chances of finding oil in any new drilling hole. Eventually, oilmen found they could depend on Foraminifera fossil species in the cores, to lead them toward unseen oil.
The move west did not change Lyman Stewart's core beliefs. He forbade his normally profane roustabouts from cursing on the drilling site, which earned his first drilling site in California the title of “Christian Hill”. Still, even with the Lyman’s piety, it took seven dry wells before Lyman and Harding produced their first gusher in Santa Clarita, California. But by 1886 the Hadison and Stewart Oil Company was producing 15% of all the petroleum in California.
In 1890 they merged with three other local oil companies controlled by Thomas Bard, to form the Union Oil Company of California. Bard was named President of the new company, Lyman was named Vice President, and Hardison became the treasurer. The company’s headquarters was established in the pretty little town of Santa Paula, at the corner of Main and Ojai streets, surrounded by the nodding mechanical donkeys, pumping oil.
Success and wealth merely confirmed Lyman’s faith in his own righteousness. He had no doubt that God meant him to be wealthy and wanted him to expand his empire. Wallace Hardison was not so certain, and in 1892 he sold out. In 1894 Bard resigned over fights with Lyman. And finally Lyman Stewart had reached the top of the mountain. He kept drilling new wells, to feed the growing demand for his product. He built pipelines and refineries. He built a fleet of tankers to carry Unocal oil up and down the West Coast. He opened a string of service stations, to sell his gasoline. Company profits went from $10 million in 1900 to over $50 million in 1908. California wells were now producing almost 78 million barrels a year. The following year, Wallace Hardison died in Sun Valley, California, when his car was struck by a train. It seemed that God was eliminating all of Lyman's competition.
Now at last Lyman Stewart had the fortune to fund his ministry. Lyman and Milton endowed $300,000 for the publication of 12 volumes (90 essays) in defense of what they believed were the five fundamental tenets of the true faith; the total absolute accuracy of the bible, the divinity of Jesus, his death for humanities’ sins, and his second coming, which was expected soon, perhaps in the lifetime of people then living.
However there were a few other points made in The Fundamentals, in particular a listing of the enemies of Christianity. These enemies included “…Romanism (Catholicism), socialism, modern philosophy, atheism...Mormonism, spiritualsim,...and Darwinism, which appeared to undermine the Bible's authority.” Formed originally as a response to "modermism", the foundations of Fundamentalism are primarily negative, insisting upon what they are against, rather than what they seek to build. It is impossible to decipher early 21st century conservative politics without an understanding of “The Fundamentals; a Testimony to the Truth”.
The first target of the Fundamentalists was the growing acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. William Riley, writing for the World Christian Fundamentals Association in 1922, declared “We increasingly realize that the whole menace in modernism exists in its having accepted Darwinism against Moses, and the evolutionary hypothesis against the inspired word of God." There are hundreds of teachers, Riley argued, who were pouring the poison of Darwinism into youthful minds where their evil teachings could "take root in the garden of the Lord.” Except....
By the 1920’s Union Oil's own geologists had come to realize that the various species of extinct Foraminifera could be used to measure ancient ocean temperatures, and the amount of oxygen present in the ancient seas. And by mid-20th century they came to understand that the multi-billion dollar petrochemcial industry depended upon a detailed understanding of the anceint pre-historic, pre-biblical, fossilzed shells of extinct microscopic creatures found in drilling cores. It was upon the evolutionary lines of those long dead life forms that the profits of the big oil companies, including Union Oil, were founded.
And thanks to Layman Stewart’s largess, millions of dollars in those profits from this oil provided for the Los Angeles Mission, which has helped to feed and shelter tens of thousands of homeless and lost souls, and a Fundamentalist Christian collage, which explicitly taught its' graduates that evolution, such as that exhibited by those microscopic creatures used to find all that wealth, had not occured.
It is that conflict at the core of Fundamentalism which renders it a schizophrenic philosophy.
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