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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I began reading “The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth”, the seminal work of Christian fundamentalism, wondering 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…” Upon further investigation I discovered that the two anonymous Christian laymen were Lyman Stewart and his younger brother Milton. And their personal history may provide some insight into the movement they 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 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 to abandon the night before. Within a few weeks this well, outside of Titusville, would be producing the unheard bounty of 20 barrels a day. Jonathan Watson, the man who had leased the site to Penn Oil, became the first oil millionaire. Lyman  saw the hand of God in this miracle. .
It was a risky business. The towers of Ancient Babylon had been constructed in part with asphalt. But in 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 four oil fields are first located because of surface “seeps” of asphalt. Searching for oil beneath the ground remained a matter of pure luck and, if you asked Lyman Stewart, divine intervention.
On December fifth Layman used his life savings of $125 (equivalent of $3,000 today) to buy an option on a section of land not far from Penn Oil’s big score. But Lyman’s lease proved to be a dry hole, and it took him two years of work 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 over-production drove the price down to ten cents a barrel, and Lyman and his partners lost their lease.
By now chemical analysis had determined that oil had once been living plants and animals. From this it was theorized that oil was never found in the rocks in which it had formed, the “source rock”.  Instead it flowed into a permeable “reservoir rock”, which was always found beneath an impermeable “cap rock”.
If there were no cap rock and the oil made it to the surface, it formed a seep. Geologists still had no idea how old oil was, but connecting the work of Scottish geologist James Hutton and the English Naturalist Charles Darwin, whose “Origin of Species” was published in 1859, hinted that it might be unimaginably old.
In 1866, after serving in the Civil War, Lyman returned to the oil fields. 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 made a small fortune and a reputation as a savvy oil man. 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 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. 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 pulverized rocks drawn up from both dry and successful holes. It was the only emperical evidence they had. They found these cores to be filled with Foraminifera. There are some 4,000 species of these single celled aquatic creatures in today’s oceans, from the surface to the bottom mud, from the artic to the tropics. But the fossils of 275,000 Foraminifera species were coming out of the drill holes.
Obviously the vast majority of these little creatures and plants had gone extint. By studying what fossils were found with the oil in past well cores, the capitalists could better judge their chances of finding oil in any new drilling hole. Eventually, oilmen could depend on Foraminifera fossil species to lead them toward the oil.
The move west did not change Lyman Stewart. He forbade his normally profane roustabouts from cursing on the drilling site, and earned his first 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. 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. 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 production was 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 truly smiling upon his favored son.
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 he believed were the five fundamental tenets; 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, as detailed later by Robert Wuthnow, of Princeton University. 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 against, rather than what they seek to be.  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.”
By the 1920’s Union Oil geologists had realized that Foraminifera could be used to measure ancient ocean temperatures, and the amount of oxygen in the ancient seas. And they were now basing multimillion dollar drilling decisions at individual well sites on the fossilized shells of now extinct microscopic creatures found in drilling cores. And these decisions were making oil companies like Union Oil, richer and richer.
And thanks to Layman Stewart’s largess, millions in 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 teaches that those creatures used to find that wealth had all died in a great flood, which had occured, at most, a few thousand years ago.
In 1923 Lyman Stewart died at the age of 83. May he rest in Peace.
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