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Funding fundamentalism: Lyman Stewart, hard financing and the creation of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles

Christina Copland

When Lyman Stewart, the founder and president of Union Oil, looked at the Southern California landscape in the early 1900s, he saw several things. In the parched ravines to the north of Los Angeles, he saw rich reserves of oil sitting just below the surface of the earth. On the plains to the east, he envisioned expanding on the thousands of acres of citrus groves (Taylor and Welty 1966, Hutchinson 1965, Brown and Boyd 1922, 1314-1315). In the crowds of new arrivals drawn every day to Los Angeles, he prophesized the new American metropolis, urban proof of manifest destiny fulfilled. Los Angeles, Stewart believed, would become the heart of a “commercial and industrial empire [such] as the world has never dreamed of.”1 Finally, and closest to Stewart’s heart, he saw the region as the bastion of a new religious movement; a form of Christianity rooted in a staunch defense of the Bible as literal truth and focused not on ameliorating social problems but on spreading the Gospel. Between 1908 and 1919, Stewart poured millions of dollars - mostly from his Union Oil holdings - into making Los Angeles a world center of the fundamentalist movement.

At the heart of Lyman Stewart’s plans lay education. In many of the nation’s colleges and universities, new theories of history, science, and even notions on how life itself developed competed with traditional biblical interpretations. Figures like Stewart believed that society was under siege. But Los Angeles, the city with so much potential, might be the place where Protestants could stem the threatening cultural tide. In 1908 Lyman Stewart founded the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola). The Institute was designed for one purpose: to train an army of students to defend against the perceived threat modernism posed to the established Protestant church and beyond (Edmondson 1969, 15, Krivoshey 1973, 617-646, Dochuk 2015, 41-55).2 The premillennialist leanings of Biola’s founders meant they possessed an apocalyptic vision of the future predicated on the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Unlike most other Protestants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, whose theological conception of end times was optimistic (as “postmillennialists” they believed that their own efforts to improve the human condition could usher in a 1000-year period of peace and prosperity before Jesus’ return), for premillennialists the opposite was true. There would be no peace and prosperity before Jesus’ return and nothing mankind could do would either hasten or delay his coming. The spectacular rise of early twentieth-century Los Angeles, coupled with this premillennial urgency, encouraged Stewart to construct the city’s spiritual foundations hurriedly. Time was of the essence and work on Biola’s massive downtown headquarters went ahead on faith, in the belief that God would provide help complete the Institute. Inhabitants of a city built on expansive, speculative schemes, Los Angeles fundamentalists framed an investment in their organization as an investment in the spiritual and civic future of the fastest growing metropolis of the West (McWilliams 1946, 113—137).3 But while the wider city business community was sympathetic to the Bible Institute’s aims, few joined with Union Oil’s president in making substantial gifts to Biola. When other donors failed to materialize, Biola was brought to the brink of insolvency. In turn, Lyman Stewart came close to jeopardizing the corporate integrity of Union Oil in an effort to release his own assets to save the Institute.

Recent scholarship has shown how American industrialists were prominent within the Protestant fundamentalist movement from its very beginnings as a Chicago-based effort to train ordinary laymen and women in evangelistic techniques and spiritual orthodoxy (Gloege 2015, Hammond 2017, Grem 2016, Kruse 2015). But the model for the new movement, as well as for the financial support it attracted, was not one size fits all. While late nineteenth-century Chicago businessmen found that their religious and financial interests blended easily in their city’s robust economy, the situation proved very different several decades later in Los Angeles. Chicago was already an established metropolis when Dwight Moody pioneered large-scale Bible classes at the institute that came to bear his name. In contrast, Los Angeles fundamentalism was forged as the city itself boomed at the dawn of the twentieth century, its leadership and local constituency drawn from a population enamored with civic and economic growth. Despite attempting to blend the worlds of finance and religion, Los Angeles fundamentalists were faced with funding difficulties as economic realities clashed with their grand vision for a spiritually sound city. Stewart mixed religious faith and matters of commerce, risking his business reputation in an attempt to make Los Angeles a fundamentalist city. The story of Biola’s founding shows how early fundamentalism and Los Angeles had a unique relationship, complicating more facile understandings of business and conservative Christianity. The funding challenges faced by the largest Bible institute on the West coast demonstrated that despite aligning themselves with commercial, booster culture of the city, early fundamentalists had a far from synergistic relationship with the world of modern finance that posed risks as well as rewards.

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