John D Rockefeller Sr was arguably the greatest businessman of all time, at one point in his life his net worth (adjusted for inflation) was estimated to be the largest in world history, he was a very committed Christian and many believe to be the most benevolent person of all time. Much of his wealth was derived from Standard Oil, the most feared and powerful monopoly in American business history. At its height, “The Standard”, as it was called, controlled 90% of the US oil refining market and the profits it generated were beyond comprehension. John built the company along with several partners and together, these men generated more money than the world had ever seen at the time. Meanwhile, Rockefeller attended church every Sunday as well as prayer meetings on Friday nights for his entire adult life. He lived a balanced life, spending a tremendous amount of time with his family. His son John Jr and grandson John III were also very committed Christians that led extremely productive lives. By age 55, Rockefeller had completely retired from active business, using the next 42 years of his life to distribute his great wealth to the betterment of society and completely transformed philanthropy forever. He was a extraordinary Giant for God.
John’s mother was a major influence in his life and it was her faith in The Lord that led him at an early age to accepting Christ as his Lord and Savior. His father Bill meanwhile, led a double life and spent much of John’s life on the road, calling himself Dr Livingston and peddling fake medical potions to unsuspecting victims. For all his shortcomings though, Bill did raise his children to be shrewd. In one incident, he encouraged young John to leap into his arms and rather than catch him, he moved his hands away and let John fall to the floor. “I cheat my boys every chance I get, I want to make them sharp,” was his logic. Considering John and his brother William became two of the sharpest and wealthiest business minds of their time, Bill certainly instilled some wise business sense in his offspring. But Bill would disappear for months at a time throughout John’s childhood and would randomly re-appear with a pile of money to help keep the family afloat so that he could leave again and John did not have a close relationship with his father throughout his life.
By age 16, John wanted to become self-reliant and escape the ups and downs of counting on his estranged father for sustenance. Rockefeller took a correspondence course on bookkeeping and 3 months later, with a completed course certification in hand, he knocked on the doors of businesses in Cleveland for 6 weeks until a company finally gave him a job. The year was 1854. John was a natural in business. Within a few years, he had saved up enough to start his own business along with a partner. His business acumen was so keen, even at a very early age, that he began outwitting much older partners and associates. John was also extremely intelligent with money, remaining frugal and saving so that he could reinvest in future businesses. By age 27, he became the controlling owner of the largest oil refinery in Cleveland, a remarkable feat at the time and what he recounted as the catapult to his career.
The oil industry at the time was known as a fly-by-night, unreliable business. Fires would easily ravage wells and refineries. They were cropping up like weeds and anyone with a few nickels in their pocket could get started in the business. John saw it as the greatest business opportunity of his lifetime and seized it with everything he had. Attracting investment capital was extremely difficult but John’s tenacity overcame insurmountable obstacles to find money partners and banks willing to take a chance on him as he began to buy out competitors. And anyone whoever invested in John were handsomely rewarded. The company that became the massive conglomerate Standard Oil never lost money while under his thumb and the dividends were outstanding.
And the rest, as they say, is history. For the next 30 years, John and his partners (at the height of Standard Oil, Rockefeller owned about 30% of the empire) proceeded to persistently purchase and control every oil refinery that they could get their hands on and then vertically integrated production, distribution, marketing and every other aspect of a mammoth oil monopoly that gushed out more profits than any other American business had done before. Along the way, they created a tremendous amount controversy and criticism. Many critics vehemently detested his business practices and eventually the public outcry persuaded the federal government to enact anti-trust laws to break up what Rockefeller and his partners created. By age 55, Rockefeller stepped down as the leader and handed the reins to a protege. And soon after his retirement, the world saw the rise of the automobile and for Rockefeller, his wealth grew all the more allowing him to do things that had never been done in world history, rewriting the book on philanthropy.
Even from an early age, Rockefeller felt the Lord had called him to be a great steward over wealth. He began tithing from the very first paycheck he earned at his very first job and never stopped that practice the rest of his life. At age 21, he spearheaded a fund raising campaign that collected $2,000 and helped save his church from going to foreclosure. As his income increased, he remained extremely frugal, avoiding financial waste so that he had more to invest and more to give back.
“I was trained from the beginning to work and to save,” Rockefeller explained, “I have always regarded it as a religious duty to get all I could honorably and to give all I could.”
In addition to tithing, in his early 20s, John also began to broaden his giving outside of just the church and he had a special place in his hearts for blacks, who had just been delivered from slavery. Around that time, he married Cettie Spelman, whose parents were abolitionists, and this further strengthened his resolve to help African Americans. Years later, he funded what became the most prestigious black women’s college in the United States, Spelman College in Georgia. His interest in developing institutions of higher education prompted him to donate tens of millions into what became the University of Chicago. A world class college that doesn’t bare his name, like almost everything else he ever donated to, because he didn’t want the recognition since he felt he was being a steward of the Lord’s wealth. And what many American history buffs may be unaware of is that when the federal government reached out to JP Morgan for an emergency loan so that the country wouldn’t collapse financially, Morgan organized the $20M loan in short order with a tremendous amount of money provided by John D Rockefeller Sr. But as he did so often, John’s benevolence did not bare his name.
Rockefeller found the pressures of giving to be incredibly intense. Thousands of letters poured in asking him for money. His frugality and wise financial administration made the challenge of giving appropriately even more difficult. It became so overwhelming that he hired a full time person to help him administer his great wealth wisely, eventually passing on that role to his son John Jr. The various foundations Rockefeller established went on to fund some incredibly productive efforts. For example, it funded an initiative to eradicate hookworm from the American Deep South and eventually the world, freeing millions of people from hookworm. It paid for revolutionizing the medical field by applying the scientific approach to the medical education and research (and somewhat ironic considering his father’s business of selling phony medical potions). The massive amount of discoveries made could fill an encyclopedia. Carrel won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for medicine after years of research fueled by Rockefeller funds. One of his foundations helped bring about 800 southern high schools. And the list could go on and on. With the same acumen that John brought to business, he also brought to benevolence and the results were absolutely world changing.
Two other American business icons, Commodore Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, both believed that Rockefeller was the greatest businessman America ever produced. He pioneered many of the facets that make up the modern corporation of today and although some of his business practices were heavily criticized and eventually legislated against, his mark on business was monumental. He was a God fearing, church attending, Bible believing Christian who never wavered in his faith and gave more money back to the betterment society than anyone else in history. He was a devoted husband and father that made time for his family while building the most profitable organization of its time.
Anyone looking to find a role model for how to be an incredibly shrewd Christian businessman should take the time to read the detailed biography of John D Rockefeller Titan by Ron Chernow. Rockefeller is as good of an example of a Giant for God as there has been and reading the details of his life meticulously explained by Chernow can enrich your life tremendously. You’ll also discover the intricate nuances of the controversy surrounding some of his monopolistic business practices and you can decide for yourself how you feel about them. Meanwhile, the impact he made on society was absolutely enormous and many of those are still benefiting the greater good today.