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“First Owyhee and Then the World”: The Early Ministry of R. J. Rushdoony
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Michael McVicar  »  Bio
November/December 2008 issue
Faith For All of Life "Economics, Justice, and Preaching"


On the evening of May 14, 1944, Rev. George Huntston Williams delivered an ordination sermon in honor of Rousas John Rushdoony at the Chinese Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. As Williams preached, he noted Rushdoony’s Armenian heritage and his ties to an ancient family of priests and churchmen. Williams connected Rushdoony’s ancient lineage to his current calling as a missionary, noting, “It is thus a moving and very fitting gesture, that you of this congregation … should provide the setting and occasion for the ordination of this scion of an ancient Christian house as an Evangelist, to be sent forth to still another people, the Paiute and Shoshone Indians in the mountains of Nevada.”2 In Rushdoony, Williams saw an “heir of a great national Christian heritage” who would “enunciate anew the Gospel which seems to have been forgotten for a season.”3

Williams, who went on to teach at Harvard and author the now-classic text The Radical Reformation, could not have known how prescient his ordination sermon was: in 1944 his protégé had yet to mature into the Reformed theologian of The Institutes of Biblical Law fame. Instead, the twenty-eight-year-old Rushdoony was a theological conservative educated as a liberal who was only just learning how to defend and fight for the theological convictions he instinctively held. Rushdoony had recently graduated from the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley, a theologically left-leaning institution whose faculty, Rushdoony believed, had more interest in Marx than Christ.4 While at PSR, Rushdoony sought refuge from the modern liberalism of the seminary by cultivating friendships with students, faculty, and laymen who shared his conservatism.

After leaving the Bay Area for the reservation, Rushdoony maintained these friendships—most notably with former PSR students Orval Clay and David Stowe and his mentor George Huntston Williams5—via a series of letters that still survive in his library. This correspondence provides an important record of Rushdoony’s difficult growth from an obscure missionary into the founder of the Chalcedon Foundation.

By focusing on this correspondence, we can trace many of the key ideas that ran through Rushdoony’s entire ministry. We can map the history of these ideas and more clearly understand, first, why they were important to the young minister, and second, why some ideas became central to his theology while others diminished. More importantly, however, by investigating his missionary sojourn, we can detect important discontinuities that shaped Rushdoony’s later ministry and set him on the path of Christian Reconstruction. In Nevada, Rushdoony’s hard work combined with his first major scholarly setback, an acute sense of cultural pessimism, and a chance encounter with a book to change the minister’s goals and his outlook on the possibility for the Christian cultural renewal in America.

A Harsh and Ruthless Ministry

Shortly after his ordination, Rushdoony and his wife packed his already “considerable and well-mounted library” into a large truck and moved to Owyhee, Nevada, to serve as Presbyterian missionaries on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.6 Owyhee, located in northeastern Nevada, just south of the Idaho border, was—and is—a tiny isolated community of Indians, cowboys, and miners. It’s also a land of extremes: harsh weather, lawlessness, and, paradoxically, constant government intervention in the day-to-day life of the community.

In his early correspondence from Owyhee, Rushdoony often commented on the stark splendor of the isolated mission. “We are beautifully situated here,” he wrote to one of his former professors at Berkeley, “surrounded by high mountains and cradled in a small high valley.”7 The beauty enchanted Rushdoony, a young man who had spent much of his childhood in Detroit and his college years in the San Francisco area. The former seminarian and philosophy student took up hunting and fell in love with fishing, often wandering off alone on lengthy, isolated fishing trips.8 Rushdoony loved the rural setting of Owyhee, prompting him to write a friend, “I love it here and would gladly remain all my days if God so wills.”9

For all of its physical beauty, Owyhee also brought severe hardship. Heavy snow and frigid temperatures dominated from fall until spring. During his first fall in Owyhee, the snows began in November and continued until Christmas. “We have had snow for a month and a half now,” Rushdoony wrote a friend in December 1944. “Our hills and mountains are wonderfully white … On Sunday mornings I track through the clean snow to the Church to tug at the bell rope, with the joyous anticipation of hearing the clear ringing of the bell blend in to the frosty stillness.”10

These harsh winters limited travel while spring thaws unleashed torrents of water that destroyed bridges and turned roads into an impassable, muddy soup. Mail was always delayed for one reason or another, and electronic communication—telephones and telegrams—operated at the whims of the weather and the hapless bureaucrats in Owyhee and nearby Mountain City, Nevada. Only summers allowed for free travel and easy communication.

Aside from the difficulties imposed by the severe climate, the young minister also discovered that the mission itself posed challenges he had not anticipated. When Rushdoony arrived in Owyhee, he found a mission in “deplorable” condition: “[A] collapsing building, cracking walls through which snow drifts, and general disrepair with no prospect of financial assistance.”11 Worse still, the degradation of the mission served as an analogue for the moral condition of the locals. “Lawlessness prevails,” Rushdoony wrote a friend, reporting “extensive drinking, gambling (legalized), fornication, rape, adultery, and extremely widespread illegitimacy.”12

The moment the Rushdoonys set foot in Owyhee, they became a moral force in the community. Letter after letter from his time on the reservation tells of their efforts to turn the locals away from drinking and fornication. In one compelling instance, Rushdoony summarized his Saturday night ritual:

The gambling house is the center of all evil here. My wife was out until 9:30 p.m. clearing the girls off the streets and then I took over. We brought in one 7th grade boy, dead drunk, and laid him out in the front study for the rest of the night, sent a drunken 8th grader home in the care of an elder, slightly drunk but repentant boy. Others, very drunk, were carried off into the willows out of my reach. At midnight, I summoned the government superintendent to the manse, to burn his ears with an account of conditions … At 2:30, a fierce fight broke out in the Owyhee Club (the gambling house), and knives were drawn … At 5:30, another bad fight, in which two boys I covet for Christ were involved … Then home for sleep from 6:00 to 7:00, dressed and lying on the day-bed.13

He would preach his Sunday sermon in a few short hours.

Rushdoony met this environment with an uncompromising gospel. In a letter to Orval Clay, a friend from his PSR days, he summarized the key themes of his reservation sermons as follows: “Atonement, justification by faith, the two natures of Christ and His virgin birth, the congenital evil inherent in all civilizations and culture, the despair of man, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant.” It all adds up, he told his friend, to “a harsh and ruthless ministry” that “wage[s] war in God’s name.”14

In short, Owyhee required the full attention of a young, hearty minister willing to endanger his family’s spiritual and physical well-being for the gospel. If Rushdoony described his ministry as “harsh and ruthless,” then his message was perfectly suited for the natural and social realities of Owyhee. In fact, at this point in his ministerial development, Rushdoony believed that the war he waged in God’s name was already lost. But it didn’t stop him from fighting.

Visible Sovereignty

As Rushdoony struggled to grow his outpost of the church, he also eagerly awaited word from the University of Chicago Press regarding his first major manuscript. While a master’s student at the University of California, Berkeley, Rushdoony studied under the great medievalist Ernst H. Kantorowicz. Kantorowicz, who eventually left Berkeley for Princeton after refusing to take a loyalty oath, encouraged Rushdoony to seek publication of a massive research project he completed for a class. The manuscript, Visible Sovereignty, studied Puritan government and its relationship to secular power in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Rushdoony sent the manuscript to the University of Chicago Press and clearly had high hopes for the work.

Although his ultimate plans for the work are not clear, Rushdoony apparently saw the text as a way of entering academia. Throughout his letters authored in 1944 and 1945, Rushdoony frequently cited the “interim living” imposed on him by the press’s editors.15 He also suggested that if Chicago accepted the manuscript, he would need to leave the reservation to revise part of the text. At times he implied he might not return to missionary work if the manuscript did go to press.16

In other words, Visible Sovereignty represented a pivot in Rushdoony’s ministerial life. Throughout this period he pondered perusing a Ph.D. and seeking faculty positions at various colleges. Had Chicago—a highly reputable and important American university press—accepted his manuscript, it is highly likely that Rushdoony could have used the book to secure academic work and even submitted it as a dissertation leading him down a very different career path.

In March 1945 John Scoon, an editor with Chicago, rejected Rushdoony’s book. Scoon wrote that the press could not publish the text because it “cannot get from the mills even the small amount of paper which we are allotted by the government.”17 Also, the editor worried that the manuscript’s focus on England might make it more suitable for a non-American press: “[Y]our manuscript is almost entirely devoted to England and we feel that some other organization such as the Oxford or the Cambridge Press would not only do a better job with it but would have a larger sale, because of their tradition and the audience they reach.”18 In this ironic twist, government rationing and a study of European Protestantism undid a man who eventually became infamous as a critic of government intervention in the economy and known primarily for his influence on American Protestantism.

Rushdoony’s letters from this period indicate that the rejected study emerged from his fascination with the history of Reformed Christianity and the secular historiography pioneered by his mentor Kantorowicz. At this point Rushdoony had much more in common with the mid-twentieth-century secular historiography than the explicitly Christian historiography he developed in the 1960s.19 The aspiring historian made this clear as he pondered the fate of his rejected manuscript. Writing to Kantorowicz, Rushdoony wondered if Kantorowicz might be interested in publishing one of his studies alongside Rushdoony’s work and one by Williams, the man who preached Rushdoony’s ordination sermon and another follower of Kantorowicz: “It requires temerity on my part to think in terms of coupling my work with yours and George’s, but the three do represent a single strand and a product of the Kantorowiczian School.”20 This is an important comment because it underscores that Rushdoony did not think of himself as a “Christian” historian; he was, by his own admission, a product of the “Kantorowiczian School.”21

The manuscript’s failure forced Rushdoony to reassess his career goals and made it clear that he would not easily find work in academia. If his goal had been to follow Kantorowicz and Williams into academia, he quickly abandoned this path. Instead of throwing himself into a revision of the manuscript, Rushdoony abandoned the text and became increasingly pessimistic about his own abilities, about his missionary work, and about the entire Christian church.22

“Where Is the Church, That I Might Find It?”

Given the failure of Visible Sovereignty and the exhausting Owyhee environment, it may not be surprising that Rushdoony’s personal correspondence from this period took on a deeply pessimistic, even elegiac tone. When his letters do not deal with the day-to-day operation of the mission, they often betray a despondent melancholy that his later letters do not possess. His early correspondence argued that Western Christianity was in the midst of an irreparable crisis. In a letter to Williams, Rushdoony described his emotional state as “distressed and disturbed.”23 He located “the source of my distress” in a simple question: “Where is the Church, that I might find it?” Throughout the mid-1940s, Rushdoony clearly believed that there was no easy answer to this question, and, from time to time, he suggested that the church was in fact lost and could never be recovered.

Interestingly, throughout his Owyhee correspondence Rushdoony consistently conflated the general state of Christendom and the failure of the church with his activities at the mission. The result was a deeply pessimistic and sometimes moving coda to Western Civilization. He located the twin threats to the church in the dangers posed by modern statism and modern theology. As a social critic, he connected each of these broader cultural trends to the realities of Owyhee and in doing so suggested that should the church fail Owyhee, it would also fail the world.

In summarizing the sorry state of the reservation, Rushdoony used the physical location of Owyhee—located in the heart of a long-dormant volcanic mountain ridge—as synecdoche for the entire Western world. “Both Church and State are located at the base of an extinct volcano, a true symbol of their condition … Both Church and State live on the dead embers of their true sovereignty and power while striving hungrily to gain visibility through bastard sources.”24 Similarly, on several occasions he linked the situation in Owyhee to the complete arc of Christian history. “In government men and Indians,” Rushdoony wrote to a friend,

I have the full range of the problems of Church and State, and all the concerns of Church of History. I am facing the problem in its concentrated form, so that rather than a romantic adventure, Owyhee is in every aspect a studied assault on a thousand and one problems confronting the Church of Christ.25

As these quotations suggest, Rushdoony saw his Owyhee mission as part and parcel of the broad sweep of church history, but he also understood the situation he faced within its narrower historical context of the mid-twentieth-century United States. Specifically, he worried that a creeping secularization had eroded the Christian foundations of the American state, while a misguided modernism rendered American churches incapable of combating the threat this secular state posed.

Here, the specific situation of the Indians on the Duck Valley Reservation provided Rushdoony with a framework for understanding the cultural implications of secularization for all Americans. At Owyhee Rushdoony correctly saw that that state was in charge: “[The state] is the giver of all things, the source of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water … The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away, and blessed is the name of the government each Memorial Day and Fourth of July.”26

In a 1949 article, Rushdoony pulled together his scattered observations on the importance of Indian missions and connected their failure to the collapse of Western Christendom:

Hence Indian missions are of central relevance to the church. If contemporary Christianity has lost its relevance to the central problem of Indian life, it has lost its relevance to the developing problem of Western civilization. Crisis has then ceased to be its opportunity and becomes its defeat. It must be conceded this is already the case. The weakness of Indian missions is merely the symptom which indicates the church’s ailment as well, while government policies simply communicate the contemporary failure of western culture.27

For Rushdoony, his mission work became part of a much larger network of theological and cultural issues that pointed to modern Christianity’s inability not only to proselytize but also expose its failure to offer a Christian alternative to an all-powerful state that poses a threat to all Christians.

The Roots of Reconstruction

Even as Rushdoony busily wrote to friends warning of the demise of Western Civilization, something else was stirring in his fertile theological imagination. Although many of his Owyhee letters affirmed the death of Christendom, by the late 1940s and early 1950s a new set of optimistic themes began to emerge in his letters. This shift in mood was precipitated by a chance encounter with a book.

In March 194628 while traveling back to Nevada from an extended trip in the east, Rushdoony stopped in a small Colorado town to visit another minister. During the visit, Rushdoony ran across a copy of Cornelius Van Til’s The New Modernism in the minister’s library. Intrigued, Rushdoony thumbed through the book. Noting Rushdoony’s interest, the minister responded, “You want it? Take it.”29

Rushdoony did, and began reading it on his return trip. In a train full of troops returning home from the war, Rushdoony hardly noticed the commotion around him as he consumed the book. “When I reached Denver,” Rushdoony told an interviewer decades later, “I had to wait several hours in the railroad station. I just sat there and didn’t take the time to go and eat. I was there five or six hours.”30

This chance encounter precipitated Rushdoony’s rapid departure from the pessimistic post-Christendom perspective described in the previous section toward a more positive—albeit highly critical—view of the Reformed church’s ability to offer an alternative to modernism and statism. After reading Van Til in March, Rushdoony immediately began adopting Van Tilian themes and terminology in his April 1946 letters. In a letter to a Presbyterian Mission official, Rushdoony offered the first clear exposition of Van Til’s ideas in his correspondence without mentioning Van Til:

I have been doing considerable studying since my coming here and am increasingly convinced that without a doubt our present day Biblical studies are grounded, not on sound scholarship but on philosophical presuppositions and are thus unrelated to fact. And those elements in the Church which do cling to Scripture do so without the sound study and scholarship it requires: hence the prevalence of the premillennial view which is, I believe, a misreading of both scripture and the Second coming.31

Instead, Rushdoony explained that the zealous faithful look at scholarship with skepticism because it seems to deaden their encounter with God. “To most young men … scholarship seems to belong to doubt and ignorance to faith, and the fact that this equation seems to be true, superficially, indicates the tragedy of the situation.”32

Van Til’s ideas had clearly taken root in Rushdoony’s theological mind. From the first appearance of the term “presupposition” in his correspondence, to a clear rejection of the anti-intellectualism and the dispensational bent of contemporary fundamentalists,33 Rushdoony saw the critical power of Van Til’s ideas. He also saw reason for hope: change a Christian’s epistemological presuppositions and you could change the church. Although he did not yet know it, here were the seeds of the answer to his question, “Where is the Church?” The answer lay in educational reform and reform of the social institutions that threatened Christian education.

By 1947 Rushdoony began encouraging his friends to read The New Modernism, and by the early 1950s Rushdoony dropped the last vestiges of his liberal PSR education to embrace a systematic Reformed perspective based on Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. During this period Rushdoony recognized in Van Til’s ideas the hope for a wide-ranging American cultural renewal rooted in epistemological self-awareness. By developing this focus on epistemology, Rushdoony launched his first attacks on secular humanism and, most importantly, secular education. Many of the themes of his later ministry emerged in this period as he developed a progressively more positive form of Christian social theory that eventually matured into the interconnected concepts of Christian Reconstruction and theonomy.

Conclusion

In February 1945, Rushdoony wrote to one of his former PSR classmates. The letter contains many of the hallmarks of Rushdoony’s correspondence from this period—a personal pessimism combined with a deeper pessimism about the state of Christianity. But for all of his gloom, Rushdoony closed the letter on an upbeat note, “First Owyhee, and then the world: such is my dream.”

He quickly qualified this statement, noting, “In many respects, I am seriously handicapped here.”34 Regardless of the handicaps and troubles of Owyhee, the mission was an important step in Rushdoony’s development. The harsh social and physical environment of the reservation exhausted the young minister, while the isolated location also hampered his intellectual growth. It also proved to be a period of deep theological pessimism and perhaps even emotional depression for a theologian who later became know for optimistic theological and eschatological positions.

After encountering Van Til, Rushdoony’s pessimism soon gave way to the development of critical social theory that was uniquely Christian. This new epistemological perspective allowed Rushdoony to see the prospect for a positive Christian social agenda that could provide an answer to his question, “Where is the Church?” Rushdoony began to turn his attention inward away from missionary work and toward the church itself. While he never abandoned evangelism, his primary audience eventually became Reformed Christians. He worked tirelessly to popularize Van Til, and sought to empower Christian educators and thinkers.

In fact, as Rushdoony left Owyhee in 1952, he was seeking support for a new publication that would speak to clergymen like himself—unapologetically Reformed, conservative, and fearful of the demise of the church. The periodical failed miserably, but like Visible Sovereignty, it forced Rushdoony to reassess his ministry and led to work with the Volker Fund and eventually to the founding of the Chalcedon Foundation. Thus, for all of the trials and failures of Rushdoony’s time in Nevada, his missionary days proved pivotal for his future ministry, and arguably set him on the path toward Christian Reconstruction.


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to unpublished letters, interviews, and texts refer to material held in the R. J. Rushdoony Library, Chalcedon Foundation, Vallecito, California.

2. George Huntston Williams, “The Ordination Ceremony of Rousas John Rushdoony,” 14 May 1944, 2.

3. Ibid.

4. Janet S. Larson, The Oral History Interview of Dr. Rousas John Rushdoony (1980), 48.

5. At this point in his pastoral and scholarly career, Williams was a rightward leaning Presbyterian. He and Rushdoony would eventually diverge both theologically and politically, but in the 1940s the two had much in common.

6. Williams, “The Ordination Ceremony,” 2.

7. R. J. Rushdoony to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, 22 March 1945.

8. For Rushdoony’s solitary fishing trips, see Stewart C. Potter, “The Man from Owyhee,” Chalcedon Report 429 (2001): 24.

9. R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 26 February 1945.

10. R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 20 December 1944.

11. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 15 December 1944.

12. Ibid.

13. R. J. Rushdoony to Emil Schwab, 15 January 1945.

14. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 15 December 1944.

15. For examples, see ibid.; R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 26 February 1945; and R. J. Rushdoony to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, 22 March 1945.

16. R. J. Rushdoony to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, 22 March 1945.

17. John Scoon to R. J. Rushdoony, 21 March 1945.

18. Ibid.

19. For a summary of Rushdoony’s rejection of humanistic and scientific historiography, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “A Preface on the Writing of History,” The Nature of the American System (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978), v-vii.

20. R. J. Rushdoony to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, 20 May 1946.

21. Years later, recalling his relationship with Kantorowicz, Rushdoony noted, “I genuinely liked the man,” but went on to describe him as “a decadent” who “belonged to the whole world of scholarship that I feel is bankrupt.” Rushdoony concluded, “But his thinking was tremendous, and I am very deeply grateful for what I learned from him” (Larson, Oral History Interview, 42).

22. To this day, a massive, dusty carbon copy of Visual Sovereignty remains untouched and unpublished in Rushdoony’s library. It is not clear what Rushdoony thought of the book in his later years, but it is telling that he never sought to revise it and publish it even under his own imprint.

23. R. J. Rushdoony to George Huntston Williams, 12 June 1947.

24. R. J. Rushdoony to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, 22 March 1945.

25. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 24 February 1945.

26. Ibid.

27. Rushdoony, “Christian Missions” (1949), 12.

28. In an interview, Rushdoony said that he first read Van Til’s The New Modernism in 1944 or 1945 while traveling back to Owyhee from a trip to Buffalo, New York. Rushdoony told the interviewer, “[S]ome years later when I was coming back from the east, where I had been speaking in Buffalo, New York, I stopped in this little town in Colorado to speak also, at a church, and the minister there had a copy of Van Til’s New Modernism, which had just been published” (Larson, Oral History Interview, 43). In the same interview he tried to pinpoint the date: “Yes, it was 1944 or … about the end of the war” (ibid., 41). Since The New Modernism was not published until 1946, and one of the surviving letters in his correspondence indicates that Rushdoony did not visit Buffalo until early 1946, I have adopted 1946 as the year Rushdoony first encountered Van Til (see R. J. Rushdoony to Gilbert Lovell, 12 March 1946 for the only existing reference I could find to Rushdoony’s Buffalo trip). It’s possible that Rushdoony first read another work by Van Til in 1944 or 1945 and subsequently confused it with The New Modernism, but this is highly unlikely since Rushdoony consistently pointed to The New Modernism as his introduction to Van Til.

29. Larson, Oral History Interview, 33.

30. Ibid.

31. R. J. Rushdoony to Lorna Logan, 4 April 1946.

32. Ibid.

33. While Rushdoony is here critical of dispensationalism, it would be an error to assume he had adopted a postmillenarian perspective. At this time Rushdoony was making a transition in eschatology as well as theology and was probably still amillennial in outlook.

34. R. J. Rushdoony to Orval Clay, 24 February 1945.


Michael McVicar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. He is currently developing a dissertation that will focus on the life and ministry of R. J. Rushdoony and his relationship to religion and politics in contemporary American society.  In particular, he is interested in Rushdoony’s complex association with libertarianism and conservatism. He can be reached at mcvicar.2@osu.edu.

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