Cold Open - Young John saves his church
It’s a cold, fall morning in 1854 at the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
A 15-year-old boy strikes a match and lights several candles sitting in sconces hanging on the wall.
Then he grabs a fire poker and shifts the wood burning in the small fireplace at the front of the church. The boy and his family haven’t been in Cleveland long, but already he has found a home at this small Baptist church where he serves as a volunteer. This morning, the boy’s getting the chapel ready for his favorite weekly event: The Sunday Service. Excitedly, the boy walks to the front door… pushes it open, and steps outside where members of the church are gathered.
Then he rings the small bell hanging above the entrance. The congregants begin to file inside, greeting the boy as they pass. Once everyone is settled, the boy finds a spot in one of the front pews, eager for the service to begin.
But as the pastor takes the altar, the boy’s excitement turns to despair. The pastor announces that the church is in dire financial straits. He says that if they can’t come up with $2000 soon, he’ll be forced to close its doors.
So getting to his feet, he reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a pen and paper. He moves to the back of the church, slipping through the congregation before they leave. Then as the churchgoers do begin to file out, he announces that he's coordinating a fundraising effort. And he’ll start by writing down the pledges of every single person in the hall.
The congregation breaks into applause, some cheer and shout their encouragement. But the boy isn’t trying to be a hero. For him, the Erie Street Baptist Mission has become a second home. He is determined to do everything in his power to save the church and do God’s will.
The young boy, John D. Rockefeller, makes good on his promise. In the coming weeks, he works tirelessly to collect pledges until he secures every penny of the $2,000. But this is just the beginning of John’s philanthropic journey. He will go on to found the renowned Standard Oil Company, and become one of the wealthiest people in the world. In business, he will earn a reputation for cold-blooded cruelty and a willingness to destroy any competitor who stands in his way.
Still, John never loses touch with that 15-year-old boy who raised money for what he believed was a good cause. During his storied business career, John D. Rockefeller decides it’s his duty to give back to people and organizations in need. And as John grows into one of the world’s most powerful industrialists, he also becomes a leading philanthropist; a pursuit that reached its pinnacle when John announced his plan to donate the bulk of his wealth to charity on March 3rd, 1910.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 3rd, 1910: Rockefeller Donates His Fortune to Charity.
Act One: The University of Chicago
It’s late 1886 in John D. Rockefeller’s brownstone in Manhattan.
John sits at a desk reading through a stack of letters from individuals and organizations all across the country. All of them are asking for the same thing: money.
At just 47 years old, John is worth over $18 Million, over half a billion today. As his company, Standard Oil continues to thrive, and as John’s wealth increases, he spends a considerable amount of time every week determining how best to donate portions of his wealth. For a decade, he’s adhered to the same process. He reads the letters that arrive, decides on who to help, and then sends off checks to the lucky recipients. It’s not a sophisticated system. And John has finally come to realize that his practices are inefficient and ineffectual - two things he will not abide.
John isn’t making the sort of impact to which he aspires. He wants to benefit people on a grand scale that will last beyond his lifetime. And he knows he can’t make that happen all on his own. So recently, John enlisted the help of a friend, a Baptist minister, and leading American theologian, Dr. Augustus Strong.
So today, John puts down the letters and instead welcomes Dr. Strong into his office. After the two friends catch up, Augustus tells John that he has an idea for his next charitable endeavor. John should start a Baptist University in New York made to rival institutions like Harvard and Yale.
The mention of those schools immediately sets John on edge though. He never attended college, and he thinks a degree pales in comparison to real-world experience. John tells his friend he’s not interested.
But Augustus won’t take no for an answer. He presses his case and argues that a major Baptist University will ensure that next generation of young professionals enter the workforce with a strong moral core. And their beliefs will help influence business practices in every industry.
John admits he likes the sound of that. A university would make a bigger impact than the small one-off checks he’s been writing; an impact that would last beyond his lifetime. So John tells Augustus he’ll consider funding the project. But he doesn’t like to put his money into any venture until he’s done his due diligence. So to get a sense for how colleges function and operate, John heads upstate to Ithaca to spend some time at Cornell University.
John finds his time there fruitful. He likes seeing young people engage with their education and the world around them. He also enjoys talking to faculty members about their different approaches to teaching. By the time John returns to Manhattan, he has gained a newfound respect for institutions of higher learning. And in the spring of 1887, John tells Augustus, he’s now committed to helping create a Baptist University.
But as the months go on, John’s passion for the project wanes. It’s not so much the idea that doesn’t inspire him anymore; it’s the personality of his partner. Eventually, John comes to suspect that Augustus is involved for the wrong reasons. He spends most of his time talking about what his role will be at the university. John fears that Augustus only cares about propping himself up as a national religious figure. John accepts that a man’s desire for power is a fundamental part of business, but he can’t abide that mentality in leaders of the church.
So John parts ways with Augustus and goes in search of a new partner to help him with his new endeavor. It takes over a year, but eventually, John finds the perfect candidate.
When in October 1888, John gets his hands on a copy of a speech from an up-and-coming preacher named Frederick Gates. Among other things, Frederick speech calls for a Baptist University to be built in Chicago. Frederick claims the East Coast is overrun with colleges, and it’s time to give Midwestern Baptists a school of their own.
John is persuaded and days later, he invites Frederick to come to see him. At their first meeting, John tells Frederick that although he lives in New York, he still considers Cleveland - a Midwestern city - his true home. And he loves the idea of the Midwest having a Baptist University that could rival the big schools out East.
So in the coming months, John and Frederick meet often. Over the course of their conversations, John determines that unlike his previous partner, Augustus, Frederick’s motivations are pure. To John, it seems that Frederick wants to help others more than he wants to help himself. So, in the spring of 1889, John funds Frederick’s plan. He secures a gift of land for the school from a Chicago entrepreneur. Then John makes an initial donation of $600,000, almost $18 million today.
In October 1892, the University of Chicago opens for its first classes. Despite calls from university leadership to name a building after John, he refuses, saying charity should never be used for public relations.
John’s founding of the University of Chicago will lead him to seek other causes that will benefit people on a grand scale. And soon, Frederick will introduce John to a new opportunity: supporting the fields of Science and Medicine. And before long, John will make what many consider to be the most important philanthropic decision of his life.
Act Two: Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research
It’s early 1901 in John D. Rockefeller’s home in Manhattan.
John sits in his office with his 27-year-old son, Financier John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Together, the father and son are reading a note from Frederick Gates. In the memo, Frederick proposes the funding of a world-class scientific and medical research center, one that would focus on discovering the causes and potential cures for a range of diseases.
Since working together on the University of Chicago, Frederick has helped facilitate much of John’s charitable giving. But Frederick hasn’t proposed anything to rival the scale of the university, until now.
After John and Junior read the memo, Junior is excited. He thinks Frederick’s idea is brilliant. Over the past several years, the press has attacked his father over Standard Oil’s allegedly ruthless business practices. And Junior says that funding medical research would be a great way to deflect some of that negative publicity.
But John reiterates that he doesn’t like to use charity for PR, and more to the point, he doesn’t like Frederick’s proposal. John has always taken a practical, tangible approach to business and charity. Oil is tangible. Keeping a church’s doors open is tangible. Even a university provides students with a tangible piece of paper they can use to find jobs. But John thinks a research center sounds like something for dormant philosophers.
Junior understands his father’s concerns. But he pleads with John to meet with Frederick and at least hear him out. Begrudgingly, John acquiesces and summons Frederick to his home.
At their meeting, John makes the same argument he previously made to his son. But Frederick is persuasive. He urges John not to focus on the research itself but on the people that research will tangibly benefit. After talking with Frederick, John is more open to the idea. But like he did with the university project, John wants to understand what he’s funding before he funds it. So once again, he does his due diligence.
At the time, there are only two facilities in the Western world that are comparable to Frederick’s proposed research center: Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.
With the help of his international connections, John gathers intelligence on those facilities and learns about the impact they’ve made overseas. He quickly starts to see the benefit that an American scientific research institute could provide at home and abroad. The research could push medical knowledge forward. And that knowledge could have practical value for doctors and their patients. After learning all this, John decides to support Frederick's project.
Eager to begin, Frederick suggests to John that they attach the research institute to the University of Chicago. But John says no. He wants the institute to be seen as a benefit to everyone, not as a feather in the cap of the college he founded. So John chooses New York City as a home for the center instead. And he tasks Frederick and Junior with finding leading scientists from around the world to work there. As John tells his son, “We have money. But it will have value for mankind only if we can find able men with ideas, imagination, and courage to put it into productive use.”
In early summer 1901, John D. Rockefeller makes a donation of $200,000, almost $7 million today, to establish the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. With that money, John’s team gets to work building the facility and assembling their group of researchers.
And after visiting the institute and meeting with its scientists, John gains an even better understanding of the work they plan to do. His time there further solidifies in his mind how important the institute could be for all mankind. Over his lifetime, John will give roughly $60 million to ensure the institute's survival and success.
And these donations prove invaluable. By the early 1900s, the Rockefeller Institute makes breakthroughs in the treatment of pneumococcal pneumonia, heart disease, and diabetes. Later, it will play an integral part in discovering DNA’s role in transmitting hereditary information. And in 1950, the institute will serve as the model for the US government’s National Science Foundation.
Within years of its founding, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research demonstrates to John the positive global impact his money can have. So John develops a new plan to ensure that his wealth will be used for deserving causes long after he dies. On March 3rd, 1910, John announces his intention to give the bulk of his personal fortune to charity in order to establish what will come to be called the Rockefeller Foundation.
Act Three: The Announcement
It’s the morning of March 3rd, 1910, at Standard Oil’s offices in Manhattan.
John D. Rockefeller meets with his personal counsel, Starr J. Murphy. For the past months, John, Starr, and a team of attorneys and financial advisors have been devising a plan for John to donate a large chunk of his personal wealth to establish the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization designed to “promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.”
John knows the legal and financial gauntlet of starting a foundation will take years to navigate. But still, he feels a sense of urgency. His personal net worth is approaching $900 million, over $28 billion in today’s money. But his company, Standard Oil, is on the brink of being declared a monopoly and broken up by the US government. John’s public image is also at an all-time low. Newspapers around the world often depict him as a dictator or a greedy king. Normally, John doesn’t like the idea of using charity for personal PR. But now, even he admits that a little positive attention would do his legacy good.
In their meeting, John tells his attorney Starr Murphy that it’s time to announce his plan. John says that to get the foundation up and running, within the first year, he’ll donate $100 million, the equivalent of $3 billion today. Following those initial gifts, John will establish an annual endowment.
In their conversations, Starr suggests that the best way to win over the press is for John to make the announcement himself. John believes the opposite. He thinks if he appears in the press, they’ll say he only wants attention. So John orders his attorney to make the announcement instead.
Starr follows orders, drafts a release, and contacts newspapers across the country. That evening and the following day, papers like the Boston Herald and Ohio’s Democratic Banner feature frontpage headlines reading, “J.D. Rockefeller Plans to Give Fortune Away” and “Oil King Plans to Aid Mankind.” The very same day, John’s son makes a second announcement: he will be stepping up to manage the establishment of his father’s foundation.
John was right to suspect that it would take time for his plans to come to fruition. Just over three years later, on May 14th, 1913, The Rockefeller Foundation officially begins its work. The Foundation will go on to become one of the preeminent charitable organizations in the world, giving away over $17 billion to thousands of groups and individuals. In addition, John will personally give away hundreds of millions of dollars in his lifetime.
Still, throughout John’s career, many in the media question his motives for giving up so much of his fortune. But John maintains he was guided by his faith, and not selfish motives. In 1932, on his 93rd birthday, John urges others to follow his path:
"JOHN: Let us, with faith in God, in ourselves, and in humanity, move forward courageously resolved to play our part worthily in building a better world."
John D. Rockefeller’s legacy is complicated. Many of the tactics he used to grow Standard Oil destroyed a number of his competitors' and workers’ lives. But regardless of John’s business dealings, many historians consider him to be “the greatest philanthropist in American history”, a title John D. Rockefeller earned when he committed to donating the majority of his wealth to charity on March 3rd, 1910.
Next on History Daily. March 6th, 1857. In a landmark case, the US Supreme Court rules that all African Americans, free or enslaved, are not US citizens.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.