The Memoirs Of Frederick T. Gates


A newspaper sensation over “tainted money” enlivened the spring of 1905. Originating in a false alarm, it subsided when the truth came out and ended in the chagrin of most of the excited participants. Though the public interest was short-lived, the episode left some permanent results. It gave the ethics of philanthropy a new, serious, and recurrent question; it enriched literature with a deathless phrase; it reversed the Standard Oil Company’s policy of silence; but alas! it postponed for a decade a world of service to missions by Mr. Rockefeller’s great fortune.

The true story, untold hitherto, is instructive. For some weeks Mr. Rockefeller was a national storm center and the tempest was to me a never-to-be-forgotten personal experience.


Two decades ago and more, when my story begins, the Congregational Board of Foreign Missions at Boston, like the Baptist board of the same city, and indeed like every other foreign board known to me, had sent abroad many more missionary preachers, teachers, doctors, and nurses than they could equip for efficient work.

All the boards were in great need of lands, buildings, and equipment for schools, colleges, hospitals, and missionary compounds. The Baptists in their extremity had found a perennial fountain of bounty, yielding many hundreds of thousands, in Mr. Rockefeller’s clearer survey of missionary needs and his ample purse. If the Congregational secretaries in Boston, hard bestead for money, envied the easy opulence of their Baptist brethren across the street with whom they often lunched, who shall blame them?

But how could they hope to reach a man who, besides being a Baptist, was a total stranger to them and reputed to be elusive and difficult of approach? They mused on these things. It was understood that Mrs. Rockefeller in her girlhood had been a Congregationalist; might she not cherish tender memories? Her sister, Miss Lucy Spelman, a member of the Rockefeller domestic circle, was a communicant of a New York Congregational church. Might not here be a providential opening?

In due time, therefore, Miss Spelman’s pastor, himself a member of the Boston Congregational Board, laden with its burdens and kindled with its hopes, tactfully approached the sweet and kindly Miss Spelman. She could hardly do less than pass the appeal on to Mrs. Rockefeller, and that excellent lady brought it to the domestic breakfast table where in family conclave such matters were usually discussed.

So far the well-laid Boston plans had worked without a hitch. The center of the citadel had been penetrated. But Mr. Rockefeller was not to be enticed by domestic persuasion, if persuasion there was, out of his denominational rut. The application was declined by Mr. Rockefeller, without the usual course of referring it to his staff.

I was sorry to learn some months later that these tactful overtures had failed. It is necessary to say at this point that to me sectarianism had long been laid aside. We had withdrawn from our Baptist connections and were members of no denomination, but sympathetic with all. Mr. Rockefeller’s fortune was too great to be confined to a single denominational channel, or to his own country. So the rebuff of the Congregational secretaries was to my mind regrettable.

However, the Boston friends, while cast down, were not destroyed. One Saturday afternoon, some months later at my home in Montclair, I received a message from the Congregational pastor in Montclair, Mr. Bradford. Would I be sure to be at church the next morning? The chief foreign secretary of their Boston board was to occupy the pulpit to present Congregational foreign missions. The secretary, he said, had asked in advance that he might meet me after the service and arrange a personal conference.

Glad to have the question reopened, the program was accepted by me as arranged by the secretary. The conference took place at my home on Sunday afternoon and was shared by Mr. Murphy, who was a Congregationalist and then associated with me in Mr. Rockefeller’s office. We welcomed the secretary most cordially and he immediately opened up his budget of needs not possible to be met, he urged, by appeal to Congregational pastors and churches.

The original sum needed, he explained, for material equipment had been in round numbers $200,000. By unsparing use of the knife they had cut this down to $160,000. Would not Mr. Rockefeller give this sum in this emergency for grounds, buildings, and equipment absolutely essential?

The budget which he had brought with him involved many items in both hemispheres. We discussed every item exhaustively and, at the end of several hours, Mr. Murphy and I were able to cut out of the budget about $60,000 which was to be spent in merely sectarian rivalry, as we thought. This left $100,000, and for this sum we promised to support a letter of appeal from the secretary to Mr. Rockefeller who was then sojourning at Lakewood.

It became my duty to write a private letter favoring the secretary’s appeal. This letter afforded me a long-coveted opportunity to try to open up Mr. Rockefeller’s philanthropy, which had hitherto been too closely confined to his own country and his own denomination, to all countries of the world and to all worthy religions and humanitarian agencies everywhere. It was this motive that governed the character and contents of the letter.