The Memoirs Of Frederick T. Gates


In a few days we received instructions from Mr. Rockefeller to forward to the Boston secretaries a check for the $100,000.

This gift was an act of great significance, at the time too little understood. In mere size it was probably the largest single gift from a living donor ever received for current use by the Boston board in its century of appeal. It was made not by a Congregationalist but by a Close Communion Baptist, to the Congregational Foreign Mission Board. It ran right athwart denominational lines, then an unheard-of thing. The donor was a celebrated man whose name was a household word. The public curiosity about him was intense then as now.


Besides this, to those who had eyes to see, the gift carried obvious and fascinating suggestions. Mr. Rockefeller, having broken through the denominational hedge, might now quite possibly extend his bounty to worthy missionary organizations of all other denominations. Who could say but this gift might not open up a new era for American missions? What breadth of well-being for humanity might not be forecast from this prodigious fortune?

Mr. Rockefeller’s gifts were never by ourselves publicly announced. When asked their sum total, as we very often were, we declined to make an estimate. We obeyed the injunction not to let the left hand know what the right hand doeth. But I shall not deny that secretly I looked with eagerness for the Boston announcement of this gift.

In particular, I wished to see how it would strike the other denominations—whether it would set them to thinking and how clearly they would interpret its significance. I scanned the headlines every morning, but in vain. The days lengthened into weeks. At last someone sent me a little bit of a periodical published monthly by the Boston board.

In it I was startled to find a paragraph of two or three lines, containing no words of thanks but saying that the secretaries had received “with surprise ” a check for $100,000 from John D. Rockefeller. The secretaries had sedulously concealed their appeal for this gift by announcing that they had received it “with surprise.” They had thus stated, almost in words, that Mr. Rockefeller, for his own purposes, had thrust a vast gift unasked and undesired on the missionary board of another denomination. The paragraph was loaded with dynamite.

No sooner had the little monthly reached its readers than the horizon resounded with denunciations of Mr. Rockefeller and with passionate demands that the check be instantly returned. The first and most powerful detonation came from the Reverend Dr. Washington Gladden, of Columbus, Ohio.

Dr. Gladden was quite deservedly the most prominent and influential Congregational preacher in America. He was a fearless, righteous man, with quick sympathies and jealous apprehensions, not without qualities of the economist and the statesman. He was at that time the moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches.

Eloquent, sincere, versatile, and able, he had acquired influence far beyond his denominational horizon, and now, well advanced in years, had become a national figure. In the American pulpit he had long been foremost in public hostility to the Standard Oil Trust. Dr. Gladden now led the assault and gave it direction and character. He came out with a bitter attack on Mr. Rockefeller personally, on his business practices, and especially the motives of his philanthropies.

His money was “tainted.” Was the voice of the church to be silenced? Was the Christian church to betray its Lord for thirty pieces of silver? Were Christianity and education to become partners with plunderers? Was the church of Christ to maintain its holy offices with predatory wealth? Let this unsought and undesired money be sent back to the sinister donor forthwith.

The phrase “tainted money” was a flash of genius. It caught the imagination of the public and instantly became the country-wide topic of the pulpit, press, and private conversation. Our metropolitan papers teemed with it. They featured it; they published columns from indignant letter writers; they reproduced clippings; they wrote editorials. A strong group of Congregational pastors in and around Boston united in a formal public protest addressed to the Congregational board. The money must be scornfully returned.

The controversy was not, however, altogether one-sided. Even tainted money given as charity had its defenders. There were those who argued that money was in itself a mere material thing and could have no moral quality. For charity one dollar will do as much as another and go as far.

Some drew the line at the legal title; Mr. Rockefeller’s ownership of his fortune was legally unchallenged. Some said it is impossible to discriminate between givers. Who shall presume to penetrate human motives and pronounce judgment on them? Judge not. When a man chooses to give money to a widely-known public charity like this, with no terms of self-exploitation attached, whose heaven-ordained duty is it to investigate his past life and present motives? It was before Zaccheus had promised restoration that Jesus accepted—nay invited—his hospitality.

But it must be said that good words for Mr. Rockefeller were few. Had he not thrust his unwelcome gift on the secretaries? Let the tainted money be returned. Such was the general verdict.