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Ben Price

Professor Ocobock

History Workshop

28 January, 2019

Report on “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude”

In Darren Dochuk’s article “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in

the American Southwest,” he follows the unexpected pairing and alliance of the American oil

industry and conservative evangelical Christian belief. Specifically, the article examines this

relationship in context of the southwestern “Sun Belt.” The argument that Dochuk presents in his

article seems to be just that - an argument for the existence of this marriage, how the two have

advanced each others’ interests, and that it has “shaped the Southwest into a ‘Petrolia’ that at

once honors God and black gold” (52). Somewhat oddly, Dochuk’s article and argument are not

really presented alongside historiography or the presentation of previous historian’s takes on the

subject matter. While perhaps this is as Dochuk sees his article as the first of its nature, it seems

as if there would be some past commentary on the interaction between evangelicalism and oil.

This then makes the point of the article somewhat harder to grasp, as it is not presented alongside

much else. This sets up an article that, while well written, lacks a strong persuasive argument.

The evidence that Dochuk uses in his history of God and black gold largely stems from

his inspection of the major players in the oil industry from the 19th century until today’s time.

When examining each of these figures, Dochuk looks at their own personal views on religion and

capitalism as well as how they interacted with the “opposing ideologies,” especially that of the

monopolistic and left-leaning Standard Oil. As the history progresses and God and oil become

associated with conservatism and the Republican Right, Dochuk then examines how Republican

politicians help to promote the ideas to a further level.

As for the organization of his article, Dochuk begins with a witty quote from the 19th

century that shows that the marriage between the ideas of evangelicalism and oil industry has

existed and been examined for a long time now - it is not just a recent revelation made by

modern historians. He then follows this with an intriguing anecdote about the man Patillo

Higgins, presenting “A self-possessed, one-armed wildcatter...who claimed direct access to the

divine” (51). This is expertly tied into a story of how this “prophet of Spindletop” became a part

in discovering one of the largest deposits of oil up to that point in time. Dochuk then discusses

the effects that this sudden oil boom had on the town of Spindletop, and especially the love-hate

relationship of the evangelical protestants towards this new industry. This introduction that

Dochuk uses is quite the smooth transition to capture the attention of the reader while also setting

up his “argument” quite well. He first presents the quote and then the story about Higgins,

hooking the reader in. This seamlessly transitions to background of the issue and then touches

upon the main theme of the article.

From this point, Dochuk continues with a paragraph of somewhat sweeping and general

statements about Christian’s relationship with oil since the events in Spindletop. Sentences such

as “oil-patch evangelicals have always understood this trade-off as the price of being one of the

chosen in a fallen world” and “From Spindletop on, evangelicals have envisioned themselves on

a grand quest for a supernatural resource” (52). To me, these statements seem to be a bit too

broad and a bit too unsupported. Dochuk then dedicates a paragraph to defending his article by

anticipating rebuttals. This is followed by tieing this paragraph in to what might be the closest

thing he has to a thesis statement: “the marriage of God and black gold may not be the only

dynamic force in the Southwest’s illustrious twentieth century, but it is one of the most robust

and pervasive, and it is certainly intriguing” (53).

It is at this point that Dochuk “resets” by going all the way back to the beginning of oil’s

history in America in 1859. He parallels this with the resurgence of evangelical Protestantism

around the same time along the East Coast. He utilizes this opportunity to further emphasize how

religious leaders prayed for divine empowerment through petroleum whilst also being wary of

the corrupting effects of the new resource. Dochuk then goes into John D. Rockefeller’s

relationship with Standard Oil and his own liberal protestantism (55). From this point, he

launches into an exploration of the oil barons’ attempts to integrate their religion into their oil

companies while also fighting against the liberal monopolistic (and in the evangelicals’ views,

secular) Standard Oil. Dochuk paints Rockefeller’s company and its subsidiaries as somewhat of

an anathema to the conservative Christians’ righteous and democratic evangelical companies

(Despite an interesting note on a previous page stating that “There are no definitive works

charting the relationship between liberal Protestantism and petroleum”) (53).

The article then explores how from oil and evangelicalism’s decline in the 1920’s and

30’s, they made a resurgence tied together once more through the avenue of politics. Dochuk

tells of how the two institutions courted and influenced politicians throughout the second half of

the 20th century (as well as the transition from the far-right and somewhat radical petro-politics

to the “softer conservatism” of Nixon and Reagan). He then comments on how this relationship

with oil and God turned American politics into “braggadocio” and “Baptist fundamentalism” as

the Sun Belt imposed brazen imperialism upon the rest of the nation (59-60). Dochuk wraps

everything up by introducing J. Howard Pew, an oil baron that seems to exemplify the author’s

idea of the proselytizing evangelical magnate. This comes together nicely as Pew was an

associate of Higgins, the man from the story at the beginning. Dochuk concludes with a

paragraph on how the marriage of God and black gold still lives in the American Southwest in

modern times and “continues to flourish, with dramatic, global effect” (61).

It seems difficult to judge the efficacy of the argument Dochuk has presented, as it seems

to only border on being a real argument. The article is largely a presentation of the historical

events surrounding the relationship that he highlights, and does not make many efforts to make

any conclusions about said relationship. That being said, the article does seem to be decently

persuasive for the argument of the existence of the relationship, one that I’m sure many readers

had perhaps not thought of before. Dochuk is a great writer, especially in the way that the article

is very accessible. You definitely do not have to be a historian to read and enjoy this article. The

thread that Dochuk crafts from beginning to end is easy to follow, although it does seem

somewhat repetitive at some points - it felt as though I was being told the same thing about

evangelicals’ views towards oil five different ways. Another pitfall of Dochuk’s writing was his

tendency to make sweeping claims that had relatively little supporting statistics or other

historical writings. The evidence he uses at some points is strong, with plenty of support from

other historians, but at others he seems to mostly be extrapolating.

Dochuk’s article is altogether a great story that follows an interesting idea of a somewhat

unexplored relationship in American history, but it seems to be stuck in that - it is at many times

more of a story than a persuasive argument. While easy for a layman to follow and being an

enjoyable read, Dochuk seems to fail to make any conclusions about the current state of affairs

other than “the relationship still exists today.” Overall, while there is no doubt that Dochuk is a

great writer, he doesn’t succeed in making any impactful conclusions on how and why this

article should matter in relation to today’s time.