2015 J.J. Thiessen Lectures Series: Crude Awakenings: The Faith, Politics, and Crises of Oil in America’s Century
Darren Dochuk

Oil has always enchanted Americans, and inspired them to think about their society’s future in sacred terms. Extracted from the earth in mysterious ways, often with the help of spiritualist devices and prayer, oil was at its origins imagined as the divinely sanctioned lifeblood of a modernizing nation. America’s powerbrokers and rank-and-file together ascribed a special status to this abundant material, and in turn used its wealth to construct and legitimate imposing corporate and church institutions, missionary organizations, and an expansive petro-state. Indeed, the concept of the “American Century,” commonly used to describe this nation’s hundred-year ascendancy, is itself a product of petroleum and religion’s arresting reciprocity. When missionary son and magazine publisher Henry Luce coined the term in 1941, he did so fully aware of how his fellow citizens drew special assurance from oil’s seemingly divine potentials, and attached them to a politics of exceptionalism. Luce also knew that as much as oil was America’s blessing and the source of its leadership in the world, it was also a burden that came with costs to the nation and its people, and the land they inhabited.

Following Luce’s lead, but with an eye to wider and longer trends, and a continental terrain centered by the United States but also encompassing Canada, these lectures will explore some of the ways that religion and oil together shaped existence for modern North Americans at the moment of their heightening authority in the twentieth century. It will pay particular attention to evangelical Protestants who, in disproportionate degrees, inhabited and worked America’s oil patches, weathered the violent disruptions of life on these boom-bust terrains, and theologized and politicized their encounter with soil and its subsurface wealth and all that this seemed to promise them, on earth and in heaven. Each of the three lectures will focus on a particularly momentous flashpoint in the life of North American oil and evangelicalism and pause for reflection on what this moment meant long-term for matters of faith and society in the twentieth century. In the process of tracking the chronology of God and black gold in the modern era, the lectures will also raise questions and curiosities pertaining to evangelicalism’s relationship to capitalism and globalization, energy and environment, notions of time and broad interests in politics.

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