Strong, on the other hand, was orthodox in his faith and tough-minded in his analysis of what a Christian university should be. He said the university’s tone should be explicitly and aggressively Christian, with only Christian professors allowed. The Harper versus Strong debate was theologically nuanced and beyond Rockefeller’s grasp, so he turned to a third man, Frederick T. Gates.
The choice was curious. Gates for years had been attracted by the social and moral teachings of the Gospels, while quietly doubting their central point, the divinity of Christ. After serving as a pastor in Minneapolis, he had found his real gift in fundraising for Baptist institutions. He wore costly clothes to give the appearance of success, always expressed radiant geniality, and spoke for the high-minded merits of contributing, never mentioning that a particular gift could serve the public relations interests of the donor. (As Gates wrote, the donor’s “own mind will suggest to him the lower and selfish ones. But he will not wish you to suppose that he thought of them.”)
Gates later published his rules for successful solicitation, the truth of which was, “Let the victim talk freely, especially in the earlier part of the interview, while you use the opportunity to study his peculiarities. Never argue with him. Never contradict him. … If he is talkative, let him talk, talk, talk. Give your fish the reel, and listen with deep interest.”
Gates, who first met Rockefeller to request funds for one of his projects, had discerned that Rockefeller, despite his expressions of nonchalance, was worried about his public image and his private giving. Gates listened and realized tithing decisions had been easier for Rockefeller when they involved dimes and quarters rather than millions of dollars. Gates understood Rockefeller was being called to be a statesman, but all he really knew was the oil business and the Baptist church.
Once Gates saw Rockefeller was sure of himself in business but unsure concerning philanthropy, he reeled him in, and Rockefeller soon hired Gates to be his primary grant-maker. This meant that Gates could play the decisive role in determining the nature of the university to be created. He proceeded carefully, because Rockefeller definitely did not want to finance what was clearly heresy.
Rockefeller even expressed initial interest in Strong’s charges that Harper was weak theologically but showed little patience for what seemed to be theological nuances. Rockefeller liked to hear a rousing sermon with precise marching orders. Furthermore, Strong’s suggestions that Rockefeller might be funding a university to improve his public relations infuriated him. Rockefeller did not want to admit his desire for a kinder and gentler press.
Rockefeller’s Christianity, as it turned out, did not go very deep. He liked a precise listing of do’s and don’ts in church. He believed in and practiced family values. But there is no indication he ever developed a clear sense that God—and not man’s work, however meticulous—saves sinners. Nor is there evidence of Rockefeller developing a Christian worldview, a sense of how the Bible can be applied thoughtfully not only in church and family devotions, but also in all aspects of life and within every department of a university.
Without that understanding, and with a need for praise, Rockefeller was easy game for Gates, who put into play one thing he had learned about his prize catch by listening, listening, listening. The secret was this: Rockefeller had moved to New York City but was still suspicious of the East and did not want to be seen as abandoning his Midwest roots. Gates, playing off Rockefeller’s unease, convinced him the new university should be in the wholesome Midwest.
That decision, of course, favored Harper, the theologically liberal Chicagoan, over Strong, the theologically conservative New Yorker. Personal issues also played a part—Rockefeller enjoyed meeting with Harper, who chatted about surface issues, and grew tired of Strong, who pushed Rockefeller to think about the deeper questions of theology—but once the decision about location, location, location was made, Gates’ route to control was greased.
Gates’ prominence meant theological liberalism would be in the saddle. The executive board of the Educational Society, which Gates made the central instrument of Rockefeller’s giving, proposed the new institution be under Baptist auspices but “conducted in the spirit of the widest liberality.” Religion would be centered in the Divinity School, and the rest of what would become the University of Chicago would be thoroughly modern. Rockefeller approved and did not even visit the campus until it was six years old in 1896. Then he heard the students sing, “John D. Rockefeller, wonderful man is he / Gives all his spare change to the U. of C.”
Not everyone thought Rockefeller’s educational philanthropy was wonderful. As Gates acknowledged in 1896, Rockefeller “received many letters from every part of the country complaining of the attitude which the University has seemed to take regarding the Bible.” But the University of Chicago was not intended to uphold Biblical truth, Gates responded, because Rockefeller had “founded in Chicago a secular institution of learning. He had no thought of the University entering the theological arena.”
Of course, by not entering that arena, the University of Chicago went with the flow. University professors from 1890 to 1910 endorsed evolution and other anti-Biblical themes. Rockefeller complained only when theatrical actor Joseph Jefferson was invited to give a speech to the students. Harper sent Rockefeller an apology, noting he did not think by the invitation “we would be understood to be endorsing the theatre in general.” Harper concluded abjectly, “The whole event must be regarded as a mistake.”
Thus soothed, Rockefeller kept giving. From 1890 to 1910, he gave about $35 million to the university; all others combined gave about $7 million. Rockefeller had built a university that would teach anti-Biblical ideas, but he could take comfort in not endorsing the theater in general. Rockefeller’s final grant of $10 million to the university, in 1910, carried with it only one stipulation: 15 percent had to be used to build and furnish a university chapel, because “that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the University group.”