The Contribution of R. J. Rushdoony to Systematic Theology
Rousas John Rushdoony: A Brief History, Part III “My Days on the Reservation”
My father was a reader and a scholar. Perhaps it was the seed of that grammar school teacher’s declaration that he would be a writer, his father’s constant encouragements, or just the natural up-welling of the information from his voracious reading, but his thinking very early led him to pursue more systematic study and plans to write.
After receiving his Master’s in Education from the University of California in 1940 and his Bachelor of Divinity from Pacific School of Religion in 1944, my father was ordained in the denomination of the Kingsburg church in which he had grown up, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
The Presbytery of San Jose ordained him, but he later said it was with some reluctance, as he had not gone to a Presbyterian seminary. He had, in fact, avoided the Presbyterian Seminary at San Anselmo because of its infiltration by modernists. It was not his fidelity to Presbyterianism that would make his time with the denomination problematic, however, but his resistance to modernism. He began looking for a church. It was his hope to have a small, rural church that would afford him time to read and study.
On December 19, 1943, about six months before he finished his seminary work, my father married my biological mother, Arda June Gent.1 She was very intelligent, well-educated, had some experience in domestic missions and hoped to be a missionary.2 She seemed to be a good helpmeet for my father’s work.
At the time of their marriage, my parents had known each other for fifteen months, during nine of which they lived in separate states due to Mom’s missionary work. After their marriage my parents lived with my Aunt Rose (Rushdoony) Devolet in San Francisco while Dad finished his seminary work across the bay in Berkeley.
About two weeks after their marriage, my father awoke in the middle of the night to find Mom struggling to open their third-story window, threatening suicide. Only then did she reveal her family history of mental illness and her fears for her own sanity. Thus began a very difficult relationship, but one that nevertheless was, at times, happy and productive, until Mom’s worsening condition would make her presence in the home dangerous for all concerned.
No rural church position was available. My Mom had worked for those nine months on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, which is divided between Nevada and Idaho. She knew of the work and the need for a mission church pastor in the tiny community of Owyhee, just inside Nevada. From Owyhee, it was a hundred miles south to the small town of Elko or north to Mountain Home, Idaho.
My father was immediately interested. Having grown up on a farm, the remoteness was not a negative, and having worked as a youth minister in the San Francisco Chinese Presbyterian Church, he understood the need to present the Christian gospel to those on the periphery of the Christian culture of the West. He knew enough of the Indian situation to know it was a broken culture that could only be made well by the gospel message. The mission had been vacant on and off for several years. They arrived in Owyhee in 1944, while many of the reservations young men were away at war.
The Duck Valley Reservation contained two tribes, Paiutes and Shoshone. They were linguistically similar, but with very different cultures. The Paiutes were governed by their leader or tribal council whose decision was final. The Shoshones operated by consensus, every major decision having to be unanimous.
Another distinction was character. The Christian Indians had an initiative and direction often lacking in the non-Christians. The reservation was cattle country, and with a relatively limited amount of work, a man could do quite well. Those who were willing to save could be quite prosperous.
It was the reservation system itself that was a problem. It was America’s first great experiment at socialism. It gave the Indians a false security and guaranteed income. If they gambled or drank away money, more would be forthcoming the following month.
The older Indians characterized their history to my father in terms of being “survivors.” Everything they did was based on the precariousness of life itself. They were not only themselves survivors, but their history was a constant struggle of each generation to survive. That meant they were not romantics or sentimentalists and their perspective was that of frank realists. Their every decision was regulated by the day-to-day effort to live in a harsh and unforgiving place. It made for character qualities my father saw in the older generations, but that had been devastated by the reservation system and was even then fast disappearing.3 Some of my father’s first writings and talks were related to how the reservation system itself was destroying the Indian, an observation made by some Indians themselves.
Days on the Reservation
The work in Owyhee was certainly rural, but it was not conducive to a great deal of time to study and reflect. Both the church and the older manse house were in constant need of repair. Heaters in both were problematic in the unforgiving intermountain winters. When he arrived, the three Indian men on the session, together with their wives and combined six children, made up the entire congregation, though my father would later say that was as fine a session as any minister could hope for.
My father threw himself into reservation life. Before he arrived, he had read everything he could find in the University of California at Berkeley library on the Paiute and Shoshone Indians. In talking with the Indians, some of whom had been the anthropologist’s sources for what he had read, my father came to understand the Indian dismay at how they were regarded. The anthropologists were interested in the Indians for their past, as museum artifacts, not as people in the twentieth century. Their attitude that the Indians should preserve the past and follow old ways was seen as just another way the white man was denying Native Americans what he himself was eager to enjoy.
Without the struggle to constantly survive, the reservation Indians had lost the primary factor that had forged their character for generations. Now indulgence shaped them. The problems this created were systemic. Fornication and liquor destroyed many lives. At one point he wrote in his work journal:
Funeral of A.C., a tremendously vital girl, old, haggard and dead at 18: perhaps died a Christian. I did not do my duty in giving her the guidance she needed. God be merciful unto me, a sinner who would do great things for Thee, and dreams of them while failing in the present task. Cleaned church, house. Studied. To bed, 1:30 a.m.4
Domestic violence was common. Sometimes my father noted specifics, as if at least his journal would be a silent witness crying for justice:
To Miller Creek to see J.D., whose wife was clubbed to death by her son, H.H., when she interceded in a quarrel with his wife, whom he was beating.5
A few days later he noted:
Funeral of Mrs. J.D., whose death was ruled due to natural causes, having had pneumonia and a weak heart at time of beating. To Miller Creek, to old cemetery. Took J.D. and J.D. home: mourners did not give J. (deaf and arthritic) a ride nor were willing to go out of their way for him, after eating his food and wailing with him. To Bruneau, for a very successful S.S. party, 61 present. Pushed J.S. to Riddle enroute: stalled by north gate. Home at 12:30 a.m., to bed 2 a.m.6
Likewise, his entry one Sunday about a year later:
S.S.31, Ch. 40. F.T. shot and wounded B.H. last night in a drunken brawl. Their wives met with peace in church and walked home together.7
Many times Dad traveled the hundred miles to either Elko or Mountain Home to bail someone out of jail. Closer to Owyhee, he often drove the inebriated home.
At one point my father campaigned to have liquor licenses suspended in nearby Mountain City. He testified to a Grand Jury and though he did not relate the exact nature of the matter discussed, he was disappointed when the liquor license was reinstated.
Dad became an important part of the reservation community. For a span of two hundred miles, he was the only minister who performed marriages. Hardly a week went by that he did not take part in a funeral.
Funeral of J.S. at Miller Creek, c. 2-5 pm. Eyes covered with silver dollars although embalmed. Buried father, H.S. last year, and made funeral arrangements for grandfather D.S. three years ago.8
One element of Christianity that had strong appeal to the Indians was its hopeful view of the afterlife. My father’s presence was thus requested at every funeral, “Christian or non-Christian, Paiute or Shoshone, peyote or non-peyote users. The older Indians felt that Christians had more to say about death and the afterlife than anyone else—certainly more than their own sages.”9 Ceremonies were graveside and the preparation of the body was done by the family. Friends dug the grave and did the spade work at the service. “I always lent a hand with the spadework,” my father wrote. “For one thing, in the winter it was a way of keeping warm. It was also appreciated by all present.”10
Dad was also on the school board for a time and personally processed the payroll. Mom at times, taught at the school and directed school programs.
At one point in 1947 he spent several hours with Congressman (later Governor) Charles H. Russell discussing Indian issues. He also had at least some involvement in politics. In addition to regular interaction with the Indian Agency and local agents, he registered voters, and in 1952 recorded a radio address for the re-election campaign of Senator George W. Malone which was broadcast in Elko and Reno.
Dad’s direct involvement in politics was always very limited. He saw his role as more of a commentator on political issues than a lobbyist. He was not always warmly received. Once, after a talk in Idaho, he noted:
To Mt. Home to speak on Gaunt case to Lion’s Club. Talked well, very negative response on the whole: Mt. Home rejoicing over huge federal air base hopes, housing project hopes, had 2 high ranking guests from army present (Col. & Capt.), and a Demo. Party leader of area. My talk on federal encroachment on state and private rights sounded as appropriate as a strip-tease dance at church.11
The previous year he had deferred to another speaker the honor of giving the traditional patriotic address at the Fourth of July encampment. When the Indians were placed on the reservation, traditional Indian dances or any large gatherings were prohibited. The celebration of the Fourth of July, however, was allowed as an American tradition so the Indians used it as an occasion to gather, pitch teepees, and conduct their dances. It was the biggest event of the year, where several hundred would gather for several days. It was also a time of widespread drunkenness and fornication. He wrote:
To camp grounds. Did not hold patriotic service: more patriotic in camp and across nation to fly flag at half-mast.12
Resisting Modernism in the Presbyterian Church
The Duck Valley Reservation was a difficult first pastorate, but at least the conflict was a clear-cut opposition to Christianity. Another battle had been raging within the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. for some years. The battle for orthodoxy was being progressively lost to the modernists.
On April 18, 1950, my father was elected moderator of the Nevada Presbytery. After a synod meeting in Los Angeles my father recorded his synopsis of the day, writing, in part:
Basic issue: Fuller Seminary deemed divisive by L.A. and an attempt under way to run all orthodox, evangelical Presbyterians out of church. Synod sharply divided over issue, with modernists in power. Active throughout Synod in arousing an extensive number of orthodox men to issues and in favor of organizing an evangelical following of Presbyterian men to combat present tendencies.13
Such activity created some real enemies in the Presbyterian Church, men who wanted to contain his influence. But for some time my father had been doing a fair amount of speaking beyond the reservation, so his influence was not limited to the reservation. Much of his speaking was in Nevada and Idaho, but he also spoke in Oregon, California, and at least once in Arizona. He was also published in the Westminster Theological Journal at least as early as 1949. That publication issued from Westminster Theological Seminary, which was founded by J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til as a stand against the modernist control of Princeton by 1929. My father’s association with it would later be used against him.
Years later my father would write:
All bureaucratic roads lead ultimately to Rome, in that unity, peace, and increased power (and use of funds) by the powers that be are stressed above faith and doctrine. Before the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. went modernist, it first went bureaucratic.14
With that view in mind, he criticized this tendency in a Sacramento Central Area Committee Meeting:
…raised my voice against cost of administration, demanded a return of church rule to presbyteries…15
Two years later his comment after a synod meeting in Los Angeles was:
Wright lost to McMartin by 35 votes. Victory for modernists and so used by them. Orthodox men too timid to protest at any point.16
The years in Owyhee saw the growth of the family. Ronald (b.1945) lived with my parents since his infancy and was soon adopted,17 Rebecca (1947), Joanna (1948), Sharon (1950), and Martha (1952) made for a full manse. My father’s journal entries often spoke of the most serious problems a minister could face, but were often appended by humorous anecdotes about what his children said or did, or proud notes about some sign of remarkable memory or spiritual understanding.
Still, home life was never idyllic. Mom’s mental illness often incapacitated her. Throughout her life anything related to timeliness or organization was problematic. This was particularly true of domestic chores, so my father did a great deal of housework. Often his work journal would briefly note that he “washed,” “made dinner,” “cleaned house,” or “bathed children,” before he studied and went to bed in the early morning hours.
Mom was always at her best when she had a task to do. Years later, she would periodically teach school, and was particularly adept at helping remedial students, though uncorrected school papers would accumulate in piles. Parents often liked her, though her employers rarely kept her for very long.
At Owyhee, this tendency was obvious, so Mom would throw herself into projects like church and school programs, scout meetings, and basketball teams. My father would note his domestic chores in his journal without a word of comment or complaint. It was a difficult situation, but for some years they managed a productive ministry and a happy home.
By 1951, my parents had been on the reservation for seven years. My father had urged Mom to get professional help since the beginning of their marriage. Now she was becoming increasingly unhappy with reservation life and wanted to leave. My father loved the reservation. Many years later he would so frequently refer to “my days on the reservation” that people would occasionally ask if he was a Native American.
The reservation would not have been an easy place to rear children. That, coupled with my father’s assumption that a more conventional social context would help Mom, led him to begin looking for a new church. Reno, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho, are noted in his journals in 1951 as prospects that did not materialize. A Turlock, California, church liked his preaching the following year, but chose another minister because their small manse could not accommodate a family with five children between six months and seven years.
On September 14, 1952, after morning worship, my father met with the session of the Owyhee church. That evening he wrote in his journal:
S.S. 31, Ch. 33. Session meeting. Announced plans of leaving Owyhee with deep sorrow. Elders stated work was far more extensive than visible: whole reservation had been taught gospel, and now knew, even if most did not accept. Tom Premo said of my preaching: Most preachers, if they preach the Bible, cover it with frosting, so that you can’t see the cake. Your preaching has no frosting, is honest about our sins and with love. Everybody understands it. After meeting, Arda and I in tears about thought of leaving.18
The next month he heard of the possibility of an open pastorate in a Santa Cruz, California, church.
1. I hope the reader does not infer any lack of respect in my reference to her as “biological.” Long after her death and that of my step-mother, Dorothy, my siblings and I have referred to our biological mother as “Mom” and our step-mother as “Mother.” I will hereafter continue with that distinction in these essays.
2. She attended Biola, Pepperdine, and Whitworth Colleges, and had one or more degrees, though I have no records of what was earned where.
3. Years later my father wrote a series of recollections about the Indians he knew and observed. It was published in 2013 as The American Indian: A Standing Indictment Against Christianity and Statism in America (Ross House Books).
4. Work journal of R.J. Rushdoony, entry of Saturday, March 29, 1952.
5. ibid, entry of Saturday, Nov. 24, 1951.
6. ibid, entry of Tuesday, Nov. 27, 1951.
7. ibid, entry of Sunday, Oct. 19, 1952.
8. ibid, entry of Friday, Sept. 26, 1952.
9. The American Indian, p. 36.
10. ibid, p.38.
11. Work journal of R.J. Rushdoony, entry Wednesday, March 21, 1951.
12. ibid, entry of Wednesday, July 4, 1951.
13. ibid, entry of Wednesday, July 26, 1950.
14. Personal letter of R.J. Rushdoony to Mr. Van Sprousen dated Oct. 25, 1958.
15. Work journal, entry of Dec. 5. 1950.
16. Work journal, entry of Thursday–Wednesday, July 17–23, 1952.
17. Ronald rejected the faith later in life and distanced himself from the family. Later, after abandoning his own family, he readopted his birth name.
18. Work journal, entry of Sunday, Sept. 14, 1952.
Rev. Mark R. Rushdoony is president of Chalcedon and Ross House Books. He is also editor-in-chief of Faith for All of Life and Chalcedon’s other publications.