My father, Rousas John Rushdoony (1916–2001), was not one to boast of the naughty things he had done as a youth, but he would recount the challenge his parents had in getting him to stop reading and go to bed. He admitted his deception: he would turn out the light and leave the door open a crack, just enough to let in a sliver of light by which he could read. I have a list he compiled at a very young age of the books he had read.
Reading became a permanent part of his routine. The depth and maturity of thought was apparent early. At age nine he left the family farm for six years while his father ministered at a Detroit church. He missed the farm, so once when a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “A farmer.” “No, Rousas,” replied the teacher very firmly, “you are going to be a writer.”
While a student at the University of California Berkeley, my father routinely used his lunch money to buy used books, then commonly available for five or ten cents. Stewart Potter, an intern who worked with my father for two summers (1948–1949) on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada (his first pastorate), recalled his love of books over fifty years later:
As most people know, he had a great love for books. I will assure you it was not a love that came late. He had a library on the second floor of the house that was mind-boggling for me at the time. Folks on the reservation who saw it wondered how the second floor held up, including me.
The mail was delivered by stage from Elko five days a week. I don’t remember what day, but at approximately 11:00 A.M., Rush would be looking down the road for the dust the stage was kicking up. That meant his new book was almost here. After he received it from the driver, he would return to the house by crossing the road then across the footbridge and then into the yard without looking up. This weekly event took on a life of its own as several folks wouldn’t miss it if their lives depended on it.1
The library continued to grow after the family moved to Santa Cruz, California, where I was born. As the youngest and therefore last to enter school, I remember distinctly the times I shared alone with my father. Books were often a part of those memories. Several times I accompanied him to the Stanford University Library while he was researching obscure materials for The Messianic Character of American Education. Wherever he went, he took with him a book, a six-inch plastic ruler, and a mechanical pencil. If he had to stand in line at the Post Office or wait for an oil change, he read. He could start and stop a book repeatedly without losing its train of thought. When he travelled or went to church or a Bible study he carried a large, lawyer-style briefcase, into which a seemingly infinite number of books could fit. I learned to recognize the church service was over when my father reached down to retrieve this briefcase. Once my father reached for the briefcase mid-sermon to retrieve a book which he intended to quote. Thinking this was my cue that church was over, I immediately got off my front-row chair, walked up to him, and said, “How soon can we go home?”
The briefcase often returned home filled with more books than it had when it left, and the library grew steadily. In our Santa Cruz home, the den was filled and the dining room partially so. When we moved to Palo Alto for two years, the books began to spread throughout the house and the garage was filled with boxes of books as well. When we moved to Woodland Hills in the Los Angeles area in 1965, no larger older houses presented themselves, so a group of volunteers enclosed a large roofed patio area for the bulk of the books. Still, the garage was also full. Early on, he took the whole family to what he considered a Southern California treasure—a sprawling book store in Santa Ana called Acre of Books. They had a good day whenever my father visited. He then bought a house in nearby Canoga Park for four years, but had to add a large room onto an already bigger house and, again, the garage was full. I never saw one of my father’s cars in a garage. When my father found a permanent home in Calaveras County in 1975, construction was once again necessary, this time a detached 1,500-square-foot library building. Thus, considerable capital went into not just the purchase, but the housing and moving of what was, not a hobby, but a ministry necessity.
The library continued to grow. Trips were often followed by the delivery of boxes of books. Always on a budget, my father carefully examined discount book catalogs and selections on clearance at bookstores. Soon the library was full and the house began to fill up. Any other flat surface became a storage area. By his easy chair a stack of reading was piled high, each at various stages of completion. (He liked to read in multiple books at a time.) My father “relaxed” in the evening by watching sit-coms, mostly silly ones, or he would watch Mother’s favorite, murder mysteries. All the while, he read, underlined, and made index notes, yet knew full well all that was going on. In fact, from 1965–1971, the beginnings of Chalcedon and a period of tremendous productivity by my father, the TV was in the same room as my father’s writing desk.
My father’s literary output was remarkable. This was largely due to first, his reading. I picked the four years I was in high school as an arbitrary sampling. In his work journal, he reported reading 879 books in the years 1969–1972, noting that these were those he had read “carefully and fully,” i.e., not those he had skimmed or read in part.
A book was often skimmed quickly to evaluate its value. If he deemed it worthwhile, he read it more carefully, underlined it, and often made index notations with page references inside the back cover. At random, I pulled a book off a shelf in his library. It is American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607–1783 by Lawrence A. Cremin. Inside the back cover are sixteen index notes, including:
24 Utopia & America
75 Osborne’s Pragmatism
145f. ignorance of clergy
161 should baptism emancipate slaves?
161 John Eliot re. blacks 195
He then dated the book as to when and where he had read it, in this case: “May 8, 9, 1981 Los Angeles-Columbus, Ohio-Los Angeles.”
This indexing method complemented asecond cause of my father’s productivity, his phenomenal memory. My grandfather probably had a photographic memory; he had memorized the Bible. My sister Rebecca used to open the Bible and test him. My father did not have that kind of a memory, but his was certainly remarkable. He could remember a reference in a book he had read decades earlier. Not long before his death he was referring to a book he had read in high school. He had trouble recalling the author. After a pause, he said, “You’ll have to excuse me, my mind is slipping.”
Moreover, he never had a catalog of his books or their organization. They tended to be shelved wherever and however he could make room for them. After his passing, I had to move the books from his house into his library, necessitating a fair amount of reshelving. I made several dump runs of orange crates, planks and jerry-rigged shelving and replaced them with 22 seven-foot bookshelves to house them more efficiently. Books were essential to my father, but bookshelves were a luxury that was often improvised. Despite their hodge-podge arrangement, my father could usually find a book he needed. When he could not, he would offer us an incentive of ten cents to find a book he would describe in detail. Unfortunately for us, his wage never caught up with inflation on the increased difficulty of finding a lone book in his growing library.
In addition to his reading and memory, a third factor, his work ethic, pushed his productivity. He wrote because he felt it was his calling. He wrote manuscripts for which there was little prospect of publication. He wrote chapters for books and placed them in a file folder on the shelf. Many manuscripts I never knew existed until after his death.
On December 8, 1961, he traveled to a remote corner of Calaveras County, only about twenty-five miles from where he would eventually settle fourteen years later. This visit, one of many throughout the West, produced nothing. His hope was that, lacking major funding, he would find a church “capable of giving me a sufficient margin of support in time to make possible the development in the area of an institute and college.”
His journal entry that day ended, “Disappointed. Lord God, what would you have me do?” Five days later, he noted:
Discouraged. Decided against making another trip tomorrow. God has blessed me in my person, delivering me time and time again, but He is not blessing me in terms of my work. I have believed my calling, my writing and my ministry, to be of inestimable importance for this generation, but I am apparently guilty of self-deception, because here God has closed the doors steadily, I must now painfully find my place in terms of His calling rather than my hopes and imagination.
The idea of a college or seminary never materialized, which was probably for the best. For all his gifts, my father was not an administrator. He was, as his grammar teacher had observed long before, destined to be a writer. Moreover, he was wrong in assuming his influence was to be on the generation alive in 1961. His purpose was to write and produce a core of teaching that would be instrumental in a much greater work, one that is still largely future as I write. A few years later, he began writing on Christian Reconstruction, tying together the dominion mandate, the sovereignty of God, theonomy, the Kingdom of God, and postmillennialism into a potent message. That message is still one the church must address if it is to rise above the dismal effects of dispensationalism, antinomian pietism, and retreatism.
My father had reason to be discouraged. It would be too painful to repeat some of the vicious things that were said of him to derail his work, but he continued to work and produce at a remarkable pace.
All was facilitated by his reading. More than a few times a young upstart would ridicule his Christianity in terms of some popular philosophy only to find my father knew it better then he. This was because my father did not just read good books; he also read bad books, by some very despicable men. He could speak of the Marquis de Sade not merely as a figure of depravity, but as a thinker and tie his thinking to those deemed far more respectable. He knew Marx, Nietzsche, Hitler, Keynes, and even Hugh Hefner through their own words, not those of others. He used his phenomenal memory to compose entire chapters in his head, so he would often, at one sitting, write three or four chapters from memory without a crossed-out word. Once my mother told him he should not be out watering plants and doing chores because his time was far too valuable. His response was that it was not wasted time, that it was his time to think, and that he was composing his talks or chapters as he did chores. Often I would hear him mumble a few words. When I was younger it bothered me that he “talked to himself.” I learned that he was deep in thought and was probably formulating one of his profound statements that he couldn’t quite keep inside.
People have often asked me if it is true he read a book a day. At times, he probably did, but, from the numbers I have cited, it was not a typical pace. He could have done so if he had not had so many other responsibilities. His journals reveal that he also, for instance, answered upwards of 1,000 pieces of correspondence each year, and spoke scores of times a year, often flying cross-country, speaking or testifying at a hearing, then boarding a plane to return the same day. Many times he was home only for hours, long enough for Mother to wash and iron his clothes and feed him before he left again.
You would think such hectic travel would be enough of an exertion, but travel days often appear in his journal as days he finished two, three, or four books. Again, always present was a ruler and the pencil. On Monday, July 16, 1979, he arrived home from Los Angeles at 8:30 P.M. Tuesday morning he flew to Omaha and testified and still read three books. The next day he flew home, reading another two. On Monday, September 3 of that year, he worked in the garden for seven hours, then wrote an article and read three books. On March 5, 1980, he testified in a Providence, Rhode Island, hearing for nearly four hours, and then flew home, arriving after midnight having read three books. On May 18, 1981, he was up at 3:15 A.M. to fly to Washington where he attended the dinner meeting of the first Council for National Policy with Howard Phillips, yet managed to read three books. He maintained this pace for years. Frequently, he notes that he “rested” on Sunday, then lists the three, four, or even five books he finished.
Just before my father turned eighty he had a bad case of shingles. He never fully reclaimed his vigor after that. Low blood pressure caused him to be faint in his last years, which made his writing, which had so long depended on his memory, to be much more difficult. Cataract surgery helped restore his eyesight, though adult-onset diabetes caused his eyes to cloud again. As his primary caretaker, I observed that he was reading less, but I was hardly prepared for the shock I felt sitting behind him at the eye doctor when he was unable to read the large “E” at the top of the eye chart.
When Ussher’s The Annals of the World was republished by Master Books in 2003, the editors noted that 15 percent of the footnote sources Ussher used were now rare. Still, we have Ussher’s finished work as a lasting legacy of his scholarship. The knowledge my father found in his reading is scattered in thousands of original sources, but his synthesis remains and provides a remarkable look into the minds and research of all those on whose shoulders he stood. Now, because of his scholarship and writings, we can stand on his. When I became president of Chalcedon in 1998, my primary goal was to keep my father’s literary legacy alive and perpetuate it for a generation who would regard it as “of inestimable importance.”
1. Stewart Potter, Chalcedon Report, 2001.