There is a photograph of my grandmother that I remember staring at when I was very small. It was a picture of Grandma Rose Rushdoony in a rocking chair in front of their California farm. She is holding my father in her lap. I never liked the picture when I was a child because of something about it that seemed silly to me at the time, which was incongruous with the grandmother I knew.
That photograph was of Grandma holding a large bunch of grapes in her right hand, up high so they could not be missed in the frame, and my father on her left. She had a smile that conveyed a real sense of joy. I could understand her motherly delight at holding her baby, but I never understood the reason why she held up the grapes. They seemed a very strange element to include in a portrait, a pointless prop. It was only much later I came to understand that picture.
An Armenian Upbringing
My father had a very Armenian upbringing. My grandparents arrived in New York City in late 1915 and my father was born there on April 25, 1916, a year and a day after the massacres had begun. His father Y.K. Rushdoony worked at an Armenian language New York periodical1 there, when he received a call to pastor in California. Earlier, while still in Turkey, he had received a call to pastor an Armenian Presbyterian church in Fresno in the heart of California’s most fertile farm region, the San Joaquin Valley. He had refused that first call because he felt the situation in Van was too problematic, and his family’s tie to the area for two and a half millennia gave him a sense that his responsibilities lay there. This time the call was to start a new church plant in Kingsburg, about twenty miles south of Fresno. My grandfather accepted, but on the provision that he could wait until his newborn was a little older before commencing the trip west. When my father was about six weeks old, they left for Kingsburg, then accessible only by train.
The church was named Armenian Martyrs Presbyterian Church,2 in honor of those who had died in “the massacres” as they were universally referred to. A number of earlier Armenian immigrants had become well-established and not only encouraged others to come but loaned them money to buy farmland. This, and the remaining gold from my grandmother’s dowry, enabled my grandparents to buy a farm less than a mile from town.
Other Armenians followed, some of them extended family and fellow survivors from Van. Armenian was the principal language at home, church, and at family gatherings. It was a community of faith and common experience. My grandfather made it a point to know every Armenian, Protestant or otherwise, wherever he went. If new arrivals were expected, he greeted them at the train station. The farm became a stopping point for new arrivals and visitors.
My father often recounted that these gatherings of Armenians usually included a recurring topic of conversation. People would ask if anyone had any knowledge of family and friends lost in the massacres. Sometimes the answers were quite graphic. He grew up knowing his elders were all survivors of a systematic program to eliminate both Christianity and Christians from a place where both had flourished for centuries. In his study was a picture of the Armenian Martyrs Presbyterian Church. On the back of it he had written, “My home church.”
My grandparents had arrived in the U.S. well before most refugees from the massacres because a British officer3 heard them speaking English shortly after they arrived to safety in Russia. He asked how they came to speak English, but when my grandfather told him he had graduated from the University of Edinburgh he was not believed. One of their few possessions they carried with them, though, was his diploma. The officer said that was as good as a British citizenship as far as he was concerned and urged the Russian officials to let this small group have passage to their desired destination. They were then allowed to travel on the long train to Archangel, a port in the far north on the White Sea with access to the Barents Sea and from there to the Northern Atlantic. As such, this rail line was a crucial and controlled wartime supply line. Even with the help of that bold British officer, their travel was only possible because of the gold coins from her dowry that my grandmother carried. No other currency was accepted.
My grandparents’ early arrival to the U.S. was in contrast to many other refugees. The modern nation of Armenia was the Russian part of Armenia that later became one of the Soviet republics. Many extended family members who had walked the same route lived through the Russian Revolution and subsequent famine in the early 1920s. One of my grandmother’s sisters lost all of her children save one in those years. My father recounted the family regularly observing fasts for those whose sufferings continued for years.
Father and Son
Temperamentally, my father took after my grandmother, but he was always particularly close to his father, who he always called “Papa.” There were so many bitter memories of violence and injustice that Grandma had no desire to ever go back to Turkey. She had been raised in the city of Van, a daughter of a well-to-do merchant in the Armenian old city. Her clothes were store-bought and they lived in a large home. America offered all that and more. The burden of being perhaps the only surviving Rushdoony4 long caused Grandpa to hope for a just resolution to the injustices that had taken place. Had these been addressed, he would have been willing to return to his family’s homeland.
Grandma never wanted to talk about the massacres, whereas my father was well-schooled on Armenian and family history by Grandpa. Part of his upbringing, my father said, was accompanying his father to church meetings and visits with my grandfather’s contemporaries. In addition, my grandfather took frequent long walks. My father often accompanied him and Grandpa would often use these opportunities to discuss things too upsetting to Grandma to be discussed at home.
My father’s upbringing was an immersion in the remote and recent history of the Armenian people. The community of survivors with whom he grew up was all survivors of the Turkish massacres that began in WWI. He was certainly far more aware of this history than I was at a comparable age. It was only much later when I associated that picture of Grandma with the grapes and her son with her immediate past that I realized what it represented.
In the fall of 1915 she had fled for her life while pregnant with my father, having just lost her first-born. She had made do with foul water from puddles strained through a handkerchief. Bodies of the dead lined their route into Russia. At one river crossing they scrambled to safety on the north bank as those on the south were being killed. When they made it to Russia, the only food that could be found to purchase in wartime Russia was a small package of cookies. Because she was pregnant, they were given to her. Because of her morning sickness she could not keep them down.
Just two years later she lived on a farm in a small, peaceful community of family and friends, with a healthy child and no fear of persecution. The grapes were not a silly prop; they represented the good life of God’s providential blessing. They were the firstfruits of God’s provision for the future. It wasn’t the composition of the picture I had to understand; it was my grandmother’s life.
My father spoke very little English before he began school in the public schools of Kingsburg. He recalled it as being very old-fashioned and very strict. At home, his mother taught him to read and write Armenian.
He very early became a voracious reader. In those days it was believed you would damage your eyes if you read in dim light, such as that provided by kerosene lamps, so he was constantly being told to put his books away. He later admitted this was one area in which he disobeyed. At night when he was supposed to have gone to bed, he would crack his door just enough to let in a sliver of light by which he could read.
He read the Bible through several times in his youth. Once, his father mentioned this proudly to a Congregational minister, a man my father respected very much. The minister asked my father if he really read “all” of it. The minister expressed some concern and suggested that there were parts a young boy should not be reading. It was the first time my father was confronted with such an attitude about the Bible, and the incident dismayed him so much he never forgot it and recounted it many times later in life.
When my father was nine years old, his father accepted a pastorate at a Congregational church in Detroit, Michigan. There, the urban schools were noticeably more secularized than in Kingsburg. Once, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. My father recalled that he was homesick for the farm, so he replied, “I am going to be a farmer.” The teacher laughed, and then replied emphatically: “No, you’re not. You are going to be a writer!”
Life in the city had its advantages, though, and one of his fond memories during his adolescent years in Detroit was taking public transit (alone) to see the Detroit Tiger games, all for pocket change. Such entertainment was welcome in a city hit hard by the Depression. In 1931, after my father’s freshman year of high school, Grandpa was in poor health so the family returned to the farm in Kingsburg.
My father was glad to return to the farm, though my father recalled begging his mother for permission to change from knickers to overalls before the train arrived so as not to be made fun of as a “city slicker.” He attended Kingsburg High School.
In 1933, after my father’s junior year, my grandfather took another pastorate, this time at another Presbyterian church in San Francisco. It was decided that my father would stay in Kingsburg for his senior year. The new pastor of Armenian Martyrs lived with his wife in the farmhouse with my father, who was class president that year and editor of the yearbook. My father’s most vivid recollection of that arrangement was the Scottish wife’s firm belief that a boy could not be healthy unless he began his day with a very large bowl of porridge with goat’s milk.
The Kingsburg High School Viking Yearbook of 1934 was a unique one. The yearbook funds had been deposited in a local bank which failed with the worsening depression. The yearbook staff was undeterred, and the pages were printed and bound locally with a rough cloth over the hardboard covers. Each picture was glued by hand in every copy.
On graduation he joined his parents in San Francisco, where he got a job in the massive Crystal Palace Market, the 71,000-square-foot shopping mall of its era. He was paid $14 for a 59-hour week, which in the Depression he later recounted was a “highly coveted job.” Men regularly asked to work for free just so they could claim work experience. Violence accompanied unionizing efforts and that job ended when Harry Bridges, the Marxist leader of the Longshoremen’s Union, called for a general strike that led to several violent confrontations with police.
My father was accepted by the University of California at Berkeley, but felt four years there was financially impossible. For his freshman year, my father went to Los Angeles and lived with a former high school teacher while attending Santa Monica Junior College before rejoining his parents in and transferring to the newly opened San Francisco Junior College5 the following year. It was nicknamed the “Trolley Car College” because it had no central campus at the time and students had to travel to various city locations to attend classes.
In his junior year he transferred across the Bay to Berkeley. It was a liberal school even then. Marxism was openly avowed and argued, though civilly, my father noted.
Several things stood out to my father as he later recalled his days at the university. One was that his thinking shifted permanently from Armenian to English.
My father went to the university to study and learn, but one such effort was so unpleasant he recalled it with disgust years later. He was already very well-read in modern literature, but was told that an educated man must study the ancient classics. He began a systematic attempt to digest classical literature. “I would say it was the ugliest experience of my life, because I was still too young and naïve to assess them and say that a lot of this was humanistic garbage.”
Modern literature he said he could put into a context, but he thought he had to find great wisdom in what he was now reading. “It took me a while,” he later recalled, “to say, ‘I don’t care what everybody says. These may be classics, but they are classics of depravity, classics of degenerate cultures. What they offer at their best is evil.’ To me this came to be epitomized in a book I had to spend an entire semester studying, Plato’s Republic. So I wound up with a very thorough distrust of the university, a very real hatred of it.”6
Two professors left a lasting impression on him and helped crystalize elements of his thinking. One was Edwin Strong, from the philosophy department. Though he did not agree with much Strong had to say, at one point he felt Strong said something profound. In a class discussion Strong warned a student never to discuss the origin of the universe, but to start with the universe as a “given.” No matter how far one pushed back into the future, accounting for the origin of matter would involve a miracle as great as the existence of a creating God. Later, Van Til gave this “given” a new term, a “presupposition.”
Also, Ernst Kantorowicz described the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy as a clash between two institutions, each of which claimed to be the continuing manifestation of the incarnation of God. The church claimed this right for itself and its images while the state claimed it was the greater power and hence possessed that right. The state won that battle and has tended to have the upper hand at many junctures of Western history, though its divine claims are now secularized to a purely political ascendency and right. The result of this has been statism, of course, but its origin was a religious claim to represent God on earth. While the argument is now secularized it is no less a de facto claim to be, as Hegel said, “god walking on earth.”
It was also at the university that my father began his lifelong library-building. He rarely ate lunch, instead spending his lunch money at used book stores. Additionally, before inventory taxes, books were sometimes available for years after their printing. He recalled ordering books printed in the nineteenth century which were retrieved from a dusty warehouse when he ordered them. He continued at Berkeley until he completed his B.A. in English (1938) and his M.A. in Education (1940), though he continued to take classes there after he entered the nearby Pacific School of Religion, a Congregational and Methodist seminary.
The seminary was clearly liberal in its orientation. He had no interest in a Presbyterian seminary in San Anselmo which “was well infiltrated with modernism while pretending to be true to the faith.” A Baptist seminary in Berkeley he saw as representing “a religion of sentimental pietism. So I thought I might as well get my modernism straight …”7 Moreover, about a third of his credits came from two other nearby seminaries: Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopalian) and Starr King School (Unitarian).
In at least one area my father proved more liberal than his fellow seminarians. When he went to take up residence in the seminary dormitory, it became obvious that no other student wanted to share a room with a black fellow seminarian, so my father agreed to, and they became close friends. Seeing through the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of humanistic thought began early in his life.
At one point, the issue of Biblical law arose and my father said he believed the Bible spoke to all areas of life. He later said he “got clobbered” for such a position. It was then he realized that the suggestion of the Congregational minister years earlier represented, in fact, the weight of modern church theology, and that his view was far from mainstream. Later he said he found ministers in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. who would privately sympathize or even agree with him, but who refused to take a stand on an issue they saw as “too divisive.”
His decision was to keep quiet until he was ready to defend his position. Though his position was clear in some of his early sermons and articles, these were on specific issues and to targeted groups. His public presentation of his theonomic position was the 1973 publication of The Institutes of Biblical Law. Its publication represented a heavy boot pushed into the modern church’s door, a direct challenge to the pietism and antinomian dispensationalism that made Christianity so weak in the twentieth century. For the time being, however, he completed his seminary studies in the spring of 1944. By then, the world was at war.
Read the First Article in This Series
2. Armenian Martyrs Presbyterian Church was a Presbyterian Church U.S.A. congregation. The martyrdom was not entirely over by then, though the majority of it took place in 1915.
3. The officer was a military advisor, apparently. Czarist Russia was allied with the British in WWI.
4. The seat of the family lay at least another long day’s walk removed from the escape route into Russia. My grandfather was only aware of two distant cousins who survived. Others now have the same last name as ours (with variant spellings). My grandfather knew of at least one family in the United States he believed took the name because of its historic significance, but was no actual relation.
5. Later City College of San Francisco.
6. From the transcript of an oral interview by Janet Larson conducted December 17, 1979 and January 20, 1980.
7. From the transcript of an oral family history session.