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Rousas John Rushdoony: A Brief History, Part VII “He’s on the Lord’s Side”

By Mark R. Rushdoony
February 21, 2017

My father has often been kept at arm’s length even by those who are sympathetic to his work. His concept of Christian Reconstruction was all-encompassing, and when added to his postmillennialism made for an antithesis so distinct that few have been willing to associate with more than a few of his positions. His reference to “all areas of life and thought” being brought subject to the Word of God meant just that, and the multiplicity of topics he touched on reflect the scope of his understanding of the needed work of the Kingdom. It is easy for most people to read at least something in his writing and say, “I’m not sure I want to go there.” This is, I believe, the very reason why many avoid using him—despite points of agreement, everyone can find something in Rushdoony they do not like. His full-orbed view of the faith was reflected in how he viewed his ministry, a pioneering work of exploring a distinctly Biblical approach for others to pursue. Many were leery of following him in such a bold and expansive Kingdom vision and so were standoffish or used him selectively; in many circles, the reaction was outright hostility.

Christianity Today

The most prominent Christian periodical of the late twentieth century was Christianity Today, created by Billy Graham and funded by oilman J. Howard Pew. It began in 1956 as a theologically middle-of-the-road publication and reflected that goal. It was always dominated by a pietistic ethic, a view of the altar call as the essence of the gospel, and a repudiation of long-term Christian activity because of its shortsighted eschatology that saw the rapture as imminent and hence history as nearly over. My father had the ear of J. Howard Pew for a time, but the magazine’s editorial staff dug in its heels and refused to publish him.

Opposition in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

My father retained his denominational affiliation with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) after he stepped down from the pastorate of the Santa Cruz church in 1962 and regularly attended the meetings of its Northern California presbytery, where he gave reports of his activities. He chose to remain under that presbytery when he moved to Southern California to start Chalcedon in 1965 in part, he said, because he felt the Southern California presbytery was compromising on the doctrine of six-day creation. It was uncomfortable with his postmillennialism as well, but it was his view of the Sabbath that particularly angered some in the OPC. My father felt it was to be a day of joy and rest, and not a day constrained by artificial rules felt by some to represent its proper “observance.” At an OPC family camp in Idyllwild, California, in August 1960 my father gave a series of talks on Genesis 1–11 as well as a single lecture on the Sabbath. He told a joke that poked fun at pietistic Sabbath observance:

The story I told at Idyllwild horrified some of the pastors who were very strict sabbatarians. I told it deliberately. I was making fun of some of their nonsense. I told about the reprobate English lord who was on a diplomatic mission in Scotland in the 18th century, doing some work for the Crown among the Scots who were under the British crown, but still not fully merged with Parliament, and so on. He found it to be a most dreadful experience, because Scotland was very strictly sabbatarian. He didn’t know what to do with himself, because he was used to a very loose and immoral Sabbath. So, he took a stroll outside of the hotel, and to his delight found a Scottish prostitute. So, he took her back to his room and was so delighted that while she was getting herself ready, he started to whistle happily. She came storming out with her clothes, putting them back on as rapidly as possible, and said, “I’ll not fornicate with a man who whistles on the Sabbath.” (Laughter)
KC: And that irritated a few, huh?
RJR: It irritated a few. I use that as an illustration of the absurdity of so many who go to the law of God and set up their own form of it and pay no attention to the spirit.1

In March of 1968 he spoke at another OPC conference. One of the other speakers was Ed Clowney, who had been President of the OPC Westminster Theological Seminary since 1966. My father expressed his view on the new leader of a generation of OPC pastors:

Clowney is clearly a liberal; he regretted the OPC’s middle-class white Protestant look; he spoke of the neutrality of the public schools and refused to condemn them.2

My father’s emphasis on Christian Reconstruction, Christian education, economics, postmillennialism, theonomy (on which he frequently spoke before the 1973 publication of Institutes of Biblical Law), and other topics struck many in the OPC as diversions for the church rather than areas for it to reclaim for the Kingdom of God. The reaction of one of its pastors in Portland, Oregon, was not out of the norm. My father recalled this a few years later:

In July, 1967, this writer became the target of a demand for investigation as one teaching false doctrines because of a filmstrip text entitled The Moral Foundations of Money. In that text, unbacked paper money was called a form of counterfeiting, and inflation a form of larceny.3

The pastor believed that to call paper money a form of larceny “seems to be an act of open rebellion against the state and contrary to Scripture which admonishes us to be subject to the ordinance of men, for God’s sake.”4

My father answered this pastor:

You speak of paper money as a form of hidden tax, which is true. But your point with regard to Romans 13 I do not regard as valid. You yourself I have heard criticize certain actions of civil government as morally wrong, or in various ways wrong. Did you impugn Scripture? Elijah called the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard theft and murder; was he impugning God’s law? The state has a legitimate authority, but not everything it does is thereby legitimate. As Hodge, in another context than Romans 13, says of all authority, “It extends over all departments (of its domain), but is limited in all; first, by the nature of the relation; and secondly, by the higher authority of God.” The work of the ministry must be prophetic, i.e., it must speak for God, and it must therefore deny to the state what belongs to God. The state thus has no right, for example, to usurp education of children. This is a responsibility of the covenant, or parents, not the state. The state has no right to violate God’s law, “Thou shalt not steal,” and paper money is theft, and what you call a “hidden tax” is actually hidden theft. I cannot hold to the immunity of the state from moral judgment.5

The suggestion of the pastor apparently went no further, but the day he received word of the accusation, my father wrote in his work journal: “My days in the OPC are probably numbered …”6 My father had fought internal battles within the PCUSA for years, but he was a pastor then, and he felt it was his duty to do so. His ministry now was largely outside the OPC and he was disinclined to spend his time in internal conflicts defending himself against those who disapproved of his theology.

In 1969 a new charge was brought against my father, principally led by one pastor in the Southern California OPC presbytery. The objection was that my father was, as an OPC minister, conducting Sunday classes outside a church. The next day, my father called the chief complainant (who had not brought the matter to my father). My father noted:

Talked at length with S. who spoke of the church as “the end” of all Christian activity, to which I answered, “Christ is not the church, state, school, family, or anything else on the human order.”7

Months later my father was told this pastor had brought up the issue at his church session meeting. My father asked for them to meet with him and a week later they did so with no resolution.8

The accusations against my father centered around the propriety of the classes he held on Sundays; some felt he was keeping people from churches. One long-time Northern California OPC pastor and friend heard that he was “stealing” church members and repeated this accusation. In reality, few of those who attended my father’s classes had ever been in the OPC; most were disillusioned Goldwater conservatives my father was trying to instruct in a theological understanding of cultural and political problems. He was trying to turn them from seeing politics as the solution and educating them in the decline of Christian faith. His answer was not the next election cycle, but long-term Christian Reconstruction. On more than a few occasions, he directed people to OPC churches, both in Southern California and Northern California.

After their meeting produced no resolution, the pastor in question brought the matter to the Southern California presbytery. My father asked for a meeting with its visitation committee. He noted the substance of the meeting in his journal:

Committee kindly, but shared S.’s objection to teaching Bible outside church on Lord’s Day. I raised the question of the freedom of the word of God, cited Machen. K. said that some felt, including men at Westminster Seminary, that Machen was in the wrong in starting the Independent Board, that a heresy trial would have been the legal step.9

J. Gresham Machen had been the last great conservative Biblical scholar of Princeton. He opposed the modernism that was evident in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 as a bastion of orthodoxy. When his objections to the modernist control of the foreign missions board were ignored, Machen formed an independent foreign missions board in 1933. This led to Machen’s trial by those who believed all such activity had to be under the church’s direct authority. The real issue was not the independent mission board’s accountability but its existence, which the PCUSA saw as unacceptable. Machen was found guilty and, along with other Presbyterian members of the independent board, was suspended from preaching. This precipitated the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination as a theologically “orthodox” alternative to the PCUSA. My father’s point was that it was independent mission work that had been the very issue which led to the founding of the OPC itself. This repudiation of Machen’s stand was obviously seen by my father as a very noteworthy one for an OPC body.

It was not my father’s preference to leave the OPC, but it was becoming clear that more was at stake than the issues of jurisdiction being discussed. His application of Reformed theology was unwelcomed by many, hence there are still many in the OPC who are antagonistic to my father nearly half a century after the jurisdictional issue became moot.

The complainants wanted my father to transfer to the Southern California Presbytery and submit to its ministerial oversight. My father had been through several PCUSA battles where theological differences were the real but unmentioned reasons for conflict; his problems with the PCUSA at Trinity being a notable example. After his meeting with the visitation committee he noted:

If I were to transfer to this Presbytery, I would be tried on Sabbath charges, for denying Sabbath laws. My answer: these men deny the Sabbath laws, e.g., re. debt, etc.10
A few weeks later he noted of those who tried to defend him:
The members of … are being given no hearing by Presbytery; they are forbidden to speak to any pastor; the Visitation Committee will not hear them, and their session refuses to admit their complaint. The grief and suffering of those slandered is great, and I am deeply distressed, troubled, and angry at Presbytery’s studied dishonesty. It is more important to eliminate me than to preserve a church. L. E. plainly stated that it is desired by some to require me to transfer and then try me on my beliefs re. the Sabbath.11

The Southern California OPC presbytery coalesced in opposition to my father, but since my father was a member of the Northern California presbytery formal charges had to be made to, and dealt with by, that body. On February 2, 1970, that body met in San Francisco. As no formal charge or complaint had been received by them, it ruled no action was necessary.

My father could see the handwriting on the wall. His views on creationism, fiat money, Biblical law, the necessity of Christian education, postmillennialism, and more had made him a lightning rod of controversy in his own denomination. His ministry was now through Chalcedon and his writing. He knew his opponents would regroup and consume his time and energy to impede a work no longer tied to one denomination. With his name cleared and no charges outstanding, my father withdrew from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by letter on March 4, 1970.

The antagonism of some in the OPC remained for years (though it was by no means universal). Three months after his resignation he was in a Southern California OPC Church to lecture on Biblical law. He noted only one church member was present. The next month that man was rejected as an elder. Later that year an OPC pastor in Virginia who talked to my father was asked by one of the Southern California pastors if my father had said anything which could be used as a charge against him. Four years later, as a favor to Greg Bahnsen, my father met with the Southern California pastor who had initiated the accusations against my father. That pastor still accused my father of being “in principle a deceiver, untrustworthy, a liar, etc. Refused to give ground or evidence.”12

Theonomy

Not long after he began classes in Los Angeles, my father began a systematic study of Biblical law. He had promised himself he would do so over twenty years earlier while in seminary and “got clobbered” for broaching the subject. The Institutes of Biblical Law was published in 1973 and immediately gained attention, both positive and negative. It revived the discussion of Biblical law to a church that had largely abandoned any doctrine of objective obedience. Though it has never sold in large numbers, it has had a major impact in defining responses to the decline of Christian ethics. It challenged the subjective spirituality of pietistic Christianity as itself to blame for abandoning the declared will of God. The modern theonomy movement traces its origin to the publication of Institutes.

The thesis of the Institutes was that the Ten Commandments were the “judgments,” or principles of the law and the “statutes” of the law (sometimes casually dismissed as the “civil laws”) were the case laws, that is, specific examples of how the Ten Commandments were to be applied. Prior to the Institutes, even Reformed theologians leaned heavily on a “law verses grace” dismissal of God’s law. In doing so, they professed the moral validity of the law, but conceded the possibility of any fixed application. My father saw the giving of the law of God as itself a grace, a revelation that enabled man to obey. His view did not see a disharmony, but a continuity between the old and new covenants, a view that has been characterized as “law and grace.” The Institutes was clearly in the Reformed tradition, as it saw justification as God’s gracious gift received by faith, the principal issue of the Reformation. My father never presented Biblical law as a means of justification, but of sanctification, man’s obedience, and growth in grace.

It is a sad commentary on the modern church that the primary impact of theonomy has been a debate in the church about whether Christians are bound to obey the God in whom they profess faith. One of his positions for which my father was most viciously attacked was that of homosexuality. His view against homosexuality was certainly in the mainstream of Christian thought, but his reference to it as a capital offense in the context of “law” brought opposition from the emerging homosexual rights lobby and distancing by many churchmen. His position was “politically incorrect” long before that term was coined. Some years later he wryly noted that activists (and sometimes liberal churches) acted as if he had authored the condemnation of homosexuality. “I wrote a book on what the Bible says;” he commented once to me in private, “what did they expect me to say?”

The idea of theonomy found both immediate traction and quick repudiation. In December of 1975 Greg Bahnsen preached his last sermon at the Westwood class before going to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, where the uproar over his theonomic position resulted in his contract not being renewed. In 1977, while on a trip to Oregon, my father’s appearances at Willamette University College of Law were cancelled because of his views on homosexuality and “they also charged me with anti-Semitism.”13 The latter charge, and that of Holocaust denial, came from an oft-referenced but seldom read section of Institutes in which my father noted the story of a Polish physician sued after WWII over accusations that, as a prisoner of war, he had performed 17,000 barbaric “experiments” on fellow prisoners. The number of crimes was later reduced to 130, and the doctor, in fact, won his case. My father’s point was that exaggerations of evil was still false witness. He noted:

This trial brings to focus the basic insensitivity to truth which too extensively characterize this age. The fact that a doctor under any pressure would perform such operations is itself an ugly fact. If only ten were performed, or even one alone, instead of 130 or 17,000, the crime is real and very serious. Why then the gross exaggeration?...
…the result was a desperately twisted mentality which could only appreciate evil as evil on a massive scale.14

Interestingly enough, the title of that essay in Institutes was “The Lying Tongue.”

Despite real opposition, my father’s ideas were having an impact. Gary North told my father in 1972 that Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer of Notre Dame had described him as “the most dangerous man in America,” but by 1978 John Whitehead would tell him that Charles Rice of Notre Dame Law School “said his jurisprudence course was a combination of Rushdoony and Aquinas.”15 In 1975 he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Brainerd Theological Seminary; Grove City College conferred the same degree in 1978.He earned a Ph.D. in Education from Valley Christian University in Fresno, California in 1980.16

Without a doubt my father was willing to take unpopular positions if he felt that he was standing in terms of God’s truth. Not too many were willing to associate with him too closely. Christianity Today blacklisted him, refusing even to mention his name. In 1975 Terrill L. Elniff wrote an article for that publication on the influence of Puritan thought which contained multiple footnotes to my father’s work. Unknown to the author until he saw the article in print, the editors rewrote the piece removing all references to my father. Even indirect quotes went unattributed. More surprisingly, my father noted with a bit of pain that the same thing had happened with someone for whom he had a great deal of respect:

Read Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto, Another book using some of my material, with phone calls for citations, with no mention of me; for most writers, I am useful but unmentionable! Not faith but timidity is the march of too many Christians today, including able men like Francis.17

Testimony as an Expert Witness

One of the remarkable elements of my father’s writings is that so few of them are dated, and many of them now seem prescient in describing the inevitable consequences of our culture’s humanistic, anti-Christian drift. One such tendency he predicted was the inevitability of a repression directed at Christianity by state controls. As early as 1971 he noted a meeting with a group of men in Houston, Texas, regarding the “defense of Christian schools” from legal attacks by states.”18 This was a cause near to his heart as Christian education had been the topic of many of his lectures by the mid-1950s, and the subject of both Intellectual Schizophrenia (1961) and The Messianic Character of American Education (1963). While on a trip to Huntsville, Kentucky, in 1975 he was informed that the “minister instrumental in West Virginia textbook protest had gotten his ideas from reading my books.”19 In Virginia the following year Attorney David Gibbs, Jr., told Dad that his Messianic Character had sparked resistance to the state educational code teaching of humanism and asked for his assistance as parents feared legal action for placing their children in Christian schools. Two weeks later at a conference at Notre Dame observing the fiftieth anniversary of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, he spoke on “The State as an Establishment of Religion.” He noted David Gibbs circulated 200 copies of his talk and that Ed Murphy “not only teaches Biblical law but is now assigning students to prepare briefs on case law from the Bible alone.”20

In October he met Gibbs in Cleveland to discuss the case of Lester Roloff in Texas, an independent Baptist evangelist who ran several homes for delinquent children. He was being ordered by the state to bring them under state jurisdiction but was fighting to keep them independent. A week later my father was in Texas to meet Roloff and tour his facilities.21

The prosecution of Christians for various forms of non-compliance with state demands increased after the Democratic victory in the 1976 general election. The means of suppression included zoning, state licensure, accreditation requirements, teacher certification, and many others. Both state and local courts and jurisdictions were involved. The Jimmy Carter administration seemed to bring in a new level of involvement and encouragement from Washington. A year later, after a Christian school conference in Dayton, Ohio, my father wrote:

A very successful trip, moving and disturbing also. The influence of my books is leading pastors and Christian school leaders who have been readers thereof, or influenced second hand, to resist and face prison, a humbling fact.22

By 1978 my father was spending a good deal of his time on religious liberty cases. At first it was in consultation with attorneys and educating various groups to which he spoke about the threat. My father prioritized these cases and never charged any of the defendants for his travel or time. His first testimony as an expert witness appears to have been in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1978 in a case where the state was trying to make the use of its textbooks mandatory in Christian schools. Several months later he was back in that city where the same prosecuting attorneys were then defending the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools by using his testimony in the previous case.23 The previous fall he wrote “Conflict with the State: A Chalcedon Position Paper,” which would prove to be his first of 233 such papers he would write over the next twenty-one years.24 Days later he wrote an affidavit for a Tennessee case after which he testified in Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

My father was allowed as an expert witness for several reasons: he had a Master’s degree in education, a seminary degree, and had published books on religion, education, and law. He could therefore address issues of religious liberty and education as an educator, a theologian, and a historian. Acceptance by one court facilitated that of the others, and he was being increasingly relied upon for his testimony. On September 19, 1979, he noted in his journal that he had spent most of the day on the phone with persecuted churches. Some years later historian Otto Scott urged my father to write a full account of his part in these cases, but he never seemed to feel his own life or activities were worthy of such attention. His passing references in his work journals are, largely, all that remain to document his effort in the area, though I do not believe this list is all inclusive.

  • 1-17-80: Lincoln, NE: Testified in case charging delinquency for attendance at a Christian school
  • 3-5-80: Providence, RI: Testified in a Christian school case 11:15 A.M.--3:00P.M. with a 3 minute break
  • 1-19-81: Bismarck, ND: Christian school trial
  • 1-19-82: Raleigh, NC: Trial over school nurseries
  • 4-14-82: Lansing, MI: Christian school trial
  • 5-12-82: Pampa, TX: Trial of Baptist Temple
  • 10-28-82: Charles City, IA
  • 11-15-82: Mobile, AL
  • 12-7-82: Oklahoma City, OK: Little Axe case
  • 1-28-83: Grand Island, NE: Testified in trial of Calvary United Pentecostal Church
  • 2-22-83: Bangor, ME: Testified in federal court. R.J.R. saw marked copies of his Position Papers on the prosecution attorney’s table.
  • 4-12-83: Macon, GA: Testified in criminal trial of homeschool parents and called the trial “evil” from the witness stand
  • 6-2-83: Lansing, MI: Testified in case of a church child care facility where the judge said he wondered what child care workers would have said in Bethlehem
  • 1-29-85: Jamestown, ND: Testified in criminal case against homeschoolers “Wind storm, drifting snow, 30 below weather, windchill reading 40–80 below, stopped us at Harney, ND.”
  • 9-30-85: Oklahoma City, OK: In court for trial of Living Word Academy. “The judge as usual refused to admit religious liberty as an issue.”
  • 8-7-86: Chambersburg, PA: Testified in trial of two street preachers. “All kinds of hearsay evidence against them admitted. No local pastors present or ready to support them openly for fear of offending city authorities.”
  • 11-4, 5-86: Boston, MA: Testified in Christian school case
  • 1-7-87: Fort Worth, TX: Testified in homeschool case for attorney Shelby Sharpe.
  • 7-21-87: Augusta, ME: testified in homeschool case
  • 2-22-88: Norfolk, VA: Testified in trial of street preachers
  • 4-12-88: Sacramento, CA:. Testified in trial of Redding Baptist Church

When my father was in the courtroom in Grand Island, Nebraska, waiting to testify, an exchange between two women in the courtroom was overheard and later related to Dad. One woman asked the other, “Whose side is he on, ours or theirs?” The other woman later responded, “He’s not on our side. He’s on the Lord’s side.”25

Leeper v. Arlington

The 1987 testimony for Shelby Sharpe in Fort Worth, Texas, in the “Leeper Case” was to prove pivotal. The trials had not abated when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. In fact, in January 1982, my father was one of several Christian leaders at a White House meeting with Presidential Counsel Ed Meese (later Reagan’s Attorney General) and “6–8 Justice Dep’t. attorneys” over proposed legislation to ostensibly fight racism.

[Attorney William Bentley] Ball presented legal, constitutional arguments against proposed bill to control racism, including ex post facto element; no comment from any. Three central points of discussion:

  1. The public policy doctrine replaces the First Amendment. Tomorrow, federal gov’t. can require women priests, pastors, and homosexual ones, as public policy.
    Answer: True, it is within the legitimate power of the federal gov’t. if it so chooses. This administration will not so choose.
  2. Why the attack on Christian Schools as racist? IRS Commissioner Jerome Kurtz examined 538 schools in “racist” areas and found only one to discriminate; of higher schools, Bob Jones University prohibits interracial dating and marriage among students. (I added, I am now barred from speaking there). Answer: no comment.
  3. Third, why the undue haste to get it out of the Treasury Committee by Feb.1? Why not submission to the Judiciary Committee? Why not the usual time for hearings, etc. No real comment. They said they would “look at” Ball’s substitute bill.
    Quip by a newsman: Antichrist is going to delay his coming, because Reagan is already here.
    Learned that Reagan had tears in his eyes watching Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie’s TV comments. As in California, he expects loyalty while giving none, and he wants to please his critics.26

The attempt to deny religious liberty and replace it with religious toleration in terms defined by the state seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut. Christians were facing regulations on multiple fronts.

It was certainly a full-fledged attack on homeschooling in Texas in the 1980s. In 1981 the Texas Education Agency (TEA) unilaterally decided that homeschools did not comply with the Texas compulsory attendance laws. About 150 parents had been prosecuted before attorney Shelby Sharpe convinced a number of families to go on the offensive by filing a class action lawsuit against all 1,063 school districts in Texas for violating the rights of homeschoolers.

The legal question centered on whether the seventy year old Texas statute which allowed a “private school” exemption from the compulsory attendance law included homeschools. Sharpe felt it did and that a large percentage of children at the time were, in fact, taught at home. The term homeschool was new, but the practice, he claimed, had a long tradition. When my father flew to Texas, other expert witnesses had preceded him, but none knew Texas history. Sharpe was able to give my father a quick heads-up on what he was missing—a historical view of education in Texas that included home education.

The first effort of many attorneys when examining their opposition’s expert witness is to discredit them. In other trials, my father would be asked to verify that he believed in creation and a young earth in opposition to evolution; the point was to make his opinions appear to be far out of the mainstream and hence easily dismissed. The point was to make the expert witness look foolish, as Clarence Darrow had done to William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial. On the stand in Fort Worth, the state’s attorney began questioning my father about his knowledge of Texas history. His intent was to show the court this Californian did not know Texas history, thereby negating any help he might give attorney Sharpe’s legal position. My father very quickly was politely but firmly chiding the state’s attorney for asking questions which evidenced his own incorrect understanding of Texas history. The state’s position only lost ground from that point as my father pointed out that many children in Texas had always lived in remote areas with bad roads that made travel impossible in winter and that education at home was a common practice with a long history. He simply destroyed the TEA’s position that homeschooling was new to Texas. On April 13, 1987, the judge ruled in favor of the parents, a decision which was binding throughout Texas. The state appealed, but the original ruling was upheld in 1991 at the Court of Appeals and in 1994 by the Texas Supreme Court by a 9–0 decision. Shelby Sharpe credited my father’s testimony as the decisive factor, though his own shrewd and brilliant legal understanding and strategy in filing a class action suit had plotted the path to victory.27

Though technically only binding in Texas, other states began to pull back from the prosecutions that had, by that time, been going on for nearly two decades. In most jurisdictions, homeschooling was recognized as legal. My father’s last testimony was a deposition he gave for Shelby Sharpe in Sacramento, California, in 1998.

Later Years

My father traveled extensively for many years, sometimes going out of his way to return home for one night’s rest in his own bed and Mother’s cooking. He traveled four times to both Australia (twice in 1983, 1986, and 1992) and the United Kingdom (1987, 1989, 1990, and 1991). During the 1991 trip to London he and Otto Scott met with Brian Griffiths, chief policy advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at 10 Downing Street.

Griffiths said he had been reading me for 20 years and demonstrated a close knowledge of my books, said he was my “son” in his faith.28

While lecturing at Dordt College in Iowa in 1987, he was informed by the college president that Cornelius Van Til had died,

…also that on one occasion that Van Til had told him that I alone understood him clearly and interpreted him accurately.29

When he was not traveling, my father was writing constantly. My mother once chided him for doing menial, time-consuming chores, like watering trees with a garden hose, a waste of his valuable time, she said. His response was that such activity gave him time to think and compose his writing in his head. When he sat down at his desk he would then often write several chapters (always in long hand) at a sitting, often without a cross-out or correction. The chapters went into files of books in progress that grew week by week. It was his phenomenal memory (of years of reading and what he composed in his head) that enabled this work output, along with a strong work ethic. Only occasionally did he express frustration, and then it was usually tempered. One 1991 journal entry reads, “Misc. duties, much mail, some frustration, and somedays much joy, including a little today.”30 His mind was clear to the end of his life, though he felt it slip. In the last year of his life he was discussing something and could not recall the author of a textbook he  had in high school. “Oh, you will have to excuse me,” he said, “my mind is slipping.”

His mind was better than most to the end, but his body was failing. About 1990 when he was seventy-four, he was diagnosed with type II diabetes and prostate cancer. That year and the next he went to a Las Vegas pain clinic for week long treatments. He was very active until 1995 when, at seventy-nine, he developed a bad case of shingles. He never regained his full strength after that as was apparent at his eightieth birthday celebration in 1996. Mother had lost most of her eyesight to macular degeneration by 1994 and was in the early stages of dementia by 1996. That summer Dad noted his loss of vitality:

I am losing weight and growing weaker, cancer is taking its toll.31

Yet his summary of 1996 work output recorded 153 speaking engagements, 46 articles for Chalcedon, 186 chapters for seven books, and 223 books read in full.32 A few days later he wrote:

My energy is abating daily…33

Yet he would also write:

When I come to my library, I revive and feel as though I shall live to be a hundred. At other times, I seem near to death. Writing is a joy.34
My circulation is poor, and my feet are usually cold to numb, but, when I am at my desk writing, my circulation improves, and my feet are warm.35

In 1998 and again in 1999 he had cataract surgery. The immediate results were excellent, but did not last because of his diabetes. In 1998 he began to preach seated. His last speaking trip other than by car was to Tampa, Florida, in 1998, and I accompanied him. That year I stepped down as a full-time teacher at Chalcedon Christian School and, at his insistence, was made President of Chalcedon. By that fall I was spending several hours a day caring for him and mother, with a great deal of help from my wife Darlene. By August his journal entries became irregular and he was too weak to make the trip down steps to his library. Writing became difficult because his low blood pressure caused dizziness which interrupted his ability to construct his essays and sermons mentally and then put them to paper. At his last eye appointment in 2000 he could not distinguish the large “E” at the top of the eye chart in one eye. His PSA ballooned to 700. His last speaking engagement beyond Vallecito was that fall at Sacramento Covenant Reformed Church’s annual conference. His last journal entry was on November 29, 2000.

When I suggested he was pushing himself too hard to preach on Sundays, he replied with a level of real agitation that if he could not preach there was no reason to go on. His sermons were now extemporaneous, as he could not read his own notes. The Sunday before he died he apologized for not being able to preach. That evening he told me he would not last much longer and asked me to call my sisters. All were able to arrive before he passed away in his easy chair that Thursday, February 8, 2001, at the age of 84. He was buried in his hometown of Kingsburg, California. Mother passed away in 2003.

  1. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entry of August 14, 1960 and transcript of oral interview by Janet Larson, Kevin Craig, David Chilton, et al. recorded December 17, 1979 and January 20, 1980.
  2. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entry of March 16, 1968.
  3. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I (The Craig Press) 1973, p. 539.
  4. ibid., As quoted by R. J. Rushdoony, p. 539.
  5. ibid., p. 539.
  6. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entry of July 15, 1967.
  7. ibid., entry of April 30, 1969.
  8. ibid., entries of September 17 and 24, 1969.
  9. ibid., entry of October 13, 1969.
  10. ibid., entry of October 30, 1969.
  11. ibid., entry of November 23, 1969.
  12. ibid., entries of June 15, July 20, October 5, 1970 and February 15, 19Later, beginning in 1977 my father was a member of the Anglican Churches of America for several years.
  13. ibid., entry of November 8, 1977.
  14. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 587–588.
  15. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entries of February 20, 1972 and April 12, 1978.
  16. Valley Christian University conferred this degree for my father’s work that was published as The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (1981). Valley Christian was thereafter forced to shut down because it had no authorization by the state of California to confer degrees, a requirement it was unable to successfully challenge.
  17. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entry of December 1, 1981.
  18. ibid., entry of May 1, 1971.
  19. ibid., entry of March 26, 1975.
  20. ibid., entries of April 7 and 23, 19Pierce v. Society of Sisters was a 1925 Supreme Court decision which struck down an Oregon law requiring that all grammar school children attend public schools.
  21. ibid., entries of October 13 and 20, 1976.
  22. ibid., entry of October 22, 1977.
  23. ibid., entries of June 14, 1978 and January 22, 1979.
  24. ibid., entry of October 9, 19A three-volume anthology of these Position Papers, entitled An Informed Faith is scheduled for release in 2017.
  25. ibid., entries of January 27 and 28, 1983 and February 4, 1983.
  26. ibid., entry of January 26, 1982.
  27. For a discussion on this trial, see the “Law and Liberty Podcast – J. Shelby Sharpe Remembers Rush” at www.chalcedon.edu
  28. R. J. Rushdoony work journal, entry of November 12, 1987.
  29. ibid., entries of April 20, 21, and 23, 1987.
  30. ibid., entry of September 13, 1991.
  31. ibid., entry of June 10, 1996.
  32. ibid., entry of December 31, 1996.
  33. ibid., entry of January 18, 1997.
  34. ibid., entry of February 18, 1997.
  35. ibid., entry of May 7, 1997.

Topics: Biblical Law, Biography, Christian Reconstruction, Church, The, Dominion, R. J. Rushdoony, Culture , Economics, Education, Eschatology, Reformed Thought

Mark R. Rushdoony

Mark R. Rushdoony holds a B.A. in history and is an ordained minister. He served as the Director of Chalcedon Christian School for 14 years, along with assisting in tutoring his four children through high school. In 1998 he succeeded his father, R. J. Rushdoony, as President of Chalcedon  and continues to serve in that capacity. He oversees Chalcedon/Ross House Books and Storehouse Press. He has written for Chalcedon’s publications, (Chalcedon Report and Faith for all of Life). He was a contributing author to The Great Christian Revolution (1991). He is a sought out speaker for conferences and churches in the U.S. and abroad. He lives in Vallecito, CA, with his wife Darlene and his youngest son. He has three married children and seven grandchildren.

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