In December 2007, I found myself sitting at Rousas John Rushdoony's desk in his library in Vallecito, California. From the outside, the structure was simple enough: a small brick building built on the side of a hill just below his former home. Inside, the 1,300-square-foot library housed an intimidating jumble of books, correspondence, records, and the memorabilia of one of the most controversial, influential, and enigmatic figures of twentieth-century American Protestantism.
Rushdoony's desk sat at the head of the library in front of a fireplace. Bronze tile busts of John Calvin and Martin Luther, the two great sixteenth-century church reformers, stared down from the mantel. Rows of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves created narrow cluttered aisles that receded into the darkness. Overhead fluorescent lights proved insufficient for the nearly windowless structure, plunging the ends of the aisles in murky darkness. The long, poorly lit rows created the uneasy sensation that the library receded into infinity. Given that I had heard that Rushdoony's library totaled somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 books, it was easy to believe that the shelves did indeed run to Kingdom come.
I had come to Vallecito as a Ph.D. student from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, with the stated purpose of using Rushdoony's library and his correspondence as the foundation for my doctoral dissertation on the topic of Christian Reconstructionism and its relationship to American conservatism. Staring into the infinity of bookshelves, I suddenly wondered if such a project was even possible. How could I ever hope to collect, catalog, and assess the material in this library, let alone comprehend the man and how he had accumulated and organized all of this material to produce some fifty books and thousands of essays, lectures, and sermons? Worse still, the library had a decidedly lived-in feeling about it: it seemed as if Rushdoony-who passed away in 2001-had simply set down his pen and walked out to address some matter related to the day-to-day management of the Chalcedon Foundation and would return shortly. I felt like an invader and an intellectual pretender who had been given access to one of the most significant archives that most historians of twentieth-century American Protestantism had never heard of.
Overwhelmed but undeterred, I used a digital camera to snap thousands of photographs of everything in the library-books, manuscripts, letters, faxes, journals, ledgers-then retired to a budget hotel in nearby Angels Camp where I organized the day's work and prepared to take a thousand more images the following day. After leaving Vallecito, it took nearly four months to arrange the material I collected, which I shifted into massive digital PDF files and printed, much to the confusion of my local Kinko's. The entire output filled several Bankers Boxes, and it took me nearly as long to read it as it did to organize it all.
Three years later I successfully defended my dissertation, a document that I could not have written without access to Rushdoony's library. I am not a Reconstructionist, nor were any of the faculty on my dissertation committee. I began the project with a decidedly negative appraisal of Rushdoony, but I ultimately ended the project with a nuanced appreciation of R. J. Rushdoony's theology and his public ministry. In fact, the time I spent with Rushdoony's personal journals and correspondence left me in awe of the man's work ethic. During my research, I became fascinated with the relationship between Rushdoony's Christian convictions and his work for Christ.
Martin Selbrede, the editor of Faith for All of Life and vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation, has asked me to reflect on my time with Rushdoony's library and to discuss my research. I've decided to take the opportunity to reflect on Rushdoony's understanding of his godly calling to preach the gospel and to reconstruct the church. This essay focuses on the ways in which Rushdoony's interpretation of his calling influenced the way he lived and worked.
I begin the essay with an overview of Rushdoony's theology of Christian Reconstruction and outline how it relates to the problem of work and dominion. Then I use the content of Rushdoony's library-his correspondence, journal entries, and personal ledgers-to provide a unique vantage for understanding his work habits and to detail how these habits related to his understanding of Christian governance under the law of God. My hope is that this essay will provide readers of Faith for All of Life with a bit of perspective on how Rushdoony worked while also providing a perspective on the nature and meaning of that work.
Liberty Under Law
Beginning in 1972, R. J. Rushdoony began each new year of his personal journals with an epigraph from the 138th Psalm: "The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me." The entirety of the verse-which Rushdoony did not cite in his journals-continues, "[T]hy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands."1 The point, of course, was to acknowledge Rushdoony's work as God's work; to dedicate the acts, deeds, and labor recorded in his journals to Jesus; and, in turn, to ask Christ to bless Rushdoony's actions as His own. In this sense, Rushdoony's vast library is a monument to his work as a Christian man. That is, his library-and the reading, teaching, and writing it facilitated-embody a uniquely Christian form of government that stands in opposition to any form of governance that places sovereignty in some institution other than Jesus Christ and His delegated authority to Christian men. Consequently, by studying the contents of Rushdoony's library, we can glimpse a life dedicated to the task of Christian Reconstruction and dominion.
The first glimpses of Rushdoony's concern for the self-government of Christian men can be seen in his early missionary work. Long before he ever founded the Chalcedon Foundation, developed the idea of Christian Reconstructionism, or built his library, Rushdoony was a missionary on the isolated Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada.2 While on the reservation, Rushdoony became acutely aware of the problem state bureaucracy posed not only to the Paiutes and Shoshones living on the reservation, but also for all men, native or otherwise, who ran afoul of the federal state. Nothing better attests to Rushdoony's appreciation of the challenge the state posed to individuals than his retelling of an exchange with one of his charges on the reservation, a Paiute indentified only as "Pete."
In a 1945 letter to a friend, Rushdoony reported "that as [Pete] saw it the Indian was fit only for Reservation life and the white man [is] ‘ripe for the reservation,' waiting for some superior man to drive him there. [Rushdoony] added that the white man, with his increasing predilection for a dictated economy, was rapidly bent on turning the world into a Reservation."3 Pete agreed vigorously, adding, "Only a lazy son-of-a-bitch wants rights. A man wants freedom and justice, and he can take care of himself."4 Of the "white man" Rushdoony and Pete concluded, "the German and the Japanese failed to put him there [on the Reservation]: the next people might succeed."5 Rushdoony's conversation with Pete is a microcosm of the central problem that haunted Rushdoony over the next two decades as he worked to establish the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965; namely, how might he cultivate the "freedom and justice" necessary for a Christian man to thrive independently from state governance?
Years later, Rushdoony developed the concept of Christian Reconstruction to answer this question. Reconstruction posits that human beings are primarily religious creatures bound to God. They are not rational, autonomous beings capable of acting or thinking independently of God. Following the teachings of Cornelius Van Til, a Dutch Reformed theologian teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia who fathered an apologetic school known as "presuppositionalism," Rushdoony argued that all human knowledge is invalid if it is not rooted in the Bible. In By What Standard, originally published in 1958 and still a standard short introduction to Van Til's presuppositional system, Rushdoony explained that all knowledge emerges from one's theological presuppositions (i.e., there is one God, many gods, or no god). For Christians, that means a triune deity must be the presupposed source of all reliable human knowledge.
The implications of these ideas are far reaching. As Rushdoony explained, when Adam and Eve succumbed to the Serpent's temptation "to be as gods, knowing good from evil," they asserted their own intellectual autonomy over that of God's.6 Intellectual autonomy (self-rule of the mind) emerges as sinful pretense, whereas theonomy (God's rule of the mind) is the only source for legitimate knowledge. Humanity's fall into sin was precipitated by a desire to reason independently from God's authority.7 From this perspective, knowledge is a matter of disputed sovereignty. Every thought that does not begin with God and the Bible is rebellious.8 Rushdoony carried this point to its logical end, arguing that if thinking is an explicitly religious activity, then human thought has political implications: thinking becomes a matter of kingship, power, rebellion, and, ultimately, warfare. Either human thought recognizes God's sovereignty, or it does not. There is no middle ground, no compromise.
Rushdoony developed a social and political theology designed to combat humanity's sinful desire to "be as gods." In his most famous statement of this theological system, The Institutes of Biblical Law,9 Rushdoony argued that Old Testament Biblical law is still binding for modern Christians. Why? Because Biblical law constrains the ability of an autonomous, rational man to think apart from God by setting clear parameters on how one may interpret the world and therefore on how one may act in the world. Furthermore, Biblical law provides a foundation for a Christian alternative to secular, modern society that Rushdoony referred to variously as Christian Reconstruction, theonomy, or dominion theology.
Looking to Genesis 1:26-28, Rushdoony discovered the proactive role a Christian must play in both human culture and as just stewards over God's creation: "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."10 This "creation mandate" is a "requirement that humankind subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it."11 While many Christians today might interpret this Genesis "mandate" as either nullified by the fall, or as a command for humans to serve as benevolent stewards of the earth, Rushdoony insisted that it is actually a commandment to "subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word."12 He argued that Biblical law and the sacrifice of Christ provide the means to allow Christians to abrogate the curse of the fall. Through Biblical law, a reconstructed Christian could "take dominion" over the planet and "reconstruct" all of life in Christ's image.
The concept of "dominion man" was an important component of Rushdoony's ministerial project, and it is directly related to his understanding of work and calling. Reconstruction begins with the assumption that God gave human beings a foundationalform of governance located in their minds and bodies. Rushdoony insisted, "[B]asic government is the self-government of the Christian man."13 This statement is built on two components, the first related to self-government and the second to man or the male Christian. First, Rushdoony distinguished between those explicitly political forms of state power that we might refer to as "government" and a broader, more amorphous concept of government that orders and structures all aspects of human life. This understanding of governance challenges the notion that government is located primarily in the state and instead insists that it happens elsewhere.
Second, Rushdoony's concept of Christian self-government suggests that men are unique creatures created by God who are governed by the fact of this creation, not by the various contexts or environments in which they happen to find themselves by an accident of history. Godly government is inscribed on their bodies and in their minds by the very act of creation. God's command that man exercise dominion over the earth required multiple forms of work14 that culminated in Adam's classification of creation (Gen. 2:19). Thus, Rushdoony concluded that Adam was not fully a man until he labored for God.
This account of Rushdoony's theology should make clear that work and Christian Reconstruction are inextricably related. A Christian man must not only believe in Christ, but he and his family also have an obligation to work for the Kingdom of God in all aspects of their lives. Indeed, Rushdoony took this problem of godly work very seriously. In a 1962 letter to his future son-in-law Gary North, Rushdoony wrote,
You asked me about my use of time ... Here again it is a religious matter, and in this respect I cannot begin to compare myself with some of the Calvinists and Puritans of yester-year. It is a question of calling ... Modern man, lacking calling, has no focus to his life, and accordingly uses time and money without direction or law ... Once our life has a focus, then time, money, all things are used to that one end. My life is not without its problems, and its severe limitations at times, but I am certain that it is a richer life than most people live ... And as I read the lives of Calvinists of old, I know how much less than they I am able to do, because their's was a more dedicated life of liberty under law. Without calling and therefore focus, life dribbles away. I can be and am lazier than many another man and still accomplish more.15
This problem of Christian work and calling returns us to Rushdoony's library and its complicated relationship to his public ministry. In the following sections, I turn from this abstract discussion of theology to explore the concrete ways Rushdoony's library stands as a testament to this theology of Christ work. Specifically, I focus on his work as a Christian reader, speaker, and writer.
The Discipline of Reading
To better understand the project of Christian Reconstruction and the effect it had on the life of its leading voice, we can turn to those building blocks of any library-its books. Long before he built a small library dedicated solely to his books in Vallecito, Rushdoony and his family shared their living space with his ever-growing library. So, when they moved to Woodland Hills, California, in 1965 to start the Chalcedon Foundation, the Rushdoony family enclosed the patio of their new home to create a wing room dedicated exclusively to Rushdoony's library. As his son Mark Rousas Rushdoony, the current president of the Chalcedon Foundation, remembered, "We had to enclose a large screened-in patio to house the books. Still, they took up much of the rest of the house and the garage."16
Rushdoony accumulated this extensive library because he was a compulsive book buyer who often went on special trips in search of new books, preferably hardcovers because he found paperbacks "distasteful" because of their "disposable nature."17 He scavenged for them wherever he could and bought them by the box load. But Rushdoony was no collector. Like a woodworker's favorite plane, each book was simultaneously a tool and pleasure. He depended on books so he surrounded himself with them. He took them everywhere. Again, to Mark Rushdoony: "If he had to wait anywhere for even a few moments he would open the book and continue reading where he had last stopped. He took a briefcase full of books on speaking trips and would come home with several read and indexed."18
In these ways and so many others, books structured Rushdoony's life. They determined the size and nature of his and his family's home. They organized the hours in his day, demanding his time and attention. They disciplined him. And, in return, he organized them by imposing a structure on their informational chaos. He wrote in his books, indexed them, imposed his formidable intellect on them:
When he read a book, he would use a six-inch ruler and a pencil. He would neatly underline, using the ruler (never freehand), an important piece of information. Sometimes he would double-underline something of particular importance. Longer passages he would mark with a single (or double) line in the margin parallel to the edge of the page. An exclamation mark, or an "x" in the margin would denote a particularly significant passage or statement. He then would write a reference to the marked passage in the back of the book.19
He noted the date and location where he finished reading every book and logged each completed volume in his journals. Since he read approximately one book a day, this meant that his journals are stuffed with references to completed books or ones he had just started.
This discipline went far beyond marginalia and annotations: he carefully and methodically Christianized every text; a process ordered by the Van Tilian presuppositional philosophy that he used to determine the outcome of every thought, ensuring its accord with the mind of the Creator. This meant that Rushdoony's encounter with his prized books was circular, a closed loop structured from beginning to end by a single book: the Bible. Thus, the Bible ordered his approach to information and determined the way he read every text that he encountered. In turn, his drive to read and write about what he read was determined by his calling to Christian work-to bring the hearts and minds of all men into accord with Scripture.
Speaking for Christ
Nowhere is this calling to Christianize the thoughts of others more clearly illustrated than in Rushdoony's public lecturing. To take a relatively representative period from his earliest years leading the establishment of the Chalcedon Foundation (1965-1970), Rushdoony spoke at least 115 times to various groups. Rushdoony was normally a meticulous note taker, and it appears that he tried to enter all of his lectures into a single ledger and to record them in his personal journals. During this time, he spoke to businessmen, college students, women's groups, and private home Bible studies. These latter meetings were particularly important because they were organized for the benefit of a small collection of regular Chalcedon supporters. He frequently lectured in Cupertino, California, at the home of "Dr. Simpson," normally to parties of thirty or less. Similarly he recorded speaking at homes that he simply identifies as belonging to "Muller," "Norman Pulty," "Wilson," and "Baliff," with most audiences numbering fewer than thirty. Although it is not clear from his records who attended or why, these home Bible studies were likely made up of women and men who shared his theological position or who grew to agree with him over time as they regularly attended his talks. The subjects of the talks suggest that they were aimed at well-educated, politically active audiences interested in Christian perspectives on popular culture, homeschooling, anti-communism, hard money economics, and revisionist history. For example, he noted speaking on "This Christian Republic" (September 13, 1964); "Psalm 2: Conspiracy and History" (October 25, 1964); "Revolutionary Art" (April 10, 1967); "The Soviet View of Money" (April 11, 1967).
Rushdoony as Author
Rushdoony's prodigious literary output was directly related to his speaking: many of his books emerged from the notes he took to prepare for his lectures. Any reader of his numerous books is already well aware of the physical heft of these texts, but Rushdoony's journals provide a clear image of exactly the kind of work ethic necessary to sustain this output. For instance, in 1970, the year leading up to the publication of his most famous work, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony recorded in his journal that he had completed a staggering fifty-four chapters of his magnum opus, the vast bulk of the nearly 800-page tome. He had begun the first chapters of the project in 1968. These records suggest that Rushdoony wrote the body of the Institutes in less than three years. It's incredible that anyone could read and critically assess the content of the Institutes in such a time frame, let alone write it in such a compressed period.
But Rushdoony didn't content himself with such achievements. Aside from authoring fifty-four chapters on Biblical law, in 1970 Rushdoony also penned two monthly columns: his regular contribution to the Chalcedon Report and an article for a monthly magazine aimed at rural Californians, The California Farmer.20 Furthermore, he authored multiple book reviews, chapters, and articles for several other book projects and magazines. He also authored 2,435 individual pieces of mail and lectured and preached a combined 213 times. In the midst of this endless, tireless output Rushdoony also managed to read and annotate 226 books. All of this he dutifully recorded in his journal summary for 1970. In a letter from 1962, Rushdoony recorded a similar testament to his personal discipline under the law: "I read 303 books last year, wrote 23 chapters, plus reviews, conducted 64 meetings, spoke 257 times, and made hundreds of calls."21 When we compare Rushdoony's greater productivity as an author in 1970 to his output in 1962, we see a more mature writer who had honed his craft in the subsequent years.
Homeschooling and the Courts
Beside his reading, lecturing, and writing, Rushdoony made another contribution to American culture, one that has been largely ignored or forgotten by many of his supporters and critics: he became an expert witness in many court cases related to the issues of religious freedom and home education. His role as an expert witness emerged from his many lecturing engagements that often found him making the rounds of Christian colleges, high schools, and homeschooling conferences. As he spoke on the Christian education circuit to promote his interpretation of a Christ-centered elementary and secondary school curriculum, he became increasingly aware of a distressing trend: parents and church leaders who had sought refuge from state education by establishing homeschools and church schools were being prosecuted for running afoul of state and federal regulations. As Rushdoony encountered parents and attorneys involved in these cases, he began putting them in contact with one another, slowly building an ad hoc network of Christians united by their hitherto unknown common goal of abandoning public schools.
By the mid-1970s phone calls came daily from parents and pastors engaged in these cases, and Rushdoony counseled them on how to handle their cases. "One of the growing, time-consuming, but necessary activities," he wrote to someone seeking Chalcedon literature on independent schooling, "is answering telephone calls from groups facing state and federal pressures to give them counsel."22 Rushdoony blamed this necessary work on the failure of a previous generation of evangelicals to stand up and resist a half-century's worth of court rulings: "It has been the dereliction and withdrawal from social relevancy of conservative Christianity which has led to our present plight. It is a happy irony of history that they are now being compelled to make the key resistance."23
Through word of mouth and his lecturing tours, Rushdoony's notoriety also spread in Christian homeschooling and day schooling circles. By the early 1980s, he had become a much sought-after expert witness in court trials related to independent Christian education. As a highly polished public speaker used to debating and equipped with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. history, educational policy, and Christian theology, his testimony won the affection of Christians and baffled prosecutors. Between 1980 and 1988, Rushdoony testified no less than twenty-three times in court cases all over the United States. These cases related to Christian schooling, the establishment of religion by the state, the independence of Christian churches, and the right of preachers to engage in confrontational evangelistic tactics in public venues.
In his journals Rushdoony recorded many small vignettes-material not available in court records-that provide us with an impression of what his testimony was like and what impact it had on those in the courtroom. For instance, during a trial in Nebraska, as Rushdoony approached the witness stand, one woman associated with the Christian defendant leaned to another and whispered, "Whose side is he on? Our side or theirs?"24 During the course of his testimony, the woman audibly concluded, "He's not on our side. He's on the Lord's side."25 Rushdoony's intelligence and ferocity on the stand apparently prompted prosecutors to take him seriously as a threat to their cases. They made efforts in some cases to suppress his testimony, and in a federal case in Maine, the government attorney produced carefully annotated copies of Chalcedon publications and used them during Rushdoony's cross examination.26
Rushdoony's interest in these cases intensified to the point that they dominated the other activities of Chalcedon. Unlike his endless writing, researching, and lecture tours, Rushdoony's work with those seeking his advice and testimony on legal matters took a hard emotional toll, which he registered bluntly:
Yesterday noon, I ate (as often) a cold meal, alone, because, when I sat down to eat, the phone rang. A pastor I have never met, with a weeping woman before him, called for counsel; he had called a year before in another case. For the same reason, I ate alone at night. In between, I spent a couple hours again on the phone in like matters. This goes on daily ... I will continue, only because the battle is the LORD'S ... In five and a half years, I have not been home all of any month.27
I quote this letter at length because it plainly illustrates the sacrifices Rushdoony made for the work of Christian Reconstruction. By the time he wrote these paragraphs to a supporter, he was in his mid-sixties and gradually beginning to slow in his work.
During the late 1990s, R. J. Rushdoony's health rapidly deteriorated. His hearing and eyesight began to fail him. But his mind remained sharp. He continued to write and deliver the occasional lecture or sermon into his eighties. In fact, his last years were prolific: he wrote on everything from magic to Christ's Sermon on the Mount, producing manuscripts that Ross House Books will no doubt be editing and printing for years to come. Eventually, however, doctors diagnosed Rushdoony with prostate cancer. His intense daily regime of reading and writing flagged. By 1998 Rushdoony, now eighty-two, regularly found himself too ill to read or write. He needed surgery for cataracts and regular therapy for his cancer. On February 6, 1998, he confided in his journals: "Did nothing, which is difficult for me."28 Shortly thereafter his journal entries became sporadic. They ended abruptly in the fall of 2000. With his family at his bedside, Rushdoony passed away on February 8, 2001.
Today, Rushdoony's legacy is visible in everything from the continuing work of those at the Chalcedon Foundation to his numerous books to the wider Christian homeschooling movement, which remains deeply indebted to his ideas and judicial activism. Much of his legacy, however, remains obscured by the past. His vision of Christian Reconstruction is a highly personal one that can only come about through the direct, face-to-face contact between dedicated Christians. The process of Christian Reconstruction happens in homes, living rooms, schoolrooms, board meetings, and in church basements. It is a slow, multigenerational process that builds slowly as women and men work to build the Kingdom of God.
The consequence of this quiet process of Reconstruction means that Rushdoony's library is all the more important because it serves as a critical resource for documenting a largely undocumented movement. As Gary North once noted, "No historian will ever be able to go back and identify in terms of the primary source documents [the history of the Christian Reconstruction movement] because we can't possibly do it."29 In many ways, Dr. North is certainly correct. Aside from the major publications of the movement's leaders and their random collections of letters and manuscripts, much of movement's history remains undocumented and undocumentable. Thankfully, however, Rushdoony's tireless work was memorialized in his library, a priceless archive that will provide historians and students a fragmentary glimpse of the life and work of this important American.
1. Psalm 138:8 KJV.
2. I have recounted some of the history of Rushdoony's life on the reservation in Michael J. McVicar, "First Owyhee and Then the World: The Early Ministry of R. J. Rushdoony," Faith for All of Life (November/December 2008).
3. R. J. Rushdoony to Dave Stowe, January 2, 1946, R. J. Rushdoony Library, Chalcedon Foundation, Vallecito, CA (hereafter cited as the RJR Library).
6. R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995), 25.
7. Ibid., 30.
8. Ibid., 55.
9. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973).
10. Genesis 1:26-28 NIV.
11. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 14.
13. R. J. Rushdoony, "Chacedon Report No. 1," October 1, 1965, reprinted in The Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 545.
14. Rushdoony distills these various forms of work into "manual labor, agriculture, and science." See, R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity: A Biblical Psychology of Man (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977), 17.
15. Emphasis in the original. R. J. Rushdoony to Gary North, March 16, 1962, RJR Library.
16. Mark Rousas Rushdoony, "Books, My Father's Treasure," Chalcedon Report, no. 439 (March 2002): 9.
18. Rushdoony, "Books, My Father's Treasure," 9.
19. Ibid., 10.
20. Some of his early columns for the California Farmer are collected in Rousas John Rushdoony, Bread upon the Waters: Columns from the California Farmer (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1969).
21. R. J. Rushdoony to Gary North, March 16, 1962, RJR Library.
22. R. J. Rushdoony to George Pearson, n.d., RJR Library.
24. R. J. Rushdoony journal entry for February 4, 1983, RJR Library.
26. R. J. Rushdoony journal entry for February 22, 1983, RJR Library.
27. R. J. Rushdoony to James B. Jordan, March 12, 1981, RJR Library.
28. R. J. Rushdoony journal entry for February 6, 1998, RJR Library.
29. Gary North quoted in Frederick Clarkson, "Christian Reconstruction: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence," in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 66.