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Funding Fundamentalism in Early-1900s Los Angeles

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When Lyman Stewart, the founder of Union Oil, looked at the Southern California landscape in the early 1900s, he saw several things.

In the parched ravines to the north of Los Angeles, he saw rich reserves of oil sitting just below the surface of the earth. On the plains to the east, he envisioned thousands of acres of citrus groves.[1] In the crowds of new arrivals drawn everyday to L.A., he prophesized the new American metropolis, urban proof of manifest destiny fulfilled. Los Angeles, Stewart believed, would become the heart of a “commercial and industrial empire [such] as the world has never dreamed of.”[2]

Finally, and perhaps closest to Stewart’s heart, he saw the region as the bastion of a new religious movement; a form of Christianity rooted in a staunch defense of the Bible as literal truth and focused not on ameliorating social problems, but on spreading the Gospel. Between 1908 and 1923, Lyman poured millions of dollars – mostly from his Union Oil holdings, but also from the Stewart Citrus Association orange groves in Ontario – into making Los Angeles a world center of the fundamentalist movement.

Los Angeles, Stewart thought, might be the place where Protestants could stem the threatening cultural tide.

At the heart of Lyman Stewart’s plans lay education. In many of the nation’s colleges and universities, new theories of history, science, and even notions on how life itself developed competed with traditional Biblical interpretations. Society, fundamentalists like Stewart believed, was under siege from modernist ideas. But Los Angeles, the city with so much potential, might be the place where Protestants could stem the threatening cultural tide.[3]

Stewart understood these issues first hand. He had been a founding trustee of Occidental College and in pledged $3,000 a year toward its Bible department. But when Occidental president John Willis Baer introduced subjects like philosophy and permitted the teaching of evolution, he ended the goodwill of benefactor Stewart.[4] The Union Oil millionaire took his money elsewhere, hatching a scheme to alert the nation’s Protestant leaders to the modernist threat, and to train as many in students as possible in two things only: the inerrant Bible, and techniques to convert as many people as possible.

Beginning in 1910, Stewart facilitated the mass publication of a series of books named “The Fundamentals.” Written by notable ministers and Christian writers, the books set forth some key points of theology and faith. Together with his brother, the equally zealous Milton Stewart, Lyman Stewart spent around $300,000 to print and distribute three million copies to ministers and church leaders across North America. The Stewarts’ “Fundamentals” gave the movement its name and, even more importantly, provided a sense of shared identity. From isolated ministers in small towns to the congregations of urban churches, concerned Protestants received copies of “The Fundamentals” and understood that they were not alone in their intertwined fears for their religion and their nation.[5]

Lyman Stewart (standing, center) with his family
Undated photograph of Lyman Stewart (standing, center) with his family, courtesy of the Upland Public Library Historic Photograph Collection.

The money the Stewarts spent on publishing was dwarfed by the amount that Lyman Stewart poured into Los Angeles itself. In 1908, with the assistance of an enthusiastic preacher named Thomas Horton, Lyman Stewart started the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (commonly known by its acronym, Biola). At first, the Institute was a modest enterprise. Bible classes were held in a series of rooms above a pool hall on Main Street, with students evangelizing on street corners and in local manufacturing businesses, oil fields, and ships that came through San Pedro harbor. But times were changing. By 1910, the number of students enrolled at Biola had doubled. Every sign pointed to more students in the future. Los Angeles’ growth rate remained phenomenal; over the next ten years another quarter of a million migrants would flock to the city. The city’s population had eclipsed those of other western cities such as Denver and Seattle and now rivaled San Francisco’s.[6]

As the character of the city changed, Lyman Stewart realized that a large, modern institute was needed to train men and women equipped to spread and defend the message of the Bible. He decided to sink funds into substantial physical structures. In 1915, the new headquarters of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles was completed at the corner of Hope and Sixth streets in downtown Los Angeles. Costing in excess of a million dollars, the 13-story structure dominated the Los Angeles skyline. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building in the city. Consisting of two large towers capable of housing hundreds of students, the building also contained classrooms and a massive 3,500-seat auditorium for large conferences and also to house the Church of the Open Door, an independent fundamentalist church.[7] The imposing structure boldly declared that fundamentalism was no movement on the fringes of social and cultural respectability. By situating Biola, at the commercial core of one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, Stewart was making a statement: fundamentalism was central to the future success of Los Angeles.

Biola under construction
Circa 1915 photograph of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles headquarters under construction, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
The Bible Institute of Los Angeles and the Church of the Open Door
Circa 1930s postcard of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and the Church of the Open Door, courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Stewart's millions strengthened the incipient fundamentalist movement nationwide, and ensured that fundamentalism gained a firm foothold in Los Angeles – a city which would wield unparalleled economic and political power in postwar America

Until his death in 1923, Stewart successfully channeled profits from two of Southern California’s greatest exports – oil and citrus – into the fundamentalist cause. His efforts had not come without personal cost. Much of Stewart’s wealth was tied up in Union Oil stock. To extract his money, Stewart enacted a number of deals that at times bordered on reckless and that ultimately landed Union Oil in court. His fellow company executives didn’t share his spiritual beliefs, nor did they appreciate how Stewart risked Union Oil’s business reputation to further his religious goals. In 1914, he lost control of the company he had founded. The Union Oil board relieved Stewart of the post of president, making him chairman – a role with little managerial power over the firm.[8] But, for Stewart, the stakes were not only high, they were otherworldly. His goal was to insure the spiritual salvation of Southern California.

Would the fundamentalist movement have later succeeded in becoming such a powerful religious, cultural, and political force without Lyman Stewart’s infusion of California capital? Maybe. Fundamentalism had other wealthy backers in places like Chicago. Adherents to the movement’s tenets could be found all over the country. On the other hand, Stewart’s funds supported the training of thousands of young men and women in a very particular theology, and it equipped these individuals to instill these beliefs in their own churches, missionary societies, and families. His millions strengthened the incipient movement nationwide, and ensured that fundamentalism gained a firm foothold in Los Angeles – a city which would wield unparalleled economic and political power in postwar America.


[1] Frank J. Taylor and Earl M. Welty, The 76 Bonanza: The Fabulous Life and Times of the Union Oil Company of California (Menlo Park, California: Lane Magazine & Book Company, 1966); W. H. Hutchinson, Oil, Land, and Politics: The California Career of Thomas Robert Bard (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965); John Brown and James Boyd, History Of San Bernardino And Riverside Counties: With Selected Biography Of Actors And Witnesses Of The Period Of Growth And Achievement (Madison, Wisconsin: Western Historical Association, 1922), 1314-1315.

[2] Personal correspondence Lyman Stewart to T. C. Horton, 14 September 1911. Lyman Stewart Papers, Biola University Special Collections and Archives.

[3] Brendan Pietsch, “Lyman Stewart and Early Fundamentalism,” Church History 82, no. 3 (2013), 617-646; Darren Dochuk, “Fighting for the Fundamentals: Lyman Stewart and the Protestant Politics of Oil” in Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America, ed. Andrew Preston, Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 41-55

[4]; Personal Correspondence Lyman Stewart to Occidental Board of Trustees, 26 July 1905. See also “Statement made by J. A. Gordon to Board.” Occidental Board Meeting Minutes, Occidental College Special Collections & College Archives; Hutchinson, Oil, Land and Politics, 43; Daniel Draney’s When Streams Diverge: John Murdoch MacInnis and the Origins of Protestant Fundamentalism in Los Angeles (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2008), 70-71

[5] Timothy E. W Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 162-192.

[6] Robert Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 78.

[7] The Los Angeles Times provided extensive coverage of Biola’s construction. See for example, “Final Work On Bible Edifice: Largest Structure Ever Built Exclusively For Religious Education,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1914.

[8] “Inside History of Million-Dollar Gift Is Related: Lyman Stewart,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 1916; “Option Causes Loss Of Stock: Union Oil Ex-Treasurer Gives Views,” Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1916; “Rules Against The Stewarts: Union Oil's Holding Company Invalid,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1916; Taylor and Welty, The 76 Bonanza, 163-170.

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