As I was reading through The Almanac of American Philanthropy by Karl Zinsmeister, I was inspired by the lives of many individuals who transformed society through their charitable giving. One of the individuals was John Rockefeller, Sr. This oil magnate became the richest man of his time, and indeed has a good claim to perhaps being the richest self-made man who ever lived. He was influenced by his mother, a deeply devout Baptist, and was himself an adherent of the northern Baptist church. Rockefeller had a clear conscience about how he won his fortune, saying, “God gave me the money.” Believing that, he felt a profound obligation to put the money to good use. He was the single most generous donor to the northern Baptist conventions, and he underwrote the work of missionaries and relief workers at home and abroad.
Rockefeller benefited seminaries and higher education for African Americans, and he was devoted to medical research. He helped to create, through his funding, the University of Chicago and over the rest of his life gave it a total of $35 million (equivalent to appx. $872 million today). In the later part of his life, he donated 73,000 shares of Standard Oil (worth $50 million then or appx. $1.2 billion today) to establish what has become known as the Rockefeller Foundation. It became the largest foundation of its kind with the mission “to promote the wellbeing of mankind throughout the world.” John Rockefeller gave away approximately $540 million (appx. $13.5 billion today) before his death in 1937 at the age of 97.
This one individual, like countless others, gave of the riches they were blessed with to help and serve others. John Rockefeller, Sr. gave from his heart and convictions. God used him to leave us an example to follow, a rich heritage of generosity that extends beyond his lifetime.
Interestingly, most of Rockefeller’s giving was public, but not his giving to the University of Chicago. This was his personal choice, based on motivations known in his own heart. However, in many cases, by having the right attitude towards his money (openhanded generosity) and being willing to make a statement about the causes he supported (God-honoring education and missions work), we know who John Rockefeller, Sr. truly was. We can be inspired by his legacy and challenged to give more.
The table at the fancy restaurant in New York may be the table of Mammon, but a table for ten friends in your house where you share your story of generosity, of why and how you give, doesn’t have to be. While I encourage you to maintain your own personal convictions, consider adding the power of your name, not just the power of your dollar to support the causes you value. Your giving story can inspire others; sharing your legacy motivation and implementation can awaken others to the possibility of their own giving future.
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