Surprising Things You May Not Know About R.G. LeTourneau and How God Shaped His Life Through Work

December 2nd, 2018

Christians in the workplace need role models—businesspeople who are moored in their faith, who bring glory to God in their work, and who finish well. That’s why the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University is proud to release a new pictorial biography of R.G. LeTourneau's life in 2019 with many amazing things you probably don't know about this outstanding man of God. Here are just a few. 

In the early 1900s, 96 percent of working-class children in America dropped out of school, and 18 percent of the workforce was under age 16. To his parents’ dismay, R. G. LeTourneau quit school after the 7th grade and hired on at East Portland Ironworks. Little did he know that soon he would enter God’s School of Spiritual Formation—and the curriculum would be rigorous. 

While LeTourneau worked hard at the foundry, God was orchestrating a spiritual awakening thousand miles away in Wales, where over 150,000 people trusted in Christ during the 1904 Welch Revival. Residual results rippled across the Atlantic and spawned spiritual revival in cities across America.

Christmas week of 1904, churches in Portland, Oregon, known as the "Unheavenly City," united to hold a city-wide gospel crusade. By spring of 1905, 240 major stores and businesses jointly decided to close daily between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for prayer. Countless people came to Christ, including 16-year-old Robert Gilmore LeTourneau. 

No bolts of lightning hit me. ... I just prayed to the Lord to save me, and then I was aware of another Presence. No words were spoken. I received no messages ... all my bitterness was drained away, and I was filled with such a vast relief that I could not contain it all.

You won’t find a one-size-fits-all spiritual formation formula in the Bible for new believers. Christ’s indwelling Spirit works in, with, and through us, using various means to shape us into the image of Christ. He tries, tests, proves, and matures our faith in laboratories where we live out daily life. Like He does with many of us, God used the workplace as a hands-on lab in the spiritual formation of R.G. LeTourneau.  

It took 15 years from the moment of LeTourneau's spiritual rebirth for God to complete Stage One in the spiritual formation process to shape his character, hone his unique gifts, and sharpen the skills he would need to fulfill his holy calling as an inventor and entrepreneur. 

During those years, he worked as an ironmonger, lead burner, bricklayer, carpenter, gold miner, stump puller, ditch digger, wood chopper, farmer, battery refurbisher, construction worker, tractor repairman, and field leveler, with demoralizing intervals of unemployment in between. He also experienced firsthand the great San Francisco earthquake, survived a broken neck, barely escaped death during the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, and faced financial ruin caused by an unreliable business partner. 

The highlight of those defining years was meeting and marrying the love of his life, Evelyn Peterson. Shoulder to shoulder they would face the joys and calamities of life, including the death of their first child, four-month-old Caleb, who fell victim to the Spanish Influenza and died February 11, 1919. 

It was later that year that LeTourneau knelt at the altar of his church, committed his life wholly to Christ, and experienced a fresh sense of God’s presence. But at the same time, he felt conflicted because he thought whole-life dedication to God meant becoming a preacher, evangelist, or missionary, which produced no small amount of angst in a man who had learned though a potpourri of low-paying positions that he loved machinery, metallurgy, and imagining better ways to move dirt. 

He sought council from his pastor who told him that God needs businessmen as well as preachers and missionaries. In response, LeTourneau committed to be God’s businessman. He recognized that his call to business was a holy calling—and without a how-to manual or mentor, he had to figure out what this looked like on the job. What he did have was a Bible and confidence that God would guide him. 

RG and his machinesEmpowered by God’s Spirit, faith informed how LeTourneau designed machines and built factories that manufactured 70 percent of the earthmoving machines used by the US military in WWII; how he developed equipment to help create America’s interstate highway infrastructure; how he created the first off-shore oil platform to pump oil from below the ocean floor.  

Like all of us, LeTourneau was not perfect. Many days he admitted that he strayed from God, relied on human wisdom, and neglected to give God glory for his accomplishments. But faith guided those times as well, because he trusted in God’s grace and knew he could receive forgiveness. 

How is God shaping your life today at work?