Robert Gilmour LeTourneau was born in Richford, Vermont, USA, on November 30, 1888, into a deeply religious Plymouth Brethren family. His two sisters became missionaries to China.
Not a preacher, not a reformer, not a gospel singer, not a hymn-writer, but a businessman who learned to give Christ first place in his industrial life. Remember that the Lord does not call every believer to stand behind a pulpit, or sing like a nightingale!
Robert was the fourth of eight children, ran away from home at the age of 13, and gave up school at 14 in favour of working in an iron foundry! He continued his education by correspondence. In his late teens he was living in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake. He made money selling pictures of the earthquake and during the rebuilding he was introduced to the welding torch, which became his favourite tool.
Godly parents, Caleb and Elizabeth LeTourneau, were praying for this rebellious son, and at 17 he made a commitment to Christ. By the time he was 28 he was working as a mechanic – and had eloped with his 16 year-old bride.
Robert and wife, Evelyn, became involved with the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. Matthew 6:33 – “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” became his life motto.
In 1909, at age twenty-one, LeTourneau moved to Stockton, California, and began a dirt-moving business. There he built his own scrapers, exploiting the welding skills he had previously learned. At that time scrapers were pulled behind Caterpillar tractors.
LeTourneau had borrowed $4,500 to start his business and he put himself into it with zeal and willingness to innovate.
A significant change came in 1931 when he “made a deal with God”. That year he had lost $32,000. He felt challenged to make God a major partner in his business so he transferred 90% of the shares into a charitable trust and declared “God owns my business”.
The next year he switched to making scrapers, bulldozers, cranes, etc. His 1932 net income was a positive $52,000. He built the first all-welded scraper with electric motors to adjust the blade, and he invented the bulldozer blade that attached to the front of a caterpillar tractor. In 1932 he used rubber tires instead of steel wheels for the first time on heavy equipment when a customer complained that the steel wheels sank in the sand.
In 1937 LeTourneau came up with the idea of a self-propelled scraper, rather than one that is pulled. When Caterpillar refused to make the components he needed, Le Tourneau built it himself. This put him in direct competition to Caterpillar. Development of the self-propelled, scraper-earthmover in the late 1930s placed R. G. LeTourneau Inc. in the forefront of the earth-moving and heavy equipment industry just as World War II was beginning. “Seventy percent of earth moving machinery used by the Allies in World War II was supplied by his company!”
LeTourneau brought dozens of innovations to the industry he helped to create … and millions of dollars have been channelled into evangelical Christian work as a result.
He once said, “If you’re not serving the Lord, it proves you don’t love Him: if you don’t love Him, it proves you don’t know Him. Because to know Him is to love Him, and to love Him is to serve Him.”
He was known as “God’s Businessman” because 90 percent of his company stock was given to the LeTourneau Foundation, which sponsored Christian missions in South America and Africa and financed educational projects. He pioneered industrial chaplaincy for his employees and travelled each weekend to tell large audiences how to apply Christian principles in everyday life. Thus be became a mover of both men and mountains.
Robert G. LeTourneau died in Longview on 1 June, 1969.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.
Tags: caterpillar tractors, christian and missionary alliance, earthmoving equipment, god owns my business, gods businessman, plymouth brethren, robert letourneau, san francisco earthquake, world war ii