James Duke and the Methodist Church

  • Religion
  • 1924

“I am going to give a good part of what I make to the Lord,” said tobacco and hydroelectricity entrepreneur James Duke, “but I can make better interest for Him by keeping it while I live.” Duke exaggerated a bit—he was involved in philanthropy during his lifetime—but he did labor to build up a large private fortune that could be entrusted to religious and other social purposes after his passing. In 1924, less than a year before he died, Duke created the Duke Endowment and dedicated it to supporting Carolina hospitals, Carolina orphans, four Carolina universities (especially the future Duke University), and the Methodist church.

“If I amount to anything in this world,” he would say, “I owe it to my daddy and the Methodist church.” Duke instructed the endowment to give 12 percent of its annual payout to Methodist causes—10 percent for the construction and maintenance of rural Methodist churches in North Carolina, and 2 percent for the support of “worn-out” Methodist clergymen and their widows (a common enough risk in the days of Methodist circuit ministry). Duke’s funding allowed Methodist churches to invest in upgraded facilities to meet their communities’ needs, and it provided security in retirement for ministers and their family members who had often known privation during their careers.

Since 1924, the Duke Endowment has distributed nearly $150 million to Methodist causes in North Carolina and the result has been the steady growth of Methodism in the state. Today, North Carolina’s two United Methodist regional groups rank third and eighth in membership size among the nation’s 60 counterparts, with a total of approximately 1,900 churches and 530,000 members in the state.