This is the story of one man whose generosity changed not only one life – but by extension, the world as well.
It’s the story of a Pittsburgh businessman, 400 books – and an act of kindness towards a boy that laid the foundation for the rise of one of the greatest industrialists of his time.
It’s also a story of a squandered opportunity and an indignant, ignorant, and tragic rejection of God.
The businessman was Colonel James Anderson, a veteran of the War of 1812, and a member of the United Presbyterian Church.
The boy was Andrew Carnegie, whose Scottish parents emigrated to America when the youngster was just twelve – poor, destitute, and desperate to find a way in a new country.
Back in Scotland, the Carnegies were handloom weavers. They weren’t wealthy, but they did well enough until they failed to keep up with industrialization. Overwhelmed by competitors who could produce more and do it more quickly with machines, the family’s business was forced to close. Looking for a new start, they borrowed money for passage to America, landing in Allegheny, Pa.
Newly arrived immigrants, Andrew Carnegie and his father, William, landed jobs with a Scottish-owned cotton mill. Resources were meager, with Andrew making just $1.20 a week – but it was something, and it felt good to be contributing to the household’s income.
Around the same time, the teenager was introduced to Colonel James Anderson. What was especially intriguing about this new connection for the ambitious teenager was the fact that Anderson had a personal library in his home that consisted of 400 books.
The veteran had begun a tradition of opening this library on Saturday afternoons to working boys in the area. They were permitted to check out a single book each week – an offer that Andrew Carnegie enthusiastically embraced.
Looking back on the effect of the colonel’s kindness, Carnegie said that in the midst of his weekly visits, “The windows were opened in the walls of my dungeon through which the light of knowledge streamed in.”
He also added:
“Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. And the future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came a new volume could be obtained.”
Andrew Carnegie had witnessed his father lose everything back in Scotland, and he was determined to not let the same thing happen. By reading and studying Colonel Anderson’s books, the future steel magnate began dreaming, making daily deposits in his mind. He was able to see what someday might be.
From the mill he took a position as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then superintendent of the line’s western division. Investment opportunities followed. After the Civil War, Carnegie recognized the need for steel in an expanding country, especially railroad construction and the fact that steel bridges were more durable than wood ones.
The Keystone Bridge Company would eventually become the Carnegie Steel Company. The man who began by earning $1.20 a week would go on to oversee a fortune worth hundreds of billions in today’s dollars. Carnegie’s steel empire changed the world by making all kinds of advancement possible, including Henry Ford’s development of the Model-T.
Andrew Carnegie would trace all his success back to Colonel James Anderson’s books. In fact, the industrialist commissioned and dedicated two bronze sculptures named “Labor” and “Labor Reading” in Allegheny to his first mentor. Carnegie’s philanthropy became legendary, especially his donations around the country that helped start over 2,000 public libraries. The inscription on the Pennsylvania monuments reads:
TO COLONEL JAMES ANDERSON – FOUNDER OF FREE LIBRARIES IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA / HE OPENED HIS LIBRARY TO “WORKING BOYS” AND UPON SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ACTED AS LIBRARIAN THUS DEDICATING NOT ONLY HIS BOOKS BUT HIMSELF TO THE NOBLE WORK – THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE BY ANDREW CARNEGIE ONE OF THE WORKING BOYS TO WHOM WERE THUS OPENED THE PRECIOUS TREASURES OF KNOWLEDGE AND IMAGINATION THROUGH WHICH YOUTH MAY ASCEND
Andrew Carnegie had no trouble lauding his friend – but sadly, when asked about his personal faith, he outrighted rejected God’s existence at all, noting, “Not only had I got rid of the theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.”
It gets even worse.
“The whole scheme of Christian Salvation is diabolical as revealed by the creeds,” he once wrote to Sir James Donaldson, the principal of the University of St. Andrews. “An angry God, imagine such a creator of the universe. Angry at what he knew was coming and was himself responsible for. Then he sets himself about to beget a son, in order that the child should beg him to forgive the sinner. This however he cannot or will not do. He must punish somebody – so the son offers himself up & our creator punishes the innocent youth, never heard of before – for the guilty and became reconciled to us. I decline to accept Salvation from such a fiend.”
Once more we have the story of a rich man who became utterly poor at the final bell, and whose eternal future disappeared with his fortune.
As the years roll on, the names change, but because of the fallen and sinful nature of mankind, human nature does not. Elon Musk is often described as being an atheist or agnostic. The software billionaire Larry Ellison is considered a religious skeptic. Warren Buffett considers himself an atheist or agnostic, too. At 99-years-old, his business partner, Charlie Munger, hasn’t said much about what he believes, though he did once say of his fortune, “I won’t need it where I’m going.” He also once said, “There’s nothing as insignificant as an extra $2 billion to an old man.”
But agnosticism or atheism isn’t limited to the wealthy. We’re surrounded by people of all incomes and professions, many of whom are struggling to see the eternal significance of life itself.
Jesus’ counsel remains as timeless as ever: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Every day is a good opportunity to share our faith with those around us, and to help them know why we believe what we do and why we behave the way we do. But Holy Week is an especially rich time to share the Good News of Jesus with those who do not know Him.
Andrew Carnegie rightly thanked Colonel Anderson – but it never occurred to him that it was Colonel Anderson’s faith in Jesus Christ that inspired him to invest in others, including him.