Saturday, August 3, 2013

Voiceless Women: Arda J. Rushdoony

Arda June Gent Rushdoony has become an invisible woman.

When her youngest child, Mark Rushdoony, wrote a 20-page biography to celebrate his famous father's 80th birthday, he made no mention of his mother. Not a word about the couple's marriage, their life together, or their divorce.

How does a woman vanish so completely?

* * * * * * 

Born in 1915, Arda Gent (sometimes misspelled Orda) was in Moffat, CO with her parents at the time of the 1920 census. A Lionel Albert Gent (her father's name) was buried in the Moffat cemetery that same year, at the age of 51. By the 1930 census, the young teen Arda and her mother Ida May (Hall) Gent were living in Los Angeles.

Arda Gent's yearbook photo, 1941
The trail picks up again in Spokane, WA where Miss Arda Gent was enrolled in the Presbyterian school Whitworth College (now Whitworth University) in 1939. She was active in the Volunteer Fellowship there, and in demand as a speaker.
Sunday morning the [Whitworth college] male quartet will sing at the Knox Presbyterian church. Sunday evening a gospel team from the Volunteer Fellowship will conduct the senior Christian Endeavor service. On the program will be Carl Blanford, Eugene Marshall and Arda Gent, speakers, and Ellen Menge, pianist. The theme will be "The Christian Life".
Spokane Daily Chronicle, Nov. 1940
In February, The Spokesman-Review listed Arda as an honor student near the top of her class. She was a senior that year; the Whitworth yearbook for 1941 tells us that Arda was the "proud owner of a Ford" but hated "any kind of flat tire".
"A gospel team from Whitworth College Volunteer Fellowship will conduct the Christian Endeavor service Sunday evening at Fourth Presbyterian church. Taking part in the meeting will be Miss Arda Gent and Roy Howes, speakers; Miss Marianne Dresser, soloist; Miss Eleanor Hunter, pianist; John Hook, song leader, and Sydney Eaton, violinist."  Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 8, 1941
Roy Howes was the treasurer of the Volunteer Fellowship at Whitworth in 1939. He graduated in 1942, married a member of the Whitworth women's drill team, and went on to seminary in San Francisco. Eventually, he returned to pastor Millwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane. Ten years after graduating from Whitworth, Roy was still in demand at Whitworth--as a chapel speaker, or toastmaster for the college alumni association banquet. In 1960, Whitworth awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Did sharing a platform with Roy make Arda nervous? Did she blush when their names appeared together? At what point did she plan on becoming a missionary wife--a calling held in high regard at Whitworth? When and where did she meet the philosophical idealist scholar Rousas Rushdoony?

Rushdoony had received his M.A. in 1940, then attended Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and had a ministry to Chinese Americans in San Francisco. Rousas and Arda June married in San Francisco the week before Christmas in 1943, at the beginning of the winter college recess. The following year, at 28 years old, Rousas graduated from seminary, was ordained by the Presbyterian Church, and was sent forth as missionary pastor to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Owyhee, Nevada. Together he and Arda packed his extensive library into a truck and headed for the wilderness mission where they would live for the next eight and a half years.

Rousas found the wild beauty and the isolation of the desolate reservation just south of the Idaho border awe-inspiring. He found he enjoyed hunting and would wander off on lengthy fishing trips by himself, apparently leaving his new bride back at the parsonage ("manse", in Presbyterian parlance).  He wrote to a friend, "I love it here and would gladly remain all my days if God so wills."

Conditions were difficult, however--even primitive. Snows arrived in November and would continue for weeks without respite. Travel was impossible until spring, and even then the muddy roads were frequently impassable. Communication by telegraph and telephone was limited. The mission church was collapsing, with snow drifting through cracks in the walls. Finances were tight. As the months passed, the missionary's enthusiasm predictably cooled.

Rousas reported that the social order of the reservation was threatened by alcoholism, excessive gambling, teenage sex, marital infidelity, and rape. On a Saturday night, Arda would be out till 9:30 using her elocutionary abilities to persuade girls off the street. Then it was Rousas' turn: he would send drunken teens home or put them to bed himself, break up knife fights, and rant about the rampant lawlessness to the government superintendent. At 6 a.m., he would collapse on the day-bed, still fully dressed, for an hour's sleep before getting up to conduct the Sunday service. Rousas described his ministry there as "harsh and ruthless"; he was waging war in God's name, but he wasn't at all sure their side was winning.

Restless and impatient with the work, Rushdoony let his ambitions soar beyond the reservation. He submitted a manuscript to the University of Chicago Press for publication and dreamed of a career in academia. When his work was ultimately rejected, his disappointment was sharp. His dreams shattered, the shepherd felt lost and his letters took on a pessimistic tone. Even as he continued to preach and write, the Reverend Rousas Rushdoony was depressed.

And Arda was exhausted. How could she not be? She bore Rousas four daughters during those eight years and each was given a strong Biblical name: Rebecca, Joanna, Sharon, Martha. Did she deliver at Owyhee's little 20-bed hospital, the one built of native stone? Did Rousas hold her hand, or wait properly outside, or maybe he stayed at the manse to care for the other children? Was Arda's mother ever able to come visit her granddaughters? Was her mother still living? Could she get emotional support from the Native American mothers around her carrying their infants on cradleboards? Or were the cultural differences too vast? Did she learn to speak Paiute or Shoshone?

Owyhee must have been lonely for Arda, especially when Rousas was off traveling. He was invited to speak in New York and made the long journey from city to city by train while she stayed in Nevada waiting for spring. Did she envy his freedom? Did she remember her own popularity as a speaker? Could she still recall, between dishes and diapers and naps and runny noses and quick trips to the latrine, what she'd said at those church meetings back in Spokane? Besides their own little girls, Rousas and Arda had adopted a Native American boy, Ronald Rushdoony. The missionaries had their hands full, at home as well as serving the mission congregation.

In 1953, the Rushdoonys left Duck Valley.* Rousas took a Presbyterian pastorate in Santa Cruz, CA, a retirement town. Their three-bedroom home was adequate, but cozy, especially after Arda birthed another baby. A boy at last! They named him Mark.

Arda and R.J. separated in 1957. According to the court documents, R.J. had custody of the the six children (aged approximately three to eleven years by this time) at their home in Santa Cruz. A year later, Arda filed for divorce, custody, child support, and court costs. She charged her husband with "extreme cruelty" and inflicting "grievous mental suffering" on her. The fight must have been bitter. When the divorce was finalized in 1959, R.J. kept the house, the Plymouth, and custody of the kids. Arda was awarded $1 a month in alimony, and the freedom to be single again.

Around the same time, Reverend Rushdoony transferred his membership (from PC-USA ) to the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. The OPC has a comparatively narrow interpretation of the Biblical texts dealing with divorce, remarriage, and post-divorce ministry. Supposedly, the presbytery investigated the circumstances of R.J.'s divorce and pronounced him the blameless party (and thus still qualified for the ministry).

In May of 1962, The Presbyterian Guardian reported: "Rev. R. J. Rushdoony has resigned as pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, reportedly to devote his time to writing and lecturing." He also remarried--to Dorothy Barbara Ross Kirkwood**.

That year, the court granted Arda custody of the three older children, while R.J. kept the younger three. Both parents were forbidden to discuss, or even mention, each other in front of their offspring. Perhaps this is part of the reason Mark was silent about his mother at his father's birthday celebration.

The divorce, and its terms, certainly scarred the children deeply.

In a 1986 Chalcedon publication, Mark wrote about divorce: "The divorce problem will be solved in a society under God's law because any spouse guilty of capital crimes (adultery, homosexuality, Sabbath desecration, etc.) would be swiftly executed, thus freeing the other part to remarry..." This statement echoes his father's own advocacy for Old Testament-style capital punishment in Institutes of Biblical Law: "Divorce by death made remarriage possible, and freed the innocent partner from bondage to a guilty and unclean person."

Rousas J. Rushdoony died in 2001.

He is remembered in many ways: as the father of Christian Reconstruction, father of the home schooling movement, prolific author, controversial theologian, founder of the Chalcedon Foundation, philosophical influence on America's religious right, and more.

Arda June Gent Rushdoony died in Santa Cruz in 1977.

She is not remembered at all.

*A Wycliffe linguist named Ed Andrews arrived at Owyhee in 1953. He and his wife, Neva, were tasked with translating the New Testament into Paiute. They parked their house trailer behind the Presbyterian "manse". Did Neva get to know the Rushdoonys, or did she arrive after they'd gone?
Lester Pontius replaced Rushdoony as the Presbyterian missionary pastor at Owyhee. He and his wife Margaret had also attended Spokane's Whitworth College, graduating together in 1948. The church's outhouse was in poor repair when Lester's brother visited in 1954, so he dug a new one. He later attended Whitworth College as well.

**[Edited 8/4/13] Dorothy Barbara Ross was born in Pennsylvania.  She and Thomas Gilbert Kirkwood, both aged 21 and residing in Pittsburgh, PA, were issued a marriage license from Brooke County, WV in August of 1932. It appears Dorothy had at least one son: Thomas Kirkwood, Jr., born in 1946 and later living in Santa Cruz.
Mr. Tom Kirkwood was an elder in Rushdoony's new Orthodox Presbyterian Santa Cruz congregation. Dorothy Rushdoony died in California in 2003 and was buried beside her husband, R.J. Rushdoony.


  1. The most fascinating article ever!

  2. Although this article is principally about the story and mystery of the first Mrs. Rushdoony, Mark Rushdoony's comment about divorce reminded me of an article about his venerable father. If you'll permit me the quote. Jerry Falwell once wrote an article criticizing the elder Rushdoony's Reconstructionism, and, as Reason's Walter Olson recounts the article and Mr. Rushdoony's response:

    Among Reconstructionism's highlights, the article cited support for laws "mandating the death penalty for homosexuals and drunkards." The Rev. Rushdoony fired off a letter to the editor complaining that the article had got his followers' views all wrong: They didn't intend to put drunkards to death.

    From their November 1998 issue.

  3. Wow. How achingly sad and horrible. I can't even imagine how awful that marriage was. :-(

  4. I had already rejected Gothardism / Christian Patriarchy by the time I learned of the Reconstructionist connection a couple of years ago. I had no idea, though, that Rushdoony was married. Not at all surprised to find he was cruel...

    1. You discovered from this article that he was cruel? Wow, I hope you never serve on a jury.

    2. Arda left him with 6 children, to "go find herself." Tell me who was "cruel."
      Correction on the article: She knew and met some of her grandchildren (Most were born after her death in 1977). Ask me how I know this, or ask me about the kindest man I've ever known.

    3. @Anonymous June 24 2014:

      Yes, how do you know this?

  5. Joanna RushdoonyJuly 23, 2014 at 4:51 PM

    Your tirade of innuendo and half truths is very upsetting. Why would you write something like that knowing nothing of the circumstances and knowing her children might read it? First of all, let me begin with the fact that my mother was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who refused to take medication. She caused her children and others a great deal of pain. She was institutionalized twice. Both times she admitted herself. Her own paranoia caused her to leave her family, divorce her husband, and then spread rumors that held no truth. It was a painful time and the memories remain painful. She is rarely mentioned because of that pain and in order not to dishonor her memory. Would you be happier if we wrote a Mommy Dearest book? It was and is hard enough to cope with her illness and the problems it created without speculation from outsiders.

    1. Thank you so much for that correction and clarification. History will remember your father as a great Christian man who set the very course of history back onto the pathway to Christ and His eternal kingdom that will one day be completely triumphant. RJ Rushdoony will be remembered as instrumental in Christ's ultimate victory. He sits alongside great men of the church.

    2. Joanna .. is it possible that your mother was paranoid because her husband believed that rebellious children ought to be executed. Seems to me that if i were married to such a person I would be crazy too.

    3. Dear Joanna, Thank you for replying to this post about your mother. I am sorry that you have had to endure such hateful comments, but it is often the way of life. I just received a copy of your father's poetry in a little book called The Luxury of Words. It has greatly ministered to me. His words are deeply meaningful expressing his failings, faults, humblings, combined with determination and zeal for the Lord. He knew he was not a perfect man, as none of us are. The poems are dated and I was curious to see what poems might correspond to the divorce. I am sorry about your mother and can relate in a limited sense because my mother also suffered from mental illness, but to a much lesser extent. Your mother was obviously a gifted woman, who stepped forth into serious ministry for her Lord. Ministry of any type is often very depleting work, as it was for my mother. We are now coming to understand that many forms of mental illness are caused from the depletion of vitamins, minerals and amino acids that cause chemical imbalances in the brain. They are often depleted because of stress and poor protein intake. It was obviously a very stressful time for your mother and father on the Indian reservation, with very little outside support and encouragement. I hope that we will soon have a much greater understanding to cure mental illness outside the psychiatric wards and pharmacies, which have completely failed us.

    4. Wow, just read this, guess what they dont know wont hurt, Arda was a self serving woman, brutal and uncaring

  6. RJ was a monster.

  7. Monster is accurate.

  8. Joanna, it is clear the blogger wrote no "half-truths or innuendo," but only asked questions about what happened.

  9. This article seems to state that Arda's actions were caused by loneliness on the reservation, and yet all her children remember her condition as worsening when Rousas (for Arda's sake) moved to the move active community of Santa Cruz.

    So we are to believe an article that is full of accusations, but has no references where the information was gathered? This author has no relationship with Arda, Rousas (RJ), or his children, and yet claims to be better informed than Arda's immediate family and friends.

  10. I had so many questions when I wrote this article. My speculative curiosity flushed out at least more of the facts, and for that I am grateful, though I still have questions.

    Mental illness went untreated in my childhood home, so I feel for Arda and her family. I wonder when she began showing symptoms, what was the cause, and what steps were taken to get her the help she needed. It was a different time...

    My sources are publicly available on the internet, and yet Arda's very existence has been largely kept a secret from RJ's many followers. He had much to say and, as the "Father of Christian Reconstructionism" and "Father of the Homeschooling Movement", greatly influenced my childhood. I wonder what *she* would say if she could speak to us about his character and beliefs.

  11. Dear Jeri and Friends, I am saddened to read of yet another missionary who dissed his wife. There is no excuse for this. Don't these guys read the Bible!

    1. Wives in the Bible didn't fare so well, either. When they were mentioned at all.

  12. This article was cited in "Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism" by Michael McVicar and published by University of North Carolina. As a Jeri fan of long standing, I'm chuffed. Here is the (long) link:

    1. I so appreciated McVicar sharing his research with me. I was happy mine could contribute in a small way!

      Thank you for sharing this. I too am "chuffed".

  13. Johanna im so sorry knowing Arda for the person she was, and the hurt she caused, no one has a right to judge Rousas, as i knew him as a kind and quiet man