Symposium Introduction

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

SuttonAll signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Sutton’s book provides a history of the defining political role apocalypticism has played in post-War evangelical thought, which he believes never really broke from its fundamentalist roots. His argument hinges on the premise that the evangelical movement is ensnared in the eschatological logic of premillennial dispensational theology. This doctrine suggested that in the run-up to the last days, the state of the world would worsen. Proponents of this view believed the Bible offered numerous signs to warn Christians that the end was near. As in the days of Noah, the world would be writ large with decadence and moral laxity. There would be great wars, natural disasters and false teachers who would lead the faithful astray.

Yet the telltale signs of the coming apocalypse—drawn from the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelations—demanded the fulfillment of two prophecies: Jews would regain their homeland, and central governments would considerably grow. The expansion of governments, so the argument goes, would eventually evolve into a one-world order. Leading the new global government would be a peaceful leader, who in due time would reveal his true colors as the anti-Christ. This figure would declare war on humanity, but the faithful would escape his wrath by being transported—‘raptured’—to heaven. Eventually Jesus would return to Earth—the so-called ‘Second Coming’—and defeat the antiChrist during the battle of Armageddon. Thereafter, Christ would establish his millennial reign.

On this reading evangelical suspicions of Obamacare and social welfare programs are the residual effect of an anti-statism theology that sees increasing government as a foreboding sign of the anti-Christ. The fight against the welfare state is thus ultimately rooted in the attempt to prevent an expanding government apparatus the Antichrist will take advantage of to establish his “one world” empire.

Neo-liberalism and conservative Evangelicalism converge exactly here. Perhaps one could even say that neoliberalism is a secularized anti-eschatology. To prevent the coming of the beast a strong state is necessary so as to enforce a Christian code of conduct. A truly Christian nation is a sign that the age of wickedness preceding the Anti-Christ’s emergence is not on the horizon. Hence the way which Sutton solves the paradox of evangelicals suspicion of “big government” and simultaneous desire to legislate morality and support the state of Israel. The incoherency of the doctrine, of course, is that the appearance of the anti-Christ also signifies the eventual return of Christ—a paradox that Sutton is quick to point out.

Leaving consistency aside, even if the apocalypse has faded to the background of evangelical thought, it has left, Sutton seems to argue, an indelible mark on how evangelicals view the State and its social responsibilities. His message is thus tragically clear: a bizarre theology—one that has led to all kinds of false predictions and ill-founded anxieties (the pilot has been raptured—who will fly the plane?)—has clearly played, and continues to play, a major role in shaping American political life.

As the responses to this forum indicate, there are many directions that one can take Sutton’s argument. Janine Giordano Drake, for instance, does not think that the apocalyptic worries of fundamentalists and evangelicals have been all that different from the political sentiments many conservatives outside these movements expressed throughout the twentieth century. For Fred Sanders American Apocalypse is not apocalyptic enough: there are many forms of American evangelical apocalypticism, argues Sanders, that are absent from Sutton’s story.

Interestingly, Sutton spends considerable time discussing how African American premillennialists differed from their white evangelical counterparts. African Americans often viewed racism, Christian hypocrisy, and social injustice as a sign of the end times. In her commentary Rachel Schneider pushes Sutton’s analysis further by placing his narrative within the context of the evangelical discourse of racial reconciliation that emerged during the 1990s.

Joel Carpenter—one of the leading historians of twentieth century Evangelicalism—expresses concern that Sutton’s book does not take serious enough the lived experiences and practices of fundamentalists and evangelicals. Instead, Carpenter sees them as unfairly forced into Sutton’s apocalyptic hermeneutic. In this regard, Joe Creech takes aim at Sutton’s definition of Christian fundamentalism and particularly challenges him do more by way of broadening the term. As the responses to this forum demonstrate, Sutton’s rendering of twentieth century evangelicalism challenges traditional historical narratives and makes for fascinating reading.

Fred Sanders

Response

Elective Eschatological Affinities

THE OPENING SCENE IS the sinking of the Titanic, which evangelist Philip Mauro aboard the rescue ship Carpathia interpreted on the spot as “an epitome, a miniature, of the great shipwreck that is coming in the fast-approaching day when the Lord shall rise to shake terribly the earth” (2). The closing scene is Billy Graham, ninety-one years old in 2010 and more convinced than ever that in current events he can hear the hoof beats of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and that their sound is “closing in on the place you now sit reading” (373). In between, Matthew Sutton “draws on a lively cast of characters and extensive archival research” (ix) to deliver what has been hailed as the first major interpretation of evangelicalism since Marsden’s. Sutton has taken a deep dive into the archives and resurfaced with fistfuls of treasures and curiosities for us. I am an amateur historian with an abiding interest in many of these figures and movements, and I found the book delightfully instructive on page after page. Sutton shows his readers many new things, and views most of the old, familiar things from a new perspective.

That perspective is apocalypticism, a belief which Sutton claims “provided radical evangelicals with a framework through which to interpret their lives, their communities, and the future, which in turn often inspired, influenced, and justified the choices they made” (4). The thesis of American Apocalypse is that this ideology “filled in blanks, rationalized choices, and connected dots” for evangelicals, or, as Sutton calls them, “premillennialists-turned-fundamentalists-turned-evangelicals” (373), a five-word-four-hyphen-eighteen-syllable monster of a synthetic term, strange as anything seen by John the Revelator, that rises out of the abyss on this book’s penultimate page! Whether apocalypticism was what “filled in blanks, rationalized choices, and connected dots” for the book’s characters or not, there can be no doubt that it serves that purpose for the book’s author. Previous histories have indeed failed to register the pervasive influence of the sheer volume of premillennialist prophecy conferences, Scofield notes, eschatology charts, and endtimes journal reports. Sutton compensates, and it’s about time somebody did.

As the master explanatory category, apocalypticism is for Sutton much like what vocation was for Max Weber. It explains the forms of life adopted by vast groups of people during the formative time when a new system of intuitive associations was taking hold. At its most Weberian moments, American Apocalypse reads like it could have been titled The Premillennial Ethic and the “Spirit” of Political Conservatism. Weber’s genealogical method carefully sidestepped making direct claims of causation, instead focusing on “how to explain, from the economic point of view, those elective affinities [Wahlverwandtschaften] of the bourgeoisie with certain styles of life (affinities that reveal themselves repeatedly, in constantly varying but fundamentally similar manner).” Sutton’s elective affinities are eschatological. He documents how evangelicals developed their view of the endtimes and used it to read current events and make decisions about political involvement.

This explains a great deal about the early decades of the movement. Even those evangelicals (and there were many of them) who insistently refused to share the premillennial eschatology seemed to align more or less with a widespread pattern of social engagement and disengagement that was set by the prophecy conference people, those who explicitly argued that since Jesus is coming soon they ought to invest their time and energy more strategically for immediate effect. When conservative evangelicals differed from each other in their eschatologies during this period, they nevertheless shared the experience of losing their status and influence in the established denominations and in American culture. They were all scrambling to establish new institutions and find new avenues of influence.

Perhaps the premillennial eschatology equipped its adherents with enough expectations of apostasy, and enough pessimism about institutions, to make quick sense of this shared experience of exile. But the evangelicals who operated with different eschatologies couldn’t shelter under premillennial plausibility structures forever, and as the decades moved along, the various types of evangelicals shook apart from each other on these very issues. Perhaps this is why, as the story wends its way through the twentieth century, Sutton’s master category of apocalypticism begins to yield diminishing returns. The first three chapters are, pardon the term, revelatory. But chapter 4 floats free of the apocalyptic theme almost entirely. Even as Sutton continues his masterful narration (here about “the culture wars,” public morals, race, and gender), he has to settle for mere pessimism as a leitmotif, a temperament considerably less specific than an eschatology. In chapter 5, the apocalyptic lens delivers rather more, providing insights about public and private education, as well as debates about the merit of long-term cultural investment and institution-building. But the centerpiece of this chapter is Sutton’s brilliant reframing of the Scopes trial. Even in Sutton’s telling, which extricates it from the oversimplifications of a defeat-and-retreat narrative, the story of the Scopes trial tends in the opposite direction from the apocalyptic thesis: William Jennings Bryan “had no expectation of a coming apocalypse but was still the same reformer who had advocated woman suffrage, direct election of senators, and a graduated income tax.” In other words, his eschatological expectations were postmillennial. After the well-documented initial infusion of premillennial excitement, rival eschatologies were increasingly at play among fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals.

It is the absence of other eschatologies from American Apocalypse that limits its effectiveness as a general account of evangelical religion or social engagement in the twentieth century, and especially as it rounds the corner into the twenty-first. For decades, evangelicals have been acutely conscious of, even irritated by, eschatological diversity in their ranks: They are aware of a continuous stream of rather sober evangelical amillennialism, which generally obliges its adherents to seek political guidance in other doctrines. They are aware of major differences between historic premillennialism (which doesn’t envision a secret rapture) and dispensational premillennialism (which usually does). And they are aware of a resurgent postmillennialism, which does not passively await the kingdom descending from heaven but intends to build it here, with the stated goal of Christianizing the American government and the world order at all levels before Jesus returns. When Sutton’s tone of voice occasionally moves from the “aren’t evangelicals weird” register (perfectly captured by the satiric book cover) to the “aren’t evangelicals scary” register, it’s peculiar that the postmillennialists, the reconstructionists, the theonomists, and the Christian identity people fail to put in an appearance. If their absence is defensible on the grounds that Sutton isn’t telling their story, that’s fair enough. But then he’s patently not giving “the definitive general account of evangelicalism’s spectacular growth as a political and cultural force in the twentieth century,” as a blurb on the back cover promises. (I know, no author should have to defend blurbs. But still.)

Though they are a matter of some subtlety, the differences among these various eschatologies really do matter. Sutton’s thesis gives him a ringside seat on why, and no doubt the archives in which he spent so much time were full of eschatological debates extensive enough to weary the most committed historian. But as a narrator Sutton is so consistent in maintaining an observer’s point of view that he frequently settles for skimming over the details of how his subjects reached their conclusions. Here and there a telling phrase indicates his impatience with the exegetical and doctrinal reasoning involved. “More than simple debates over theology were at stake” (80), he reports; but no participant would consider these debates about theology to be “simple,” and for an observer to do so is to lapse in attentiveness. With a few lovely exceptions (a careful reading of the elusive eschatology of The Fundamentals; a deft account of how Pentecostals cut the Gordian knot of Joel 2’s partial fulfillment in Acts 2), Sutton hovers so far above the crucial hermeneutical maneuvers that the reader rarely gets a sense of what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation. Drawing attention to another point, Sutton inadvertently quotes Lewis Sperry Chafer praising J. N. Darby for being the first to recover “the Pauline doctrine of the Church.” That sounds interesting, because it is interesting: why does Chafer think of his system as specifically Pauline (in contrast to, say, a system driven by the book of Revelation)? But American Apocalypse leaves just off camera the crucial information a reader would need to reconstruct the exegetical pathway of premillennialism. As a result, we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire these characters to think this way. The thin description of their scriptural reasoning is inadequate to account for the groups being observed, in much the way that today’s popular-level generalizations about Islam leave Americans without the relevant basic categories for understanding a text-and-interpretation-driven complex like the Muslim faith. This robs Sutton’s thesis of what might have developed into actual predictive power, because sustained attention to the character of evangelical arguments about eschatology since the 1970s would have indicated something new under the sun. For that story, readers should consult Russell Moore’s 2004 The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. There Moore descends far enough into the arcana of evangelical eschatology to trace an emerging style of political and social engagement explicitly driven by a refined biblical eschatology. Since publishing that book, Moore has taken a prominent role as a spokesperson for evangelicals in the public square. Sutton’s apocalyptic focus should have been uniquely able to detect the transformation signaled by Moore’s work.

But somewhere around the halfway point of the book, Sutton becomes interested in why evangelicals vote Republican. Since this is also somewhere near where the explanatory power of the apocalyptic thesis begins to wane, the result is several relatively dull chapters with a familiar parade of Hal Lindseys and Reagans and Falwells. There is still plenty of good research here, but it gets buried under familiar tropes and conventional wisdom that could easily be culled from the weekly news magazines of the time period. Perhaps the ’80s were just that dull. Or perhaps the apocalyptic key simply doesn’t turn smoothly in the locks of that later period, threats of nuclear apocalypse notwithstanding.

As a bold attempt to read American evangelical history in a pervasively eschatological key, American Apocalypse succeeds on the whole, rising to the level of a truly fresh reading of patterns of thought and behavior that reach considerably beyond the sometimes fringe-dwelling, sometimes numerically small groups who drove the apocalyptic conversation. Sutton opens up a horizon of interpretation in which a range of rival eschatologies should also be examined. By failing to situate evangelical apocalypticism in the context of rival, secular eschatologies, Sutton misses the chance to make the most of his analysis. American Apocalypse, in other words, isn’t eschatological enough. Consider the rival eschatologies that vie with premillennialism. Many of the characters in the second half of this book took international communism at its word to be a counter-story about where the world was going, and what the final resolution of history would reveal the ultimate meaning of human life. What historian of the movement has taken it seriously precisely as eschatology? For that matter, before midcentury the denominational establishment that opposed fundamentalism and evangelicalism expressly colluded with old money, new capital, and American patriotism to secure the promise of Christian progress toward a managed utopia. The course of the century rendered it unfashionable to present this optimism as an eschatology, but the tools Sutton uses to track the subtle influence of eschatology could provide more light than the participants could provide for themselves. Much of the environmental movement has been animated by a characteristic eschatological schizophrenia, alternating between visions of doom and visions of rescue. The stubborn paradox of apocalyptic activism—that those who are most convinced of the irreversible nature of our decline are the same ones who do the most to bring about change—seems to hold in ecological eschatology as firmly as in evangelical. All these rival eschatologies, more or less present and active, more or less explicit and self-conscious, tend to operate according to the logic of futurist projection: reasoning forward from current signs and tendencies, they offer a portrayal of where we could be headed. The evangelical eschatologies of American Apocalypse also participate in this projectionist dynamic, no doubt, in spite of their stated intentions. But in, with and under those analogical modes of reasoning toward the future, eschatologies informed by ancient prophecies (and I would include here at least Jewish and Muslim eschatologies) also operate with modes of scriptural reasoning utterly lacking to other popular eschatological systems. In a marketplace of merely projectionist eschatologies, the scripturally reasoned ones hold out the hope of surprise, and surprise is the very thing projective futurism cannot deliver. Apparently in the modern world we can live without prophecy, but we can’t live without an eschatology. And who knows what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? Who indeed.

  • Matthew Sutton

    Matthew Sutton

    Reply

    Those Wacky Premillennialists: Response to Fred Sanders

    Fred Sanders does not like certain parts of the story that I tell in American Apocalypse and he is especially concerned that my “tone of voice occasionally moves from the ‘aren’t evangelicals weird’ register . . . to the ‘aren’t evangelicals scary’ register.” Sanders’ review suggests that he was hoping I would write a heroic story of evangelical diversity and inclusivity. But that’s simply not the story the sources reveal.

    First, rather than tell the story of premillennialism as the most significant theological factor in shaping fundamentalist and then evangelical identity, Sanders prefers that I emphasize the many minority eschatological positions that have long existed among American Protestants.

    In fact, he believes that the book is “not eschatological enough.” He wishes that I paid more attention to other evangelical and non-evangelical visions of the end. Certainly they exist and I do talk about the waning of strident apocalypticism among evangelicals in the postwar era (351) and its increasing diversity in recent years including the reconstructionist revival of postmillennialism (368).

    But mine is not a book about competing eschatologies. It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology. Premillennialism helped propel the rise of fundamentalism from the early twentieth century until World War II, and has continued to shape evangelicalism in profound ways in the postwar years.

    Sanders’ own institution is a case in point. There may be eschatological diversity in recent evangelicalism, but not in La Mirada, California. According to their statement of faith, Biola University’s leaders believe that premillennialism is as nonnegotiable as the inerrancy of Scripture and the virgin birth.

    Second, Sanders dislikes chapter 4, where I highlight fundamentalists’ racism, sexism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. He claims that it “floats free of the apocalyptic theme almost entirely.”

    Not really. As I explained in my prologue: apocalypticism “never functioned in isolation from other factors. . . . The conviction that Armageddon was imminent worked in concert with other ideas and beliefs, sometimes conscious and sometimes not, in mutually reinforcing ways to structure the ideology and behavior of its adherents. Apocalypticism . . . filled in blanks, rationalized choices, and connected dots, all the while making options more urgent and compromise unlikely” (3–4).

    Also in chapter 4, I offer numerous examples of this apocalypticism-in-action. Rather than floating free of my theme, I make clear at the beginning of that chapter:

    As humankind approached the last days, the faithful believed that a series of cultural and moral signs would herald the coming apocalypse. Jesus had told his disciples that at the time of his return conditions would parallel those that forced God to destroy the entire world during Noah’s generation and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Lot (Luke 17:26–28). Social, cultural, and sexual debauchery, fundamentalists believed, had provoked God’s judgment on ancient cultures and humans’ unrighteous behavior would call down God’s wrath again. . . . Fundamentalists saw echoes of the world of Noah in popular amusements like the theatre, movies, and dancing and they believed that widespread challenges to traditional gender and racial hierarchies matched the chaotic social order that doomed Sodom and Gomorrah. . . . Completing the revolution that radical evangelicals had begun at the turn of the century, fundamentalists transformed premillennial apocalypticism into a moral crusade on contemporary culture. (116–17)

    Too many historians have ignored this part of the story for too long. I was not going to be another one, especially since my subjects explicitly tied their culture warring to their last days eschatology.

    Third, Sanders wishes I had not spent as much time as I did on some familiar figures (men who sell a whole lot more books than me and Sanders!). I bored him with my “dull chapters” that begin “somewhere around the halfway point of the book” with “a familiar parade of Hal Lindseys and Reagans and Falwells.” Sanders is no mathematician, so we can forgive him his sins, but the turn to recent history is not at the book’s halfway point. I spent nine chapters and 292 pages getting to the end of World War II and two chapters and 83 pages on post-World War II evangelicalism. Lindsey, Reagan, and Falwell only appear in the final chapter.

    I hope other readers will not agree that Billy Graham, civil rights, or Tim LaHaye are dull since these chapters serve one of the core arguments of the book. “I do not draw a sharp distinction,” I explained in the preface, “between the politics and tactics of pre-World War II fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism. Post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their depression-era predecessors and historians have generally accepted the narratives of their subjects” (xiv).

    Sanders prefers that I follow suit. He not only wants to distance evangelicalism from interwar fundamentalism, but also from the best-selling authors and highest profile activists of his generation.

    I continue, “However, the priorities of pre-war fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals remained far more alike than not. They held remarkably similar views on issues of the state, the economy, women’s roles, African American civil rights, organized labor, and popular culture. The principle change in the postwar era was one of effectiveness, growth in numbers of adherents, and public image. Their ideology and agenda remained consistent” (xiv).

    I included Lindsey and Falwell in this story because they—like Carl Henry and Billy Graham—show how the story I told about the first half of the twentieth century impacted the second half. My invocation of the postwar characters had one goal: substantiating this argument.

    What did Sanders want instead of chapter 4’s racism and chapter 11’s Jerry Falwell? He worries that my “thin description” of evangelicals’ “scriptural reasoning is inadequate.” Sanders is right in that I could have spent a lot more time and space explaining the ways in which apocalypticism developed in evangelicals’ minds. But that simply wasn’t my goal. I am far more interested in understanding the significance and the implications of that theology than in deconstructing it. Furthermore, my hope was to reach a broad readership. I slogged through Lewis Sperry Chafer and H. A. Ironside so that others don’t have too. Sanders may not be thanking me, but I suspect most readers are.

    Sanders is in good company in worrying about my voice and objectivity. Another reviewer worried that American Apocalypse represented “a protracted brief in favor of” fundamentalists, “the very worst elements of the American emotional makeup.” Therefore, he warned, my book “should be very, very wary reading.”

    So the bottom-line: I can’t win. Those thoroughly hostile to fundamentalism are deeply troubled that I take fundamentalists seriously at all. Meanwhile at least one theologian at a premillennialism-affirming evangelical institution believes I don’t take their diversity seriously enough.

    Perhaps in the end this means my approach was just right.

    • Janine Giordano Drake

      Janine Giordano Drake

      Reply

      Talking about “Stakes” for Premillenialist Hermeneutics

      Sanders is concerned that “the reader rarely gets a sense of what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.” He is concerned that Sutton is not reading dispensationalists empathetically enough, and that he came to the archive with a set of questions (such as those relating to politics and race) which don’t particularly match the core interests of dispensationalists.

      Sutton, on the other hand, wants readers to know that the moments where Fundamentalists distance themselves from discussions (on race or politics, for example) are important moments to capture and report upon. As Sutton puts it in his book and defends in his comment, ““I do not draw a sharp distinction,” I explained in the preface, “between the politics and tactics of pre-World War II fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism. Post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their depression-era predecessors and historians have generally accepted the narratives of their subjects” (xiv).

      I think both of these comments are tremendously important.  I applaud Sutton for doing the hard work of connecting pre- World War II dispensationalism with post World War II evangelicalism and doing what social historians call “reading between the lines.” I agree that Sutton is most interested in the partnerships between the GOP and Fundamentalism, and that perhaps this should have been indicated in the book’s title. But, I think this research makes important contributions to political history.

      Nevertheless, I, too, wanted a more empathetic reading of premillenialists’ interests in Bible prophecy about the end times and attitutes toward–say, the League of Nations, Communism, FDR, and the cultural revolutions of the postwar era. I think Tim Gloege does a good job writing about Moody’s ministries empathetically even while he is critical of the machine they produced. Meanwhile, I have read so many books on the Religious Right now (books by Leo Ribuffo, Darren Dochuk, Daniel Williams) which depict the same host of Fundamentalist ministers like J. Frank Norris as Republicans thinly veiling their politics as religion. I’m inclined to think that they are all correct–that there isn’t much more to be said about this religion other than political commentary. But, I’m not sure.

      I’d like to know Sanders: What would you add to Sutton’s book to more empathetically unpack the dispensationalist perspectives of late nineteenth and early twentieth century evangelicals?

      And, to Sutton: Do you think that historians of social and political history need to understand the what was at “stake” for fundamentalists according them? Do you think an early twentieth century Fundamentalist would recognize himself or herself in your book?

    • Rachel Schneider

      Rachel Schneider

      Reply

      Rival Eschatologies and Alternate Possibilities

      I was very intrigued by Fred Sanders’ discussion of alternate or rival eschatologies and the broader question that this discussion raises regarding the distinctiveness of white evangelical apocalyptic/premillennial beliefs vis-à-vis other social groups. I too wondered about the subtle differences between actors while reading American Apocalypse.

      Sutton’s ample archival material and subsequent analysis suggests that evangelical actors were never uniform in their beliefs, and that they were never settled on one definition or interpretation of premillennialism, or perhaps millennialism of any kind. Sanders importantly suggests that we must consider the existence and impact of different eschatologies among conservative evangelicals. He goes on to argue that in-depth exploration of such differences could help further illuminate why evangelicals gravitated towards the beliefs that they did.

      Indeed, after reading Sanders’ essay, I was left wondering about the significance or impact of alternate eschatologies among evangelicals over the course of the twentieth century. Sanders seems familiar with these nuances, and I would like to hear him expand on their social and political significance, especially in relation to premillennialism.

      Sanders’ call to attend to rival eschatologies also prompted me to revisit American Apocalypse. There, I found many moments where Sutton goes out of his way to acknowledge that there were multiple religious movements in opposition to theological modernism and attracted to political conservativism during the twentieth century. While recognizing internal debates and diversity among prominent fundamentalists and evangelicals, Sutton nevertheless argues that  premillennialism (or at least premillennial modes of thinking) clearly carried the debate and became identified (especially in the eyes of critics and in the popular imagination) as one of the core elements of fundamentalist/evangelical religion.

      Sanders’ review helped me realize that perhaps more evidence could have been given to substantiate Sutton’s claim of premillennial dominance, because as many of the other commentators noted,  apocalyptic thinking is not unique or particular to fundamentalists or evangelicals. In this regard, Sutton could have been more explicit about the ways various eschatologies interacted with and shaped one another. On the other hand, Sutton does pay significant attention to the differences between post- and pre-millennialism as well as differences between African American and white evangelicals, and these differences yield fascinating insights. Sutton also notes how political, religious, and economic leaders fluctuated in their degree of connection, coalition, and divergence, especially on matters of prophecy.

      Sanders points to one additional dimension that could have been fleshed out more fully in American Apocalypse—mainly, the role of differing hermeneutics  and exegetical reasoning among the figures featured; that is, how conservative evangelicals arrived at the conclusions that they did through their interpretation of sacred texts.

      On this point, Sanders is right that Sutton is far more descriptive and interpretive of various conservative evangelical hermeneutics than he is explanatory of them. I certainly recognized this tendency while reading, but I assumed that this was a necessary trade-off for Sutton’s ambitious scope and genealogical approach. And I must admit I was happy to make the trade-off due to my own interest in the public, social and political role of evangelical Christianity. In this regard, I found Sanders’ connection of American Apocalypse to other contemporary social movements (such as environmentalism) and call to explore other forms of “apocalyptic activism” timely and important. As all the reviewers noted, Sutton’s work has broad potential for opening up new scholarly avenues of research beyond the study of evangelicals.

      Finally, Sander’s connection between Sutton and Weber is quite apt. Sutton is very Weberian in that he shows the surprising and unintended consequences of premillennial apocalyptic beliefs in the public sphere as well as the contingency of how these beliefs were legitimated and propagated in light of external events and alternate possibilities. I had to chuckle at the suggestion that the book should have been titled The Premillennial Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Political Conservativism. While this approach may ultimately not be satisfying for Sanders, it seems to me that Sutton consciously chose to foreground the relationship between apocalyptic beliefs, external events and social forces in shaping modern evangelicalism over and above the role of exegetical reasoning. I assume that Sutton does so because his concern is primarily with how evangelicals rendered their action meaningful in the public sphere in light of their apocalyptic beliefs as well as the social, cultural, and political effects of these beliefs.

Janine Giordano Drake

Response

Was the “Politics of Apocalypticism” Really about Premillennialism?

IN THE 1920s, FUNDAMENTALISTS spoke of alcohol, prostitution, and Broadway as absolute evils. In the 1930s, they spoke of communism and totalitarianism as prophesied elements of the end times. By the 1950s, this radical religious movement became mainstream. Fundamentalists now “positioned themselves as the legitimate guardians of the nation” (266) as they defended the American military and even the inevitability of nuclear warfare. While their Protestant ancestors may have understood their calling within a participatory democracy differently, premillennialists anticipated the imminent destruction of the world. They saw no need for Americans to compromise with declared enemies on either domestic or international affairs.

In his American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Matthew Sutton shows that premillennialism, the idea that Christ will return to a predictable, war-torn world, is absolutely necessary to understanding American political history since the 1880s. For, in constructing certain ideas and figures as absolute enemies and absolute evils, Fundamentalists “challenged the democratic tradition of pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus” (6). Once a fringe movement within evangelicalism and later a significant but still “radical” element within evangelicalism, Fundamentalists eventually changed the political posture of the Grand Old Party. Fundamentalists flirted with free-market and pro-military elements of the Republican Party in the early and mid-twentieth century, but they stood strongly behind the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan and have had significant influence within the party ever since (355).

Sutton’s term “politics of apocalypticism” is an important new lens through which American political historians will assess the twentieth century. It helps us understand Fundamentalist Americans’ unflagging support for American nationalism and their unwillingness to compromise with socialists and social democrats on both domestic and foreign policy objectives throughout the twentieth century. It also helps us understand Fundamentalist Americans’ political posture on certain elements of the culture wars. The term suggests a revision in the cause-effect relationship assumed by many narratives of conservative evangelicalism, which have only traced the movement back to the New Deal era. Instead of placing the genesis of radical, religious conservatism in the relationships built between Fundamentalist Southern pastors and politicians supporting “free enterprise” in the 1930s, Sutton shows that premillennialists had a much longer history of support for the Grand Old Party in both domestic and foreign policy objectives.1 Radical premillennialists were against the expansion of the federal government under Woodrow Wilson, against the League of Nations, and interested in the creation of a state of Israel from the 1910s. Moreover, their support for the expansion of the US military at nearly any cost can be traced at least back to the First World War.

The book is more of a political biography of premillennialists between 1880 and 1980 than it is a rigorous defense of its thesis. In fact, the book leaves out much context for determining whether the American “politics of apocalypticism” really did start in the 1880s, with premillennial dispensationalism. One is convinced that the apocalypticism of premillennial theologies influenced these particular Protestants’ posture toward their broader culture, but the author provides little evidence to suggest that non-premillennialists maintained any tradition of “pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus.” Moreover, little evidence is offered to suggest that this attitude was not also shared with American Protestant and Catholic conservatives as well. While there is no doubt that theological convictions about the impending apocalypse fanned the flames of doggedly nationalist, militarist, free-market, and anti-socialist political convictions, Sutton does not prove that this was the major cause of this political posture on the Right. Likewise, the fact that folks on Left and Right in the twentieth century each mobilized a rhetoric of absolute “evil” and personal conscience “until the Lord returns” suggests that perhaps premillennialism was only one of many causes of the politics of apocalypticism and the breakdown of governance by compromise during this period.

The breadth of Sutton’s project—surveying all of American political history between 1880 and 1980—means that his depth of sources within each particular era is limited, and thus many generalizations could be further qualified. Sutton argues, for example, that Dwight L. Moody and the Moody Bible Institute were on the religious fringe for their day, for they were premillennialists who emphasized the spirituality of the church and minimized involvement in party politics in an era predominated by the Social Gospel. Sutton writes that on the other hand,

Most American Protestants in the nineteenth century, liberals and conservatives, believed the world was growing more and more Christian and that the kingdom of God would soon appear on earth as a result of their faithful efforts. The return of Christ would follow after the establishment of this millennium. Many even believed that the United States, like ancient Israel, was the vehicle through which God would perfect the world. Such sentiments had animated American Christians since colonial times and had helped inspire the Social Gospel movement. (21)

However, do we know that most American Protestants “believed” in this perfectibility of the world in the nineteenth century, or do we simply know that many were told to believe this by prominent, middle-class pastors? There is a difference. Considering the initially strong opposition to US entry into the Great War, we also cannot be sure how many Christians expected that God would perfect the world through the United States. One might just as easily argue that the reason Social Gospel acolytes like Walter Rauschenbush needed to defend and elaborate on the possibilities of a Social Gospel at the start of the twentieth century was because most Protestants did not really want to see renewed social relationships between the rich and poor or reconstructed terms for industrial enterprise. One might argue that the reason the liberal Federal Council of Churches formed by the major Protestant denominations in 1908 was because of these clergy’s own sense of embattlement as the sole voices of social and economic renewal. Historians have shown that there were no direct connections between postmillennialism and interest in social work or social transformation. Premillennialists engaged in social work as vigorously as postmillennialists, just as members of both camps also rejected the need for substantial social “reconstruction.”2

If the rise of premillennialism did not significantly reorient the political and cultural objectives of American Protestants, then the argument that premillennialism is the cause of this new political posture is much less convincing. Complicating matters further, many Social Gospel leaders held similarly stalwart political views to their premillennial counterparts. Clergy like Charles Stelze were just as enthusiastic about the need for the church to stand outside and above politics, equally as dismissive of socialism, and just as hesitant to support military expansion during World War I. The only significant political difference between the two theological camps in the early twentieth century was their position on the League of Nations, and that was after considerable conferencing between the Woodrow Wilson administration, Andrew Carnegie’s peace endowment, and Social Gospel clergy. Sutton writes that Fundamentalists in the 1920s “did not expect to improve conditions around them but rather to battle the forces of evil as they prepared the world for the coming judgment” (93). However, after World War I, even many Social Gospel leaders were just as pessimistic about the possibility of reconstructing social and economic relationships in the US, just as supportive of business leaders, and just as engaged in battles against social vices as their premillennial counterparts.

Paul Carter and other historians of the Social Gospel revealed long ago that the postmillennialist, political optimism of the Social Gospel ended, or at least severely shifted, after the Great War.3 That is, the trend toward emphasizing the spirituality of the church was widespread across American Protestantism. While it is true that premillennial Fundamentalists took the lead in the wars against social vice and for Christian-identified public schools throughout the 1920s, so also did postmillennialists, as Gaines Foster showed in Moral Reconstruction.4 The “politics of apocalypticism,” or urgency about exterminating immediate social, economic, and political evils, did not even limit itself to distinctly religious movements. During and after the Great War, American socialists went on strike—risking incarceration and death—in the name of syndicalism, socialism, and collective bargaining rights. On the Left, the Fellowship of Reconciliation risked incarceration in the name of pacifism. Suffragettes took up civil disobedience instead of seeking compromise in their demands for women’s rights to vote. Cardinal Spellman, a Roman Catholic priest in New York City, refused to back down in his public opposition to birth control clinics. One might argue that an unwillingness to cower to “pragmatism” or compromise characterized the largest common denominator of politics in the early twentieth century. The “politics of apocalypticism” appears to be the dominant framework of political discourse from the 1880s forward. In the context of a wide range of conscience-driven political movements, one is not convinced that Protestant evangelical expectations of imminent apocalypse were a main instigator in the breakdown of consensus-driven democracy.

Yet, come to think about it, did pragmatism and consensus really animate American political history until the rise of premillennialism in the late nineteenth century? This suggestion is worth considering, but it, too, is not defended anywhere in the book. One wonders whether American evangelicals of the First or Second Great Awakening, while technically postmillennialists, were really motivated by pragmatism and consensus building, or whether they simply utilized the rhetoric of democracy because it served their immediate goals (of church building). After all, both abolitionists and Confederates of the early nineteenth century can be characterized as postmillennialists, but the fact of Civil War after years of aborted compromises suggests that early American Protestants did not see compromise as a route to the millennium Christ intended. While rhetoric in defense of consensus-building was certainly idealized by evangelicals in early America, we see little evidence—perhaps outside the Massachusetts Bay Colony and various experimentalist socialist colonies of the nineteenth century—of church leaders practicing it as an element of religious faith. We know that American Protestants, a majority faith, rarely felt the need to distinguish between American citizenship and subjecthood within a heavenly kingdom. Patrick Henry, Henry Ward Beecher, and Josiah Strong, all ardent postmillennialists and defenders of American democracy, had little regard for compromise or pragmatism on the political principles they treasured most.

Ultimately, despite its great length (374 pages plus notes), the book fails to convince readers that the theological orientation of premillennialists truly distinguished these American Protestants from any other group of politically engaged Americans. This suggestion is intriguing, but Sutton fails to provide sufficient context to prove that premillennialists were really any different from other organized political entities of their era, or of eras that had come before them.

Nevertheless, the book accomplishes a good deal. It serves as the first political biography of premillennialism which has tracked changing theological perspectives alongside changing perspectives on domestic and foreign policy. As a “long twentieth century” biography of the Religious Right, it provides historians of American politics and American religion with a firmer foundation of the ways pastors and political leaders influenced one another, especially with regard to support for entrance into world wars and subsequent arms races. The book expands on Andrew Preston’s excellent Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by drawing the connections between American evangelicals’ attitudes on domestic and foreign policy. Aside from the length, the book is engaging and highly readable, and suitable to general audiences of all kinds. Even if historians discover a “politics of apocalypticism” much larger than that of premillennialism or evangelicalism in the twentieth century, they will need to credit Sutton for first recognizing the connections between obsessions about the real apocalypse and a widespread dismissal of pragmatic compromise and consensus-building. Sutton has started an important conversation that both political historians and religious historians will be smart to continue.

 


  1. Studies on the rise of conservative evangelicalism since the 1930s include: Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plainfolk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: Norton, 2012); Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic, 2015); Kenneth Fones-Wolf and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixiea (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

  2. On premillennialists engaged in substantial social work and institution building, see Priscilla Pope-Levison, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (New York: NYU Press, 2014).

  3. Paul Carter, The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956).

  4. Gaines Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  • Matthew Sutton

    Matthew Sutton

    Reply

    The Problem of False Dichotomies: Response to Janine Giordano Drake

    Drake believes that American Apocalypse was not ambitious enough. She thinks I should have covered a lot more ground and expanded my scope far beyond the fundamentalists that drove my story while also writing a shorter book. Yet answering the questions that she poses in this review would have done little to change my narrative.

    One of Drake’s main concerns is that perhaps—and this is a big perhaps—fundamentalists were not all that different from other Americans. She writes, “The book is more of a political biography of premillenialists between 1880 and 1980 than it is a rigorous defense of its thesis. In fact, the book leaves out much context for determining whether the American ‘politics of apocalypticism’ really did start in the 1880s, with premillennial dispensationalism.”

    Unfortunately Drake never tells us what my thesis is, and from her characterization I am not sure she got it. Perhaps I should have been clearer. But I tried to make it as explicit as possible by opening the book with a preface and explaining my arguments in an enumerated list, one argument per paragraph: First, I argue that World War I served as the central pivot that brought decades of tension between radical evangelicals and their more liberal counterparts to a head. Second, I argue that historians have exaggerated the significance of the Scopes trial. The trial did not mark the end of fundamentalist influence and the beginning of retreat; in fact it had little to do with the trajectory of fundamentalism proper at all. Third, I challenged the rise-fall-rebirth narrative that has dominated the way historians tell fundamentalist history. Instead of withdrawing from cultural engagement after 1925, cultural engagement rather than sectarian isolation remained both a priority and a reality for fundamentalists between the late nineteenth century and the present. Finally, I do not draw a sharp distinction between the politics and tactics of pre-World War II fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism. Post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their depression-era predecessors and historians have generally accepted the narratives of their subjects. However, the priorities of pre-war fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals remained far more alike than not.

    Premillennialism was the theology that made all of this possible—it was what shaped fundamentalist cultural engagement. It did shape fundamentalists’ politics, but not just their politics—it also shaped their economics, their gender and racial views, their child-rearing habits, and their analysis of global events, etc., etc.

    Drake wonders if the American “politics of apocalypticism” started in the 1880s. I chose to begin my story in the late nineteenth century because this was a pivotal era in which radical evangelicals laid the foundations for the rise of fundamentalism. It was not the first time premillennialism has been important in American history. We can always find earlier precedents for anything we are studying. In fact, Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More offers a much longer history of millennialism. But I remain convinced that the best starting point for understanding fundamentalism is the immediate post-Civil War era for reasons I laid out in chapter 1. Drake doesn’t offer any evidence to suggest that I should have begun earlier. She simply says that maybe I should have.

    Drake is also concerned that fundamentalists are not all that different from everyone else. In asking me to demonstrate that they were, she is actually creating a series of false dichotomies. If I write that fundamentalists did X, she repeatedly asks how I know that other religious groups didn’t do X also?

    For example, she writes, “One is convinced that the apocalypticism of premillennial theologies influenced these particular Protestants’ posture toward their broader culture, but the author provides little evidence to suggest that non-premillenialists maintained any tradition of ‘pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus.’ Moreover, little evidence is offered to suggest that this attitude was not also shared with American Protestant and Catholic conservatives as well.”

    She is correct. I did not write this book to convince readers of what other groups were not doing. My focus was on showing what this particular group of men and women was doing.

    In fact, I tried to make clear that radical evangelicals shared a lot in common with other groups. “The differences between liberals and conservatives,” I wrote, “were not always clear or distinct. In many cases, liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning men and women worked and fellowshipped together, exchanging ideas and beliefs. This lasted until World War I, when the impact of the global crisis fractured mainstream American Protestantism” (13). This is an argument that Grant Wacker masterfully made thirty years ago, and one that has deeply influenced my work.1

    Next she argues, “While there is no doubt that theological convictions about the impending apocalypse fanned the flames of doggedly nationalist, militarist, free-market, and anti-socialist political convictions, Sutton does not prove that this was the major cause of this political posture on the Right.” I never claimed it was. Fundamentalists’ political convictions shaped their views. They were not “the major cause” of the “political posture on the Right.”

    Then Drake questions some generalizations I made about other groups. She writes, “However, do we know that most American Protestants ‘believed’ in this perfectibility of the world in the nineteenth century, or do we simply know that many were told to believe this by prominent, middle-class pastors?”

    In making this claim, I relied on substantial secondary literature. Until Drake or someone else revises the literature this is the best we can do and it will have to suffice. My job was not to write an original history of the attitudes of the people I was not studying in order to draw conclusions about the people I was studying.

    She follows this question up with more false dichotomies and additional questions about non-fundamentalist groups, asking whether or not fundamentalists were distinct. Even Drake knows there are no answers to the questions she is asking. Note her language: “We also cannot be sure . . .” and “one might just as easily argue . . .” Indeed, we can never be sure—that’s what makes history so lively. And yes, counterfactuals can also be engaging. But in raising these issues Drake is not offering any counter evidence to challenge my research or my conclusions about fundamentalists. Instead she is asking questions about other groups that have little to do with my arguments about fundamentalists.

    Once Drake has finished telling us how yet-to-be-done research might (or might not) challenge some of my conclusions, she tells us that liberal Protestants were not that different from fundamentalists. Again, this is something I acknowledged. In chapter 4, I write, “While fundamentalists’ moral views often mirrored those of many other Christians and social conservatives at the time, their ability to frame their convictions in the language of premillennialism distinguished them” (116–17). My intention was to explain how fundamentalists understood their faith and how that faith impacted their relationship to the broader culture. It was not to compare and contrast fundamentalists and every other expression of Christianity.

    Drake continues, “In the context of a wide range of conscience-driven political movements, one is not convinced that Protestant evangelical expectations of imminent apocalypse were a main instigator in the breakdown of consensus-driven democracy.”

    Ok. I never said fundamentalist were the main instigators or that consensus-driven democracy has broken down. I wrote:

    Fundamentalist apocalypticism created a very particular ideology and a very particular form of cultural engagement. It fostered in believers a sense of urgency and certainty and a vision of the world defined in absolute terms. While liberal expressions of Protestant Christianity encouraged patience, humility, willingness to compromise, and tolerance on a range of important issues (at least in terms of ideals if not always practices), fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good-versus-evil. They had no time or regard for incremental change, or for reasoning with those who differed with them, or for mediation, or for gradual reform. They called for drastic and immediate solutions to the problems they saw around them. With time running out, they hoped to shake the world. Their business was that of instant redemption, of immediate transformation. Fundamentalists created a different kind of morally infused American politics, one that challenged the long democratic tradition of pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus. Theirs was a politics of apocalypse. (5–6)

    Drake has offered no evidence that pushes me to rethink these conclusions.

    “Yet, come to think about it,” Drake asks, “did pragmatism and consensus really animate American political history until the rise of premillennialism in the late nineteenth century? This suggestion is worth considering, but it, too, is not defended anywhere in the book.”

    Come to think about it indeed! In other words, she is asking what came before my premillennialists. When an author sets out to write a cultural history of fundamentalism from the 1880s to the present, does Drake expect that author to explain the ideas of every group that came before his? How far back should the writer go? To Jesus?

    “Aside from the length,” she adds, “the book is engaging and highly readable, and suitable to general audiences of all kinds.”

    Wait a minute. Drake wanted a shorter book? Wow. A shorter book that dealt with the Great Awakenings, social gospelers, the secular Left, Catholic conservatives, consensus-driven democracy until 1880, an analysis of attitudes of those in non-fundamentalist church pews, and one that provides far more context and information about the views of other competing groups?

    “Sutton,” Drake concludes, “fails to provide sufficient context to prove that premillennialists were really any different from other organized political entities of their era, or of eras that had come before them.” In other words, in rejecting the false dichotomies that Drake is superimposing on my text, I did not write enough about the other groups that I was not studying to show what they did not believe to convince Drake that I had something of value to say about fundamentalists.

    I am glad I didn’t. To answer Drake’s questions would have added little to the arguments I was trying to make. My intention was to help us understand the history, trajectory, and significance of fundamentalism and what made it so attractive to so many Americans. This is the criterion against which the book should be judged.


    1. Grant Wacker, “The Holy Spirit and the Spirit of the Age in American Protestantism, 1880–1910,” Journal of American History 72.1 (June 1985) 45–62.

    • Janine Giordano Drake

      Janine Giordano Drake

      Reply

      Response to Dr. Sutton

      Some of my favorite history books would be better described as social and political biographies than as thesis-driven defenses. Biographies make room for the slow unfolding of a story—for suspense—in a way that thesis-driven defenses usually cannot. One of the most excellent biographies I have ever read is Sutton’s own Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, a deep biographical analysis of both McPherson and the Pentecostal movement, and a riveting narrative of the ways the Pentecostal movement made the caricature which McPherson played. Sutton’s deft ability to tell stories has proven himself as one of the best biographers within our field; the suggestion that the book is not particularly thesis-driven is not at all intended to disparage his book. However, there are moments within the text that an intentional biographer would discuss gaps in the record and distinguish between what other scholars have said, what new research he or she uncovered, and what elements of that narrative are speculative. I simply would have loved to see more of this spelled out within Sutton’s biography of the dispensationalist movement. What I read as an overarching argument, for example, “Fundamentalists created a different kind of morally infused American politics, one that challenged the long democratic tradition of pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus,” was apparently intended more as a speculative conclusion than as a point which would be rigorously proven (6). The particular arguments that Sutton lays out in the Preface are defended within the book, but they could be a bit better sign-posted as historical arguments, defended against the recent historical scholarship, and qualified to reflect the specific research that has (and has not yet) been done.

      First, Sutton could better engage with the research on the essential differences between premillenialists and postmillenialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sutton writes,

      Many premillenialists—probably even a majority—around the turn of the century refused to draw a strict line between faith and action. Rejecting the evangelism/reform dichotomy, they began to find creative ways to integrate their hope in the second coming with social activism. While they rejected the Social Gospel, they crafted a form of engaged premillennialism, a radical evangelical creed that blended what they called the old-time religion with work on a slate of specific issues. They breathed new life into apocalypticism, shaping it into a powerful creed that inspired vigorous and vigilant action. (34-35)

      Were there any Protestants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who insisted on a “strict line between faith and action”? Did premillenialists reject the Social Gospel that its adherents defended, or did they reject that caricature of the Social Gospel which Fundamentalists used within debates? This is important because so much of the work that both Moody-ites and Social Gospel leaders did was, in fact, social reform. Was apocalypticism the only thing that made this “evangelical creed” particularly radical? Historian Matthew Bowman (2014) showed that the major distinction between Fundamentalist and mainline evangelicals in this era was the mechanism through which evangelization and reform took place: mainline evangelicals understood the church as a sacramental community through which individuals and societies were reformed, while Fundamentalist evangelicals saw individuals as the primary agents, and products, of change.1 Otherwise, both groups were in fact evangelical Christians with confidence that their own work was to some degree more authentic. We have to wonder to what degree premillennialism and apocalypticism itself was the reason for this divergence in political perspective among evangelical Protestants. Were their other factors, like race, class, and region, which may have influenced why this theological debate became so central to the history of twentieth century Protestantism? In order to be convinced that theological convictions are sparking political perspectives, we need to know exactly how distinct these theological convictions were.

      Next, Sutton could do more to specifically delimit which premillennialists he studied, which he chose to emphasize within the book, and why he made those decisions. He tells the fascinating story of premillenialists who opposed the League of Nations because they believed it would “facilitate the rise of the Antichrist by bringing together the major nations of the world under the command of a single leader” (76). Sutton acknowledges, however, that “not all premillenialists adamantly opposed the league.” A.C. Dixon, for example, feared that US isolation would provoke another war. Sutton concludes that on the whole, premillenialists were against this peacetime alliance. He writes,

      Although the League of Nations debate was not settled until the 1920 election, the opposition of most radical evangelicals to US participation in global peacemaking organizations illustrated their commitment to prophecy and how it shaped their politics. (77)

      We hear from individual premillenialists who opposed the war but we do not get an accounting of numbers. Do we know about how many premillenialists were opposed to the League, and about how many of them were politically active? We learn of a prophecy conference in New York City wherein the nation’s “leading premillenialists…spoke on the war, the capture of Jerusalem, current events, and prophecy” (77). Over seven thousand people were reportedly in attendance, including “wealthy Americans and captains of industry.” Can we know anything more about who these premillenialists were, and how they got seven thousand people to listen to them? How did Sutton reach the conclusion that the thousands in attendance were of a similar social status to those keynote speakers at the conference?

      Sutton also speculates on the class status of a large fraction of premillenialists based on the fact of wealthy premillennialist leaders, their publications, and attendance at this conference. He concludes,

      That premillenialists had the support of politicians and business leaders revealed how substantially the movement had grown over the course of the war—it was fast becoming a major force in Christianity. This was no movement of disinherited outsiders but one that attracted a broad array of advocates and sponsors from all social and economic classes. (77)

      This is a very strong conclusion considering the evidence that the reader has henceforth encountered. Can limited evidence from a single conference prove that premillenialists “had the support of politicians and business leaders”?

      Moreover, Sutton’s assessment that “This was no movement of disinherited outsiders” is a fascinating claim that is central to his book, but it does not engage with the extensive counterargument. Sutton builds an argument that challenges Robert Mapes Anderson’s 1979 Visions of the Disinherited: The Making of Pentecostalism, which concluded that Pentecostalism was particularly attractive to poor, social and cultural outsiders. To Sutton, the fact of some wealthy and prominent premillenialists proved that the movement straddled the class divide. However, does the fact of premillenalist business leaders present enough evidence to arrive at this counter-claim? The majority of the chapter draws from personal papers and premillennialist magazines. While this evidence can tell us a great deal about what premillenialists were thinking about and discussing, it does not tell us a great deal about the class status of the people reading or writing the magazines. The fact of a well-attended prophecy conference is significant, but could it have seven thousand poor and politically weak premillennialist Christians in attendance? If it did, would that mean that “premillenialists had the support of politicians and business leaders,” or that politicians and business leaders had poor, working-class Christians in the palm of their hands? Moreover, Sutton suggests that premillenialists were leading this fight against the League of Nations. Should we consider, however, that perhaps the whole premillennial movement may have been dragged into this political stance by Congressional Republicans? Sutton’s important claim could have used a bit more support.

      Finally, Sutton could more seriously consider the fact of premillennialist, Pentecostal labor radicals. In “Seeking Salvation with the GOP,” Sutton examines how and why Fundamentalists ultimately sided with Republicans and other captains of industry against organized labor. His narrative captures the story arc of many middle class and white Fundamentalists well. He uncovered important, new evidence of premillenialists directly mobilizing their apocalyptic theology to dismiss the importance of strikes, the value of radicalism, and the goals of communism. In fact, Fundamentalists joined Catholics and most Protestants on this point; both were equally anti-communist in this era, and many used the same prophetic discussions of the end of the world to articulate that anti-communist perspective. Very few churches officially got behind socialist or radical labor organizing in the 1910s. Yet, the fact that so few church leaders supported radical labor organizing does not mean that few Christians supported such activity. Despite what the powerful churches said, the thousands of organized American workers were not all heretics or atheist communists. Sutton’s assumption that premillenialists were white and middle class onlookers to labor activity assumes a class heterogeneity to the premillennialist movement that never existed. His limited source material, with little accounting for its limitations, implies that what can be found in premillennialist magazines and in the personal papers of leaders speaks for the movement as a whole. He writes, for example,

      Around the turn of the century premillenialists carefully watched as working-class men and women organized. (183)

      He grants that some premillenialists were not as supportive of the “corporate barons” and criticized the “rise of huge, powerful corporations and the exploitation of labor as indications of the nation’s growing degeneracy.” Overall, he concludes,

      Few premillenialists, however, marched with workers. They interpreted growing economic inequality as an inevitable sign of the last days, but they did not see it as something they should work against. (182)

      We must reckon with the fact that a good deal of those working class folks organizing were also premillenialists. Kimberley Phillips (1999), Richard Callahan (2008), Jarod Roll (2010), and Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (2015) have emphasized the overlaps between varieties of premillennialist and Pentecostal faith and radical labor participation.2 How did middle class premillenialists respond to working class Pentecostal support for labor organizing? Did they ignore connections between faith and labor demonstrations? Did they admit that some radical workers were fellow Christians? Answers to these questions would help a reader to assess to what degree this rejection of labor organizing stemmed from theological convictions.

      The majority of Sutton’s evidence for his claims that premillenialists were anti-labor derives from propaganda which leaders circulated and books written about this propaganda. On the second point listed above, Sutton cites William Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming, W.H. Cossum’s Mountain Peaks of Prophecy, and Timothy Gloege’s new book, Guaranteed Pure: Fundamentalism, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015). Yet, all these books tell us is what authorities preached. Does evidence that wealthy ministers told their faithful not to march with workers mean that few actually did? Or, is Sutton suggesting, in the use of the term “few,” that it does not matter to the history of premillennialism that coal miners in Appalachia or sharecroppers in Mississippi engaged in Pentecostal worship practices? Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s new book, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South (2015), published soon after this one, examines apocalypticism as an important lens through which to understand Southern, working class religion. However, the Fones-Wolfs do not understand premillennialism to seal the fate of working class radicalism in the South. Much to the contrary, they interpret premillennialist theologies and their attendant evangelical cultures as communities that necessitated a particular kind of labor organizing. In their analysis, premillennialist theologies themselves did not dictate anti-labor leanings.

      Sutton’s story of how “Fundamentalists became the voices of patriotism and American exceptionalism” is provocative but deeply important (266). Despite its focus on the politics of white, middle class Fundamentalists, it should be widely read and discussed. The project reminds one of George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. It is probably too much to expect that a single historian take on the social, political and religious history of the entire period between 1880 and the present and to expect that that historian reach meaningful and nuanced conclusions about the variety of premillennialists and their interactions with political spheres at every turn. Sutton successfully laid a groundwork to analyze the connections between premillennialist commentaries and the GOP. He synthesized a good deal of Fundamentalist history from the last decade—especially on the period since 1930. He showed us how religion and political history need to be understood together. He showed us that apocalyptic thinking and premillennialist communities influenced stalwart support for certain political and foreign policy perspectives. Social and economic historians may spend a decade debating and nuancing this narrative, but we will remain indebted to Sutton for sparking the conversation. I firmly support the quest to determine the apocalyptic connections to the contemporary American politics, but I think that question requires at least a dozen books, and probably another decade or two to research.


      1. Matthew Bowman, The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

      2. Kimberley Philips, AlabamaNorth: African American Migrants, Community, and Working Class Activism in Cleveland, 1914-1945 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Richard Callahan, Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2010); Kenneth and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Struggle For the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

    • Rachel Schneider

      Rachel Schneider

      Reply

      The Politics of Apocalypticism: Evangelical Style

      I agree with Giordano Drake that Matthew Sutton’s term “politics of apocalypticism” is an “important new lens” through which to study American history in the twentieth century. I also think this category is important for the study of religion and politics outside of the United States.

      After reading American Apocalypse, I immediately began to think about the influence of premillennial imagery and rhetoric in Africa. For example, in 2002 a Nigerian-made film Rapture was banned in Nigeria due to government fears that it would incite violence between Catholic and Pentecostal Christians (characteristically, Catholics were represented as in league with the Antichrist, while those who were “born-again” triumphed).[1] Interestingly, the film depicts Nigeria as the place where an apocalyptic drama of violence and salvation ultimately unfolds.

      But back to the matter at hand:

      Giordano Drake argues that, after WWI, pessimism and moral absolutism were widespread among Americans across the political spectrum and not limited to “distinctly religious movements.” In many ways, Giordano Drake raises very similar issues to Fred Sanders. She wants to know how premillennial dispensationalism fits into a broader cultural and political horizon as well as how divergent or similar the politics of premillennial evangelicals were with their religious predecessors and with non-premillennialists.

      While I think these questions are important, and I deeply appreciated the spirited and though-provoking exchange between Sutton and Giordano Drake, in my view, the significance of Sutton’s work does not depend on demonstrated divergence from other social and political actors, but rather hinges on his ability to convincingly show how premillennial belief shaped the social and political actions of “premillenialists-turned-fundamentalists-turned-evangelicals” (373). As a child of the 1980s – who grew up steeped in popular apocalypticism as well as with the taken-for-granted power of the Religious Right – I was taken by Sutton’s argument that, because fears of imminent destruction were by the mid-twentieth century widespread among Americans due to world events, premillennial sensibilities carried a ring of authenticity to insiders and outsiders alike. This authenticity only served to amplify the political and cultural reach of white evangelical elites.

      Even if premillennial Christians were not unique in their apocalyptic sensibilities, Sutton argues that their sense of urgency and confidence (inspired by their interpretation of biblical prophecy) helped contribute to the rise of the Religious Right and shaped the priorities of political conservatives in ways still visible today. Furthermore, Sutton shows how WWI was crucial in dramatizing the relationship between premillennialism, nationalism and patriotism.

      Evangelicals may not have been the only ones to adopt an apocalyptic style of politics, or perhaps even the first, but  they exhibited an astonishing affinity for absolutist forms of politics, in part, because of how closely their prophetic interpretations and external events seemed to align over the course of the twentieth century.

      [1] Asonzeh F.-K. Ukah, “Mediating Armageddon: Popular Christian Video Films as a Source of Conflict in Nigeria,” in Displacing the State: Religion and Conflict in Neoliberal Africa, edited by James Howard Smith and Rosalind I.J. Hackett (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 209 – 239.

Joel Carpenter

Response

Rapture, Revival, or Republican Victory?

 

MATTHEW SUTTON’S AMERICAN APOCALYPSE is an important contribution to American religious history. The book performs a remarkable feat: it traces, year by year and issue by issue, the impact of belief in the soon second coming of Christ on the cultural and political outlook of three American evangelical subgroups: the predominantly white fundamentalist and Pentecostal movements and a variety of African American evangelicals. Because of the gifts of popular persuasion that each of these groups had, Sutton points to a number of ways in which their belief in an imminent, premillennial second coming of Christ—or “Bible Prophecy,” as they called it—has continued to shape American public life.

This book, like no other I have read in recent years, drew me back to the conversations and consternations of American fundamentalism that I tried to understand earlier in my career. Sutton delves deeply into the documentary sources of the fundamentalists, especially their more popular magazines: the Moody Monthly, the Sunday School Times, the Sword of the Lord, Revelation, the King’s Business, and Our Hope. This is not easy reading; most of these monthlies and weeklies are not indexed, so one must push through, page by page, for hours on end. Some are essentially the creation of one editorial writer, and these have a stream of consciousness quality that is not easily scanned. So I thought that no one else would ever do what I did for my research on fundamentalism: read through eighty years of the Moody Monthly! But Sutton has done that and more. I was particularly impressed with the archival research that he did, including work in some collections that did not exist when I was doing my work and finding other caches of letters that I did not know existed. As a result, this book has the authentic ring of the actors’ own words and in many cases their interaction with each other.

Sutton’s narrative centers on the fundamentalists and their conservative evangelical heirs, and he says that their anticipation of Christ’s second coming “made them who they are” (3). His coverage of white Pentecostals and black Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals is less comprehensive, but their inclusion is another strong feature of this book. It is tempting for historians to tell the story of the white fundamentalists and their “neo-evangelical” heirs and consider that to be the central narrative of American evangelicalism. But Sutton has the sense to seek these second and third opinions at important junctures of the story. His work on black evangelicals is especially telling, for here we see something of the pliant potency of premillennialism. While white evangelicals were looking for signs of the coming Antichrist in fascist or communist Europe or even in the New Deal, black premillennialists taught that American racism was the mark of the Beast, and that God would surely single out America for the wrath of his end times judgment. In 2008 most white Americans were shocked to hear Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, thunder out “God Damn America” from his Chicago pulpit. Sutton shows that this rhetoric has a long history in the black Christian community, and it can come with a premillennial twist to it.

While Sutton claims that the impact of premillennialism was pervasive and profound in American fundamentalist evangelicalism, this book does not dwell much on its impact on believers’ churchly experience, personal spirituality, or daily social life. What did it truly mean to live “in the shadow of the Second Coming,” as historian Timothy Weber so memorably phrased it? If fundamentalists’ consciousness of the irretrievable decline of both church and society was so profound, then why were they as engaged in ordinary politics as Sutton shows they were? Why did they not become a more classic millenarian sect, say like David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or the Jehovah’s Witnesses? How was it that their meetings were so open to the public, their daily lives were so manifestly ordinary in most respects, and their political engagement, while tinged with suspicion and unwillingness to compromise, was so attuned to the American mainstream? To make an obvious comparison, American fundamentalists have not behaved nearly so radically as today’s apocalyptically charged Islamic militants. Scholars who have dealt with fundamentalists and other premillennialists have wrestled with this tension, if not outright contradiction in believers’ experience and behavior. And they have discovered that these millenarians hold opposing traits in tension, such as the combination of pragmatism and primitivism that Grant Wacker saw in early Pentecostalism.

But Sutton is much more interested in the movement’s political theology than its more religious and personal dynamics. This book’s main quest, it seems, is to uncover some long and deep roots of today’s Religious Right. That quest has driven Sutton to do some very valuable work, seeking out and highlighting lost episodes of political activity in the movement that others of us missed. But even this aim would be better served if he had spent more time on the spiritual and other personal dynamics of prophecy belief. He sells the study short, then, on explaining not only how the movement’s cultural and political outlook and engagement was driven by millenarianism but also how and why the movement modulated and accommodated its apocalyptic vision.

George Marsden, the maven of the historians’ movement to understand American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, has a very good sense of how to answer this question. Fundamentalism was an amalgam with a variety of sources, some of which seemed contradictory. Dispensational premillennialism, on the one hand, teaches that the church has a spiritual mission and destiny only. According to this school of Bible prophecy, the main one treated in this book, trying to save society is like trying to save a sinking ship while, as D. L. Moody once put it, God wants the church to be a lifeboat for rescuing the perishing. At the same time an older evangelical impulse seeks to restore a more Christian America by means of the next Great Awakening and ensuing social reform. This impulse lived on in fundamentalism too. These two outlooks created a “paradoxical tension” in fundamentalism, Marsden said, that wasn’t terribly consistent or ever fully resolved. One of these vectors or the other became more prominent in the rhetoric and actions of the movement over time.

Sutton argues that this tension was resolved in the form of a consistent ideology that called for a conserving rearguard action in society and politics, urging evangelicals to continue to “occupy until I come” (Luke 19:13). But despite many claims that such an ideology existed, Sutton never really spells it out. I think that is because no one among his main actors ever really spells it out. So is fundamentalists’ political vision a carryover of the old American Whig vision of a Christian society, where government actively cooperated with Christian agencies to uphold manners and morals, or is it a version of the old Democratic/Populist suspicion of central state authority and of centralized money power? Perhaps it is an unsteady amalgam of the two, or various leaders leaned toward different versions. But there is no saying in this book, really, other than to note that fundamentalists eventually linked up with conservative business leaders who resisted New Deal statism and promoted militant anti-communism.

Indeed, for a book that focuses on evangelicals’ public theologizing and moral crusading, this one does very little homework in either political thought or behavior. Not only does it not flesh out the political ideology that it claims to have found, it does not consult empirical political studies to back up its assertions. Citing the fundamentalist opinion leaders’ rhetoric and attempts at political organizing, Sutton insists that at least from the late 1920s forward, the movement has been very much in the camp of the Republican Party. Yet he cites no opinion or polling data to fortify that argument. Political behavior studies have shown that until perhaps the mid-1970s, most evangelicals (e.g., Baptists), even outside of the South, voted as Democrats. Class, ethnicity and economic interests dominated earlier patterns of voting and partisan identification. Back in the 1960s, to cite a personal anecdote, my father was at the same time a union steward, a Democrat, and a deacon in our Baptist church in Michigan. There were lots of blue-collar workers in our congregation, and evidently it was okay to be both a fundamentalist and a Democrat. The new religious right’s political mobilization and the great partisan realignment along religious lines since the late 1970s are significant changes, and they have brought new political realities that did not exist fifty or more years ago. So one cannot assume that all contemporary patterns in religion and politics carry far into the past. Sutton’s thesis is that continuity, more than change, characterizes American evangelicals’ cultural and political outlook, but repeatedly he pushes that argument beyond what the evidence will bear.

The heart of the matter, I think, is that fundamentalist evangelicals’ political preaching and editorializing and organizing has been much more sporadic than it appears in this account. As I stated earlier, I covered much of the same documentary territory that Sutton has. Looking at what he has amassed as evidence of fundamentalists’ social and political commentary, it all looks quite familiar to me and I treated much of it myself in my book. In regard to what he found out about their actual political organizing and issue advocacy, I have to admit that he found things that I missed. Sutton needs to be credited with showing recurring instances of public engagement on the part of the fundamentalists. And he is absolutely right that their public theologizing was deeply colored by millenarian visions of demonic agency, social declension and rising state tyranny. It injected millenarian evangelicals’ cultural and political outlook with urgency, impatience, suspicion and refusal to compromise. And their persuasive and pervasive communication efforts have spread that outlook far and wide across American popular culture. So I think that Sutton is bang-on right that there are millenarian anti-New Deal roots to the pervasive anti-statist views of today. He made that case brilliantly in his 2012 article in the Journal of American History.

Unlike that article, this book overreaches in its theses and its arguments. Fundamentalists certainly had the views he cites, but any fully orbed analysis of what his sources contained would show that most of this rhetoric was reactive and even seasonal, while in season and out, fundamentalist editors and their authors spent the much greater share of their energy discussing evangelism, personal devotion, doctrine, church affairs, and foreign missions. Indeed, I found that by the late 1930s and early 1940s, the hottest issue was not Bible prophecy, as Sutton suggests, but expectation of another great revival. Issue after issue of the Moody Monthly, especially, hammered home the need for, the signs pointing toward, and new, parachurch mobilizations for revival. But revival does not even merit an entry in this book’s index. Neither does foreign missions, another rapidly growing fundamentalist and Pentecostal preoccupation. Both of these, of course, can be located within a worldview that feeds certain strands of cultural politics, such as the revival of American civil religion that was emerging during World War II. But Sutton is so focused on finding political mobilization of a more direct sort that he does not make the effort to fold this all in to his argument and give it more purchase and nuance.

To cite one case, he makes the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals purely into an attempt to form a pan-evangelical political organization. Yet the NAE was first conceived by a mission executive looking for better access to government services and it was widely promoted by its organizers as a vehicle for starting united revival campaigns. Yes, NAE leaders tended to see revival as having political or social consequences. But to reduce their aims to politics is a distortion. Sutton is correct to see a political side, for example, to the rhetoric of Harold John Ockenga. But this pastor was consumed, first and foremost, by a yearning for another Great Awakening, to the point of agonized prayer and fasting, even prostrating himself under the rug to plead with God.

So it is important to learn the history of apocalypse-laden evangelical political thought and advocacy in America. But the main thing to remember about evangelicals is that they are, well, evangelical. With remarkable continuity from the days of the Wesleys forward, they have cared most about being saved from their sins, becoming more holy, getting others saved, sharing God’s love in acts of mercy, and promoting integrity and authenticity in the church. Real religion has mattered more to them than reforming politics or society, even though those causes have frequently engaged them, probably more than they intended. But these deeply religious preoccupations of evangelicalism are largely brushed aside in this book. That is why, in the end, I have to disagree with the book jacket’s hype. This is an important study, but it is not a “comprehensive history of modern American evangelicalism.”

  • Matthew Sutton

    Matthew Sutton

    Reply

    Joel Carpenter’s Wish List: Response to Joel Carpenter

    For almost twenty years, Joel Carpenter’s work on mid-twentieth century fundamentalism and evangelicalism has stood as the gold standard against which all other books on the subject have been measured. And for good reason. His work is smart, insightful, and original. It moved our understanding of religion forward in countless ways and helped inspire my own work. But as his review reveals, we do not see eye-to-eye on numerous issues.

    In the preface to my book, I lay out four arguments. First, I argue that World War I served as the central pivot that brought decades of tension between radical evangelicals and their more liberal counterparts to a head. Second, I argue that historians—Joel Carpenter and George Marsden in particular—have exaggerated the significance of the Scopes trial. The trial did not mark the end of fundamentalist influence and the beginning of retreat; in fact it had little to do with the trajectory of fundamentalism proper at all. Third, I challenged the rise-fall-rebirth narrative that has dominated the way historians tell fundamentalist history. Instead of withdrawing from cultural engagement after 1925, as Carpenter argues, cultural engagement rather than sectarian isolation remained both a priority and a reality for fundamentalists between the late nineteenth century and the present. Finally, I do not draw a sharp distinction between the politics and tactics of pre-World War II fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism. Post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their depression-era predecessors and historians have generally accepted the narratives of their subjects. However, the priorities of pre-war fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals remained far more alike than not.

    Carpenter ignores all four of these arguments.

    Instead of focusing on my theses and then exploring how well I did or did not support them, Carpenter made the all-too-common mistake of reviewing the book he wished I had written rather than the one I did write. So, rather than discuss my arguments, I will instead have to focus this response on explaining why I wrote the book I did and not the one Carpenter apparently thinks I should have written.

    Carpenter wishes that I had spent more time on believers’ churchly experience, personal spirituality, and daily social life. I could have. But I had little new to offer here on topics that Marsden and Carpenter have already treated so well. Furthermore, such a focus obscures fundamentalists’ racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. These are often ugly truths and unpleasant to discuss but for too long they been ignored. I intentionally and explicitly focused on fundamentalists’ and evangelicals’ engagement with those outside of their communities rather than how they lived life within their (segregated) communities.

    Carpenter wishes that I had spent more time explaining the paradoxical tension between belief in an imminent apocalypse and this-worldly reform. He says I claim that fundamentalists inhabited this tension but that I never spell out what that means. But I did spell it out in the prologue in order to make it as clear as possible for readers and reviewers:

    Although they felt sure that the global apocalypse was imminent, it was never too late for the individual, the nation, or the world to be reborn. . . . Fundamentalists constantly asserted that Christ had called them to “occupy” the earth until he returns by exercising influence in all areas of life. And occupy they have. Fundamentalists’ apocalyptic sensibilities instilled in them a sense of determination that demanded constant action. They believed that they had to wield their influence and power as effectively as possible to prepare the world for the end of days. Jesus was coming soon to separate the sheep from the goats, and they wanted to be ready. (4–5)

    I then showed repeatedly throughout the book how every generation of believers from Dwight Moody to Billy Graham dealt with this tension. This was a lived and a practical theology, not something they often explained systematically.

    Perhaps Carpenter’s larger concern was driven by what he sees as the deeper, veiled purpose of my work. He writes: “This book’s main quest, it seems, is to uncover some long and deep roots of today’s Religious Right.”

    No, it was not.

    My main quest was to write the most thoroughly-researched book on fundamentalism available that takes seriously fundamentalists’ theology and the implications of that theology for issues of race, gender, theology, class, economics, politics, education, and foreign policy. I don’t know how to account for the fact that Carpenter overlooked the explicit purpose I laid out in my preface and instead misidentified my aims.

    It is not just that I made politics one theme of many that troubles Carpenter, he also doesn’t like how I did it. He writes, “Sutton insists that at least from the late 1920s forward, the movement has been very much in the camp of the Republican Party” and accuses me of doing “very little homework in either political thought or behavior” and he gives us an anecdote about his Baptist-Democrat father. This is a strange criticism—I didn’t claim to be doing a book on evangelical partisanship and in fact Carpenter well knows that the kind of data he is asking for doesn’t exist for the first half of the twentieth century. I repeatedly discuss fundamentalists’ political conservatism, and when they champion particular parties or candidates I explain their actions, but I also make clear that theirs was not a partisan movement for much of its history. I could not have said this any more clearly: “Since the 1920s, fundamentalists and then evangelicals had made their conservative, anti-statist, free market political sympathies clear. However, they had been cautious about affiliating with either political party but rather championed particular policies and particular candidates” (353). In addition, Carpenter’s critique is grounded in the flawed notion that all political activism manifests in party alignment and a united voice at the ballot box. Even if voting data had been available to me, such data would reveal little about the religious motives behind the political activity of religious people.

    Carpenter is also unhappy about how I treat the origins of the National Association of Evangelicals. He accuses me of making “the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals purely into an attempt to form a pan-evangelical political organization. Yet,” he continues, “the NAE was first conceived by a mission executive looking for better access to government services.” I am not sure how “looking for better access to government services” is not political?

    Carpenter also wishes that I had spent more time on revivalism. Alas, as he notes, the word doesn’t even appear in my index! But in fact “revival” and its derivatives appear over fifty times in the book. Carpenter notes that Harold John Ockenga wanted revival. I agree. Ockenga made revival the core of his WWII-era preaching. That’s why I open chapter 9 with Ockenga. I end the first paragraph in the chapter with Ockenga’s question: “What then is the way out? Will it be with a revival or the rapture? Will it be a triumph for the truth or the tribulation for the world?” (263).

    Revival or rapture—that is the tension I explore throughout the book. Fundamentalists like Ockenga held their evangelical mission in tension with apocalypticism. The two were mutually reinforcing. Failing to see how apocalypticism and revival were mutually constitutive is failing to understand the movement. It was fundamentalists’ last-days, the clock-is-ticking-and-time-is-running-out urgency that made their calls for revival so urgent. Carpenter developed the revival side of the story in his aptly titled Revive Us Again. Building on his work, I tell another story. Revival and rapture.

    Carpenter ends his review by criticizing my jacket cover and the description of the book as, in his words, a “comprehensive history of modern American evangelicalism.” The jacket actually reads, “The first comprehensive history of modern evangelicalism to appear in a generation.” The language of “generation” was intended to signify my respect for the comprehensive histories written by Carpenter and Marsden a generation ago. Building on their good work, I tell a more complete story by taking seriously our subjects’ views on race, gender, labor, economics, politics, and class, among many other things. What I did not claim is that I was writing an “exhaustive” history. No one has and no one will. Nevertheless this is at least the first comprehensive history to appear in a generation.

    • Joel Carpenter

      Joel Carpenter

      Reply

      Response to Matthew Sutton

      My thanks to Matt Sutton for his forthright responses to my review. It is clear that he and I differ on some matters, but perhaps not on others. He is disappointed that I did not give a more direct response to the four main arguments he makes about how one should interpret the career of fundamentalism. As I explained to our series moderator, I had decided not to wade into this historiographical conversation head-on because I imagined a broad reading audience and I did not want to bore them with historians’ arguments. But our moderator assures me that many of his readers think that these inside-the-guild arguments are fascinating, and they have resonance beyond the guild as well. So I will give Matt the courtesy of a more head-on approach.   The historiography of fundamentalism is, by the way, getting a good workout these days. For those who want to engage it, I recommend recent essays by Michael Hamilton and Barry Hankins, both published in American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History (Notre Dame, 2014).

      So to Matt’s four arguments:

      1. World War I served as the central pivot that brought decades of tension…to a head. I have no problem with this thesis. Indeed, both Marsden and I discuss the radicalizing effect of the war on both the modernists and the fundamentalists. Says Marsden, “fundamentalist theological militancy appears intimately related to…the American social experience connected with World War I (Fundamentalism and American Culture, 141). My book begins with the mid-to-late 1920s, so my treatment of the Great War is less direct. Even so, I do say that the wartime spirit added to the bitterness and conspiratorial thinking that characterized the exchanges between modernists and fundamentalists (Revive Us Again, 38-41). Also the outcomes of the war, such as the Bolshevik Revolution and the British opening Palestine to Jewish settlement, lent new relevance to dispensational prophesying (p. 92). But Matt’s strong emphasis on the impact of the wartime spirit is welcome. I especially appreciate his underscoring the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing “Red Scare” in the U.S. in 1919-1920 and its role in planting anti-communism firmly into the fundamentalist outlook.
      2. HistoriansJoel Carpenter and George Marsden in particular—have exaggerated the significance of the Scopes Trial [which] … had little to do with the trajectory of fundamentalism proper at all. The Scopes Trial has been one of those convenient tropes that historians have used to mark the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Long before Marsden and I dealt with it, more general historians of the 1920s used it to mark the passing of an older, more rural and evangelical America and the increasing dominance of a new urban and secular outlook in both high-end and popular culture. But Matt is right; Ed Larson and other historians have shown that Scopes was met with indifference by some fundamentalists while others persisted with anti-evolution campaigns for a number of years afterward.

      But what both Marsden and I show is that while the emerging fundies were once treated as respected voices in public discourse, by the mid-1920s the tide had turned. Those whose careers spanned the era, such as Reuben Torrey and James M., Gray, had once been treated with public deference—but no longer. They felt the change in status acutely. H.L. Mencken’s over-the-top ridicule of Bryan and the good folk of Dayton, Tennessee has been highlighted, for good or ill, as a telling instance of a turning tide in American intellectual and popular culture.   That process did not start or end with Scopes. I think that I made clear in my account that feelings of marginality and embattledness among the radical evangelicals and the emergence of a “come out and be ye separate” strategy for dealing with their changing status was a process within the movement, not a sudden turn after Scopes.

      As for fundamentalism’s institutional vitality and trajectory, I agree with Sutton. My work has pioneered the idea that there was no “death of fundamentalism” in the late 1920s and 1930s. But the sense of marginality and embattledness was real, and it was different, as Matt actually shows, from how it had been before World War I.

      1. Sutton challenges the rise-fall-rebirth narrative that has dominated the way historians tell fundamentalist history. Instead of withdrawing from cultural engagement after 1925, as Carpenter argues, cultural engagement rather than sectarian isolation remained both a priority and a reality for fundamentalists. Obviously I think that there was more cultural alienation in late ‘20s and ‘30s fundamentalism than Matt does, and I see plenty of evidence for it, as I try to make clear in Revive Us Again (chs. 2-5). Part of our disagreement, I think, may lie in what one understands “cultural engagement” to mean. Much of what Matt presents as evidence of cultural engagement is fundamentalists’ expressing critical perspectives—in print, from the pulpit, or over the radio—on various national trends: in sexual mores, gender roles, political or economic behavior, or church-state relations. As he shows repeatedly, fundamentalists’ apocalyptic worldview tends to paint in conspiratorial or even demonic terms any trend that diverges from their norms. And spiritual warfare seems to lead to militancy and radicalism in politics. But how much should we take this rhetoric itself to be cultural engagement?

      I guess that fundie rhetoric is cultural engagement of a sort, but the term is more commonly thought to mean going beyond rhetoric and seeking more directly to reform society, politics, and culture.   In American Apocalype, Matt looks for and finds instances of fundamentalists taking such action in the late 1920s and in the 1930s. As I said in the initial review, it is a very helpful addition to our understanding of the movement. But most of what he shows is rhetorical. Indeed, he admits as much in his 2012 JAH article. He said that fundamentalists developed a strongly anti-liberal, anti-New Deal outlook in the 1930s “but they did not build a unified movement. They preached, they wrote, they cajoled, they admonished, but they did not organize” (“Was FDR the Antichrist?” JAH 98:4 [2012]: 1069). And much of this rhetoric, I would argue, was less aimed at convincing readers about how to vote or to organize a social movement than it was to convince them that the Antichrist would appear soon, and that Jesus was coming back to rapture the saints—or else that it was high time for another Great Awakening. Calls to overt political action were few and far between, and more often came from the movement’s far-right fringes than from its main voices.

      Indeed, as I read the book, it showed the movement getting more real about organizing and engaging by the 1940s, in response to the idea that a “new evangelicalism” could “win America,” as Harold Ockenga put it. Even though in my initial review I resisted the idea of reducing Ockenga to a political organizer, he was much more of one, I admit, than the movement’s central spokesmen of the 1930s. There was a new interest in engagement emerging in his day. So I would hold out for a form of a rise-fall-rebirth narrative line in regard to cultural engagement.

      1. Sutton refuses to draw a sharp distinction between the politics and tactics of pre-World War II fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism. Post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their depression-era predecessors and historians have generally accepted the narratives of their subjects. However, the priorities of pre-war fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals remained far more alike than not. Since I think that there was more to the fundies’ alienation in the 1930s than Matt does, I do tend to see more validity in the neo-evangelical critiques of fundamentalism’s “irrelevance.” Their separatist impulse was deep and real, and the call for reform by the late 1940s seems warranted.

      Even so, I think that Matt makes a valid and important point by seeing continuity in the long sweep of fundamentalist attitudes, ideas and action. There is a continuing fundamentalistic strain that keeps emerging and driving evangelical thought and action, even among some of the most revisionist and cosmopolitan of fundamentalism’s current heirs. I can’t help but think of the recent episode at Wheaton College, where officials feel compelled to discipline a faculty member who made a public statement that Muslims pray to the same God. Wheaton’s official statement on the issue argues that the college’s confession of faith portrays a Trinitarian God, which is fundamentally different than a Muslim concept of God. But there are some fundamental similarities between Christian and Muslim concepts of God. So why should college officials insist that a Wheaton prof must stress the differences? That insistence, I would contend, reveals an enduring fundamentalist “over-against” instinct at work in Wheaton. The past is never really past, as William Faulkner once put it. Prof. Sutton has done evangelicals a great favor in showing some of these more enduring aspects of the fundamentalist legacy. Maturity and growth, one might hope, can come from deeper self-understanding. 

      But at some points, Sutton’s emphasis on continuity gets in the way of understanding some real and dramatic changes. So just one more item in closing: fundamentalists and party politics. Matt wonders why I bring up fundamentalists’ relationship to the Republican party. He states that he—and they—were not that interested in political partisanship, yet he features an account of John Roach Straton’s campaign in 1928 to convince fellow fundamentalists to leave the Democratic Party and vote against Al Smith (see chapter 6, “Seeking Salvation with the GOP”). And throughout chapter 8, “Christ’s Deal versus the New Deal,” Matt cites apocalyptically tinged anti-New Deal rhetoric as evidence for “political mobilization” (252) and “leading a righteous crusade” (257). But there is no evidence of a wave of fundamentalist marches, protests, or even voting against FDR. As I and others have said, this was mostly rhetorical posturing. I agree with Matt insofar that this rhetoric mattered; it planted an anti-liberal, anti-statist seedbed for the later rise of political mobilization, via the Moral Majority and other New Religious Right groups. But I don’t see the evidence for what he insists has been a constant since at least the late 1920s: that fundamentalists were firmly in the Republican camp.

      I have evidence to counter that claim–and not just a story about my dad. Matt says evidence of religious-partisan alignment doesn’t exist that far back, but it does. Gallup opinion polling started in 1936, and the National Opinion Research Center’s surveys began in 1941. By analyzing this old opinion data and election returns, a group of political scientists who pioneered the now-burgeoning “religion and politics” unit of the American Political Science Association found that evangelicals turned out a Democratic majority in the national elections of 1936, 1940 and 1944. The margins were successively slimmer at each of these turns, but in 1948, Harry S. Truman earned a super-majority of over 60 percent of the evangelical vote. Evangelical alignments with Democrats weakened under Eisenhower, who twice won evangelical majorities. And as is well known, a major partisan shift began in earnest during the 1980 election. Evangelicals have been solidly in the Republican camp since then—but evidently not during the New Deal. My point here is not a huge one, but significant nonetheless. Perhaps fundamentalists were not so thoroughly engaged and mobilized as this book argues. Many evidently seemed content to follow older partisan voting patterns even while their favorite preachers claimed that the New Deal was a harbinger of the Antichrist. So while some fundamentalist themes and proclivities have remained remarkably constant, not everything has, and at times Matt over-reaches in trying to make his case.

       

    • Matthew Sutton

      Matthew Sutton

      Reply

      Follow Up

      I am extremely grateful that Joel Carpenter took the time to re-engage so thoughtfully with my work. As his follow up comments demonstrate, he and I still disagree on some things. And of course we do–we have both spent years in the archives and we are both passionate about our work. Nevertheless, Joel has raised important issues here that will merit further discussion among historians of American religion for years to come. I look forward to having those discussions.

       

Rachel Schneider

Response

Prophecy Cuts Both Ways

Race and Religion in American Apocalypse

STARTING IN THE EARLY 1990s, white evangelical leaders began to discuss the idea of “racial reconciliation.” Evangelicals had a race problem: despite values of spiritual equality, prominent evangelical institutions and the majority of evangelical churches remained overwhelmingly white. At the same time, a changing social calculus in American politics, as well as clear demographic trends, meant that white evangelicals, who had learned the value of coalition building, had a vested interest in developing alliances with people of color, particularly African Americans who shared core beliefs.1 Beliefs such as the centrality of the Bible; the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ; necessity of conversion; and the need for radical moral, spiritual, and political change. For some black evangelicals, white discourses of racial reconciliation at first seemed a welcome development, but they soon grew frustrated by the inability of white evangelicals to move beyond verbal acknowledgment of racism as a sin towards examination of the deep role that white racial identity plays in the formation of evangelical institutions, norms, and practices. Consequently, even explicit emphasis by white evangelicals on race at the dawn of the new millennium could not surmount deep historical and social divides, leading Michael Emerson and Christian Smith to argue that evangelical religion “as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact” on racial divides and instead helps create new ones.2

Indeed, racial divides, as Matthew Sutton deftly shows in American Apocalypse, were foundational to the formation and rise of the modern evangelical movement. Starting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white radical evangelicals, fundamentalists and pentecostals organized and coalesced into what would become, by the mid-twentieth century, the modern evangelical movement. Sutton’s primary focus is on how the apocalyptic sensibilities of key white male leaders and their followers profoundly impacted the shape and scope of modern evangelicalism. But throughout the book, Sutton also shows the ways race consistently worked to shape the interpretation and application of evangelical apocalyptic beliefs. As part of this project, Sutton pays notable attention to discourses of African American religious leaders. By juxtaposing white evangelicals and their African American counterparts, Sutton offers a compelling but truncated glimpse of what I consider a unique black evangelical prophetic tradition. This tradition incorporates beliefs about God’s judgment and redemption of the world with a biting critique of racial injustice.

In what follows, I want to explore how white and black Christians articulated their faith within a shared apocalyptic horizon before turning to what I consider to be the lasting legacy of the black evangelical prophetic tradition. Sutton’s text is one of several recent works that have sought to understand the historical entanglement and co-construction of white and black evangelicalism.3 What makes Sutton’s text unique is his focus on how premillennial beliefs about prophecy and divine judgment had radically different effects depending on one’s racial lens. Throughout the twentieth century, both black and white Christians imagined a world besieged by forces of evil, which would culminate in the destruction of the world and the second coming of Jesus. Both black and white Christians passionately applied themselves to the task of identifying these forces of evil as well as doing what they could to intervene on the side of Christianity. Yet for white evangelicals, forces of evil, implicitly or explicitly, often took the form of racial, cultural, and ethnic others, and the fight to restore America as a “Christian” nation often aligned with the desire to maintain white supremacy. African Americans, by contrast, found hope in apocalyptic theologies that spoke of God’s judgment of pervasive evil, but the evil they identified was racial injustice and the redemption America needed was from the sins of racism.

The proposition that Christians were living in the end times, where tribulation and death loomed on the horizon, made profound sense to many white and black Americans. Sutton carefully documents how the history of modern evangelicalism unfolded over the longue durée of the twentieth century: a century marked by unprecedented scales of violence in the form of two world wars, but also racial violence in the form of lynching and Jim Crow-era brutality and segregation. While white Americans living at the turn of century experienced many demographic changes and keenly felt emergent challenges to their power, privilege and identity, black Americans, who experienced a variety of injustices on the heels of slavery, understood themselves as already living in times of tribulation. For these reasons, black and white Christians alike found solace and meaning in apocalyptic theology, which mirrored and explained a world visibly besieged.

Unfortunately, because of their marginal status in American life, Sutton concludes that African Americans played almost no role in shaping the broader premillennial movement,4 which is why evangelicalism is often understood as a white religious movement. Certainly, American Apocalypse underscores the politically conservative and Anglo-centric dimensions of modern evangelicalism. Sutton shows how evangelical interpretations of end-times prophecy were characterized by suspicion of government intervention (most often expressed as opposition to communism, socialism, social welfare, and statism); xenophobia towards Catholics, Jews, Asians, and Muslims; anti-black racism towards African Americans; alliances with nativist groups, including the KKK; hostility towards international bodies like the League of Nations and the United Nations; and a conviction that global war and cultural conflict were inevitable.

As the twentieth century progressed, evangelical apocalyptic ideas no longer seemed out-of-touch with mainstream American views, as Americans more broadly tried to wrestle with a world “ravaged by crises, depression, and violence.”5 With the rise of nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the end of the world did seem plausible, or at least the end of the world as mainstream white Americans understood it. Paradoxically, anticipating the end of the world did not foster “complacency, indifference or apathy” among white evangelicals; rather, it fostered intense cultural engagement, even a sense of warfare.6 A feeling of urgency combined with a desire to prove worthy of God’s judgment fueled a distinct form of politics centered on saving souls and transforming American culture in what little time was left. The belief that time was running out also cemented a pessimistic view of the world: one in which progressive social movements tended to be viewed as signs of degeneracy. Such interpretation had two effects. First, it incited white evangelicals to try to win back as much of America as it could to its “Christian” roots. Second, it made white evangelicals naturally resistant, and even hostile, to black evangelical calls to address racial injustice and allowed them to ignore racial suffering and terror.

Discourses of American redemption and divine judgment worked powerfully in the post-war years to create scenes of moral and social crisis around issues of race, gender, and sexuality and contributed significantly to the rise of the Religious Right. Yet as I read American Apocalypse, I grew increasingly intrigued by Sutton’s occasional reference to the fact that prophecy cuts both ways.7 In other words, prophetic politics can be directed in a variety of different directions due to its inherent absolutist moral discourse and the urgency/confidence it inspires, particularly in relation to one’s perceived enemies. African Americans, in particular, proved adept at developing apocalyptic counter-narratives to the ones promoted by white evangelicals throughout the twentieth century. Rather than locate the rise of the anti-Christ in Germany, Russia or Italy as white evangelicals did, black leaders saw signs of the anti-Christ visible in American imperialism and racism, and they imagined a coming kingdom of God where African Americans would take center stage and no longer face discrimination and segregation. Such readings and interpretation of prophetic biblical texts contrasted profoundly with white evangelicals, who, as Sutton points out, could hardly fathom the idea that black Americans could be the “chosen” people of God.8

For black evangelicals, true Christianity exhibited itself through active resistance to the scourge of racial injustice, something that white evangelical leaders rarely addressed, if ever, in their public and private statements. By the 1960s and 1970s, African American evangelicals publically and explicitly “linked civil rights with the gospel and advocated an end to [white] Christian racism.”9 Creatively combining discourses of American redemption and divine judgment, they critiqued sins of racial inequality and segregation. In my view, such discourses allowed African American leaders to code messages of racial justice in absolutist spiritual rhetoric that appealed to large numbers of black and white Americans who were already steeped in apocalyptic imaginaries. It is here that the public influence of black prophetic evangelicalism on American politics and white evangelicals is most clearly felt.

In discussing the prophetic black Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., Peter Heltzel argues that this tradition, as exemplified by King, is deeply evangelical due to its Gospel-centered vision of social change, strong faith in a personal God capable of intervening within history, emphasis on Jesus Christ, use of the Bible, and transdenominational populism.10 Within this tradition, racism is presented as an individual and systemic sin that must be overcome through faith in Jesus Chris and subsequent social action. In the words of Civil Rights leader Andrew Young: “Ours was an evangelical freedom movement that identified salvation with not just one’s personal relationship with God, but a new relationship between people black and white.”11 In this statement, Young masterfully connects evangelical notions of salvation and conversion with racial justice.

One lesser-known example of black prophetic evangelicalism that Sutton discusses is Tom Skinner who openly confronted white evangelicals in 1970 on their failure to “affirm the worth and dignity of black men.”12 Addressing the evangelical campus organization InterVarsity, Skinner noted that it took Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael to articulate the message of black dignity and equality, and he called for white and black Christians to live out new identities worthy of the coming kingdom of God and the revolutionary message of Jesus. In this powerful speech, Skinner denounced “any attempt to wed Jesus Christ off to the American system,” and in so doing thoroughly rejected the dominant vision of white evangelicalism at the time.13

Shifting evangelical emphasis on Jesus’ second coming to Jesus’ liberating power in the here and now, Skinner’s message nevertheless utilized an apocalyptic imagination to tell a story of a world falling apart by forces of poverty, capitalism, racism, Americanism, and militarism; a message that bears striking parallels to the rhetoric of white fundamentalists in the early twentieth century who saw the world as on the brink of destruction due to “isms of all kinds,” particularly secularism, socialism, and communism. Skinner’s message contained the same urgency expressed by white evangelicals that there was still work to be done, but he directed this message towards radically different ends.

Skinner’s legacy lives on in work of black evangelical John Perkins who has, since the 1970s consistently called white evangelicals to embrace the “whole gospel” and pursue a holistic vision of social transformation that includes personal and the institutional change around issues of racial and economic injustice. The influence of black prophetic evangelicalism is also apparent in President Barack Obama’s discussions of race, most notably after the recent Emmanuel Massacre in Charleston, where Obama spoke movingly of black church contributions to the “righteous” movement to dismantle Jim Crow. He went on, in evangelical apocalyptic fashion, to plead with the nation to address racial hatred and blindness, interpreting the mass shooting as an evil event that offered both an indictment of racism and violence as well as a moment of divine grace. Obama urged Americans to take the opportunity they had been given to find their best selves and take an “honest accounting of America’s history” in order to address systemic oppression, racial subjugation, and gun violence both past and present.14

I began this essay noting that in the early 1990s prominent white evangelicals began to respond to the prophetic message of African American Christians, which had been spoken for two centuries.15 For reasons perhaps both cynical and earnest, white evangelicals began to acknowledge that racism was a sin, which demanded repentance and repair. The final chapter of America Apocalypse helps illuminate the seeds of this shift, starting with Billy Graham’s rejection of segregated revivals in 1953, a growing focus on race in the pages of Christianity Today, and the rise of the evangelical left in the 1970s. The progressive group Evangelicals for Social Action took seriously critiques by black evangelicals and were among the first to denounce evangelical perpetuation of institutional racism. Yet fifty years later, evangelicalism continues to struggle against the weight of its historical formation and the perception by many African Americans that it has “done little or nothing to help America heal from the wound of racism”16 because, as Sutton amply demonstrates, the vast number of evangelicals see their faith through a white middle-class racial and cultural lens.

The combination of these factors led Edward Gilbreath to coin in 2006 the term “reconciliation blues”: a term that describes the painful despair African Americans who work in white evangelicals institutions feel knowing it is “business as usual.”17 For this reason, I want to emphasize how important it is to remember that, while a growing number of African Americans self-consciously “make their beds in the evangelical wing of the American church,”18 African Americans have consistently used apocalyptic beliefs and ideas to craft a voice within the American public sphere that is distinct from and critical of white evangelicalism. The black evangelical prophetic tradition, which links the drama of God’s judgment, intervention, and redemption directly with systemic sins of racism, remains as relevant as ever in an age where black lives remain devalued and under threat. To be sure, the “black evangelical underside of white modern evangelicalism” continues to erupt and disrupt, and it is this story that remains to be fully told in the wake of American Apocalypse.19


  1. For political analysis of this shift, see Nancy D. Wadsworth, “Reconciliation Politics: Conservative Evangelicals and the New Race Discourse,” Politics & Society 25.3 (1997) 341–67.

  2. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 18.

  3. See, e.g., Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1994–1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013); J. Russell Hawkins and Phillip Luke, eds., Christians and the Color line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race and American Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Conviction (New York: New York University Press, 2012); Nancy Wadsworth, Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

  4. Matthew Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 66.

  5. Ibid., 6.

  6. Ibid., 7.

  7. Ibid., 335.

  8. Ibid., 65.

  9. Ibid., 336.

  10. See Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Jesus & Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 45–70.

  11. Sutton, American Apocalypse, 340.

  12. Ibid., 339.

  13. Ibid., 340.

  14. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney,” The White House, June 26, 2015, https:/C:/dev/www/syndicatenetwork.com4.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-eulogy-honorable-reverend-clementa-pinckney.

  15. Peter Hetzel compellingly argues that the entanglement of white and black evangelicalism begins with eighteenth-century revivalism and questions over slavery and spiritual equality. Black evangelicals were deeply attracted to the Gospel’s egalitarian ideal and identified slavery as an evil propagated by “false” white Christians. This is a much broader/longer view of evangelicalism than Matthew Sutton offers when he ties the history of modern evangelicalism to premillennial apocalyptic theology. See Jesus and Politics.

  16. Quoted in Nancy D. Wadsworth, “Reconciliation Politics,” Politics and Society 25.3 (1997) 360.

  17. Edward Gilbreath, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 19.

  18. Ibid., 17.

  19. Hetzel, Jesus and Justice, 160.

  • Matthew Sutton

    Matthew Sutton

    Reply

    The Significance of Race: Response to Rachel Schneider

    There are many ways to write reviews. One common practice is to examine what an author sets out to do and then to evaluate how successful he or she was in accomplishing his/her goals. Another method is to use a book as a springboard into something else. Schneider’s review is a masterful example of the latter. She raises numerous important and insightful issues. I hope and trust that others will seek to answer the questions that she asks.

    The American fundamentalist movement was a white movement. Yet in most histories of fundamentalism race is usually ignored. The whiteness of fundamentalist leaders has played almost no role in historians’ analyses.

    I wanted to do something different. I knew from the start that the vast majority of the subjects in my book would be white. But I wanted to find a way to make clear how their race, their whiteness, impacted their actions and beliefs. To do that I found as many African American sources as I could in order to offer a clear contrast. What these sources revealed was far richer than what I had previously imagined.

    The result, as Schneider explains, was “a compelling but truncated glimpse” into “a unique black evangelical tradition.” Schneider is exactly right. The work I did on African American millennialism was not as thorough or as comprehensive as I had hoped. I worked hard to include the voices of African American premillennialists in every chapter, but I faced the daunting challenge of locating sources. White premillennialists in the first half of the twentieth century left an enormous paper trail. Far less material exists documenting the work of African American premillennialists.

    But I hope and trust that other historians will be able to build on and develop the work I did in American Apocalypse. In addition, the ideas, beliefs, and actions of other racial and ethnic minorities need to be integrated into the broader history of evangelicalism as well. Schneider concludes, “To be sure, the ‘black evangelical underside of white modern evangelicalism’ continues to erupt and disrupt, and it is this story that remains to be fully told in the wake of American Apocalypse.”

    Indeed, it does.

    • Rachel Schneider

      Rachel Schneider

      Reply

      The Significance of Race: Response to Matthew Sutton

      In her book Playing in the Dark, African American writer Toni Morrison asks: “What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as ‘American?’”[1] The same could be asked about American evangelicals. As Sutton makes explicit in his text: the leaders who adopted the seemingly universal label “evangelical” in the twentieth century and invested it with social power were nearly all male and almost exclusively white.

      As I suggested in my initial essay and want to foreground here, Sutton’s text exposes the entanglement between fundamentalism and white supremacy. He remarks: “As much as white fundamentalists like to claim that they practiced the true, universal faith, it was a faith most often defined by race. Preparing individuals for the coming judgment meant maintaining rather than undermining white ‘purity’ and racial hierarchies” (137).  To support this claim, Sutton documents the many ways anxieties about racial others were an implicit and explicit part of early fundamentalist discourse.

      His treatment of African American premillennialism also provides a kind of reverse mirror. In showing the degree to which black prophetic interpretations were racialized, Sutton forces readers to confront the possibility that white prophetic interpretations were equally racialized and to consider the impact on social and political practice. It is hard to ignore the fact that premillennialism took root in America at a time of heightened immigration and social change. As a “conviction and an ideology,” it provided many white Americans with a sense of historic agency, a central role in a cosmic drama (26). It also furnished them with theological reasons to resist movements for greater racial equality. In embracing the challenge to occupy until Jesus returned and win souls for Christ’s kingdom, elite white leaders instinctively sought to maintain (and defend) a position of cultural power. Theology obscured race even while race often trumped theology.

      In Sutton’s reply to me, he describes his intentional choice to foreground race—and more specifically, whiteness—in his study. I agree with him that all too often scholars have failed to address race in their treatment of American evangelicalism, allowing one of its constitutive features—whiteness—to remain unnamed and unmarked. In so doing, scholars have missed crucial opportunities to explore the role that white racial anxieties play in shaping American evangelicalism. Such analysis is vital if we are to understand how black and white Christians who share similar theology tend to understand each other as practicing different faiths.

      How is it that those identified with the black evangelical prophetic tradition continue to be perceived by white evangelical elites as outside the boundaries of mainstream evangelicalism and threatening to its public image? Sutton and other scholars who engage his work must continue to unpack the significance of race in the formation and reproduction white evangelicalism. Beyond a simple demographic quirk, the overwhelming whiteness of evangelical and fundamentalist elites deserves to be examined with sensitivity and nuance.  Clearly, many sincere and committed Christians have hidden from themselves the degree of their investment in white racial purity. I commend Sutton for his choice to highlight the overwhelming whiteness of his sources, and I hope his approach will inspire others to further probe the rich source material he has exhumed.

      [1] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 9.

Response

Reworking the Narrative

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON HAS written a thought-provoking and challenging book. American Apocalypse does what a worthwhile synthesis in history should do—it brings copious archival resources to life and pushes readers to reconsider the ways they have narrated a particular phenomenon. In this case, Sutton challenges the dominant paradigm for narrating the twentieth-century emergence of a particular form of Protestantism, primarily in the United States and United Kingdom but increasingly in the Global South, that has taken the names “fundamentalism,” “pentecostalism,” or “evangelicalism.” Sutton’s preference is to call this brand of conversionist Christianity “radical” Christianity, to emphasize that, far from “conserving” Christian ideas and practices from at least the recent past, these Christians were doctrinal innovators—the most important innovation being premillennial dispensationalism. Indeed, returning to the older work of Ernest Sandeen, Sutton marks premillennial dispensationalism as the central organizing feature of radical Christianity in the twentieth century, and his most important contribution is to offer an outstanding analysis of the multifaceted and surprising ways this theological concept impacted the daily lives, political and social activism, and cultural engagement of twentieth-century evangelicals. Doing so reworks the received narrative, and this review will focus on that reworking.

The narrative Sutton wants to alter was established by historians in the 1980s and early 1990s and most importantly by George Marsden in Fundamentalism and American Culture and Reforming Fundamentalism and Joel Carpenter in Revive Us Again. Marsden, Carpenter, and a few others posited that radical Christianity (I will use Sutton’s term) was the product of cultural and theological forces and institutional structures that connected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though the roots of this movement went further back to the nineteenth- and eighteenth-century awakenings, and maybe even to seventeenth-century continental and British Pietism and Puritanism. The received narrative starts, then, with a late nineteenth-century British/American evangelical consensus—a large tent that would include such disparate folks as Dwight Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Catherine Booth, Henry Ward Beecher, and Josiah Strong—that split into two factions. One faction, the “modernists,” adopted theological liberalism, flirted with various other “isms,” and embraced the social gospel. The other faction, which by 1925 adopted the name “fundamentalist,” drew together loosely, as Marsden argued, at least four sometimes opposing intellectual and cultural phenomena: orthodox Reformed creedalism (best exemplified by J. Gresham Machen and the “Princeton theology”); higher-life spirituality (associated with certain trans-Atlantic revivalist and holiness movements); a sense that America was chosen by God for some special plan that American Christians must defend and reinforce; and premillennial dispensationalism. These disparate parts connected—without ever fully coalescing—in the 1910s and 1920s around the sense that conservative white Protestants were increasingly under siege by the forces of modernism—communism, higher criticism, theological liberalism, and Darwinism—that threatened to shake America from its Christian foundation. Modernists, however, won control of the major denominations and seminaries in the 1920s and likewise triumphed in the public imagination in the 1925 Scopes trial. As the narrative continued, fundamentalists thus retreated from the mainstream public square, built a largely unseen empire of Bible colleges, radio ministries, and the like, and then after World War II emerged under the name “evangelicals,” reentering the public square to fight the Cold War within the mainstream political and cultural framework. Such evangelicals were symbolized by the National Association of Evangelicals, Billy Graham, and Christianity Today. The term “fundamentalist” from that point forward marked crankier folks like Carl McIntire or the Bob Jones family who remained radically separatist; it also denoted politically active conservatives like Jerry Falwell later in the century. Fast forward to the late twentieth-century, and the final chapter in this story, narrated recently by folks like Darren Dochuk (From Bible Belt to Sunbelt) and Daniel Williams (God’s Own Party), saw the emergence of the religious right marked by large-scale political mobilization and activism by a new evangelical/fundamentalist (and Catholic and Mormon) coalition. In short, then, this has been a narrative of early cultural dominance (Dwight Moody and William Jennings Bryan), cultural retreat and humiliation (Scopes), resurgence (Billy Graham), and finally a return to mainstream cultural and political influence (George W. Bush).

For Sutton, and many other observers, there are problems with this narrative. For some time now, a number of works, such as those by Dochuk and Williams, have stressed certain aspects of continuity between the 1920s and 1970s in the way radical Christians engaged the political and cultural arena, suggesting that perhaps the retreat of fundamentalists from the mainstream culture between 1925 (Scopes) and 1949 (Billy Graham’s Los Angeles revival) has been overstated in certain ways. One of Sutton’s most important contributions along this line has been to detail fundamentalist political activity in the 1920s and 30s, especially opposition to the New Deal based on apocalyptic concerns about “one world governments.” Numerous, too, have been the critiques that this narrative is largely restricted to whites and males, even though black churches also engaged these cultural and theological forces, as did women, though rarely in the highest levels of leadership (Aimee Semple McPherson and Henrietta Mears being exceptions). Picking up on this critique, Sutton in particular illuminates the important ways the black church pushed apocalypticism in directions quite different from whites. Finally, Donald Dayton and many others have noted how this narrative ignores folks of the Wesleyan or Pietist traditions and pentecostals especially. That pentecostals are left out is especially problematic, since, at least from the vantage of the twenty-first century, probably no other Protestant movement has had such a broad impact on world Christianity. Moreover, if Dochuk, Williams, and Larry Eskridge (God’s Forever Family) are correct, pentecostals were critical foot soldiers in the religious right and utterly reshaped evangelical worship practices.

But for Sutton, the primary problem is that the received narrative fails to recognized the central driving force of radical Christianity: premillennial dispensationalism. Centering radical Christianity on premillenial dispensationalism alters the narrative primarily because Sutton traces the continuity of an idea rather than the episodic convergence and alterations of contingent historical phenomena such as voting, party alignment, institution building, etc. These phenomena factor into his narrative but primarily as they are affected by or interpreted through this central, totalizing idea. For Sutton, radical Christianity is at its heart, then, galvanized by an idea—a totalizing Gestalt/worldview—an interpretive scheme from which actions and institutions flow: premillennial dispensationalism.

We could at this point debate whether premillennial dispensationalism was, indeed, the central organizing feature or even idea of the movement, but this debate can be hashed out elsewhere (Joel Carpenter does a good job of this in the current set of reviews, and Marsden has argued against this view, as stated by Sandeen, in the both editions of Fundamentalism and American Culture). Sutton has a strong case; premillennial dispensationalism was everywhere among many of these central figures, especially in the late nineteenth century, and ideas certainly can shape the way historical action proceeds. So giving him the benefit of the doubt—that premillennialism was the most important idea galvanizing radical Christians into historical action—we see Sutton alter the narrative in at least three significant ways.

First, Sutton posits a narrative primarily of continuity of, persistence of, and steady growth in influence of premillennial dispensationalism from its earliest adoption by Dwight Moody on to its persistence after Scopes, its confirmation and historical corroboration in the Second World War and Cold War (especially with the establishment of a nation of Israel), its movement into popular culture (Hal Lindsey), and finally the way it propelled the religious right to directly influence US domestic and foreign policy. In stressing this continuity, Sutton importantly downplays the role of Scopes, arguing that, while it stigmatized the term “fundamentalist,” it had no real impact on the way premillennialism shaped radical Christian social and political activity—there was no retreat, in other words, from political and cultural engagement. Rather, the pivot point in the narrative was the First World War, which politicized and made patriotic a premillennialism that beforehand was mostly apolitical and even pacifist/isolationist in its political effects. During and after the Great War, radical Christians merged premillennialism with the idea the America was God’s chosen nation, believing that, even though the world would end in conflagration and there would be no human-based millennium, they were to “occupy until He comes.” From this turning point, this merger of premillennialism and patriotism fueled political action in support of prohibition and opposition to the New Deal, Al Smith, and, increasingly, the Democratic Party, facilitating the emerging twentieth-century link between radical Christianity and the GOP, which, for Sutton, occurred in the 1930s not the 1970s. This premillennial Gestalt has continued to mark radical Christians’ “no compromise” outlook into the twenty-first century. Gone is a narrative of withdrawal and reentry; instead, for Sutton, premillennialism fueled a steady and increasing politicization of radical Christians following the First World War—a politicization that promoted a decentralized and laissez-faire economic economy that found a steady home in the GOP.

Second, tracing the continuity of an idea, rather than, say, institution building (Westminster Theological Seminary) or organized activity (it’s one thing to preach against the New Deal, it’s another to run for office or form a political party), moves pentecostalism to the center rather than to the periphery of his narrative, even though pentecostals did things quite differently from rank-and-file radical Christians. Looking backwards, this makes perfect sense, given the emergence of pentecostalism as a world historical force, its role in the religious right, and the prominence of its most important leaders from Oral Roberts to Pat Robertson to Creflo Dollar to Joel Osteen. At the beginning, too, premillennial dispensationalism had no stronger advocates than early pentecostals for whom the Parousia was their core reason for existence. So it makes sense to offer a story of fundamentalism with Sister Aimee at the heart, rather than, as Marsden has done, to propose one regarding pentecostals to be “close cousins to the original fundamentalists.”1

Third, if Sutton’s narrative moves pentecostals to the center, it necessarily moves other folks to the periphery. Two he readily acknowledges are creedal Reformed conservatives, J. Gresham Machen chief among them, and mainstream conservative Christians who were not premillennialists—William Jennings Bryan being the archetypical example. Recognizing the head-scratching response to a history of fundamentalism without J. Gresham Machen, Sutton argues that, in the fight against higher criticism, which radical Christians understood as a fight for premillennial dispensationalism (which required a literalist hermeneutic), premillennialists joined forces temporarily with creedal conservatives like Machen. But Sutton considers the denominational battles of the ’20s, in which creedal conservatives were most invested, somewhat of a sideshow. Sutton, it seems, though, is less meticulous in finding a place for non-dispensationalist, non-modernist Christians like William Jennings Bryan—that is, the vast middle ground of patriotic, mostly conservative church goers.

Sutton’s treatment of Bryan leads to the first of two question I want to raise, and in some respects (perhaps unfairly), they arise from the title’s claim to offer “A History of Modern Evangelicalism” rather than an analysis one component of that history. The question is this: how can a history of an unqualified evangelicalism not account for the conversion of conservative, non-dispensational, non-premillennial white Protestants generally—and, most specifically and importantly, white Southern Protestants—to premillennial dispensationalism? Their presence, it seems, challenges the continuity aspect of the narrative, especially given their importance to the rise of the religious right (the end of segregation-based loyalty to the Democratic Party, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”), the Christianization of the military, etc. So, restated, how does a narrative stressing the continuity/continued growth of radical Christianity through the twentieth century account for Southern conservative Christians and Southern Baptists in particular (the largest organized group of white conservative Protestants in the country) who were not initially, premillennialists?

That’s not to say Sutton ignores the South; he highlights, for example, the pivotal role played by certain premillennialists who spoke with a Southern accent: Texan J. Frank Norris, especially, along with John R. Rice, A. C. Dixon, John Roach Straton (from southern Indiana), and, of course, Billy Graham. But if we consider white Southern Baptists and Methodists generally, these leaders were anomalous (often expatriates) and did not speak for the vast majority of Bryan-like Southern conservative Protestants (and Norris, in particular, embodied what Darren Dochuk has termed “Texas theology,” shaped more by its relationship to California and Chicago than to Nashville, Atlanta, or Richmond). In addition, Sutton includes in the narrative Southern pentecostals and black Christians (who were often quasi-pentecostal in style and practice if not in theology), but, again, these folks were culturally distant from vast majority of average white Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists. Finally, he demonstrates the shift in Southern voting patterns away from the Democratic party in 1928 as a response to Al Smith’s Catholicism, though the link in this shift to premillennialism is implied, not meticulously documented.

Again, at issue is that a book that hopes to narrate the emergence of radical Christianity—which becomes synonymous, Sutton claims, with “evangelicalism” by the twenty-first century—does not account for the conversion of these white Southern Protestants to radical Christianity. At some point by the 1970s these folks started reading Hal Lindsay and voting Republican. As far as I know, these same folks in the 1920s to the 1950s would not have recognized a Clarence Larkin apocalyptic chart. The presence of Southern conservative white Protestants who came late to radical Christianist thus strains the credibility of a narrative stressing continuity. Something had to have happened, even outside the fundamentalization of Southern Baptists in the 1980s, that brought this vast swath of Southern Protestants into the radical Christian and Republican camp.

Second, then, I want to ask, what are the limits to placing an idea, rather than political, economic, social, or institutional phenomena, at the center of the history of a religious movement. As noted, doing so brings pentecostals necessarily into the fold, but it also excludes Southern Baptists, Southern Methodists, and other Bryan-like conservative Protestants who weren’t premillennial but tuned into Charles Fuller, not to mention Reformed creedal conservatives. I don’t doubt for one minute that, for those who centered their faith on it (and many did), premillennial dispensationalism had the profound, world-shaping effects Sutton outlines. But can we understand an historical/social movement fundamentally as motivated by an idea, as something that can be summarized by a singular belief system—even if that idea was deeply connected to historical events? This historiographical approach certainly shapes the story we tell, as it has for Sutton. We get a lean argument from Sutton and a narrative that highlights key aspects of the radical Christian outlook. But is it the complete narrative? For all its problems, perhaps the messy quality of Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture gets us closer to understanding what happened in the early twentieth century. For Marsden, “fundamentalism” and its progeny were brought together within a specific historical period in order to arrest the forces of “modernism” in order to preserve stuff (American, Princeton Seminary, etc.). That fight, with the contingencies of time and place, for Marsden, is the organizing feature of the movement, accounting for why it emerged when it did, and why it took on the characteristics it did, not all of which accorded with premillennialism. There is no doubt that premillennial dispensationalism shaped the resulting pronouncements, institutions, and other artifacts of their cultural, social, and political engagement, but so did, for Marsden, other disparate counterforces such as the Reformed impulse to improve the world. For Sutton, Machen is a sideshow to the real historical forces at work, which are fundamentally intellectual and cultural. For Marsden, Machen—and the staunch premillennialists—were all key players at a point of messy cultural engagement that had a lasting effect on institutions we have come to recognize as “fundamentalism.”


  1. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 236.

  • Matthew Sutton

    Matthew Sutton

    Reply

    What Is a Fundamentalist? Response to Joe Creech

    I very much appreciated Creech’s careful efforts to explain the arguments of American Apocalypse. He both celebrates the strengths of the book and identifies what he sees as its limitations.

    One of Creech’s main concerns, and one that I certainly expect I will see from other reviewers down the road, has to do with my relatively narrow definition of “fundamentalism.” This is a term that has no clear and explicit definition and scholars have not reached a consensus on how it should be defined. I chose to focus primarily on those men and women who (1) self-identified as fundamentalists and (2) who were part of an explicit, clearly defined network. The “network” was my key innovation here. There were many men and women who could affirm what had emerged as the supposed “fundamental” doctrines of the faith. But they did not identify themselves with the network shaped by magazines, prophecy conferences, Bible colleges, radio stations, and parachurch organizations that defined the boundaries of the movement. Rather than take George Marsden’s approach of including a multitude of groups that opposed theological modernism, I chose to tell the story of those who claimed the fundamentalist name and who shaped their fundamentalist movement as one alternative among others to liberal forms of faith. Once I identified the network, I analyzed what gave it coherence and what made it distinct from other religious networks at the time. I concluded that it was apocalypticism.

    Because I define fundamentalism as a network I exclude people who agreed with fundamentalists on some key points of doctrine but who operated independently of the fundamentalist movement. In the past, many of these people have populated histories of fundamentalism despite the fact that they did not associate themselves with one another. Because these histories define fundamentalism by what it was not (modernism), rather than by what it was, they lump together an array of characters that should actually be distinguished from one another.

    No more. Regardless of whether or not Creech is satisfied with my definition of fundamentalism, the grab-bag approach that has long characterized fundamentalist historiography is being put to rest. In addition to my own work, B. M. Pietsch and especially Timothy E. W. Gloege have demonstrated that that the old paradigm is simply insufficient.1

    So who gets left out in my story as a result of my definition? Those who chose not to participate in (or who were not invited into) the fundamentalist network.

    I explain in the prologue: “While proponents often identified fundamentalism as the ‘old time religion’ or as the ‘conservative’ faith, there was very little traditional or conservative about it (i.e., fundamentalists were not trying to conserve something from the past but were instead savvy religious innovators). Fundamentalism provided Christians with a third way between liberal Protestantism and creedal, churchly conservatism. But they were never totally monolithic; throughout their history fundamentalists debated and contested various aspects of the faith. At the same time, they routinely built alliances with churchly conservatives and other religious anti-modernists in their effort to combat what they interpreted as false understandings of Christianity” (4).

    What does this mean? It means that some of the folks who traditionally get included in textbook accounts of fundamentalism now belong in another category—that of churchly or creedal conservatives. Here I build in part on the work of Ernest Sandeen and D. G. Hart.2

    When Creech worries that I am “less meticulous in finding a place for non-dispensationalist, non-modernist Christians like William Jennings Bryan” he begs the very question that I have asked of the older historiography. I never intended to find a place for Bryan within fundamentalism, because the fundamentalists did not. Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, and Fredrick Lewis Allen cemented the idea that Bryan was a fundamentalist in Americans’ mind. I am trying to get away from their (mis)use of the term fundamentalist by focusing on the network. Positioning Bryan and other churchly conservatives properly is a task for others to undertake.

    Bryan, as I explain,

    began his anti-evolution crusade as no more than a tangential part of the fundamentalist movement. He cared little for the quintessential fundamental, individual salvation. He was a post-millennialist, a reformer, and a political progressive who preached toleration and practiced it by working regularly with Catholics and Jews. He also lacked interest in many of the social issues that animated fundamentalism. Although he rejected the liberal biblical criticism emanating from seminaries in the US and Europe, he had no interest in turning the Bible into a set of propositions that when aligned revealed a hidden plan of the ages. Rather, the Great Commoner represented the American Protestant majority, neither fundamentalist nor modernist but something in the middle. (167–68)

    Creech also wonders where J. Gresham Machen belongs. But Doctor Fundamentalis actually plays an extremely important albeit brief role in my book. Machen, I wrote,

    lamented the ways in which the premillennial debate had come to define the battle with modernists and called it “highly misleading when modern liberals represent the present issue in the Church, both in the mission field and at home, as being an issue between premillennialism and the opposite view. It is really an issue between Christianity, whether premillennial or not, on the one side, and a naturalistic negation of all Christianity on the other.” But he could not change the fact that premillennialists had waged the most consistent and strongest fight against theological liberalism. They gave fundamentalism its militancy and urgency. In fighting the equation of premillennialism with fundamentalism, Machen was acknowledging the substantial hold of premillennialism on the movement. He was the exception that proved the rule. (104)

    Machen’s role, then, in American Apocalypse is to support my definition. The burden is not on me to explain why I excluded people who did not want to count themselves among fundamentalists, but on those like Creech to justify including fundamentalist-like people in the movement. And if we open up the category to those who did not claim the name of fundamentalist and who did not participate in the network, where do we stop? Old textbooks often lumped Klansmen together with fundamentalists. On a sociological level, this makes sense. But we know that Klansmen and fundamentalists were different groups doing different things. The same goes for fundamentalists and churchly conservatives.

    Creech laments that I “consider the denominational battles of the ’20s” as “somewhat of a sideshow.” He is right in that I spent little time on the denominational battles. This was not because I considered them a sideshow—I do not—but because it was simply outside the scope of what I was trying to do. I was interested in how fundamentalists dealt with the broader culture; I was far less interested in the internecine battles that racked Protestantism. The denominational battles have been told by others and told well, including by Christopher Schlect, one of my students, so I acknowledged them and moved on.3

    This then leads Creech to the bigger question: “How can a history of an unqualified evangelicalism not account for the conversion of conservative, non-dispensational, non-premillennial white Protestants generally—and, most specifically and importantly, white southern Protestants—to premillennial dispensationalism?”

    But he asks the question backwards, anachronistically imposing the present on top of the past. My intent was not to start with the diversity of modern evangelicalism and then move backwards, but to start at the beginning with the rise of fundamentalism and then to talk about its flourishing and diversifying as it morphed into evangelicalism. I spend the first three hundred pages of the book on fundamentalists before turning to post-World War II evangelicals, and once I do turn to evangelicalism I acknowledge repeatedly that over time the movement became far more diverse than the fundamentalism that preceded it.

    The question of the South though is a good one, and one that I struggled with. I did my best throughout the book to account for it. Fundamentalism originated primarily as a northern and western phenomenon. However, key players in the South including the Southern Baptist premillennialists who Creech lists helped build the movement there as well—they were part of the network. My primary focus was on telling the story of the rise and evolution of fundamentalism through the end of World War II, and then to trace briefly the implications of that story in the postwar era—how fundamentalism became evangelicalism. I did not intend to account for the rise of evangelicalism in the South after World War II, something that Darren Dochuk and others have done so well. It is an important topic, but one that was outside the scope of this book.

    Finally, Creech asks if it is wise to place an idea, “rather than political, economic, social, or institutional phenomena, at the center of the history of a religious movement.” My goal was not to claim the idea as the center of the movement, but to argue that this particular idea—one of many that was central to fundamentalists—most distinguished the movement. I write,

    This conviction defined their relationships to those inside and outside of the faith. It conditioned their analysis of politics and of the economy. It impacted how they voted and for whom. It determined their perspectives on social reform, moral crusades, and progressive change. It influenced the curriculum they brought into their schools and their views of American higher education. It defined their evaluation of alternative expressions of Christianity as well as competing religions. It framed their understanding of natural disasters, geo-political changes, and war. In short, fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse made them who they were. (3)

    In other words, fundamentalists would have listed numerous ideas as “central” to their identity—from the inerrancy of Scripture to the virgin birth to the historicity of miracles—but premillennialism mattered in a way that no other idea did in terms of shaping how they lived their lives and related to others outside the faith. Therefore, as I still argue, fundamentalism “is best defined as radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” (3).


    1. Timothy E. W. Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); B. M. Pietsch, Dispensational Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

    2. Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

    3. Christopher Schlect, “Onward Christian Administrators,” PhD diss., Washington State University, 2015.

    • Joe Creech

      Reply

      Response to Matthew Sutton

      I want to thank Matthew Sutton for his thoughtful response to my review of American Apocalypse, and I don’t think I have much to write in response—I could question his interpretation of my interpretation at points, but the nature of my review was to think about the implications of his argument for understanding the narrative of twentieth-century fundamentalism, pentecostalism, and evangelicalism, particularly as these variations of Protestantism shaped the American cultural and political landscape.

      I do, however, want to make one clarification. I was less concerned about his definition of fundamentalism than he suggests, as I knew Joel Carpenter would take up this point. Instead, I agreed to give Sutton the “benefit of the doubt” in his definition of fundamentalism and focus instead on the extension of his argument in the later portions of the book, asking how his definition of fundamentalism might alter our narrative of events from the 1930s forward. To repeat, I see the primary alterations stemming from placing an organizing idea at the center of the story, a strategy I see as rather different from the one used by George Marsden and Joel Carpenter. Identifying this idea as the central organizing feature of the narrative (along with, as Sutton notes in his response to my review, those who self-identify as fundamentalist—a point I should have recognized) moves pentecostals to the center of the story and folks like Machen more to the periphery.

      My primary question remains, however, that, if premillennial dispensationalism was the most important organizing feature first of fundamentalism and, by extension, post World-War II evangelicalism, then Sutton must explain how many if not most conservative Christians in the South and primarily the Southeast adopted premillenial dispensationalism by the 1980s. This is less a conundrum for folks in the Southwest and central and southern California who Darren Dochuk studied in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, since many if not most of them had earlier ties to premillennialism. Something happened between 1925 and 1980 among conservative evangelicals in the Southeast that would prompt, among other things, the fundamentalization of the Southern Baptist Convention and the rise of the GOP in the Southeast. To justify his subtitle (A History of Modern Evangelicalism), Sutton should account for this (or at least gesture towards a solution—I don’t want to sound as if I’m suggesting he should have written a different book). I appreciate his acknowledgement that this historical problem is indeed a sticky one.

      But, again, I want to stress my appreciation for Sutton’s book—that it spurs such reflection and raises such questions marks its importance.

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