Matthew Avery Sutton, Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University, argues that American premillennialist Christians bought and sold the narrative of an imminent apocalypse. Their urgent call for apocalyptic readiness drove their religion and its outworking in society. The impulse carried such force that they have deeply influenced American culture and politics, even down to the present. Sutton’s book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, is a revisionist work. He challenges the two major works of the last few decades that have established the scholarly consensus on fundamentalism and evangelicalism. George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980) and Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again (1997) over emphasize discontinuity between the phases of radical evangelicalism, Sutton argues. Scholars have too willingly accepting the narrative of neo-evangelicals after WWII who championed a significant shift from fundamentalism. More importantly for Sutton, these scholars miss the central driving force for the radical evangelicals — the persistent belief in and proclamation of an imminent apocalypse. In 1970 Ernest Sandeen rightly argued that premillennial theology was central for the movement, but with this work being almost half a century old, Sutton takes a fresh look at the historical record and offers an ambitious reassessment.
Although Sutton emphasizes continuity in the movement after its inception, he argues that the movement itself was new and distinct from the American Protestant Christianity that preceded it. The new movement represented a third way, in response to liberalism and classical Protestant Christianity. The new radical evangelicals transformed American culture as they tried to save it, in light of the pending apocalypse. When WWI erupted, they interpreted it through the lens of apocalyptic theology. Surely, the end was at hand; the war seemed to reinforce everything that they expected. When history continued after the war without an Armageddon, their sense of anticipation did not fade. Sutton calls this phase of the movement fundamentalism. It did not represent a unique movement but merely one of the three phases of a cohesive religious movement based on apocalyptic expectation.
The fundamentalists established networks, held conferences, published works of scholarship, and engaged in society, and all of it was related to premillennialism. Sutton says, “It was premillennialism that had separated radical evangelicals from traditional, creedal, churchly conservatives and inspired the most fervent activism. Premillennialists’ sense of an imminent apocalypse, along with premillennialism’s many ramifications, gave the fundamentalist movement its most definitive shape and character” (101-102). Fundamentalism was not a conservative response to the heterodox faith of modernism, but an apocalyptically consumed force that increasingly gained a foothold in America.
The premillennialists declared that Jesus was coming soon. However, they did not build bunkers and hide until his return. Instead, they engaged the public in a quest for social redemption. They attacked progressive ideas and promoted traditional family values. They insisted that social degradation, including abortion and divorce, would only accelerate the coming Armageddon, but with urgency they determined to hold the fort until Jesus’ appearing. In the midst of their social crusades, the white-dominated and male movement largely ignored the plight of African Americans and other minorities, who suffered under racial oppression, which did not go unnoticed by their black brethren and also kept an integrated movement from existing, even as many African American professed the same apocalyptic faith.
Sutton downplays the role of the Scope’s trial in defining fundamentalism. The media promoted the idea that opposition to evolutionary theory was essential to fundamentalism, but the evidence suggests otherwise, he contends. Eschatological theology, not anti-evolutionary activism, lay at the heart of the movement. However, in the eyes of the American public, the branding of anti-intellectualism stuck.
Fundamentalists devoted themselves to political engagement. Continuing their crusade for social holiness, with apocalyptic urgency, they increasingly gravitated toward the Republican Party. Determined to occupy America until Jesus returned, they continued to interpret significant political and international events through an apocalyptic lens. As European tyrants like Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler rose to power, each one had a biblical reference and explanation. Simultaneously, in contrast to early accusations of weak patriotism, premillennialists increasingly owned a hyper-patriotism and slowly wedded American nationalism with their apocalyptic message. As FDR became president and rolled out his New Deal, premillennialists opposed them both as signs of the end, and “vowed to occupy their nation until Christ returned” (258). They inserted a prominent voice in American politics and paved the way for later sunbelt conservatism. They increasingly gained standing in the mainstream of American life.
After WWII radical evangelicals entered a new phase: fundamentalists became evangelicals. However, Sutton emphasizes the continuity of the movement, depicting the shift as more so artificial rebranding, rather than an entirely new movement. They retained their urgent apocalyptic thrust, even as they solidified hyper-nationalism in the movement, increased their intellectual respectability, and became a stronger political force. Carl Henry directed evangelicals toward intellectual engagement, and institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary, and the magazine Christianity Today, fulfilled that calling. Billy Graham became the public face of the movement as a central part of its rebranding. At least outwardly, they took a small step away from the excesses of fundamentalist apocalypticism, but their eschatology persisted. They used the Cold War as they did both world wars to prove that Armageddon was imminent. The newness of evangelicalism amounted to new varnish on the same old product. However, evangelicals ascended to new heights of influence and power in America.
Evangelicals spread their apocalyptic message across American life. They used new technology and every form of media available. With radio, television, movies, and widely read books, they convinced a substantial portion of the American population that Christ’s end-time return might occur at any moment. Films like Thief in the Night and the documentary for Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet haunted and fascinated a generation of Americans, as did Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, which sold more than sixty-three million copies. With this kind of cultural fascination and voice in society, evangelicals created a political powerhouse, helping elect Ronald Reagan to two terms, as well as George H. W. Bush, and his son, George W., who served two terms as president. Indeed, their political power is the source of scholarly interest in evangelicalism and its history. Sutton argues that it is still “thriving in the twenty-first century” (367). The movement accounts for almost one-third of Americans. Evangelicals have continued to adjust to a changing nation, but their message remains the same — Jesus is coming; get ready.
Sutton’s argument is powerful. He calls for a reorientation of how scholars understand evangelicalism. The common thread that draws the movement together in its nearly century and a half of existence is urgent premillennial theology. His account is comprehensive. He gives adequate attention to each phase of development and covers an impressive amount of ground. He weaves his account between the religious sphere that was central to the lives of these believers and their activity that resulted from the implications of their theology. God had given them marching orders to take and hold America and they did so.
Sutton’s research is impressive. He combs through published materials, letters, sermons, interviews, newspapers, and more. In at least one section, however, his source work is thin. From pages 15-21, as he discusses the early development of the movement, he tends to rely on secondary sources, or sometimes does not substantiate significant arguments at all, for instance his discussion of budding dispensationalist theology. However, in general, his research is robust. Although Sutton’s main narrative concerns the predominantly white and male center of evangelicalism, he gives a significant voice to African Americans, who agreed with their white brethren on apocalyptic theology, but due to white prejudice remained in their own sphere. Indeed, they were evangelicals, but the movement failed to embrace them. He also gives significant attention to Pentecostals, whom other historians sometimes discount as part of the evangelical story. Sutton demonstrates the significant role that they played. Sutton’s skill as a writer is one of the foremost strengths of this work. His argument gives cohesion to the book and it drives his account. His argument is stronger in the later chapters than in the earliest ones, but at the very least, he demonstrates the great significance of apocalyptic theology for American evangelicals.
Two remaining holes exist in his argument, however. First, he fails to give an adequate account for those premillennialists who remained in the fundamentalist phase, as the neo-evangelicals went mainstream. If fundamentalism and evangelicalism are merely two phases of a single premilliennialist movement, what are we to think about fundamentalists who exist even down to present? Second, Sutton fails to give an adequate explanation for the assumed continuity that existed, but that he denies, among a movement of radical Protestants since the first and second awakenings in American history. Whether or not they fit his premillennialist mold, a radical, revivalist, biblicist, and society invested group of Christians have a long tradition in American history.
Students of evangelicalism and fundamentalism will have to grapple with Sutton’s work. I highly recommend it to doctoral students in American religious history and certainly to scholars in related fields. The book would be helpful for pastors serving in the United States, both within evangelicalism and beyond, considering the influence that the tradition has had. Thoughtful evangelical laypeople might enjoy it. However, they should expect to find themselves in the book in revealing ways.
Paul A. Sanchez
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY
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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism