So much of the recent scholarly work done on evangelicals has focused on correlating characteristics of evangelicals: issues of race, class, and gender roles that impacted other middle-class Americans in the mid to late twentieth century and corresponded approximately with the election of Richard Nixon through the second election of George W. Bush. This fixation on political and social matters ended up giving short shrift to theological concerns. Despite some notable exceptions, few historians took the time to dig deep into what evangelicals actually believe and how those doctrinal beliefs have in turn shaped the lives of evangelicals on an individual and then corporate level.
Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse does not address evangelical theology directly; the author addresses premillennial dispensationalism, a theology of the end times unique to evangelicals and one that was newly arrived at the dawn of the twentieth century. Scholars have long argued that American evangelicalism was fundamentalist at its core, noting the proliferation of writings and sermons on a return to an emphasis on what are now regarded as key Christian doctrines: the reality of miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, and, most importantly, a fervent belief that Christ was returning to Earth soon. It is the latter doctrine that drives the narrative of this book. Key to Sutton’s argument is the idea that while evangelicals of varying theological stripes huddle around several core doctrines, it was a strong adherence to premillennial evangelicalism that united the movement and drove it forward into the twentieth century.
American Apocalypse is not a traditional history of evangelicalism. Instead it is a history of how a theological doctrine concerning the reading of Scripture—both exegesis and hermeneutics—deeply influenced a theological movement. As a response to modernism and the Social Gospel, fundamentalism was a sincere attempt to return to the purity of the basic biblical Christianity. Running throughout this strand of evangelicalism was the work of John Nelson Darby and his view of the end times. Sutton offers a clear explanation of the premillennial belief system that is fair to its adherents both in retrospect and in the present day. He regards this particular set of explanations of biblical prophecy as “futurist” as opposed to “historicist.” Indeed, a fair reader may be sympathetic to premillennialists in that life in the later part of the nineteenth century was fraught with peril and change on the world stage, and this theological system seemingly made sense of domestic and international events and provided the Christian comfort in declaring the imminent return of Christ to claim his church. This theology was quickly spread throughout American evangelicalism by the Scofield Reference Bible as well as by a vast networks of conferences, newspapers, traveling evangelists, and, in time, radio broadcasts and newly created seminaries.
In reading Sutton, one is struck by the degree to which fundamentalism and its revamped offspring neo-evangelicalism were new inventions. In confessing “no creed but Christ,” these pastors and theologians were only tangentially tied to the theological heritage of their respective denominations. Having no overriding hermeneutic to influence their theological work, their preaching within the local church, and their evangelism to the world at large, evangelicals interpreted all Scripture through the lens of current events. This was unhelpful in many respects, not least because it stymied any efforts to establish an evangelical or fundamentalist intellect capable of approaching the world on its own terms. Sutton himself stumbles, though, in failing to note that for all the ostensible conservatism of fundamentalism—a word rarely given specific definition with regard to either policy or ideology—their view that history was moving towards an apocalyptic climax had more than a whiff of Hegelianism to it. While they rejected Marxist formulations, fundamentalists still accepted the notion that History was on the move. Indeed, premillennial fundamentalists held to an inverse understanding of the Whig interpretation of history whereby history was moving not towards an ever-improving future but a Hobbesian Sodom and Gomorrah. While American Apocalypse is a historical work and not a theological one, it is easy to find oneself wishing the author had dug more deeply into the implications of this theology, particularly in the fact that at its core, the deepest impulses of fundamentalists and evangelicals were in many respects progressive.
Sutton often refers to the conservative nature of American fundamentalism. This is true in a sense. Fundamentalists were determinedly anti-Communist, and they were skeptical of large government initiatives, setting them at odds with progressive tendencies throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Yet the word conservative has specific meanings in American political history and prior to the 1950s, American conservatism moved only in fits and starts. If there was conservatism at work in pre-World War II fundamentalism, by what standard does Sutton judge that conservatism? The author never suggests that these fundamentalists and evangelicals were influenced by Richard Weaver or Albert Jay Nock, nor does reader find the later influence of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., James Burnham, or other American conservatives. While this sort of distinction may seem pedantic, it is important that historians place fundamentalists within their appropriate context. Indeed, one would make careful distinctions between anti-Communist liberals in American politics from their ideological cousins in the Popular Front or the more radical New Left. It seems arguable that while fundamentalists may have shared some conservative positions, anti-Communism chief among them, their overall disposition, their biblicism and historicism, was in keeping with an oddly progressive tendency. That modern conservatism still experiences a dearth of evangelicals in the area of public policy and political thought only reinforces this reality.
In a chapter entitled “Seeking Salvation with the GOP,” Sutton notes that by the 1920s, many fundamentalists had found a political home in the Republican Party. This allegiance was driven largely by the 1928 nomination of Al Smith as the Democratic candidate for President, as well as earlier support for Prohibition. One again notes the fundamentalist penchant for a paranoid reading of political events and a peculiar interpretation of Scripture vis-à-vis alcohol. Indeed, Sutton notes that on the Prohibition front, fundamentalists “had a knack for picking losing battles.” On economics, things were a bit more problematic. Many fundamentalists championed big business and the great Protestant work ethic. Their embrace of the free market was also fueled by premillennial paranoia, as they saw not just Communist influence in the labor movement (not an altogether unfounded concern) but also saw in labor united worldwide the work of the Antichrist. Sutton’s placement of fundamentalists within the overall conservative arc in American political thought is off base, but if he is right, then so too were Lionel Trilling and Richard Hofstadter. For fundamentalists, there was no such thing as a good or bad public policy. Instead, everything was a matter of pending doom with a cunning Antichrist lurking behind every historical corner. It was no way to run a country, and it was most certainly no way to run a church.
It is difficult to read Sutton’s work without thinking about Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, written just over twenty years before a large portion of evangelical leadership doubled-back on previous concerns about the personal morality of leaders and offered robust support for Donald Trump. Much of the rhetoric among evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., centered around the urgency of defeating Hillary Clinton. The urgency is rooted in premillennial dispensationalism, as things fall apart and the world inches ever closer to Armageddon. In some ways, Sutton’s work stands as a fascinating remembrance of a bygone era, a time when preachers and theologians looked around at a rapidly changing world and concluded that the only explanation for such confusing times was to see in history the fulfillment of the prophecies of Daniel and the book of Revelation.
As American Christianity moves towards a post-evangelical future, with many Protestants returning to a more robust, confessional church and others filtering out towards apolitical megachurches defined by what the sociologist Christian Smith refers to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, American Apocalypsehelpfully diagnoses how evangelicals arrived at this moment. This moment is found in the elevation of a peculiar doctrine, unheard of to prior generations of Christians, alien to the Church Fathers and the Reformers, and yet fused with an energy that would grow a movement while eventually precipitating its momentous decline.
Matthew Stokes holds an M.A. from the University of Alabama.