Featured Reviews, Volume 9

Matthew Avery Sutton – American Apocalypse [Feature Review]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0674048369″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/51Ht7pv4TtL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”220″]Both Too Broad and Too Narrow

A Feature Review of

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery Sutton

Hardback: Harvard UP, 2015.
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Reviewed by Timothy Morriss.

I managed to avoid several showings of the movie “A Thief in the Night” while growing up.  The movie was already past its prime shock value, I knew enough to steer clear of its one world government and guillotine, and so my determined lack of enthusiasm for viewing it did not cause undue alarm or derision among my peers or youth leaders.  I was raised in a fundamentalism that came awake politically during Jimmy Carter’s campaign and presidency and with Francis Schaeffer’s, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” It was intimately concerned with immediately saving souls, with missionary activity and defending the Bible, while it also was fascinated with both the beginning and the end of the world.  It was not all that concerned with its own specific history.  Reading George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, altered my ahistorical outlook and created an intellectual and cultural history for my childhood faith.  The book is thirty-five years old now and historians are trying to craft a newer and more complete history of the movement.

Matthew Avery Sutton in his American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, deliberately sets out to tell a different story about fundamentalism than Marsden did.  Marsden defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism,” a broad definition that encompassed theologically conservative Protestants from many backgrounds, influenced by revivalism, Reformed and Holiness spirituality and premillenialism, all of which militated against theological modernism.  Sutton defines fundamentalism much more narrowly around premillenial dispensationalist views that intricately traced biblical prophecy and offered a historical timeline of the end of the world to be initiated by Christ’s return and the Rapture of believers. Included here are men like the leaders of Moody Bible Institute, but Sutton also includes pentecostals, especially Aimee Semple McPherson (he has written of her in the past) as well as African American leaders who adopted premillenialism.

The book’s first chapter describes the rise of Protestant modernism in the late nineteenth century and the vigorous response of some evangelicals in prophecy conferences.  It especially traces the efforts of businessman William Blackstone to disseminate premillenial ideas.  Sutton moves quickly through premillenial thinking, offering a couple of pages on the belief and its historical origins (Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More remains an excellent historical review), while arguing premillenialism was the core of the movement that would become fundamentalism.

Sutton claims premillenialism never justified apathy but always sought action in the world.  But the activity it most valued, and which Sutton talks little about, was activity that led to conversion.  Leaders might, despite the imminent end of the world, advocate voting, Prohibition, and downtown missions, but these individualistic reforms fell short of the environmental changes advocates of the Social Gospel sought.  Fundamentalists understood the biggest reform possible was the conversion of the individual and the fundamentalist reaction against the Social Gospel hints at the individualistic and anti-statist fundamentalism that will respond with disdain, and even fear of antichrist, to Wilson’s war mobilization and the New Deal.

The second and third chapters describe the historical origin of the term fundamentalist amid World War I.  Premillenialists were divided and most did not initially support the war.  Amid the strong nationalist propaganda, they were declared unpatriotic by some modernist leaders, who accused them of withdrawal from the world.  These chapters also recount oil man Lyman Stewart’s financing of the Fundamentals, that created the movements name and disseminated a particularly American orthodoxy that defended against Biblical criticism and anti-supernaturalism, saw individual conversion as the means to remake society, but did not demand premillenialism as an eschatology.  Sutton sees World War I as the turning point in fundamentalism, offering validity to its prophetic theories, vigor to its arguments against modernism, and a unifying against communism and expanding government.

Sutton does not see the Scopes Trial in 1925 as fundamentalism’s fall before its subsequent rising again as evangelicalism in the 1950s.   While he overstates the importance of Scopes for decline in both Marsden and in Joel Carpenter’s narrative of fundamentalism in the 1930s to the 1950s, his point is that there is continuity in fundamentalist political activity throughout the 20th century.  Culture wars were fought over Hollywood and the radio, higher education and the teaching of evolution in the 20s, long before a Moral Majority ever formed.

Chapters 6 through 8 draw more explicit connections between premillenialism and politics, as fundamentalist leaders cozied up to the Republican party in the 1920s, responded to tyranny in world politics, and perceived tyranny in FDR’s expansion of the role of government in the New Deal.  In the 20s, fundamentalists were roused to defend Prohibition, especially against Catholic Al Smith’s 1928 presidential candidacy.  Premillenial predictions rose to the forefront as fundamentalist leaders worked to fit Mussolini, the Soviets, and Hitler into Biblical prophecy.  Sutton’s chapter “Christ’s Deal versus the New Deal” hints at the rising “antistate, promarket worldview” that will come to the fore after World War II, financed by business leaders and in response to fundamentalist impotence in opposing Roosevelt electorally in 1936 and 1940.

The final three chapters include one on World War II and fundamentalist patriotism that assured none of the accusations made during World War I could be repeated and another on prophetic responses to the Cold War and the creation of the state of Israel.  The final chapter, “Apocalypse Now,” addresses the rise of Billy Graham and the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, through the creation of the Religious Right, up to 9-11.  These chapters cover a great deal of ground and are much more narrowly focused on issues of apocalypticism and political response.  If there is continuity in fundamentalist political thought, as Sutton notes, it is certainly also true that Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority mobilized a much greater percentage of believers to the polls.  And their influence on politics seems more incidental than vital, as Sutton says of Ronald Reagan, “While premillenialism had little (if any) direct influence on his actual foreign policy, it provided him with the rhetorical tools for mobilizing the American people to wage the Cold War.” And also to support his antigovernment policies.  Sutton, who tried to work the reaction of African American premillenialists throughout, does it most naturally in the section on civil rights, while noting how white fundamentalists offered slow or racist responses.

Overall, the book, while raising important questions about political identity and the origins of evangelical conservatism in the 20th century, can hardly meet the demands of its subtitle, “A History of Modern Evangelicalism.”  The book is both too broad and too narrow to fulfill that title’s expectations.  Too broad because of the wide time range it covers mostly at a rush.   Sutton’s work is also too narrow because apocalyptic beliefs do not tell the entire story and fundamentalist life was about more than politics.  From my own experience, and the writing of Marsden and Carpenter, “soul winning” remained at the heart of the movement, even, or perhaps especially, when showing apocalyptic movies to junior high students.  Sutton also accessed fundamentalism via a narrow number of elite leaders (generally white and male, aside from Sister Aimee), their writings and their periodicals, using them as a proxy to describe an entire movement.  He says in his prologue, “In crafting an absolutist, uncompromising, good-versus-evil faith evangelicals have transformed the lives of countless individuals and established a new form of radical politics.”  Most of those individuals disappeared from his text and there seems little new or radical in the conservative politics for which his elite leaders served mostly as cheerleaders and accessories.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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