Magazine article The Christian Century

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Magazine article The Christian Century

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Article excerpt

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

By Matthew Avery Sutton

Harvard University Press, 480 pp., $35.00

Why do most white evangelicals vote Republican?

How has this affected Republican politics? In American Apocalypse, Matthew Sutton, author of a prize-winning biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, gives us our first good account of how and why evangelical political views developed the way they did. Three elements were crucial--premillennial eschatology, World War I, and the Puritan heritage. Oh, and a fourth: white evangelicals were not African American.

The book opens by describing a new way of reading the Bible called dispensational premillennialism, which became popular in the late 19th century. Leaders of this movement came primarily from the two holiness traditions--Wesleyan holiness and its Pentecostal offspring, and Keswick (Higher Life) holiness, a British variant. Sutton calls these folks "radical evangelicals," and for good reason. Many of their ideas and attitudes put them outside the norms of conservative middleclass Protestantism.

Sutton notes that dispensationalism was anything but conservative. In an era when most Christians thought the world was getting better, dispensationalism taught that it was getting worse. The Bible predicted that unprecedented natural disasters, accelerating wickedness, global wars, social chaos, apostasy of churches, Jewish reconstitution of Israel in Palestine, and a new European empire ruled by the Antichrist would finally culminate in the rapture, when true Christians would supernaturally rise to meet Christ in the air. Then, after a seven-year period of totalitarian oppression and world conflict, Christ would return, defeat the Antichrist in the earth-shaking battle of Armageddon, and inaugurate the millennium.

It is startling to realize that premillennialists were making these predictions in the 1870s before the development of liberal theology, two world wars, global economic crises, the rise of totalitarian states, creation of the nation of Israel, a nuclear arms race, the threat of environmental catastrophe, and rapid social change. These developments understandably convinced premillennialists that they were right. Sutton argues that this gave them absolute certainty that they alone were correctly interpreting the Bible.

Sutton also shows that it energized them to strenuous action. Their key Bible verse here was Jesus' injunction to "occupy till I come." In the 19th century this meant aggressive evangelizing at home and abroad so that as many as possible could be saved from the suffering and destruction of the seven-year tribulation following the rapture. To accomplish this they built a large network of independent missionary organizations and Bible institutes.

But they did not just evangelize. They also kept watch on how contemporary events were fulfilling prophecy, and this naturally led them to comment on political developments. Because their premillennialism and independent organizations placed them outside the mainstream of middle-class Protestantism, they felt no particular compunction to align with conservative middleclass politics. So while mainstream Protestants in the late 19th century urged the government to crack down on unions, premillennialists were as likely to side with workers and rain invective on rapacious capitalists. At the turn of the century many premillennialists made common cause with Progressive campaigns against political corruption, urban vice, saloons, and corporate monopolies. And when the United States finally entered World War I, premillennialists tended to be skeptical about American war aims; some were even pacifists.

But the war and its aftermath, Sutton argues, proved to be "the central pivot" for the premillennial movement. Liberal church leaders and premillennialists accused each other of being unpatriotic, and in the process premillennialists shed their skepticism about America. …

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