The spectre of a crowd of insurrectionists running members of Congress out of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, while waving “Proud American Christian” banners or conducting impromptu prayer services condemning liberals and globalists from the Senate dais, has led to no small amount of questioning about the confounding mix of views held by segments of American evangelicalism. Originally published in 2014, Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Harvard University Press) precedes the events on January 6 and the whole of the Trump presidency. Yet, Sutton’s history is prescient for understanding a movement that started as a minority within American Christianity and has become one of the most powerful multi-issue political advocacy groups in the country, making and breaking presidencies.
Sutton argues that an essential component to understanding evangelicalism since the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s is the rise of premillennialist theology as popularized by the Irish preacher John Nelsen Darby (1800-1882), and Americans William Blackstone (1841-1935), C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) and others. Premillennialism is a type of apocalyptic thought that emphasizes passages from the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, and 2 Thessalonians. Adherents believe Jesus’s second coming is imminent, that the world is locked in a battle between the forces of good and evil, that the faithful will be raptured up to Heaven after which a terrible tribulation period will occur on earth. During the Tribulation, a global political leader known as the Antichrist will rise to power and eventually lead an army into a great world-ending battle at Armageddon. There, Jesus will fully return with an army to defeat the powers of the Antichrist and to set up the Kingdom of God.
There is quite a bit more detail to premillennialism than what Sutton describes, but the themes of the doctrine he outlines are the most pertinent and can be traced through the 150 year history of American apocalyptic evangelicalism, a term which includes Pentecostals and fundamentalists (28–30, 286, 367–368).
After the Civil War and into the twentieth century, premillennialist evangelicalism and fundamentalism existed within all the major denominations and shoulder to shoulder with other Christians who were not as focused on an imminent return of Christ in many churches. Eventually, especially during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, many premillennialists separated from their co-religionists and formed their own denominations. Sutton doesn’t claim to know precisely why premillennial apocalypticism became so popular among American evangelicals. Many of the early adherents and champions of the movement were successful, wealthy, and powerful; there is no obvious reason to explain their pessimistic view of world history, especially when most Americans in the late nineteenth century held to a positive postmillennial view of building God’s Kingdom on earth. Whatever the reason, Sutton does note that culture was changing in the late nineteenth century, and cross-cultural contact was becoming more frequent, and for some the rapidity of these changes was concerning (21–22).
Sutton’s 480-page book is exhaustive. He combed through the books, correspondence, transcripts, meeting notes and sermons of evangelicals such as Mark Matthews, Billy Sunday, Charles Fuller, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, John Walvoord, Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and many others. Through the overarching continuity that unites premillennial evangelicals he identifies several themes and key moments that have been important in the movement’s rise to cultural prominence:
Sutton clearly shows that a belief in Jesus's imminent return has not driven evangelicals to cultural retreat and passivity. Rather, proclaiming the End has been coupled with a belief that American evangelicals could influence the timing of the apocalypse, and the potential that the U.S. might be shielded from the worst of it, by shaping culture in ways they believed to be righteous (traditional gender roles and sexuality, rejecting international partnerships with communists and atheists, anti-abortion, and Prohibition, among other causes) (39, 116–117, 180). The twin purposes of occupying the world while proclaiming its imminent demise has resulted in a strident, aggressive, no-compromise political edge to evangelical cultural encounters that has led them to be an outsized voice in American culture (5, 7, 273). Sutton links this political activism directly to their apocalyptic premillennialism (354–355, 359–360).
Sutton helpfully situates the early twentieth century Fundamentalist-Modernist debates within the context of the violence of World War I, and the international alliances that premillennialists believed to fulfill biblical prophecy. These events seemed to vindicate evangelicals for their pessimistic views at a time when most of American society had scoffed at them. It also garnered the movement new adherents who were dismayed at European events and saw in premillennialist reading of biblical prophecy a viable way to understand current events. The rise of leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the lead up to WWII, and the return of Jews to Israel in the 1930s, inspired evangelicals to proclaim that biblical prophecies were being fulfilled and the rapture was imminent (227–228).
Sutton also rejects the argument that after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial—where a Kentucky biology teacher was put on trial and fined for teaching evolutionary theory as science—fundamentalists withdrew from society. On the contrary, Sutton shows that fundamentalists never stopped preaching the imminent return of Christ and reading Armageddon into the newspapers. Neither did they stop trying to sway culture and politics to their beliefs (176–177, 204–205). For Sutton, the history of modern evangelicalism is primarily one of continuity on matters of the apocalypse.
While Sutton’s book is focused on white evangelical premillennialists in the U.S., he does address black evangelicalism in each chapter. Mostly, Sutton’s research describes white apathy toward their fellow evangelicals (109). From the Civil War through the middle of the twentieth century, white premillennialists did not seek to include African Americans of similar theological bent in their numbers, and they promoted segregation and resisted civil rights for African Americans. Most white premillennialists opposed the worst crimes against African Americans, but racial reconciliation was not a part of the white vision for occupying American culture (128–134, 334–335). Black evangelicals and fundamentalists, on the other hand, had a different take on what sins in American society were likely to incite God’s judgement. From the beginnings of the twentieth century on, black preachers proclaimed racism, segregation, and lynchings to be signs of corruption in the U.S. that was already bringing down God’s judgement (249–250).
Premillennialism helped evangelical Christians frame world events in ways that inspired deeper commitment and action. From the development of new technologies, to the rise of Communism, to the United Nations, to the geo-political importance of the Middle East, evangelicals have framed their positions as constituting perhaps the final battle of good against evil (311). When world events appeared most threatening, the signs were read as confirmation that the End Time prophecies were being fulfilled in their lifetimes and that Jesus’s return was more imminent than ever before.
Across all periods of modern evangelicalism, premillennialism was present (316–317). Premillennial apocalypticism can thus be described as a defining characteristic in many sectors of evangelicalism for the past 150 years. Considering recent political events in the U.S., the Trump movement, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol building, Sutton’s description of the state of radical evangelical premillennialism in the early twenty-first century seems spot on. Premillennial apocalypticism has grown into a broad cultural theme, spread through new channels of communication, media, and technology (372). Sutton contends that Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the popular Left Behind series and many other premillennialist books, may be the most influential evangelical of the past fifty years because he popularized premillennialism in an easily consumed package that resonates with many people (365).
In American Apocalypse Sutton foregrounds the apocalyptic ideas within American evangelicalism and demonstrates that through them apocalyptic ideas have shaped American culture, foreign policy, and politics. Sutton’s history helps readers to understand how evangelicals have “masterfully linked the major issues of every generation to the coming apocalypse with the goal of transforming their culture” (373). The growth of premillennial apocalypticism in the U.S. makes sense of the stridency of American politics and cultural battles. After all, as the generations of preachers and theologians in American Apocalypse have warned, the future is at stake.
Jon R. Kershner is Faculty Fellow at Pacific Lutheran University, Honorary Researcher at Lancaster University, and Ph.D. Supervisor at the University of Birmingham. He edits the journal Quaker Religious Thought. Recent books include, John Woolman and the Government of Christ: A Colonial Quaker's Vision for the British Atlantic World (Oxford University Press, 2018), "To Renew the Covenant": Religious Themes in Eighteenth-Century Quaker Abolitionism (Brill, 2018) and he edited Quakers and Mysticism: Comparative and Syncretic Approaches to Spirituality (PalgraveMacMillan, 2019). His research focuses on mysticism, apocalypticism, abolitionism and Quakers. Find him on Twitter at @JonRKershner and https://jonrkershner.medium.com/.