American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism by Matthew Avery Sutton (review)
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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. By Matthew Avery Sutton. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 459. $35.00 cloth)

Matthew Sutton delivers an impressive work of historiographical importance for those who wish to understand the impact of fundamentalism and dispensational premillennialism in American life and culture. Dispensational premillennialism, which originated in the 1830s, emphasizes the second coming of Jesus Christ and its connection to current events as interpreted from certain biblical texts, particularly in the Apocalypse of John. This hermeneutic promoted the belief of the Rapture, stressed the importance of Israel, and called the faithful to look to the presence of signs that pointed to Christ’s [End Page 128] return. He argues that modern evangelicalism owes its origins to the popularity of dispensational premillennialism that rose from the millenarian movements following the Second Great Awakening. For Sutton, the belief in the imminent apocalypse provided evangelicalism the framework for understanding the world and fueled its politics and social movements.

Sutton connects modern evangelicalism to the millenarian movements that flowed from post–Second Great Awakening Protestantism. Although beginning as a fringe view, premillennialists captured the minds of scores of the faithful through aggressive dissemination of an apocalyptic message. End-times messengers found the good graces of corporate money and this partnership spread the message of premillennialism.

Powerful interests supplied capital for evangelicals to nurture the fundamentalist movement in its creation of the “old time religion.” Sutton shows that white fundamentalists and evangelicals largely excluded African American believers who shared theological views. He also depicts different understandings of the end times based upon racialized understandings of prophesy. Although divided by race, premillenialism grew to dominate evangelical thought and guide its understanding of politics and culture.

Where George Marsden and other scholars of fundamentalism emphasize the movement’s discontinuity with evangelicalism, Sutton stresses connection. He terms them “radical evangelicals” and shows how the deep belief in premillennialism created similar views on culture, politics, and how to interpret the times. Sutton provides examples of continuity in his depiction of evangelical leaders like Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham. By placing fundamentalists ideologically closer to evangelicals, he is able to reconcile both movements and demonstrate the unity in theological convictions and commitments to conservatism.

Sutton shows this continuity not only through a fervent commitment to a premillennial outlook but also how evangelicals relied on existing networks from the fundamentalist movement. Wealthy [End Page 129] benefactors, like J. Howard Pew, provided financial support to both fundamentalist and evangelical causes. Evangelical political connections mirrored their fundamentalist counterparts. Fundamentalists and evangelicals have little that separate them in American Apocalypse. This helps explain the successful transformation of fundamentalism to evangelicalism, yet it does minimize the ire fundamentalists like Carl McIntire, Bob Jones, and John Rice shared toward evangelicalism.

As evangelicalism became the dominant form of Protestantism following the 1960s, premillennialism injected itself into the dour world of the 1970s. Sutton explains the explosion of evangelical movies and literature that focused on the impending rapture, tribulation, and second coming of Christ. Books like Late Great Planet Earth sold in the millions and, later, spawned the evangelical end-times fiction genre as typified by the Left Behind series. Evangelical leaders connected unrest in the Middle East to impending doom.

Wars and rumors of wars provided evangelicals a framework with which to argue for foreign policies that favored Israel, and they lobbied for federal officials to look to biblical prophecy in order to govern U.S. affairs. By the 1980s, a reporter asked the president questions about the apocalypse. Sutton shows that premillennialism drove evangelicals to turn their understanding of doomsday into political action, particularly for conservative causes. As a consequence, even politicians had to answer for their alliances.

American Apocalypse demonstrates the far-reaching power of premillennialism and its effect on U.S. culture. What began as a movement of revivalists and “signs of the times” readers, stretched into a global force of tens of millions who believed the second coming of Christ loomed in their generation. Over time, this belief moved beyond the sawdust trail and managed to find its way into American popular culture and the...


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