- Making Sense of Twentieth-Century American Evangelicalism
In The Age of Evangelicalism, Steven Miller provides a fascinating genealogy of a generation of “thoughtful evangelical” scholars who launched their careers in the 1970s, most notably, George Marsden and Mark Noll. These historians spoke from within the evangelical tradition, and they attempted a tricky double task. On the one hand, they wanted to force non-evangelical historians to grapple with the importance of this faith tradition and to abandon the biting disdain for evangelicalism that had characterized mid-century U.S. historians. On the other hand, Marsden and Noll, writing in the shadow of the 1980s Christian Right, tried to convince their fellow evangelicals to eschew the ahistorical polemics of right-wing preachers and politicians and to embrace a more robust intellectual encounter with the past.
The next generation of evangelical scholarship, represented in new books by Matthew Avery Sutton, Molly Worthen, and Steven Miller, testifies to Marsden and Noll’s success in their first goal: getting non-evangelical historians to treat the tradition seriously. Marsden and Noll’s failure in the second goal—convincing the majority of evangelicals to embrace academic history over politics or pop culture—provides these three scholars with a robust project. Given the public’s identification of evangelicals with right-wing politics and anti-intellectualism, Miller, Sutton, and Worthen face a formidable task in [End Page 152] redefining twentieth-century American evangelicalism as neither monolithically conservative nor anti-intellectual.
Sutton’s American Apocalypse offers the most historically wide-ranging and ambitious attempt to revise the history of evangelicalism. He echoes a growing chorus of historians who view evangelicals’ cultural and political engagement as a constant over the course of the twentieth century, not as something that cropped up with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Sutton, though, makes a remarkable claim about the centrality of apocalypticism to evangelicals’ engagement with politics and culture. In his words, “fundamentalists’ and evangelicals’ confidence that time was running out defined who they were, how they acted, and how they related to those around them” (p. xiv).
Sutton traces the origins of radical evangelical apocalypticism in the late nineteenth century well, so that when he arrives at the pivotal point of his story, World War I, we can see the events through the apocalyptic prism that colored early twentieth-century evangelicals’ vision. The beginning of the war roughly coincided with a shift in the dominant form of evangelical apocalypticism. Whereas earlier apocalyptic groups had been postmillennial—believing that the millennium prophesied in the Bible had commenced and Jesus would return at its end—there were increasing numbers of early twentieth-century evangelicals who turned to premillennialism. Premillennialists believed that a correct reading of biblical prophecy showed that we were living in the last days before the millennium, which would only commence when certain signs of the end appeared.
The late stages of World War I seemed to herald the imminence of Armageddon, the great battle between the forces of the Antichrist and the followers of Jesus. The Bolshevik Revolution confirmed premillennialists’ identification of Russia as Magog, a “great power of the North” destined to play a role in the world’s final battle. Woodrow Wilson’s consolidation of federal power, along with his attempts to recruit the Vatican to the Allied cause, signaled the unification of worldly powers that would be completed by the Antichrist. Most portentously, the specter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine excited evangelicals about the coming of the end times.
Sutton sees WWI as a hinge point because premillennialists’ understandings of and responses to world events triggered a breakup with liberals in major American denominations. Like other scholars, he dates the emergence of...