American evangelicals have been waiting for the world to end for a long time. But that’s not to say they’ve just been sitting around. Apocalypticism has inspired evangelistic crusades, moral reform movements, and generations of political activism.
In his latest book, Matthew Avery Sutton, a professor of history at Washington State University, traces this history of American evangelical apocalypticism from the end of the 19th century to the present day. In the process, he proposes a revised understanding of American evangelicalism, focused on the urgent expectations of the end of human history. If you want to understand modern evangelicalism, Sutton says, you have to understand their End Times theology.
Daniel Silliman spoke with Sutton at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, in Heidelberg, Germany.
Why write about evangelical Christian apocalypticism?
The question that initially sparked this research was why were fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs skeptical of the state? Why were and are they critical of the federal government? I started thinking about this in the context of the health care debates over the last decade. Why were so many Christians so reluctant to support national health care? I could see why they were critical of the Democratic party on gay rights. I could see why they were critical on abortion. What I didn’t understand is why, as a conservative Bible believing Christian, you would be opposed expanding health care.
This book is a very long, 480-page answer to that question.
My argument in a nutshell is that the apocalyptic theology that developed in the 1880s and 1890s led radical evangelicals to the conclusion that all nations are going to concede their power in the End Times to a totalitarian political leader who is going to be the Antichrist. If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event, you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties, and anything that is going to give more power to the state.
How significant is apocalypticism in the history of American evangelicalism?
The idea that Jesus is coming back soon was a fairly radical and unconventional idea in the 19th century, but by the 21st century it’s the air American Christians breathe. The most recent polls said something like 58 percent of white evangelicals believe Jesus is going to return by 2050. They simply take for granted that there is going to be a Rapture and Jesus is going to come back.
I took those statistics and others like them and moved backwards in time. What I found in my research was that apocalypticism was central to fundamentalists and evangelicals. What made them most distinct, what set them apart from liberal Protestants is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s not questions of the virgin birth or how you read the Bible or questions of the nature of the incarnation or the literal resurrection of Jesus or Jesus’s miracles. All those matter, all of those things do set them apart, but they don’t affect how they live their daily lives. The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust.
In their minds, the imminent Second Coming would not be as important as getting people saved. Salvation, converting sinners, would be the most important thing driving them. But in terms of how they’re shaping and organizing their own lives, I think apocalypticism has been the driving force for much of the last century. It has fueled the movement and shaped it in fundamental ways.
If you haven’t been in the archives it’s really unbelievable to read these articles, these sermons and these letters, to realize how much apocalypticism saturated the minds of fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 20th century. The looming rise of the Antichrist was just the forefront of their thinking.
And they say that. Over and over again. They’re very clear.
This is significant because to believe the world is rapidly moving to its end effects how you vote, how you’re going to structure your education, how you understand the economy, how you’re going to treat global events, how you’re going to look at organizations like the United Nations.
Apocalypticism is central to understanding how fundamentalists and then evangelicals acted.
Can you give a broad outline of this theology?
It’s a relatively complicated theology that fundamentalists and then evangelicals drew from a lot of different influences, a lot of different impulses. The key to unlocking their theology is to see some fairly obscure passages from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, and Jesus’s sermon in Matthew 24 through their eyes.
But their conlusions, broken down to their simplest form are these: We’re living in the church age and we’re moving towards the Rapture. Jesus will Rapture all true believers out of this world, they’ll just disappear, they’ll go up to heaven with Jesus, and then with the loss of Christian influence in the world, Satan will have free rein to take power through a political leader, called the Antichrist, who is then going to rule over the world for seven years. This period is called the Tribulation. Antichrist rule will lead to a series of wars, which will then culminate with Jesus coming with an army of saints and fighting the battle of Armageddon, in the literal land of Palestine. Jesus will defeat the Antichrist, vanquish evil and then establish a new kingdom.
There’s been a long debate in Christian history about the timing of Jesus’s Second Coming. Would he come to initiate the start of a new millennium, a 1,000 years of peace and prosperity, or would he come at its conclusion? Fundamentalists and most evangelicals believed that Jesus is going to come back before the millennium. From there they determined that there will be signs or indications that tell us we’re approaching the Second Coming. They believe the Bible had laid out these signs, the sequence of events that would happen, as they understood it, as we get closer and closer and closer to the Second Coming of Christ.
The rough picture is that we’re moving towards the End Times. Instead of the idea that Christians are building the kingdom of God on earth, the earth is on a quick, slippery slope descending to hell.
What is the practical effect of this expectation?
Traditionally, people have believed that this expectation that Jesus is coming back would lead to indifference, that people would focus on the next world, they would invest very little in this world. In fact, they’ve done just the opposite. This is a central argument in the book.
D.L. Moody is often used to illustrate the idea of indifference. He famously said that the world is a sinking ship and God has given him a lifeboat and told him to save as many as he could. That’s the idea, that there’s not anything you can do but save those who are sinking. At the same time, Moody turned around and established what were later known at the Moody Church and the Moody Bible Institute, which were extremely active in reform movements during the progressive era. They were focused on issues of crime in Chicago, sanitation, temperance, and in all kinds of moral reform efforts.
It’s clear from Moody to Billy Sunday to Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, that to believe that Jesus is coming at any moment does not make you less active or less involved in your culture. They say over and over and over again that this is not the case. We just haven’t heard them. Every generation of evangelicals and fundamentalists says it. Their apocalyptic theology makes them more active not less.
There is a biblical argument for this that they use. It’s the parable of the talents. In this story a ruler invests in his servants, giving each of them a number of talents, or money. He then goes away to another kingdom. When he comes back he wants to know what they’ve done with their talents. Some had buried their talents, afraid of losing it. Some had lost the money, wasting their talents. But some had invested wisely and made more money. So the returning ruler rewarded those who had invested wisely and maximized their talents and used them for greater good. For fundamentalists and evangelicals, the point here is that God has given them talents. He’s gone away, he’s coming back, he’s coming back soon, and he’s going to ask what you’ve done with your talents. Jesus ended the parable by instructing the disciples to “occupy” until I come. And that’s what fundamentalists and evangelicals have done.
That means that, far more than many other Christians, they believe they have a responsibility to act as vehemently, as radically, as urgently as possible.
What I’m arguing is that in fact the conviction that Jesus is coming back very very soon creates a sense of urgency, or anxiety or excitement that means there is no time to spare, because the clock is ticking and they’re almost out of time.
The standard narrative of white evangelical history is a great withdrawal from culture in the 1920s and then a reengagement in the 1950s, leading to the religious right in 1980s. Do you want to revise that?
Yes. That’s one of the historiographical arguments I’m making in the book. The traditional argument is that fundamentalists were active and engaged in American society until the Scopes trial, the anti-evolution trial, in 1925. They were humiliated and defeated in the Scopes trial, they withdrew and focused on building their churches, their institutions, but they weren’t engaged in mainstream culture until the rise of Billy Graham who helped turn them around. Then it’s a few quick steps to the rise of the religious right.
That’s incorrect. They never gave up. They never withdrew or disengaged from culture. In the 1930s, for example, most of these fundamentalists were very critical of the New Deal. For Americans who were actively looking for signs of the coming Antichrist in the context of the 1930s, in the context of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, Roosevelt had all the markings of someone setting the stage for the end times. He was concolidating power. Government was growing.
I found a letter from one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s operatives. He had gone out to survey the country and look for areas of strength and weakness before the 1936 election and what he told FDR is that the greatest threat was not from the economic reactionaries, that was his term, but from the religious reactionaries. He said the “so-called evangelical churches are strongly against you.” It was shortly after that that FDR issued a letter to all the churches of the nation, asking for their support, and asking what he could do to better meet their needs.
Fundamentalists were involved in politics, they were involved in social reform. A few of them were talking about abortion and same-sex relations in the 1930s. They were very much active and involved with what was going on around them. There’s just no evidence to show that they retreated.
I’m trying to decenter the Scopes trial as not that substantial of a moment in the history of evangelicalism.
What about African-American evangelicals? How were they apocalyptic?
This was one of my favorite parts of doing this book. I wanted to take seriously how African-American evangelicals compared and contrasted with white evangelicals. They started from the same theological premises, but came to very different political and social conclusions.
They had that sense of fever and anxiety and hope for Jesus’s Second Coming, but for them, the signs of the times and the method of occupying until he comes were very, very different.
There were a number of important and substantial issues that were not on white evangelicals’ radar screens, but for black evangelicals, they were absolutely central to what it meant to be living in an apocalyptic age. For them a sign of the End Times was not the supposed lawlessness of Martin Luther King, Jr., a claim made by some white evangelicals. No, for African Americans a sign of the coming tribulation was lynching. They didn’t see the Antichrist coming out of the New Deal, they saw the Antichrist as an extension of state governments that were racist and had Jim Crowed them for generations. They too had a very strong sense that Jesus was coming back, but he was coming back for different reasons, he was going to right different wrongs, and he was going to bring a different kind of peace and a different kind of justice. A different kind of millennium.
While African Americans were having their own theological discussions among themselves, they were also aware of developments in the white evangelical community, but they were not engaging directly with white theologians. For them it was a different kind of discussion. For them, thinking through apocalyptic theology was happening in the context of a long black liberation tradition, so they put a lot of emphasis, for instance, on a verse in Psalms that talks about a great leader coming out of Abyssinia or Ethiopia. There was a sense in which Jesus’s return was the coming of a black liberator.
White fundamentalists and evangelicals were very clear that they didn’t want anything to do with African Americans for most of the twentieth century. They didn’t see African Americans as able to contribute to their movement. The racial assumptions were built into who evangelicals and fundamentalists were as people, just like the vast majority of white Americans right alongside them. They were no different.
But what apocalypticism did was give white evangelicals a framework and a rationale for fighting the Civil Rights movement, for example. In the last days, they insisted, there will be lawlessness. So they saw the Civil Rights movement as an example of people who break the law. Whiteness influenced these evangelical theologians, and when we compare them with African American theologians we can see how their sensitivities influenced the way they read, understood, and applied the Bible.
How does apocalypticism shape someone like Billy Graham and, by extension, modern evangelicalism?
Billy Graham gets a pass from a lot of scholars who pay very little attenion to his apocalypticism. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s been a core of his ministry. In 1949, when Graham had his first major revival in Los Angeles, the famous one that put him on the map, the revival began just days after Harry Truman announced that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb. So Graham used this to say, the end is near, the time is close. You have to get saved today because Jesus is coming back.
He would say getting people saved is the engine driving him, but the reason there’s an urgency to getting people saved is that Jesus may be coming back before we wake up in the morning. And he would say that at every revival campaign. That was his message.
He wrote about it more than just about any other topic. He published books on apocalypticism in the 1960s and the 80s and the 90s and 2010. In 2010, writing as a 91-year-old, he believed this message was one of the most important things he could leave behind on this earth. In this book he says the signs are now clearer than ever. He’s written a lot of books, but five on apocalypticism? I don’t know that he’s covered any other topic in five books.
At the same time, I want to be very clear: postwar evangelicalism grew far more diverse than interwar fundamentalism. After the war, the movement got bigger, broader, more inclusive and less tied to apocalypticism. What happens is essentially evangelicalism divides, and you have these more respectable people like Graham and Carl F. H. Henry and Harold John Ockenga, and others on one track preaching a respectable, moderate apocalypticism. Then you have populist apocalyptics who become incredibly popular, like Hal Lindsey in the 1970s, Tim LaHaye in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Then, you have growing numbers of self-proclaimed evangelicals completely rejecting the apocalypticism that had for so long given their movement its distinctive identity. The story of postwar evangelicals is this tension between the more respectable, more careful, more savvy, leaders and those who preached a radical populist apocalypticism that harkened back to the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.
And yet the apocalyptic never leaves. It’s still there, that’s where the polls come back. It’s now assumed by hundreds of millions of Americans that the rapture is a real thing and that Jesus is coming back.
It’s a genius theology, because it allows people to look at very diverse, very troubling, very dark contemporary events and put them in a context; to say, “I know why this is happening, and it’s going to turn out OK. We are going to be OK.” It gives them peace, comfort and hope in a world that often offers none of those things.