Sunday, December 21, 2014

Matthew Avery Sutton's "American Apocalypse"

Matthew Avery Sutton is the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University. He is the author of Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), and Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007). He has published articles in diverse venues ranging from the Journal of American History to the New York Times and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the US Fulbright Commission, and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, and reported the following:
If Page 99 is a test, my book earns a low pass. The page alludes to a few of the key issues in the book, but misses most of the most sexy material. Alas, neither the Battle of Armageddon, not the Antichrist appear on these pages.

In this book I am offering a reexamination of the rise and evolution of American fundamentalism. I argue that fundamentalists’ sincere conviction that they were living in the last days just before the rapture, rise of the Antichrist, and Second Coming of Christ influenced them in profound ways. The conviction that the end was nigh shaped everything from their politics to their economics to their family lives to their understanding of world events including depression and war.

Page 99 hints at some of this. It falls within a chapter on World War I and the ways in which white fundamentalists and African American evangelicals understood the war through the lens of biblical prophecy. Their religious convictions made them bad citizens—they believed that war was inevitable (hence the League of Nations was a futile dream) and that Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy was pointless. The political ramifications of what started as a theological debate led to a split in American Protestantism between liberals and conservatives that is with us to this day. I write:
Over the course of the war, premillennialists and postmillennialists waged a battle of pens, typewriters, tracts, and books, taking no prisoners. The war highlighted and exaggerated their differences, propelling the controversy forward. By the time Woodrow Wilson returned from treaty negotiations in France, Protestant leaders knew that a major schism was in the works. How it would end nobody knew. Recognizing that the future of American Protestantism was at stake, neither side sought an armistice.
From there, I transition to the next section of this chapter:
The publication of the Fundamentals and the ensuing war time controversy with modernists helped radical evangelicals sharpen their faith. But they understood that more work had to be done to establish a lasting movement.
The war gave them the impetus to build an identifiable movement, one that they soon called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, in turn gave rise to Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and the rise of modern American evangelicalism, which has shaped the course of American history in profound ways.
Learn more about American Apocalypse at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue