Book Review: American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

“This book draws on a lively cast of characters and extensive archival research to document the ways an initially obscure group of charismatic preachers and their followers have reshaped American religion, at home and abroad, for over a century” (Ix). One might think, with this introductory remark, that American Apocalypse is just another history of early fundamentalism and the broader evangelical movement that followed it; this is not the case. The author, building on earlier histories of these movements, focuses on one theme that either has been minimized in earlier works (George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture by [1980]) or in need of updating (Ernest Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism [1970]). That theme is the centrality of apocalyptic thinking and preaching to fundamentalism/evangelicalism from the beginning to the present.

After introducing the theme of the coming Apocalypse as being central to fundamentalism (“Jesus Is Coming”) Sutton then traces this theme chronologically, beginning with WWI, then through the volatile 20s, the period of the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal in the 30s, the lead-up to WWII, the cataclysmic devastations of WWII, the post-war rise of the United Nations, the establishment of Israel in Palestine, the emergence of the new evangelicalism and its spokesman, Billy Graham, to the most recent expressions of apocalyptic fervor in the writings of Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind series). In every time period the author documents how fundamentalists were able to find in the headlines of the world’s newspapers ample evidence of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Armageddon was always just around the corner; the Rapture was imminent.

Writing as a historian, not as a theologian, Sutton nevertheless treats the theology of premillennialism accurately, though with a broad brush. He does not make the distinction between Dispensational Premillennialism and Historical Premillennialism, nor does he bother to distinguish between various views of the Rapture—Pre-Tribulational, Post-Tribulational or the Pre-Wrath position. If he had done so, it would have unnecessarily complicated the simple concept of the soon return of Christ to rescue the righteous and judge the wicked. Sutton’s extensive use of original source material—letters, speeches, sermons, tracts, etc.—strongly supports his thesis that premillennialism, with its apocalyptic emphasis, can be considered as one of the main organizing principles of fundamentalism.

Apocalyptic preaching and teaching is not the only major thread that Sutton traces throughout the history of fundamentalism. To provide a cultural and historical setting for the development of apocalyptic thinking, the author brings politics and race into the discussion. Interpreting Scripture through the lens of world events, both overseas and also at home, fundamentalists at times sided with the politics of isolationism (WWI) and at other times with interventionism (WWII). This naturally caused fundamentalists, generally speaking, to side with whatever political party happened to be in line with their prophetic insights. The same was true with political developments at home, particularly with FDR’s New Deal, the rise of unions, the civil rights movement, etc. Sutton documents instances of racial prejudice in the writings of fundamentalists. Fundamentalism itself Sutton correctly describes as basically white and male. While African-Americans agreed with their white brethren on many issues, race wasn’t one of them. Their vision of the Millennium, including who was to be judged by Christ when he returned, varied dramatically from that of other fundamentalists. As to party affiliation, Sutton makes the observation that ever since the days of Herbert Hoover and FDR, fundamentalists have, for the most part, been happy to be identified with Republican Party.

American Apocalypse is not to be read in isolation from other histories of fundamentalism. While Sutton shows how the theology of premillennialism, with its apocalyptic fervor, was characteristic of the movement, the theological basis for fundamentalism’s response to late nineteenth, early twentieth century Protestant liberalism had as much to do, if not more, with liberalism’s rejection of the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ (including the bodily resurrection of Christ) and the atonement than it did with the coming of Christ.

Sutton’s work should be welcomed as an up-to-date, refreshingly honest, though at times sobering, re-telling of the history of fundamentalism through the lens of apocalyptic theology. While not overtly judgmental of the movement, it does not gloss over some of the darker aspects of the movement. As such, it is a highly valuable addition to the standard works on fundamentalism that have preceded it.

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