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Mar 16, 2015
15 Min read time
The Politics of American Apocalypse
Photo: Rich Murphy
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery Sutton
Harvard Belknap Press, $35 (cloth)
In 1999 my family believed the world was coming to an end.
We were living in central Wisconsin, on the outskirts of a prosperous lake district (my parents noted, more than once, the fortuitous proximity to sources of fresh water), and as the millennium neared, our house became a fortress braced for the apocalypse. Trucks arrived each week from Mountain House, a survivalist company that sold things like freeze-dried chicken and vacuum-sealed pouches of beef stew. I’d be doing chemistry homework or watching an episode of Friends, when my dad’s voice would bellow out, “Mountain House!”—a boatswain’s call designed to rally everyone to the driveway for unloading. Together we carried the pallets down to the basement, which had been converted into a storeroom packed with generators, short-wave radios, shotguns and ammo, and a collection of fifty-five-gallon plastic drums for water storage. My siblings and I occasionally borrowed the drums for recreational rolls down the sloped hill of our backyard.
The panic was my parents’ response to the y2k bug, though its roots could be traced to an abiding occupation with biblical prophecy. They were among a handful of evangelicals who saw the computer glitch as the spark that could ignite the epic conflagration known as the end times, taking down the entire Western infrastructure and paving the way for the rise of the one-world government predicted in the book of Revelation. We would, ideally, survive on these provisions until the rapture. That summer, my parents took us on a long-promised pilgrimage to Israel, where we climbed to the top of Mount Carmel. There, with dozens of other born-again tourists from around the world, we looked out at the Valley of Jezreel, an expanse of alluvial greenness where the Battle of Armageddon would take place.
Of course, the world did not end come January. For the remainder of my senior year, our family ate colorless suppers of dried meat and powdered mashed potatoes, refusing to speak about the error. I was off to Moody Bible Institute in the fall, but my sister claims that as late as 2008, our mom was still working through the dregs of that massive storeroom, trying to pass off the supplies as homemade meals. “It’s just something I found in the pantry,” she would say, upon which the entire table would drop their forks in horror and exclaim, “This is y2k food, isn’t it?!”
Like a lot of former believers, I often regard my childhood as having occurred in a parallel dimension, one that occupies the same physical coordinates as secular reality but operates according to none of its rules or logic. Other times, I am struck by the ordinariness of my experience. In the age of “superstorms” and Ready.gov, it is not unusual for people to have a cache of bottled water in their basements, or to casually speculate about fending a hungry mob off their property. As my friends and I hover around the knell of thirty, childless and saddled with debt, we speak about the future with an almost welcome sense of contingency. “If the glaciers haven’t melted,” we say, or “when the singularity occurs,” just as my parents couched every plan in the caveat “if the Lord tarries.”
Fundamentalist political ambition is as baffling as it is successful.
“We now live in a world shaped by evangelicals’ apocalyptic hopes, dreams, and nightmares,” Matthew Avery Sutton writes in his new book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. As the title suggests, Sutton is interested in Christian apocalypticism not as a fringe movement but as a political and cultural force that transformed America, a thesis that will likely provoke skepticism. It is one thing to marvel at the prevalence of biblical literalism—some 40 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will “definitely” or “probably” return before 2050—but it is quite another to suggest that biblical prophecy has been a central force in our nation’s history. Yet Sutton, who has written two previous books about evangelicalism, possesses a quality shared by the best historians: the ability to make his subject integral, a sun around which everything else orbits.
It is fashionable to dismiss today’s fundamentalism as an evolutionary hangover—a vestige of an ancient, more ignorant era. In reality, it was both a response to and a product of modernity. Sutton’s history begins at the height of the Progressive Era, a time of scientific and technological advance when Americans believed that humanity was following a steady Hegelian trajectory toward perfection. Late nineteenth-century Christians were largely in tune with this optimism. They sought to fight corruption, alleviate poverty, and work toward social justice, believing that such improvements would hasten the arrival of the Millennial Kingdom, the thousand years of earthly peace and prosperity promised in the Bible, after which Christ would return. But progress is a weird thing; it has a way of engendering optimism and dysphoria in similar measure. In the glare of this dawning future, some believers retreated to their Bibles and found in its more obscure passages a darker vision of days ahead.
At the helm of this movement was John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), an Anglo-Irish preacher who concluded that his fellow Christians had been reading the Bible incorrectly; scripture clearly stated that Christ was going to return before, not after, the Millennial Kingdom. Preceding this second coming would be a period of tribulation: pestilence, natural disasters, and the rise of the Antichrist, a totalitarian leader who would wage war against Israel and rule over a coalition of nations in the former Roman Empire. Darby was drawing primarily from passages in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation—Jewish apocalyptic literature that imaginatively envisioned the destruction of Jerusalem and wars between the empires of the ancient world. He believed these passages should be taken at face value, as references to the yet-unrealized future. There was not, at that time, a nation of Israel, but this didn’t bother him; God would bring the Jews back to Palestine at some point before the tribulation.
This new theology was called premillennialism. It was a rather technical contention, but embedded in it was a radically new attitude toward earthly life: humanity headed not toward utopia but annihilation.
Darby’s theory fell on rocky soil in Britain, but it did take root in the United States. His theology found a particularly sympathetic ear in the American evangelist Dwight L. Moody (the founder of my alma mater), who would become one of the fiercest proponents of premillennialism. By the early 1920s, premillennialism had created a schism within American Christianity, separating the new biblical conservatives—the self-described fundamentalists—from their liberal Protestant brethren. Fundamentalists withdrew from mainstream Christian culture, creating their own institutions such as Moody Bible Institute and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.
Fundamentalism might have remained an obscure, Gnostic-like offshoot of Christianity—something akin to Manichaeism—had the decades following its arrival in America not confirmed its pessimistic outlook. The two world wars, as well as the rise of fascism and Bolshevism, seemed to validate the premillennial forecast of an abrupt and violent end, which attracted new converts to the movement. By the advent of the Cold War, preachers faced little difficulty tapping into the angst of an American public terrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation. “Amid the disjuncture of modern times,” Sutton writes, “apocalypticism often made better sense than competing theologies.”
Sutton’s history offers something of a farce, in which Jewish prophetic literature is (mis)interpreted in the context of modern geopolitics. Take Magog, an empire prophesied in the book of Ezekiel as an expansive and sinister nation to the north of Israel. Magog was possibly a reference to ancient Babylon, yet around the time of the Bolshevik revolution, many believers became convinced that Ezekiel had augured the rise of modern Russia. This theory persisted well into the Cold War; in the words of President Reagan, “What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None.” During World War II, biblical references to Rome, Gomer, and Magog came to symbolize Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, and the merchants of Tarshish in Ezekiel were interpreted as allusions to England. Years later George W. Bush apparently believed that Iraq and Afghanistan were singled out in end times prophecy. “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East,” he told French President Jacques Chirac in a 2003 phone call, appealing to their common Christian faith as a basis for the invasion. “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Chirac, a Roman Catholic, promptly asked his staff to call the French Federation of Protestants and find out what Bush was talking about.
That Bush and Reagan managed to become leaders of the free world speaks to decades of fundamentalist political ambition. This is one of the most baffling aspects of the movement. One might expect the anticipation of apocalypse would go hand-in-hand with apathy or social withdrawal: If you believe the world is on the brink of destruction, why bother trying to transform it? But fundamentalists became more politically engaged than their liberal protestant counterparts. Sutton explains this paradox via Christ’s parable of the talents. A wealthy man goes on a journey, entrusting each of his servants with a number of talents, a unit of money. When he returns, he assesses what each man has done with their portion—whether they hid it in the ground or invested it—and praises them accordingly. The parable, which is today the lodestar of the Christian financial planning industry, has long been interpreted in terms of a more tenuous kind of stewardship. Believers see themselves as guardians of earthly virtue, charged to “occupy” the earth until Christ’s return.
The main characters of Sutton’s book are very much political actors. For every pastor and theologian, there is a prominent layperson spreading premillennial ideas in the halls of power. These fundamentalists advise presidents, manage oil empires, and work on the Manhattan Project.
One fascinating story line documents the role fundamentalists played in the early Zionist movement. During the 1890s, William E. Blackstone, a Chicago real estate developer who wrote the bestseller Jesus is Coming, became one of the first advocates for the reestablishment of Israel. Convinced that Christ would not return until this prophecy had been fulfilled, in 1891 he created the Blackstone Memorial, a petition for the instatement of Israel signed by a number of powerful premillennialist Americans, including John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, and a few Jewish leaders. When World War I broke out, he wrote to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to express his belief that the United States was “the instrument which God had prepared” to establish the State of Israel. Later Blackstone shared similar sentiments with President Woodrow Wilson. Blackstone continued pressing the cause until his death in 1935. Because of this early work, which predated that of Theodore Herzl, Louis Brandeis recognized Blackstone as the “father of Zionism.”
Taken collectively, these characters form a curious historical presence. It was two fundamentalist preachers who, during the 1928 Hoover campaign, convinced many in an American South still smarting from the Civil War to vote for the party of Lincoln—the beginning of a seemingly irreversible shift in voting patterns. In a hilarious anecdote, missionaries Ralph and Edith Norton meet with Mussolini in the early 1930s to interview him for the Sunday School Times. Like a lot of fundamentalists of that era, the missionary couple believed Mussolini was a strong candidate for the Antichrist—the dictatorial leader who would resurrect the Roman Empire. As the Nortons quizzed Mussolini about his political intentions and explained the basics of biblical prophecy, Il Duce became fascinated. “Is that really described in the Bible?” he asked. “By the time the Nortons were through with him,” Sutton writes, “Mussolini apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator prophesied in the book of Daniel.”
The established version of fundamentalist history holds that believers withdrew from cultural engagement after the 1925 Scopes trial, then re-emerged shortly after World War II in their new iteration as “evangelicals,” an older term meant to rebrand the movement as mainstream and respectable. Sutton debunks this theory—which he refers to, in Christological words, as the “rise-fall-rebirth narrative”—demonstrating that fundamentalists stayed politically and culturally engaged during the interwar period. He makes a convincing case. Indeed, given the volatility of the movement during the Depression, it is curious that this period has been resolutely ignored in previous scholarship.
During the 1930s the fundamentalist movement more fully aligned itself with the Republican Party, in response to the New Deal. Because the Antichrist was believed to be a totalitarian leader presiding over a one-world government, believers feared any whiff of federal expansion. (This same fear produced skepticism toward the United Nations.) The book of Daniel predicted that end times government would be “a mix of iron and clay,” which fundamentalists interpreted to mean totalitarianism brought about through popular democracy. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt took his turn at regulating big business and ushered in government programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Social Security, evangelicals recognized signs of the end. Christian leaders worried that FDR would “ride roughshod over the Constitution into the seat of a dictator” and saw in these new programs “the hydra heads of Socialism and incipient Communism.”
Sutton’s book explores how premillennialism was interpreted in African American churches, a story that has been conspicuously absent from previous histories. While African Americans were largely barred from leadership positions in this movement, black churches also watched for the coming of Christ—though their signs of the times had less to do with international politics than with the injustices taking place on American soil, including lynching and Jim Crow. Sutton also examines how black Christians were regarded by mainstream white evangelicals. Basically, they weren’t. White evangelicals found signs of apocalypse in every social evil except their own prejudice.
At the same time, premillennialism intersected in creative ways with the tradition of black liberation theology. In 1924 James Webb, a Seattle minister and member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association claimed, “The universal black king is coming” per the book of Daniel. This kind of rhetoric grew in popularity during the 1960s, when black evangelists blended evangelical theology and the black power movement to denounce, in apocalyptic terms, the country’s legacy of racial injustice. In an ironic twist, evangelicalism, with its rigidly segregated churches and colleges, significantly inspired the moral lexicon of civil rights activists.
Sutton opens his epilogue with the triumphant claim that “American evangelicalism is thriving in the twenty-first century.” But almost as soon as he offers this declaration, he begins to backtrack. He speaks of a “waning emphasis” on the second coming and notes, “Some of the most famous evangelical preachers in the nation no longer talk about a soon-coming apocalypse.” He cites Chuck Colson’s staid post-9/11 column in Christianity Today, in which the preacher wrote, “I try to avoid end-times prophecy.”
But this decline in apocalyptic pronouncements doesn’t necessarily indicate a shift in doctrine. When Sutton buys it, he, like a lot of secular observers, underestimates how self-aware and media-savvy evangelicals have become in the twenty-first century. The public rhetoric of evangelicals—those carefully crafted messages delivered from the pulpit or in print—may not reflect new theological trends so much as the church’s public relations acumen.
Consider that post-9/11 sobriety. I was a sophomore at Moody Bible Institute when the tragedy occurred. That week our college president, whose chapel address was later broadcast nationally on Moody Radio, delivered a sermon glazed with the language of compassion. He spoke about how to make sense of the senseless, and reminded us that Christ was suffering alongside our nation. But such sermons are less the product of a revised theology than they are the new face of a movement that has come to see tragedies such as 9/11 as media opportunities, occasions to attract unbelievers who’ve been rattled by seismic horror. Within the privacy of our classrooms, conversations were decidedly more frank. One afternoon my systematic theology professor gave a forty-minute lecture about the perfect alignment between Islamic prophecy and biblical end times chronology, arguing that Osama Bin Laden was the false prophet described in the book of Daniel. Theories of this sort, once unabashedly flaunted by preachers and televangelists, are now increasingly limited to private discussions within the coterie of true believers.
Confident assertions notwithstanding, Sutton seems ambivalent about the future of apocalypticism. He mentions the emerging church—a new generation of believers who have adopted a postmodern approach to scripture and reject premillennial ideas—and alludes to the bland therapeutic messages of megachurch pastors who no longer “spend time exploring doomsday scenarios.” At one point, he suggests that premillennial theology has largely been exported to the developing world. Perhaps Sutton’s predictions are informed, more subtly, by the prevailing wisdom about declining religiosity in wealthy countries; polls indicate that even the United States is home to a rising number of “nones,” who, when surveyed, do not pick a conventional religion.
But apocalypticism remains a timely subject. After all, we live in an era not unlike the one that incubated modern fundamentalism. Like those who saw Progressivism—with its emphasis on rational, technological solutions—as a panacea for the social and economic strife of the early twentieth century, today some of us hope that Silicon Valley will engineer an earthly utopia. But such cheery visions of the future belie our own fears about the present, as climate change and global terror loom. Progress and panic have always been two sides of the same coin, and if we dismiss the rants of televangelists, or snicker at the megaphone insanity of street preachers, it is at least in part because they embody an unflattering reflection of our own obsession with apocalypse, because their worldview is the most obvious distillation of the modern death wish. Sutton’s book demonstrates that the history of evangelicalism, cynical and fatalistic as it may be, is very much our own.
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March 16, 2015
15 Min read time
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