American Apocalypse by Matthew Sutton: The power of the preachers

Review: Assessing the prevalence of modern evangelicalism in the United States

American Apocalypse A History of Modern Evangelicalism
American Apocalypse A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Author: Matthew Avery Sutton
ISBN-13: 978-0674048362
Publisher: Belknap Press
Guideline Price: £25.95

Most Americans, I would have thought, were liberal Protestants, but apparently not. Professor Matthew Sutton reports that the evangelical movement “now claims almost 30 per cent of the US population (Catholics represent about 23 per cent and liberal Protestants about 14 per cent)”. Presumably the remaining third are of various affiliations or none.

In another sentence, Prof Sutton calls the evangelicals “fundamentalists”. Fundamentalists began on the margins of American religious life, where they represented a schismatic alternative to mainstream Christianity. Their evangelical descendants now oversee what is arguably the most powerful religious movement in the United States and one of the most powerful around the globe.

To begin where Prof Sutton begins, in the later years of the 19th century, many “radical evangelicals”, who thought of themselves as “Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Pentecostals”, began preaching from pulpits, in schools, advocacy groups, magazines and newspapers. These preachers – nearly all white men – supposedly believed that they and the people they addressed were living in the Last Days; that they would witness the Second Coming of Christ, who would separate sheep from goats, reward the good and punish the wicked; and that the future would be as Peter prophesied in his second Epistle, chapter 3, verse 10:

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.


To soften this threat, there is the promise of second Chronicles, chapter 7 verse 14, the Lord to Solomon:

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

More ambiguously, there is the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 19, verse 13:

“And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.” Occupy what? Themselves, keeping themselves busy? Or occupy the world, take charge of it, for the love of God?

Saying the right thing

These memorable sayings kept preachers busy and remarkably effective. During the Cold War, politicians took care to say the right things. In 1954 Eisenhower said: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.” But being an American talking to Americans, he quickly qualified it to the effect that the faith should be Christianity in some form.

In 1954 Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and in 1956, to make doubly sure, made “In God We Trust” the national motto. President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” fulfilled the appropriate logic. If you believed that it was the “manifest destiny” of the US to be exceptionally righteous, then you might as well have the Soviet Union as the Antichrist.

Prof Sutton presents modern evangelicalism mainly through its most formidable preachers, the men who took full advantage of the media, especially radio and television when they became available, and books till then.

Depraved state

The big dictionaries say that an evangelical “insists on the totally depraved state of human nature consequent on the Fall, that the Bible is sole authority in matters of doctrine, and that the Church has no right to interpret the teaching of Scripture”. In

American Notes

(1850) Charles Dickens reports with a smile that “Evangelical ladies there are, likewise, whose attachment to the forms of religion, and horror of theatrical entertainments, are most exemplary”.

He could afford a smile. But if you add to evangelical insistences the privilege of self-reliance, a quality much lauded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other American sages, you find it easy to understand, if not to appreciate, the virulent opposition to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the spleen occasioned by any suggestion of a welfare state. “Trust thyself,” Emerson writes, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Regular outbreaks of social Darwinism in American politics are hard for foreigners to witness: it seems obvious to them that the millions of Americans who live – exist , rather – below the poverty line must be looked after since they can’t enjoy the felicity of looking after themselves.

Then again, Emerson writes in Self-Reliance: "Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong."

Preachers from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell bring intimations of spirituality to their readers and audiences, but mainly they bring the shared experience of celebrity to people who are already converted. According to Prof Sutton: “A 2006 Pew poll revealed that 79 per cent of US Christians believed in the Second Coming and 20 per cent expected it to happen in their lifetime.” About 50 per cent of Americans have read some of the Bible during the past year; of these, more than a third claimed that they read it “to learn about the future”.

Billy Graham, in the latest edition of his Storm Warning, writes: "Now at ninety-one years old, I believe the storm clouds are darker than they have ever been . . . Benevolent hands reach down from heaven to offer us the most hopeful warning and remedy: 'Prepare to meet your God' . . . The signs of His imminent return have never been greater than now."

Prof Sutton brings to these strange episodes of American culture a proper degree of attentiveness and patience, with only a rare glint of irony breaking through.

Denis Donoghue's most recent book is Metaphor (Harvard University Press)