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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery Sutton
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
480 pp., $35.00

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America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
Grant Wacker
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
448 pp., $27.95

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Mark Noll


Jekyll or Hyde?

Two stories about American evangelicals.

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The same prophetic scheme encouraged many evangelicals to view Mussolini as the Antichrist. Not only did il Duce hammer out a concordat with the Pope (Protestants' traditional candidate as Antichrist); he also rejuvenated a great world power situated on the seven hills of Rome (see Rev. 17:9). The cataclysms of World War II enhanced the credibility of the prophetic scenario, especially the explosion of atomic bombs over Japan (see 2 Peter 3:10: "the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in 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"). An even greater confirmation came in May 1948 with the creation of a modern Jewish state. Now for all to see, "the outcasts of Israel" (Isaiah 11:12) were being regathered into "the land of Israel" (Ezek. 37:12). Ever since—Soviet explosion of an A-bomb, the Oil Embargo of 1973, the first and second Iraq wars, the terrorist attacks of 9/11—event after event seemed to reconfirm the accuracy of biblical prophecies recorded in Scripture centuries ago.

Of course there have also been embarrassments. Mussolini turned out not to be the Antichrist. Probable dates for the "rapture," when believers will be taken to "meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17) before the seven-year "tribulation" preceding the Millennium, have been predicted, re-predicted, and predicted again. But such miscalculations amount to quibbles for those who believe that world events are manifestly hastening to the climactic Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16) that will bring human history to a close.

Most important for Sutton are the marching orders that these repeated confirmations of end-times prophecy have supplied for an ever-growing cohort of the nation's Protestants. Rather than promoting passivity, a lively sense of the apocalyptic future has inspired believers to "occupy until I come," as Jesus instructed in Luke 19:13. That occupation at first involved personal moral reform; most evangelicals enthusiastically supported Prohibition and joined in the great national worry of the 1920s and 1930s about slipping standards for marriage and family. But then with the coming of the Cold War—and the Soviet Union identified as Ezekiel's Magog as well as Jeremiah's great power from the North—evangelicals added to their apocalyptic vision a re-kindled sense of America as a chosen nation. Evangelicals had no particular love for Harry Truman as a Big Government Democrat, but they applauded heartily when he pushed the U.S. to speedy recognition of the new state of Israel ("I will bless them that bless thee," Gen. 12:3).

The activism that Sutton documents has never extended to race relations or gender inequities, since in his view the evangelicals' conformity to white middle-class values has been almost as strong as their biblical interpretations were exceptional. But as he construes the recent past, this apocalyptic vision energized evangelicals as a significant political force, beginning with World War I and expanding ever since. Sutton concludes that other students of evangelicalism have missed "how thoroughly evangelical premillennialism has saturated American culture over the last 150 years."

Crucially, he argues, by missing that significant reality, scholars have also failed to understand the link between the enduring apocalyptic tradition and the recent flourishing of American political conservatism. According to Sutton, without the former, the latter is unimaginable: "The urgency, the absolute morals, the passion to right the world's wrongs, and the refusal to compromise, negotiate, or mediate, now defines much of American evangelicalism and a significant part of right-wing politics. We now live in a world shaped by evangelicals' apocalyptic hopes, dreams, and nightmares."

Sutton's last full chapter, entitled "Apocalypse Now," features the public ministry of Billy Graham, who burst on to the national scene in 1949 with a much-publicized revival meeting in Los Angeles. To Sutton, Graham exemplifies the way that American evangelicals have charged their understanding of Christianity with cold-war apocalypticism. Sutton documents carefully the continued presence of such themes for Graham, including his widely read books World Aflame (1965) and Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1983). He concedes that Graham mellowed over the years. Yet he also insists that Graham's view of a cataclysmic End—along with its political concomitants—have keyed his entire public career, and therefore resonated with millions of American evangelicals.

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