Volume 40 - Issue 1

Evangelical History after George Marsden: A Review Essay

By Nathan A. Finn


In recent years, a growing cadre of younger historians has begun publishing significant books on the history of American evangelicalism. Professionally, these scholars have come of age in the shadow of the renaissance in evangelical history typified by historians of the previous generation such as Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Joel Carpenter, and especially George Marsden. This essay reviews three recent monographs: Steven Miller's The Age of Evangelicalism, Matthew Avery Sutton's American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, and Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. These works are representative of the "post-Marsden" historical scholarship that is reshaping our understanding of modern evangelicalism in America.

The way most historians interpret American evangelicalism changed about a generation ago. Prior to that time, the historical study of evangelicalism tended to fall into one of two broad categories. On the one hand, church historians, or even amateur chroniclers with ties to denominations or other affinity networks such as self-confessed fundamentalism or particular schools or parachurch ministries, wrote narrative histories. Because most of these works were written for movement “insiders,” they often lacked critical reflection and engaged little with broader historical scholarship related to American Christianity.1 On the other hand, secular historians tended to flatten distinctions between various types of conservative Protestants and paint nearly all evangelicals and fundamentalists as predominantly rural, reactionary, and anti-intellectual, as best illustrated in the Scopes Trial of 1925. (Or, rather, popular assumptions about the Scopes Trial.) Mainstream historians interpreted evangelicals as peripheral to American culture, including its religious culture, the latter of which was allegedly dominated by mainline Protestants affiliated with the National Council of Churches.2

Around the same time journalists were taking notice of evangelicalism in the 1970s, historians were crafting new narratives that were more nuanced than the interpretations of earlier scholars, whether confessional or secular. Ernest Sandeen and especially George Marsden authored groundbreaking studies of the intellectual roots of the fundamentalist movement that engaged in denominational trench warfare in the 1920s and 1930s.3 The latter emerged as the most influential historian of born-again Protestantism of his generation, influencing dozens of other scholars. Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Jon Stone examined continuities and discontinuities between fundamentalism and postwar evangelicalism identified with Billy Graham, Christianity Today, and a multitude of parachurch ministries.4 Grant Wacker, William Trollinger, Edith Blumhofer, Darryl Hart, and Barry Hankins (among others) wrote critical studies of key figures in modern American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.5 Blumhofer and Wacker also wrote on Pentecostalism and Charismatics, movements that paralleled and at times overlapped with evangelicalism.6 Betty DeBerg and Margaret Bendroth focused upon fundamentalism and gender.7 Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Harry Stout, Kathryn Long, and-once again-Marsden led the way in reshaping how historians thought of evangelicals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.8 Scottish historian David Bebbington and the Canadian scholar George Rawlyk authored important works that helped frame American evangelicalism within a broader transatlantic narrative.9 Randall Balmer, a noteworthy historian in his own right, popularized much of this scholarship in works aimed at a more general audience.10

As Doug Sweeney has pointed out, many of the historians who were leading the way in this project were themselves evangelicals who were “observer-participants” in the very movement they were attempting to interpret.11 In a real sense, evangelical scholars were framing the way that most historians of religion interpreted twentieth-century evangelicalism. Their efforts became a key part of what might be called a rediscovery of religion among American historians during this same era.12 The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College served as “ground zero” for many of the conferences that in turn generated many of the books and essays written by evangelical historians. Two charitable organizations, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Lily Endowment, funded much of this work through grants in the 1980s and 1990s. Evangelical historian Joel Carpenter led the former’s religion program for several years in the 1990s.13

We might consider the period from roughly 1970 to 2000 as representing the first generation of the new scholarship devoted to American evangelicalism. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, a second generation of historians of evangelicalism has come of age. Like their predecessors, many of these younger historians are themselves evangelicals or have roots in evangelical traditions. Many of them studied with some of the leading lights of the previous generation, writing dissertations under the supervision of Marsden at Duke University or later University of Notre Dame, Wacker at Duke, Stout at Yale University, or Bebbington at University of Stirling in Scotland.14 Some have interacted personally with members of the earlier generation through one of the professional organizations they influenced so much, including the American Society of Church History and especially the Conference on Faith and History. All of them have grappled with the scholarship they have inherited from the historians who came of age in the years after Watergate. In doing so, these younger scholars are building upon, revising, and sometimes rejecting the interpretations offered by the previous generation.15

This essay considers three recent studies of modern evangelicalism. Each is representative of what might be called the “post-Marsden” era of evangelical history. Each expands upon previous studies in significant ways, makes an important contribution to the literature in the field, and challenges received interpretations-at times, provocatively so. Finally, and most importantly, taken together these three books are broadly representative of the insightful work that is being undertaken by the current generation of historians who have come of age professionally in the past ten of fifteen years.

1. Evangelicalism at the Center of American Culture

Steven Miller has quickly emerged as one of the most insightful historians of the post-Marsden era. Miller teaches at Webster University and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His first monograph, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, along with Grant Wacker’s recent study, is arguably one of the two most significant historical studies of Graham written in the past twenty years.16 Miller argued that Graham partnered closely with Richard Nixon to bring southern evangelicals into the Republican Party a decade before the birth of the Moral Majority, then distanced himself from the GOP and the newly emerging Religious Right in the aftermath of Watergate. The politically moderate Billy Graham of the 1980s was forged in the crucible of the more conservative and partisan Graham of the 1960s and 1970s.

Miller’s latest monograph, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, is a cultural history devoted to evangelicalism since the middle of the Nixon era.17 His argument is that evangelicalism is not only a movement (or group of movements) but is also an idea that captures the spirit of an age. In Miller’s telling, evangelicalism was not a peripheral subculture but rather was central to American culture in the generation between 1970 and 2010. Miller argues, “During the Age of Evangelicalism, born-again Christianity provided alternately a language, a medium, and a foil by which millions of Americans came to terms with political and cultural changes.”18 For the purposes of this review essay, I contend it is partly because of evangelicalism’s prominent place in public life during these years that so many historians then and now have chosen to study evangelicals.

Miller divides his book into six roughly chronological chapters. Chapter one focuses upon the 1970s, which Miller argues was already an “evangelical moment” before Newsweek proclaimed 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Numerous phenomena witnessed to the growing profile of evangelicalism. Celebrities such as Chuck Colson, Eldridge Cleaver, and Ruth Carter Stapleton experienced evangelical conversions. The Jesus People attracted the notice of religious and secular commenters alike. James Dobson, Marabel Morgan, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and especially Hal Lindsey wrote bestselling books with broad appeal. Chapter two discusses evangelicalism during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In the 1976 election, both Carter and incumbent Gerald Ford each ran as self-confessed evangelicals, ultimately dividing the conservative Protestant electorate. After initial appreciation for Carter, both evangelical progressives and evangelical conservatives-two movements that largely mirrored the values of non-evangelical political progressives and conservatives-each grew frustrated with Carter during the course of his administration. Progressive evangelicals such as Ron Sider and Jim Wallis waned in their influence while Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell succeeded in channeling conservative frustrations into a coherent political movement. Simply put, most evangelicals cared more about repealing Roe v. Wade, pushing back against progressive views of gender and sexuality, and promoting a narrative of America’s Christian origins than they did using government to alleviate poverty, promote civil rights for minorities, and de-escalate Cold War militarism.

Chapters three and four turn their attention to the period from 1980 to 2000. The Moral Majority in the 1980s, followed by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, mobilized conservative evangelicals for political action on behalf of the Republican Party. The 1980 election witnessed three self-proclaimed evangelical candidates. The winner, Ronald Reagan, was far less involved in church life than his defeated opponents. As Miller wryly notes, Reagan “was more an evangelical’s president than an evangelical president.”19 Throughout the 1980s, evangelicals became a fixture in the Republican Party, though their agenda enjoyed mixed results in both the GOP and the wider culture. Falwell became a household name, followed later by Pat Robertson. By the mid-1990s, Robertson’s lieutenant Ralph Reed was mobilizing conservative evangelicals to vote Republican at every level of government. As evangelicals increased their profiles, America went through the first of two of what Miller dubs “evangelical scares” wherein leftwing scholars and journalists warned ordinary citizens of the threats of born-again Protestantism. Reed, Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, and Promise Keepers were frequently targeted as pernicious evangelical opinion-shapers. Progressive evangelicals remained on the periphery politically speaking, though moderate evangelicals such as Mark Noll enjoyed considerable influence among academics. Following the paradigm suggested by evangelical-friendly sociologist James Davison Hunter, most conservative evangelicals during the Clinton presidency believed they were in the midst of a culture war with (mostly) godless liberals. The stakes were nothing less than America’s future.

The final two chapters focus on the first decade of the twenty-first century. George W. Bush represented the apex of evangelical influence in American culture. Personally, he was far more committed to conservative evangelicalism than his more mainline father (who was president from 1988 to 1992), the lukewarm Reagan, or the morally suspect Clinton. “Compassionate conservatism,” the brainchild of evangelical Marvin Olasky, represented a key theme in the Bush Administration. Evangelical speechwriter Michael Gerson helped Bush articulate compassionate conservatism as public policy. Conservative Catholics and evangelicals networked together more closely than ever, largely through the efforts of evangelicals such as Colson and Catholics such as Richard John Neuhaus and Robert George. When conservative “values voters” elected Bush to a second term, American progressives went through their second evangelical scare, concerned that the Religious Right was theocratic and warmongering, opposed to both women’s rights and science. Bestsellers like The Purpose-Driven Life and the Left Behind series, films such as “Passion of the Christ” (ironically, a Catholic movie), and kitschy trends such as the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon represented evangelicalism in American pop culture. As Americans grew weary of Bush-era evangelicalism, Barack Obama offered a progressive alternative. Evangelical progressives enjoyed a comeback, though Wallis and company influenced the Democratic platform less than the Religious Right had Republicans; the latter comprised the GOP’s base, whereas the latter was trying to persuade Democrats to reach out to evangelicals. Many younger evangelicals rallied behind Obama, who cast himself as a devout mainline Protestant who was unafraid to engage matters of faith. By 2010, the Age of Evangelicalism was seemingly over.

The genius of Miller’s book is his insistence that evangelicalism should be considered a public movement at the center of American culture. Though evangelicals have often felt themselves to be a persecuted minority, they have succeeded in shaping public discourse, even in what might seem to many to be the wilderness years of the Obama presidency. Miller’s book has little to say about grassroots evangelicals, aside from their reading tastes and movie interests (rapture-related books remain a sure bet). It also mostly ignores African-American and Hispanic evangelicals, who in general would have identified more with progressive evangelicals (even if often socially conservative on moral issues), yet who also had their own narratives in relationship to American culture. Nevertheless, as a work of cultural history, it is perhaps the best place to start for scholars who want to understand the place of (predominantly white) evangelicalism in the public square. The Age of Evangelicalism complements the work of other post-Marsden historians who have reshaped our interpretation of the origins of the Religious Right,20 rediscovered progressive evangelicalism,21 or examined popular spirituality among evangelicals.22

2. Evangelicalism as an Apocalyptic Movement

Like Miller, Matthew Sutton has established himself as one of the most insightful of the post-Marsden historians. Sutton serves as the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. His first book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, demonstrated that McPherson was a precursor to the modern Religious Right in wedding patriotism and Christianity.23 Though a controversial figure, McPherson helped to mainstream Pentecostalism, which by the time of her death was on the verge of becoming at least partly involved in the postwar evangelical coalition. Sutton also published a reader, Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents.24 Both of these works lie very much in the background of his newest book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.25

American Apocalypse is by far the most ambitious of the three titles reviewed in this essay in that Sutton attempts a comprehensive history of twentieth-century evangelicalism. He makes four interesting interpretive moves. First, he resurrects Ernest Sandeen’s thesis that millenarianism is the central evangelical conviction, challenging the consensus proffered by the previous generation of historians of evangelicalism.26 Second, Sutton suggests that born-again Protestants, inspired by their millennial views, consistently engaged culture-including politics-throughout the twentieth century. Third, he suggests that fundamentalists should not be considered “conservative” because their millennial views represented a theological innovation at the time they became so popular; fundamentalism was “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”27 Finally, he flattens the distinctions between fundamentalists and evangelicals, focusing far more on continuity than discontinuity. He argues that outwardly focused, Armageddon-awaiting evangelicals profoundly shaped American religious life, popular culture, electoral politics, and foreign policy. He suggests that, “In anticipating the imminent end of the world, fundamentalists paradoxically transformed it.”28

Sutton’s work bridges the gap between social history and intellectual history; it might be described as a social history of an intellectual trend. Over the course of eleven chapters, Sutton engages a wide group of mostly white fundamentalists and evangelicals, though he offers occasional corroboration and minority reports from African-American evangelicals and Pentecostal and charismatic outliers. In chapter one, Sutton discusses the nature of premillennialism and attempts to explain its appeal to so many conservative Protestants. Simply put, they believed their pessimistic outlook was both more biblical and more realistic than the sunny postmillennialism of mainstream Protestants. In chapter two, Sutton suggests premillennialists received powerful confirming evidence for their pessimism via the horrors of World War I. Fundamentalists interpreted the war through their apocalyptic worldview and many of them ostensibly demonstrated less blind patriotism than mainstream Protestants; they would change their tune in the Second World War.

Chapter three focuses on the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, emphasizing the importance of premillennialism to most fundamentalists. In Sutton’s telling, talk of the “fundamentals of the faith” was really strategic code language meant to convince all theological conservatives to buy in to the premillennial agenda for the mainstream denominations. Chapters four and five focus upon Prohibition and evolution, respectively. During this time, fundamentalists broadened their cultural engagement against perceived social ills. Though they awaited an imminent rapture, they interpreted Jesus’s command to “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13, KJV) as a call to action in the public square. Chapter six suggests that the evangelical love affair with the Republican Party began at least a generation before the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s. Fundamentalists were political conservatives who filtered their advocacy of small government and traditional morality through the lens of their apocalyptic worldview. Chapter seven focuses upon the growing Christian patriotism that came to characterize most fundamentalists during the Second World War. Of particular note was the tendency of premillennialists to identify figures such as Hitler, Stalin, and especially Mussolini with the Antichrist, and then subsequently revise their views based upon shifting world events.

Chapter eight revisits the fundamentalist commitment to political conservatism. Most of them opposed the New Deal because of its expansion of government. They also pushed back against President Franklin Roosevelt running for more than two terms; this was the sort of political tyranny that could be a precursor to the Antichrist. Chapters nine and ten focus upon mid-century fundamentalism and especially self-confessed evangelicalism. The latter were really still fundamentalist premillennialists, but savvy scholars and pastors reinterpreted fundamentalist history to suggest greater discontinuity between the two movements. During this time, born-again Protestants emerged as hyper-patriotic citizens who advocated America’s alleged “Judeo-Christian” character over-against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Evangelicals and fundamentalists were committed cold warriors because of their millennial views. They longed for a revival of America’s Christian heritage, even as they continued to ostensibly hope for an imminent rapture. Chapter eleven discusses the mainstreaming of fundamentalist/evangelical apocalypticism through the ministry of Billy Graham, Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and popular Christian music, among other means, despite a broadening of eschatological views among evangelical scholars.29 Premillennial political engagement reached its maturity in the Religious Right and successfully elected a committed premillennialist (if not always a committed churchgoer) in Ronald Reagan. President Reagan caused alarm among many mainstream Americans with his interest in prophecy and its possible implications for foreign policy. A brief epilogue speaks to the enduring influence of evangelical millennialism as evidenced in evangelical interpretations of 9/11 and the popularity of the Left Behind novels.

American Apocalypse is simultaneously remarkably insightful and flawed. Let me first acknowledge the many positives in Sutton’s book. First, like Miller, Sutton is a good writer who knows the power of clear prose and the clever turn-of-phrase. More importantly, he demonstrates that there was far more continuity between the older fundamentalists and the new evangelicals than was often admitted by historians of the earlier generation. As mentioned above, the emphasis on discontinuity has deep historical roots; Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga had a vested interest in perpetuating a particular narrative about fundamentalist declension and evangelical renewal. Furthermore, evangelical historians of an earlier era had a vested interest in identifying far more with evangelical moderation than fundamentalist separatism. There obviously were continuities and discontinuities between fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals; to emphasize continuities a bit more adds some needed nuance to our understanding of the era. However, Sutton’s emphasis on continuity seems less plausible once the second generation of evangelicals exhibit more theological and even ethical diversity than the Henry-Ockenga generation.

Another strength is Sutton’s argument that there has often been a gap between the diverse millennial views held by evangelical scholars and the popular dispensationalism of the “people in the pews.” Of course, premillennial scholars since George Eldon Ladd have been committed to challenging some of the dispensational assumptions of grassroots evangelicalism. Furthermore, there were always more amillennialists and even the occasional postmillennialist among evangelical scholars, especially those who worked in confessionally Reformed or Arminian settings, rather than the cadre of non-denominational schools founded by dispensationalists.30 Finally, Sutton understands that evangelical political engagement long predated the Moral Majority. Few historians would affirm the popular journalistic narrative that conservative Protestants (including dispensationalists) disengaged from politics in the 1920s and then reappeared with Jerry Falwell in the mid-1970s.31

Helpful as it is, American Apocalypse is not without its flaws-some of them rather serious. First, and perhaps most important, Sutton’s revival of the Sandeen thesis is not persuasive. He collapses fundamentalism and evangelicalism into premillennialism, but to do so he has to write non-premillennial evangelicals out of his narrative. J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Theological Seminary are treated as fellow travellers rather than authentic fundamentalists or evangelicals precisely because they were Presbyterians who rejected premillennialism. The same goes for Southern Baptists, with the exception of noteworthy dispensationalists such as J. Frank Norris and Billy Graham. Furthermore, Sutton only emphasizes half of Sandeen’s thesis (premillennialism) while downplaying the importance of biblical inerrancy among fundamentalists and evangelicals. Most surprisingly, Sutton says little about the fundamentalists and evangelical commitment to evangelism and missions. This is problematic for two reasons. First, spreading the gospel would have been a major theme emphasized by born-again Christians-arguably far more than either millennial views or even inerrancy. Second, and more curiously, dispensationalists in particular were strongly committed to personal evangelism and foreign missions and used the imminent rapture as a key motivation to spread the faith to as many unbelievers as possible before Jesus returns. Though premillennialism sits at the heart of Sutton’s thesis, he glosses over nuances between historic premillennialists and dispensationalists and assumes premillennialism is a recent phenomenon rather than a modern revival of an ancient belief system.

American Apocalypse loses some steam in its later chapters, perhaps because evangelicalism had become so diverse by the 1960s that it became difficult for Sutton to sustain his thesis. Progressive evangelicals rejected the apocalyptic worldview of the older generation. As mentioned above, scholars especially began to demur from the dispensationalism that had been popular. The inerrancy battles-curiously absent from Sutton’s narrative-dominated evangelical academic life, contributed to the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America, and led to a significant controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention. Sutton makes no mention of Theonomy, a small but influential movement that provided an alternative motivation for evangelical political engagement from the 1980s onward. A final shortcoming is Sutton’s tendency to overemphasize the relationship of fundamentalists and evangelicals with the Republican Party prior to the 1970s. While he is correct that white born-again Protestants tended to vote for political conservatives, he misses that both Republicans and Democrats included more diversity along the conservative-to-liberal spectrum within their respective parties prior to the 1980s than has become the case since the Reagan years. While evangelicals tended to vote conservative, they did not always vote Republican-especially in the South, where the Democrats had a significant conservative wing that only began to wane after 1968.

American Apocalypse is probably the most ambitious history of evangelicalism to appear in the post-Marsden era. It is a deft combination of social history and intellectual history, which seems necessary in any attempt at a relatively comprehensive interpretation of evangelicalism. Sutton offers an interesting counter-narrative to the Marsden-Carpenter telling of the history of born-again Protestants in America. While the results are mixed, Sutton has still made a significant contribution that will inspire thoughtful engagement from other historians, if for no other reason than to challenge his partial repackaging of the Sandeen thesis and applying it beyond the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the Interwar Era.

3. Revisiting the Evangelical Mind

In 1994, Mark Noll authored an influential scholarly jeremiad wherein he claimed, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”32 Molly Worthen both agrees and disagrees. For Worthen, there is indeed an evangelical mind-just a disappointing one. Worthen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, but until recently was likely best known for her journalistic work for outlets such as The New York Times, Slate, The Dallas Morning News, and Christianity Today.33 Her most recent book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, is a work of intellectual history that has already received significant media attention and elicited thoughtful reviews and sometimes-spirited commentary from evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.34 Worthen argues that postwar evangelicalism, though often considered anti-intellectual by cultural elites, is actually a movement that takes ideas very seriously. Yet, evangelicals struggle with an ongoing “crisis of authority” because of internal disagreements among themselves and an unwillingness to accept broader cultural canons of authority.35 Worthen suggests evangelicals have never navigated the relationship between faith and reason in a way that has won the allegiance of all born-again Protestants nor captured the imagination of the wider American public.

Following a short introduction, Worthen divides Apostles of Reason into eleven chapters. She begins by recounting the origins of postwar evangelicalism. New evangelicals such as Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga sought to provide a more thoughtful and winsome alternative to the older fundamentalism, though they miscalculated by assuming greater theological agreement than was actually present among self-confessed evangelicals. A commitment to the Christian worldview and biblical inerrancy was not enough to ensure evangelical unity; this latter theme is revisited in nearly every chapter. The second chapter begins to describe some of the differences in evangelical views of authority. Not all born-again Protestants saw the need for pan-evangelical coalitions such as the National Association of Evangelicals. Groups such as the Wesleyans and Mennonites had mostly bypassed the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, so they were asking different questions than the mostly Reformed and/or dispensational neo-evangelicals. Inerrancy became a watchword among evangelicals, but scholars at Fuller Seminary and in the Evangelical Theological Society wrestled with the best way to reconcile a truthful Bible with higher criticism. Chapter three discusses mostly successful efforts to establish a serious evangelical periodical through Christianity Today and the failed effort to establish an evangelical research university. In all of these educational endeavors, internal debates about inerrancy and separatism seem to confirm Matthew Sutton’s aforementioned contention that there was more continuity between fundamentalists and evangelicals than either cared to admit.

In chapter four, Worthen highlights the challenges raised by Mennonites such as John Howard Yoder and Wesleyans such as Mildred Bang Wynkoop to the Reformed emphases on worldview, inerrancy, and parachurch ministries. They bemoaned the fact that too many of their coreligionists were aping Reformed categories and introducing them into non-Reformed traditions. Worthen then turns her attention to the efforts of evangelical Bible schools to seek regional accreditation and become liberal arts colleges. This was controversial; Bible schools did not have to be as committed to academic freedom as traditional colleges. For many evangelical advocates of the liberal arts, C. S. Lewis emerged as a key influence in how the Christian worldview was compatible with serious scholarship and the life of the mind. Chapter six discusses the growing emphasis upon anthropology among evangelical missiologists, which helped create the Church Growth Movement, a field of study rarely recognized outside the evangelical subculture. Insights from missiology and heretofore-Pentecostal practices intersected in the charismatic movement within evangelicalism, especially at Fuller Seminary, which for some presented a challenge to evangelical cultural respectability. The charismatic movement and the ecumenical sensibilities of Vatican II also opened the door for closer cooperation between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, the topic of chapter seven. A growing number of evangelicals, especially intellectuals, became Catholics or identified with other High Church traditions, abandoning the evangelical mind for older traditions.

In chapter seven, Worthen discusses the rise of the evangelical left. Younger evangelicals and their Mennonite allies pushed back (ultimately unsuccessfully) against their elders’ fussy debates about the Christian worldview and biblical inerrancy and sought to engage the great moral issues of their era: poverty, war, racism, and feminism. The latter especially was seen as a threat to traditional evangelical views of authority. Chapter eight gives sustained attention to evangelical debates over inerrancy between 1960s and 1970s and, in a vein similar to Randall Stephens and Karl Gibberson, discusses-often dismissively-evangelicals who challenged conventional understandings of a whole host of issues ranging from child-rearing (Bill Gothard and James Dobson) to the history of Western Culture (Francis Schaeffer).36 In the following chapter, she discusses how a presuppositional form of the Christian worldview-associated with Abraham Kuyper and filtered through Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til-directly influenced the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Young earth creationism, focusing on America’s alleged Christian heritage, and (most ominously) Theonomy each drew upon the mostly Reformed evangelical understanding of the Christian worldview. The Inerrancy Controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention emerged as a microcosm of the sort of intellectual dysfunction brought on by the evangelical crisis of authority. The final chapter discusses evangelical scholarly trends since the 1990s, noting the perennial appeal of Catholic intellectuals, the ongoing influence of pop “historians” such as David Barton, and the rise of newer evangelical protest movements such as the Emergent Church. Worthen concludes by noting that the “evangelical imagination” perhaps offers a more compelling way to account for evangelical intellectual tends and anti-intellectualism than the ever-elusive evangelical mind.37

The thesis of Apostles of Reason carries a lot of explanatory power: evangelicals did indeed face a crisis of authority, both internally and in their posture toward the wider culture. However, Worthen’s teasing out of her thesis is mixed. On the upside, she does a fine job of demonstrating tensions within evangelicalism-a concept that meant different things to different evangelicals. Her inclusion of minority and/or overtly denominational voices-one of the most helpful aspects of her book-illustrates this quandary. The leaders of the postwar evangelical coalition were shaped directly by the earlier fundamentalism and “entered” evangelicalism primarily through the network of parachurch organizations created between 1930 and 1950. However, denominational evangelicals such as Wesleyans, Mennonites, and even Southern Baptists and Missouri-Synod Lutherans “entered” evangelicalism through their ecclesial identity. Thus, some of the priorities of evangelical elites made little sense in denominations that had different histories and (at times) different theological emphases. Worthen calls this phenomenon the “fundamental dilemma” of evangelicalism: “the tangled history with each strand of evangelicalism. Each was a blend of different theologies, personalities, and cultures, irreducible to any pristine essence of single authority.”38

As another positive, Apostles of Reason goes a long way toward transcending the debate undertaken by the previous generation of historians over “Reformed” versus “Wesleyan” readings of evangelical history.39 Worthen recognizes that evangelicalism as a movement contains both trajectories, as well as those who would reject identifying with either trajectory. Yet, all evangelicals were influenced in various ways by the crisis of authority and wrestled with the key concepts of the biblical worldview and scriptural inerrancy. In Worthen’s telling, the Reformed won the battle for the evangelical mind, at times to the chagrin of the non-Reformed, though there often remained a gap between the beliefs of evangelical scholars and the views of most rank-and-file evangelical believers. Historians will also appreciate her framing of the evangelical mind within the context of the wider postwar conservative intellectual movement. Henry especially resonated with some of the same themes being advocated by Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, while Christianity Today echoed some of the same themes as National Review.40

However, Worthen’s book is not without some shortcomings. One weakness is the “underside” of one of her strengths: her writing style. Of the three books being reviewed in this essay, all of which are examples of fine historical writing, Worthen wins the award for the liveliest prose. Unfortunately, this can be both winsome and off-putting. Sometimes, her words are evocative and memorable. At other times, she is condescending and less-than-empathetic in her interpretation of the evangelical mind. While Miller is evenhanded in his portrayal of the “Age of Evangelicalism” and Sutton is perhaps bemused by evangelical millennialism, Worthen shows little appreciation for the evangelical mind. Evangelical resilience, perhaps-those born-again types just keep trucking on. But she is almost never positive toward her subjects and is often quite negative: Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til steal the evil Nazi idea of worldview and pass it off on evangelicals; Carl Henry is a pitiful figure who is underappreciated by mainstream scholars because he is overcommitted to inerrancy; Francis Schaeffer is a historical huckster who is only surpassed in his crimes against the past by David Barton; really thoughtful evangelicals become Roman Catholics or Anglicans (or at least contribute to First Things).

Though Worthen’s intellectual history of postwar evangelicalism is by no means warm, it does represent what will perhaps in the long run be the most important of the three books under review in this essay. The sheer scope of her archival research is remarkable. Her emphasis on worldview and inerrancy is a sound method and the theme of a crisis of authority is helpful, even when her tone leaves something to be desired. Her exemplary writing style, combined with the attention her book has garnered, guarantee her work will continue to receive attention from historians, journalists, and even theologians. I hope Worthen’s monograph will inspire future dissertations on twentieth-century evangelical intellectuals; she reminds us how much work remains to be done in understanding the evangelical mind(s) since World War II (and before!). Owen Strachan’s recent dissertation, forthcoming later this year, will offer a complementary narrative of the postwar evangelical mind that is far less negative in its assessment.41

4. Conclusion

As these three books illustrate, the post-Marsden era is an exciting time to study the past. Not everyone in the new generation of historians of evangelicalism is as sympathetic to their subjects as many of their predecessors. In many cases, even those historians who are self-proclaimed evangelicals do not share the same apologetic tendencies of some of their generational predecessors. Religious history is now firmly entrenched as a popular field within American history, and unlike forty years ago, few scholars dismiss historical monographs simply because they are written by evangelicals or other people of faith. One blog recently noted almost fifty monographs or collections of essays that will be published by university or trade presses in the first four months of 2015.42 This does not count the other historical works that will appear in the second half of the year, studies that will be published by evangelical or Catholic publishers, forthcoming articles in scholarly journals, or dissertations that will be completed in the coming year.

American religious history-including the history of evangelicalism-is here to stay. As mentioned earlier, the American Historical Association is home to many scholars interested in the history of evangelicalism. The Conference on Faith and History continues to thrive as an organization specifically for Christian historians. While the American Society of Church History is perhaps less evangelical-friendly than a generation ago, there is still a place for evangelicals to participate meaningfully. Newer organizations such as The Historical Society and the Society for US Intellectual History include wide evangelical participation, while-closer to home-more and more historians are becoming actively involved in the Evangelical Theological Society. Blogs such as The Anxious Bench and Religion and American History are disseminating some of the best of contemporary historical scholarship on evangelicalism (and other topics) for a wider readership.43

Evangelical history after Marsden remains a promising place for scholars-and future scholars. Steven Miller, Matthew Sutton, and Molly Worthen, along with historians such as Thomas Kidd, David Swartz, Elesha Coffman, Jay Riley Case, Brantley Gasaway, John Turner, Charles Irons, Kate Bowler, and Darren Dochuk-among many others-are doing an excellent job of building upon the previous generation and helping historians, journalists, pastors, and theologians to understand the history of born-again Protestantism in America. Hopefully, this review essay will persuade many readers of Themelios to learn from this scholarship and apply it to their particular ministries, whether in the local church, parachurch, academy, public square, or foreign mission field. Good historians know that there is no such thing as a past golden age; however, the post-Marsden era may just turn out to be a golden age for historians of evangelicalism.

* I want to thank Justin Taylor and an anonymous reviewer for reading an earlier draft of this essay and offering several helpful suggestions for improvement.

1 Two recent anthologies have addressed these shortcomings and suggested ways forward for confessional historians and/or those interested in denominational history. See Robert Bruce Mullin and Russell E. Richey, eds., Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays, Religion in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), and Keith Harper, ed., American Denominational History: Perspectives on the Past, Prospects for the Future, Religion and American Culture (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2008).

[2] For example, see Stewart G. Cole, The History of Fundamentalism (New York: Harper and Row, 1931); Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954); Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963).

[3] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). Sandeen’s book has been reprinted several times. Marsden’s book has been updated in recent years. See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford, 1997); Jon R. Stone, On the Boundaries of American Evangelicalism: The Postwar Evangelical Coalition (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997).

[5] Grant Wacker, Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985); William Vance Trollinger Jr., God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1990); Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Barry Hankins, God’s Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism, Religion in the South (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

[6] Edith L. Blumhofer, Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Edith L. Blumhofer, Russell P. Spittler, and Grant A. Wacker, eds., Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[7] Betty A. DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990); Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996)

[8] Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, and Mark A. Noll, The Search for Christian America (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1983); Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989); Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Kathryn Teresa Long, The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening, Religion in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[9] George A. Rawlyk, Ravished by the Spirit: Religious Revivals, Baptists, and Henry Alline (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984); David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989); Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George A. Rawlyk, eds., Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[10] Randall H. Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). A companion three-part PBS documentary by the same name garnered Balmer an Emmy nomination.

[11] Douglas A. Sweeney, “The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma,” Church History 60.1 (March 1991): 70-84.

[12] This rediscovery is discussed in Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, eds., New Directions in American Religious History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Not coincidentally, the volume editors and around a third of the contributors were evangelicals. According to the American Historical Association, religious history has become the most popular topic among its members. See Robert B. Townsend, “A New Found Religion? The Field Surges among AHA Members,” Perspectives on History (December 2009),

[13] For a recent overview of the influence of evangelical historiography on how the academy perceives evangelical history, see David W. Bebbington, “The Evangelical Discovery of History,” in The Church on its Past: Papers Read at the 2011 Summer Meeting and 2012 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Peter D. Clarke and Charlotte Methuen (Martlesham, Suffolk, UK: Boydell, 2013), 330-64. See also Maxie B. Burch, The Evangelical Historians: The Historiography of George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996).

[14] Marsden’s students have recently published a festschrift in his honor. See Darren Dochuk, Thomas S. Kidd, and Kurt W. Peterson, eds., American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014).

[15] I consider myself to be a part of this second generation of evangelical historians. I became interested in the history of modern evangelicalism through reading the works of Marsden, Carpenter, and Noll when I was an undergraduate history major in the late-1990s. I later focused my own doctoral research on postwar fundamentalism among Baptists in the South.

[16] Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2009). In his review of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, Miles Mullin argues Miller’s monograph is the best book on Billy Graham in years. See Fides et Historia 42.1 (Winter-Spring 2010): 113-15. My own review of the book can be found in North Carolina Historical Review 87.1 (January 2010): 120-21. See also Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). In a recent personal conversation with Wacker, I asked him the two or three most important books written about Graham since the 1990s. The first historical monograph he mentioned was Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South.

[17] Steven P. Miller, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[18] Ibid., 5.

[19] Ibid., 64.

[20] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 217-61; Seth Dowland, “Defending Manhood: Gender, Social Order and the Rise of the Christian Right in the South, 1965-1995” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2007); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: Norton, 2010); Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[21] David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Brantley W. Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[22] David Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Erin A. Smith, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[23] Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[24] Matthew Avery Sutton, Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012).

[25] Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[26] Most historians of the past generation have followed Marsden, who argued that Sandeen’s focus on millennial views and, to a lesser extent, Princetonian inerrancy, was far too narrow and that a range of intellectual trends helped to shape fundamentalism and subsequently evangelicalism. The two scholars debated their respective theses in print in between the publication of Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism in 1970 and Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture in 1980. See George Marsden, “Defining Fundamentalism,” Christian Scholar’s Review 1, no. 2 (Winter 1971): 141-51, and Ernest R. Sandeen, “Defining Fundamentalism: A Reply to Prof. Marsden,” Christian Scholar’s Review 1, no. 3 (Spring 1971): 227-33.

[27] Sutton, American Apocalypse, 3

[28] Ibid, 7.

[29] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). Zondervan claims to have sold over 15 million copies of the book.

[30] The same is true among Southern Baptists, where dispensational thought did not become popular until the mid-twentieth century and where premillennialism of any stripe was arguably underrepresented in denominational schools until the 1990s. See James Spivey, “The Millennium,” in Has Our Theology Changed? Southern Baptist Thought Since 1845, ed. Paul A. Basden (Nashville: Broadman, 1994), 230-62.

[31] See note 19 above. See also Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983); Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Hankins, God’s Rascal.

[32] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[33] Molly Worthen, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

[34] Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[35] Ibid., 2-3.

[36] Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Gibberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[37] Worthen, Apostles of Reason, 264-65.

[38] Ibid., 95.

[39] The central figures in this discussion were George Marsden (Reformed) and Donald Dayton (Wesleyan). Their interactions, with additional comments from Joel Carpenter, Clark Pinnock, Daniel Fuller, and Doug Sweeney, were published in Christian Scholars Review 23.1 (Spring 1993). The issue theme was “What Is Evangelicalism?” See also Michael Scott Horton, “Reflection: Is Evangelicalism Reformed or Wesleyan? Reopening the Marsden-Dayton Debate,” Christian Scholars Review 31.2 (Winter 2001): 131-55.

[40] See Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005), and George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th Anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).

[41] Owen Daniel Strachan, “Reenchanting the Evangelical Mind: Park Street Church’s Harold Ockenga, The Boston Scholars, and the Mid-Century Intellectual Surge” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2011). The dissertation is under contract to be published by Zondervan in fall 2015.

[42] Paul Putz, “New Books Alert: 2015 Year in Preview, Part One (January-April),” Religion in American History (December 19, 2014),

[43] See and

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University. He is co-editor of the forthcoming volume Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021).

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