The Importance of Premillennialism – By Dan Hummel

Dan Hummel on Matthew Sutton’s American Apocalypse

Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Harvard University Press, 2014, 480pp., $35
Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Harvard University Press, 2014, 480pp., $35
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In 1970, an ex-tugboat captain and self-described prophecy expert named Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth. It would go on to become the decade’s highest selling piece of non-fiction. Like other books written in that decade, including Alan Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), Late Great Planet Earth predicted a grisly end to Western civilization.

Central to Lindsey’s scheme for the future were three beliefs immensely popular among lay evangelicals in the 1970s: First, that a secret “rapture” could occur at any moment, whisking away true believers from earth into communion with God. Second, that this rapture would be “pretribulational,” and would occur before any of the serious violence, death, and destruction predicted in the book of Revelation. Third, that after a seven-year tribulation, Jesus Christ would return, vanquish his enemies, and establish a new kingdom for one thousand years. This premillennial vision countered the beliefs of other Christians, some of whom saw the millennial reign as already present in the form of the Church (amillennialists), while others thought this reign would be established by Christ after sufficient human reform and the spread of Christianity (postmillennialists).

In his new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, the historian Matthew Sutton shows that Hal Lindsey was operating in a long tradition of evangelical thinking about the end-times. Sutton places this end-times fixation at the center of his 150-year narrative of American evangelicalism. The book is a masterful survey of premillennialist writers and leaders in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries – most of whom subscribed to a version of premillennialism called dispensationalism. Premillennial dispensationalism was first developed in the 1830s by Irish clergyman and theologian John Nelson Darby. It gained wide acceptance among American evangelicals in the late nineteenth century, offering a unique reading of the Bible that emphasized distinctive periods of testing between God and humanity and a “literal” — that is, material and physical — interpretation of prophecy. Darby’s innovative claim of a pretribulational rapture would grow deep roots in America, where it continues to influence Christians and popular culture more widely.

Sutton’s analysis is anchored in the period 1914-1945. Eight of eleven chapters cover this period, and he interprets biblical end-times prophecy as the engine of “radical evangelicalism” (his term for premillennialist fundamentalists and evangelicals).

Historians of American evangelicalism — George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Joel Carpenter chief among them — have analyzed the role of prophecy in the movement, but no one has given it such prominence since Ernest Sandeen’s original study of fundamentalism in 1970. As Barry Hankins has written in a recent Festschrift for George Marsden, the historiographical model that Marsden pioneered treated premillennialism as only one in a cluster of ideas that formed fundamentalism.

For Sutton, however, the enduring foundation of evangelical thinking on politics, race, gender, and society through the twentieth century has been a premillennialist outlook. American Apocalypse moves the principal emphasis in American evangelical history onto eschatology.

In line with this new interpretation, Sutton highlights a cast of fascinating premillennialists who dominated the movement, including J. Frank Norris, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, James Gray, Arno Gaebelein, Mark Matthews, and the journalist Dan Gilbert.

Premillennialism led most radical evangelicals to reject President Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, intensify their anti-Catholicism and opposition to the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith, and regard the New Deal as a form of proto-totalitarian statism. According to premillennialists, these political developments anticipated a one world government, a revived apostate church that included Roman Catholicism, and an increasingly anti-Evangelical international system — each of which was linked to dire prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation.

This thinking, Sutton argues, emerged out of the crisis of World War I and set a powerful precedent for later fundamentalists and evangelicals. He writes, “Apocalyptic faith provoked substantial debate because it moved fundamentalism beyond ideas and beliefs to questions of social and political action and citizenship. More than any other ‘fundamental,’ premillennialism affected the ways its adherents lived.” This lasting concern about state consolidation, internationalism, and the eroding morals of American society, Sutton argues, informed the later teachings of Billy Graham and the writings of Hal Lindsey.

"Billy Sunday Preaching" by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, May 1915. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Billy Sunday Preaching” by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, May 1915. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sutton expands his analysis beyond the normal cast of evangelical figures to include non-white and Pentecostal voices. He is not content to examine a group of elite “white, Anglo-American radical evangelicals,” though such men do take up the bulk of his almost 400-page narrative. He includes substantial discussions of African-American premillennialist traditions as counterpoints to the dominant white premillennialist views. While eschatology could have potentially bridged gaps between white and African-American premillennialists, as it did between evangelicals and white Pentecostals, the depth of white evangelical prejudice was insuperable. As Sutton argues, “As much as white fundamentalists liked to claim they practiced the true, universal faith, it was a faith most often defined by race.”

The color line also shaped premillennial expectations. Whereas white premillennialists interpreted political and global events as divine judgments for moral decay, black premillennialists often identified the same events with God’s wrath for the sin of racism. Whereas white premillennialists fixated on European developments in light of prophecy, black premillennialists focused attention on the prophetic destiny of Ethiopia. For both white and black evangelicals, premillennialism offered a compelling framework to interpret real world events in terms of community priorities, and it acted as a bulwark against modernist biblical criticism and liberal Protestantism.

While Sutton successfully demonstrates the division between white and black premillennialist traditions, his argument for the continuity of white premillennialist thought may be American Apocalypse’s most contentious argument. He rejects the classic view — established by Marsden but also latent in evangelical writings since the 1940s — that fundamentalism suffered serious setbacks in the 1920s and retreated into its own subculture where it built parallel institutions, only to be reformed by neo-evangelicals who sought to re-engage with society.

This narrative, Sutton asserts, does not account for the fact that premillennialism remained popular through these changes. Sutton emphasizes “continuity more than discontinuity” through the 150-year narrative and sees the “rise-fall-rebirth” arc as a product of the neo-evangelicals themselves, a rhetorical and polemical framework (and “bad history”) meant to distance postwar evangelicalism from the embarrassing excesses of interwar fundamentalism. On politics and apocalyptic outlook, Sutton writes, “prewar fundamentalists and postwar evangelicals remained far more alike than not.”

But especially in the postwar period, dispensationalist premillennialism was seen by many evangelicals as a major obstacle. Sutton identifies a general critique by neo-evangelicals regarding the fundamentalist “misuse of premillennialism,” but the rift was deeper than that. Not only would there emerge two camps of premillennialist scholars by the 1950s — a “historic” school and a dispensationalist school — but these camps would come to inhabit separate spheres of evangelical life. While historic premillennialists would come to dominate evangelical scholarship and theology, dispensationalism would be pushed into popular mediums and gain an unprecedented cultural resonance in the late-twentieth century.

These developments would have been surprising to premillennialists in the 1950s. The decade represented a golden age of dispensational theological production. John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, and Merrill Unger comprised a formidable center of dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary. That same decade, Charles Feinberg, a Dallas graduate and former professor, helped found the dispensationalist Talbot Theological Seminary in Southern California. Moody Bible Institute and Grace Theological Seminary also promoted distinguished dispensationalist scholars.

At the same time, however, George Eldon Ladd, a theologian who helped found Fuller Theological Seminary, began to attack this reigning dispensationalist school from the direction of scholarship. Ladd’s life work, as his biographer John D’Elia has shown, was to rehabilitate evangelical scholarship and bridge conservative theological commitments with modern academic discourses. Though Ladd was a scholar and not a preacher or denominational leader, his work has had a profound influence on evangelical thinking. In a 1984 survey of evangelical scholars, Ladd ranked only below John Calvin as the individual “exerting the dominant influence on [evangelicals’] scholarly work.”

In 1956, Ladd published a book titled The Blessed Hope. Though ostensibly addressing questions of prophecy and eschatology that had long preoccupied premillennialists, Ladd identified with a separate premillennial tradition that he later termed “historic premillennialism.” This tradition, named for its supposed historical roots in patristic thought, also included many figures mentioned in Sutton’s narrative, including J. Frank Norris, J. Oliver Buswell, Carl McIntire, Philip Mauro, and Nathaniel West.

For historic premillennialists, the rapture was no imminent event, but occurred after the rise, reign, and defeat of the Antichrist. Ladd clarified that the central thesis of his 1956 book “is that the Blessed Hope is the second coming of Jesus Christ and not the pretribulation rapture” (emphasis in original). This distinction between historic and dispensational premillennialists — developed by Ladd and other neo-evangelicals — created a rupture in white evangelicalism that remains as important to explaining twentieth-century developments as Sutton’s argument for the continuity of premillennialist thought.

But the importance of differing views on the “blessed hope” was about more than the timing of the rapture. Ladd saw the fate of the Kingdom of God in the balance. By arguing that the blessed hope was not the rapture, Ladd wanted evangelicals to recognize that the church would in fact suffer through the tribulation and the various plagues and disasters prophesied in the Bible; the kingdom had been inaugurated on earth with the ministry of Christ and was embodied in the church itself. This understanding flew in the face of dispensationalists who argued the church had little to do with the millennium and would be removed — raptured — before it was established. Historic premillennialists, Ladd argued, could draw on traditional Christian arguments for social engagement that dispensationalists could not.

Ladd prefigured the decline of dispensationalist teaching in evangelical seminaries in the late twentieth century and helped fuel a new premillennialist social ethic that moved beyond the confines of fundamentalism. Key architects of the religious right, including Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson, subscribed to versions of historic premillennialism that regarded the Church as the Kingdom of God on earth.

At the same time, dispensationalism, while receding from evangelical seminaries, made stunning inroads into American popular culture, as Sutton deftly shows. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became the best-selling book of the 1970s. Walvoord’s own Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis has gone through multiple revisions since its original publication in 1974. The Left Behind series has sold tens of millions of copies. Evangelicals have returned to the well of end-times prophecy time and again, especially at moments of crisis. Along the way, they have influenced the perceptions of millions of Americans, and their ideas have penetrated the upper echelons of American politics.

Even so, the transition from scholarly to popular dispensationalism over the past forty years — and the attendant rise of historic premillennialism in evangelical seminaries — has had a profound effect on the evangelical world. Few of evangelicalism’s most prominent conservative intellectuals, including Southern Baptists Albert Mohler and Russell Moore, or the evangelical scholars mentioned above (Marsden, Noll, Carpenter) are dispensationalist. And few evangelical seminaries actually teach dispensationalism to aspiring pastors, missionaries, and administrators. Progressive dispensationalism, a reformed version of the theology with many concessions to Ladd’s views, is now the popular theology at Dallas, Talbot, and Moody. Other evangelical schools such as Wheaton and Gordon-Conwell do not promote dispensationalism at all. It exists in smaller bible schools and in popular imagination, but the driving intellectual forces behind dispensationalism have dissipated.

Whereas Sutton recognizes the importance of the institutional dimension to fundamentalism throughout his book, the rupture between evangelical scholarship and popularized forms of dispensationalism is largely absent from Sutton’s narrative. This absence is not unique to American Apocalypse; it is also absent in the works that Sutton cites as “making the case for the centrality of premillennialism for fundamentalist identity” (works by Paul S. Boyer and Timothy Weber).

Sutton interprets neo-evangelicals as constructing a respectable face to radical evangelicalism while keeping the same basic apocalypticism and theology. But for Ladd and the many evangelicals he influenced, the commitment was based on a different reading of eschatology and a approach to culture and politics. The historic premillennialist belief that the church would suffer through the tribulation and is the kingdom has created unique emphases in evangelical thought, including the recent “New Calvinist” movement.

The absence of this dimension to his story does not diminish Sutton’s accomplishments in American Apocalypse, but does raise the possibility for more fine-grained studies of mid-twentieth century premillennialism. Indeed, it is the very success of Sutton’s arguments that opens up the possibility of future research into the diverse roles of premillennialism in American evangelicalism. Sutton has shown that these theological ideas are essential to understanding the political and social views of Americans in the twentieth century.