World War II and the Birth of Modern American Evangelicalism

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:50 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University
Delivering the keynote address at the first meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, William Ayer, pastor of a prominent Manhattan church, called for conservative Christians to unite. “It is not boasting to declare that evangelical Christianity has the America of our forefathers to save,” he declared in the midst of World War II. “Millions of evangelical Christians, if they had a common voice and a common meeting place, would exercise under God an influence that would save American democracy.” It was time, he preached, for Christians to organize; and organize they would.

Despite the impact of World War II on American evangelicalism, historians have paid surprising little attention to it. This paper argues that the war shaped the trajectory of modern evangelicalism in at least two fundamental ways. First, the war illustrates the significance of global events in defining evangelicals’ notions of faith. Although historians have long treated evangelicalism as a native species nourished by regional concerns, the movement grew and evolved more often in response to international events. Zionism, the Bolshevik Revolution, international economic depression, Fascism, the World Wars, and the Cold War all shaped evangelical culture. Second, the war demonstrates the preeminence of evangelicals’ apocalyptic ideology in shaping their worldview. Evangelicals’ reading of the Bible combined with their understanding of current events convinced them that the world was rapidly nearing its end. They were sure that they were living in the last days and that the rise of the Antichrist was imminent. Such convictions defined the movement during World War II and at least until the end of the Cold War. Ultimately, my paper argues that we cannot understand the rise and evolution of modern American evangelicalism—or the power of the modern Religious Right—without understanding the global evangelical apocalyptic vision developed and refined during World War II.