Molly Worthen. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-989646-2.

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In many accounts of the recent American past, the modern evangelical coalition emerges–like a prim, demure Athena–fully formed. In this telling, fundamentalists were minding their own business, tenderly and self-consciously nursing wounds they had incurred at the Scopes Trial, when the maelstrom of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll we now know as “the Sixties” compelled them to act in the service of God and country.

Over the past five years, however, a number of scholars have begun to challenge this interpretation’s long, authoritative dominance.1 Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason joins these revisions as a most welcome addition. Worthen argues that although secular academics have grown accustomed to seeing in American evangelicalism a fairly serious anti-intellectual streak, what these evangelicals really have is an authority problem.

The crux of this difficulty is the doctrine at the heart of the Protestant project: sola scriptura. Long before Roland Barthes taught us how to think about the difficulties that result from trying to establish a text’s one, true meaning, Protestants were living them. One of Worthen’s sources succinctly sums up the predicament:

For if he chooses one position, [the Protestant] chances being branded as a Himmler-type reactionary; but if he chooses the opposite, he risks being herded with atheistic pinks and homosexuals. If he proposes to make the Bible his touchstone and guide, he is engulfed by a torrent of literature purporting to show that the Bible’s social teaching sanctions everything from state lotteries and genocide to ship-picketing, blood donations to the Viet Cong, and tossing Molotov cocktails at heads of state” (180).

Having argued their way out of a Pope, each individual Protestant believer was left to work out the Bible’s meaning pretty much alone. This old story, Worthen tells us, is one key to understanding American evangelicalism’s mid-century inefficacy. From the 1930s to the 1970s, evangelicals spent as much time arguing with one another over questions of interpretation as they did fighting their modernist enemies.

The first third of Worthen’s book illustrates the problem; it is a history of neo-evangelicalism, the name that an influential group of second-generation fundamentalists took when they wanted to slough off the various excesses of the movement of twenty years before. They wanted more than anything for their ideas to be taken seriously and, beginning in the 1940s, they set out to build an infrastructure to make it happen. They, however, found themselves–for complex, but ultimately understandable theological reasons–still in a position of having to argue in favor of a literal reading of the Bible. This position put them at odds with the dominant theological spirit of the age, modernism, whose proponents had come to think that the best way to approach the good book was to understand it not as the word of God, but rather as a haphazard collection of ancient Jewish mythology and metaphor-laden missives concerning spats between bands of argumentative Greeks on the far edge of a crumbling Roman empire. By the time neo-evangelicals began to get organized, the modernists had consolidated their hold on the most influential university theology departments to such an extent that resistance to their way of thinking was nearly out of the question. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy had rendered biblical literalism inert and in their efforts to revive it, neo-evangelicals found themselves in an acclivitous match against an impressively-outfitted foe. They also had trouble coaxing many of their allies–to give in entirely to the battle metaphor–to fight on the same front. A good number of them were deployed in entirely different wars, sometimes against modernism, but just as often against denominations (and even congregations) that ought to have been confederates. It was the lack of a commanding officer, Worthen illustrates, that made this kind of battlefield confusion inevitable. Worthen’s recounting of these maneuvers is thorough, focusing both on the campaign against the modernist heresy and the neo-evangelical effort to neutralize “come-outers” like Bob Jones and Carl McIntire, but all the while keeping the less central (and less ornery) players in this disorderly struggle–primarily Lutherans, Mennonites, and Pentecostals–in view. It is a masterful presentation.

The middle chapters of Worthen’s book explore two areas in which evangelicals were forced to deal with authority in ways they had not reckoned with: the Bible college and foreign missions.

At the end of the Second World War, a newly expanded and suddenly flush federal government decided to pay college tuition for the GI’s coming back home and wanted to ensure that the money was being well spent. Since the degrees they were issuing had not been vouched for by an accrediting agency, Bible colleges found themselves in danger of being cut off. A major problem, however, was that Bible colleges had long “exalted the common sense of the layman whose faith was unmuddled by the mystifications of the so-called experts” (102). This was, again, at odds with the predominant trends. When Bible colleges sought accreditation, many evangelicals feared, they would have to reorganize their curriculum to such a degree that the Bible might be run right off campus. But there was little other choice. The agencies, of course, demanded many of the curricular revisions that Bible-college defenders had feared. By the mid-1960s, Worthen tells us, the literary magazine at Wheaton College was under the editorial guidance of one Wesley Earl (Wes) Craven, whose decision to publish “disturbing and morally complex stories” (115) illustrated, for many, the problem of bowing to secular dictates.

A similar process unfolded in the field of foreign missions. As the countries of Africa and Asia shrugged off their colonial masters, Protestant evangelists found themselves, in Worthen’s words, “[struggling] with their reputations as agents of the white man’s oppression” (125). Those who stayed on after the British, the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese got out, were forced to take local culture seriously and tried to find ways to respect the newly independent governments’ prerogatives, the primary one being to make life for their citizens more comfortable. This “anthropological turn” went a long way toward stamping out the ethnocentric evangelism of the colonial era. But it also caused concern among the evangelicals Worthen is interested in. For them, Christianity was a matter of belief more than of action and while infrastructure projects were not offensive per se, they still didn’t solve the central problem of sin. The truth of the Word was no longer sufficient on its own, however. Increasingly, Worthen’s evangelicals found themselves stuck between their modernist adversaries, who spent most of their time building roads and digging latrines, and their charismatic brethren, who were perfectly willing to win converts by “performing demon exorcisms, speaking in tongues, and surrendering to the Spirit” all of which had begun to play better in Palau than in Peoria (125).

The last third of Apostles of Reason, while good, is slightly less convincing. Worthen’s exploration of the evangelical left in the 1960s seems to belong to another book. Her discussions of Francis Schaeffer and R.J. Rushdoony, while superficially linking them to J. Gresham Machen and the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, make Schaeffer and Rushdoony seem too sui generis. These men were certainly strange, but they also seem to have been just the kind of graduates that colleges like Wheaton, Westminster, and the early incarnation of Fuller were hoping to produce. Far more interesting–and curious absences considering the book’s thesis–are the ways Billy Graham managed to make himself adviser to every American president since Nixon and how Abraham Vereide came to make the National Prayer Breakfast so central to the DC social calendar. Somehow they acquired a level of authority that seems out of sync with the story Worthen tells. How did they manage to overcome the central problem that her thesis rightly identifies?

Anyone who has spent time with the collections Worthen quarried will appreciate her skilled mining. Although these archives are first-rate and their archivists patient and painstaking professionals, the collections themselves are a vast and difficult terrain, full of dead-end passages, irritating and potentially lethal minutiae (membership lists, accounting records), and the echoes of theological clashes the details of which would exhaust and confound Jesus himself. Worthen, though, makes expert sense of them, consistently deploying the right kind of evidence with enviable aplomb and a deft writing hand. Particularly impressive is Worthen’s ability to weave the story of modern American evangelicalism back into the narrative of mainstream American history and, more importantly, to make it appear to matter.

  1. See, for example: Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011); and Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).