Short Reviews of Eight (+2) Books on the Social History of US Conservative Christianity

New Transcendentalist
13 min readJan 25, 2021

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In this article I try to give brief, accessible reviews of the eight above-pictured books, (two more added after I made the picture above).

Underneath each of the pictures, I have provided links to the authors giving presentations related to their books. These are the quick reviews, in order of the date they were published

Mark Noll The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. 1994 (link to buy new)

Click here for lectures from a 2017 conference Noll headlined called “The State of the Evangelical Mind”

Mark Noll is pretty much the grandfather of all historical studies on US Conservative Christianity. He writes this book as a “wounded lover” because he himself is an evangelical and a historian of the church. He says his whole book is built on a speech Charles Malik (Former president of the UN and Christian from Lebanon) gave to Noll’s employer Wheaton College in the 1980s called The Two Tasks. That speech is also available in book form. The two tasks are evangelism and education. He said it was clear from the success of Wheaton and the evangelical movement that they had done really well on evangelism, but, he said they were not good educators and if they end up winning at evangelism, but losing at education, they will find they did not actually win. It‘s ironic because Billy Graham wrote the intro to that book/speech and he somehow missed that they were being ‘taken to the woodshed’ (Noll’s words). Noll’s book is basically a historical contextualizing of US Conservative Christianity and includes portions such as “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism” This is a book many evangelicals like the Gospel Coalition like to use to distance themselves from their more anti-intellectual siblings like Joel Osteen and, well, themselves whenever they aren’t reading Noll. Nevertheless if you’re an evangelical, this is one of the most accomodating, believes-in-you-to-do-better books on the list. The first sentence is “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Mark Noll later accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame (apparently only because they had more resources to hire more people etc, and so the center of the historical study of US Evangelicalism moved to Notre Dame).

Darren Dochuk From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. 2010. (link to buy new)

Click here for an interview with Dochuk on his work

Darren Dochuk was another who was hired by Notre Dame. This book emphasizes the way Southern California became home to a lot of conservative Christianity. I read it after all the others and I am from Southern California, so for that reason it was really helpful. Nevertheless, he hits a lot of the main points in the marriage between conservative politics and evangelical Christianity.

Matt Avery Sutton American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. 2014. (link to buy new)

Click here for a presentation Matt Sutton gave on this theme

Matt Avery Sutton is a professor at Washington State University, he wrote his PhD at UC Santa Barbara. To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive history of modern evangelicalism of the new generation. Sutton seems to bring a new energy, I sense that he grew up in the culture, though I haven’t confirmed that. Sutton emphasizes the way the new rapture doctrine of John Darby influenced the uneducated though very wealthy William Blackstone who wrote a book in 1878 called Jesus is Coming. He used his real estate fortune to send it out to a large mailing list. It is slightly contested by some recent conservatives, but these two represent a totally new way of seeing the rapture. It was carried into the dominant view due to the influence of the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye.

This book was the first to show me that the mailing-list-combined-with-a-fortune idea was very influential on Christianity in the US. After Blackstone did it, Union/76 Oil baron Lyman Stewart (unable to buy off Occidental College’s Bible department) took the scandal-ridden RA Torrey (he was preaching against medicine, and his daughter died due to lack of medical care) from the Moody Bible Institute, to start the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, or, Biola. From 1910–1915 he had Torrey compile essays to try to erase the historical and literary studies of the Bible which were leading people to be critical of what Frederick Douglass referred to as “Slaveholder Christianity.” After the civil war this version of Christianity was reborn as the Christianity of Gilded Age elite. These essays were then mailed free of charge from Stewart to 700,000 “Christian workers” all over the US, as well as some in China and Korea. The name of these essays was “The Fundamentals” and it created a movement called “Fundamentalism”. It was against basically everything that was cutting into the old order (Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche). If you have an aversion to those names, it is probably because someone who taught you was influenced by this mailout. Fundamentalism fell off of the main stage in 1925 after being embarrassed during the Scopes Trial, but wealthy businessmen noticed how powerful this “intellectual disaster” (Mark Noll’s words) could be, and it wasn’t gone forever.

The rest of the book follows how the fear of the end times was used throughout the 20th century.

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kevin Kruse. 2015. (link to buy new)

Click here for a great interview with Kruse on NPR

Kevin Kruse is a historian from Princeton University, he is also the most quick of these ten books to ruffle feathers, a frequent opponent of influential people who don’t know history on twitter. He takes the story beginning in the 1930s. He was looking for an origin of today’s religious right of the late 1970s, which he thought would be the 1950s, but he kept finding earlier and earlier threads. Eventually he settled on the wealthy business elite’s opposition to FDR’s New Deal program. James Fifield was the celebrity preacher predecessor to William Randolph Hearst and Cecil B. Demille’s discovery of a farmboy preacher from North Carolina, Billy Graham. When Graham started to have a bit of success in the 1940s, Hearst, who never was a Christian, never met Graham, just a very wealthy owner of a large group of newspapers sent a memo out to all his newspapers during Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade: “Puff Graham.”

Due to the national coverage he received, the Los Angeles revival went 5 weeks longer than anticipated. This catapulted him into meetings with Dwight Eisenhower, the candidate of the business elite who spearheaded an individualist transition out of the New Deal era. In order to oppose the anti-religious social movement of WW2 allies the Soviet Union, Eisenhower said “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.

He converted to Graham’s Presbyterianism while in office, the only president to convert in office. In 1954 he added “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance, and 1956 “In God We Trust” to all currency. This came alongside a new national myth that our nation was started by God-fearing Christians. (For more on that see Matthew Stewart’s “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic”).

From Eisenhower to Barack Obama, Billy Graham had an open invite to the White House. Billy in ill health, his son Franklin Graham used his father’s mantle for his thinly veiled campaigning for Donald Trump, no word yet on whether the Biden administration will continue this tradition.

Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. Tim Gloege. 2015. (link to buy new)

Gloege is the only one I couldn’t find an interview with! Click here for a written interview.

Tim Gloege did his PhD at Notre Dame, which was the basis for this book. This one was really a watershed moment for me, in particular the chapters where he connects the “Haymarket Affair” to the Moody Bible Institute.

For those who don’t know about the Haymarket Affair, I will give a short review: Cyrus J. McCormick Jr. was like a lot of wealthy factory owners in the 1880s. He took over a succesful company from his dad, and was trained in efficiency. The workers were getting better, machine elements were added, they no longer needed to work 10 hour days 6 days a week to produce the same amount. The workers started advocating for an 8 hour workday. The factory owners wanted to increase their profit by letting workers go. McCormick Jr. did just that. In 1886 he fired half of his father’s employees and dropped the pay of the remaining workers, telling them it was just business and trying to convince them they should be thankful he gave them a job at all. This didn’t sit well. McCormick Jr. hired private guards as well as police to keep his disenfranchised workers away from his property and the new workers he eventually had to hire. He had newspapers try to assassinate worker’s character, saying they were complaining, ungrateful, prone to violence, drunkards.

On May 4 1886 people staged a protest of the anti-worker policies. The police were called in to disperse the protest and someone threw a bomb resulting in the death of a police officer. The factory owners provided the police with a list of the most outspoken protesters and the top eight were arrested, seven of which were not even there at the protest. Four of these were scheduled to be hung immediately and four given lengthy prison sentences. One of the first four committed suicide in prison, as the story goes, while the other three were hung.

And this is where Moody Bible Institute comes in. Dwight Moody was an uneducated shoe salesman with the goal of making a million dollars. He began reading the Bible and decided it’s principles made him work harder and not be a complainer, ungrateful, prone to violence or a drunkard. He thought it made him more like the wealthy businessmen and he wanted to start a school for “Christian Workers.” After the Haymarket Affair Cyrus J. McCormick Jr. gave generously to start the Moody Bible Institute. From then on, when Moody spoke he placed behind him the wealthiest donors as an example of what God could do if you just followed their advice.

Years after the Haymarket affair, an investigation was done and the four still in prison were set free.

There’s more to Gloege’s book, but, that was the story that stopped me in my tracks.

Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. Adam Laats. 2018. (link to buy new)

Click here for a lecture from 2020 by Laats on an early 19th century education reformer.

Adam Laats was a middle school and high school teacher in Milwaukee Wisconsin for 10 years in addition to holding a PhD in history from University of Wisconsin at Madison. In this book he traces the history of fundamentalist education (remember Matt Sutton’s description of “The Fundamentals” from 1910–1915). He shows that over and over the goal of these schools was to protect students coming from conservative Christian families from information that would change their mind, and the cancel culture continues from the early 1900s until today. If you went to a private evangelical university, chances are it is discussed here. I am saddened that so many people remain ignorant of social and historical information and in their ignorance support things they would not be proud of.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Jemar Tisby. 2019. (link to buy new)

Click here for a very well done presentation by Tisby on this book.

Jemar Tisby did a BA at Notre Dame and an MDiv at Reformed Theological seminary. Like Noll, he considers himself an evangelical Christian and writes this to simply demonstrate to fellow evangelicals the unexamined bias they have against people of color.

This book is a little different than the rest in that it is a series of historical snapshots. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I was first drawn to it trying to find out a bit more history around the largest protestant denomination in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention. This group of churches was founded in 1845 when other Baptists would not sponsor slaveholding missionaries, sadly for the church in the US, Southern here, means pro-slavery, and unfortunately in many cases was the leadership not only unaware, but actively against social and historical awareness.

Conservative and especially white Christians often complain about the possibility of persecution, but African Americans in the US have almost always faced persecution, usually from their White counterparts. During slavery it was illegal for blacks to go to church. Lynching from white Christians was a regular feature in the post-slavery South, four girls were killed in a church bombing in 1963. Dylan Roof shot and killed people in a prayer meeting at a black church in 2015, this persecution is not brought up.

The most shocking bit of history I learned from this book was that George Whitfield, the friend of John Wesley and Puritan evangelist, was unsure how he would financially support his orphanages in Georgia. Until someone gave him some slaves and he rented them out, using the money they earned him to start an orphanage. He then bought more slaves and wrote the governors of Georgia to include slavery for all the blessings it could bring. Georgia did become a slave state. There are a lot of these stories continuing up until the present.

Jemar Tisby has even produced an Amazon Prime series on this book (Click here for episode 1 on youtube), going to places where the history of these events occurred, with compelling video documentation. He has numerous study guides and has said he will even skype/zoom into your book group. He is doing this in every manner possible, while people continue to ban him from churches. Tisby is incredibly kind, but will God allow this kind of blasphemy to stand?

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Kristin Kobes Du Mez. 2020 (link to buy new)

Click here for an interview with Du Mez on her book.

The most popular of all of these books, it was released in May 2020 and by the end of the year it was sold out on Amazon and in its third printing. Kristin Du Mez (Doo-May) grew up an evangelical in Iowa and has come to be a historian at Calvin University, a private evangelical university in Michigan.

She also writes in the Mark Noll tradition and goes through the history of evangelicalism with an eye to it’s elements of toxic masculinity in particular. She puts a light on the social and historical aspects of James Dobson, Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias and on and on. It’s not pretty and demonstrates again and again that we need to look at history and listen to people outcast by these powerful figures in order to avoid being part of their towers of babel.

A couple others that I didn’t get to:

Kathy Baldock’s Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community. 2014 (link to buy new)

Click here for Baldock’s youtube videos.

Really this is a whole history of sexuality in the modern west. Before the late 19th century sex was mostly viewed as powerful people (usually men) did to less powerful people (women, but also men) whatever they wanted. Sex was bad if you upset the powerful people, best case scenario you were like Augustine and avoided any non-procreative sex. Homosexuality became a concept in the late 19th century, when it, alongside any non-procreative sex (even by husband and wife) was looked down upon.

Modernity meant people were looking for the best version and since procreative sex was the goal, heterosexual sex was considered the highest goal (different from Plato, by the way, look into the Symposium). Around the 1920s the hypothesis became that people who didn’t want heterosexual relations, were broken. Yet studies were being done in Germany and in particular in Anti-Nazi, Communist leaning Berlin to prove they may not actually be broken, but the second World War meant the Nazis in their fervor to destroy anything that wasn’t strong and productive in their mind, completely destroyed the more socialist studies, putting LGBTQ people into concentration camps just like communists, trade unionists, Jews and disabled people.

The view of people being broken was read into Bible translations, particularly egregiously by the 1946 revision of the RSV Bible when they combined two greek words in a list in 1 Corinthians about who would not inherit the kingdom into one. The two words were formerly “weak-minded” and the other “boy molester”, they combined these into homosexual, the first time that word was in the Bible. (Click here for the trailer of a documentary being made about this discovery Baldock and her friends made).

Communists were some of the few people that were willing to entertain the idea that LGBTQ people might not be broken and so in the anti-communism of the Cold War US, LGBTQ people were lumped in, and more nuanced, historical readings against exploitative sex, condemned by the Bible, were simplified to being Anti-LGBTQ.

In the mid 70s the psychological community changed, but the church was, again, on the side of the powerful in the culture wars and to this day often refuses to repent for their 70 or so years of outspokenness against LGBTQ people.

Baldock has done extensive work and her youtube videos (Click here) are so worth spending time with.

Frances Fitzgerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. 2017. (link to buy new)

Also good, I listened to it the same time I read Matt Sutton, and Sutton’s hit me harder. Fitzgerald is a journalist who got famous for her study of the Vietnam War, and she has followed the politics of conservative Christianity in the US for some time.

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Taylor Storey is a Cultural Studies MA Student at Universität Potsdam in Germany. He splits time between Germany and the Central Coast of California, where he grew up.

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