College of Liberal Arts

The Chronicle

A Newsletter of Research & Creative Activity, Scholarship, Teaching, & Service  |  Spring 2011
Photo: Matthew Sutton

Matthew Sutton

Professor Receives NEH Fellowship to Write History of American Evangelicals

By Gail Siegel, College of Liberal Arts

When scholars set out to write history, some aim to produce specialist discussions that contribute to the academic record. But with his forthcoming book on fundamentalist culture in the United States, Matthew Avery Sutton hopes also to write a vivid account that will capture the imagination of the American public.

Sutton, an associate professor of history, was recently awarded a $50,400 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete his book, tentatively titled American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse.

"One of my goals and one of my priorities is to make my work accessible to the general public and show them why history matters," said Sutton. "I think of my ideal audience as my parents."

While Sutton believes history can have broad appeal, his book is grounded in solid research and promises to be the most comprehensive history of American evangelicalism. It is scheduled for publication by Harvard University Press in late 2012.

Research meets storytelling

Over the past few summers, Sutton's research has led him to archives across America, from small Bible colleges like Bob Jones University to major national repositories including the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library, where he has spent countless hours gathering materials for the project.

Of the enormous undertaking, Sutton said, "I'm looking at American Christian fundamentalists and their belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, the rise of the Antichrist, and the way that affects how they relate to the world around them across the 20th century."

Sutton said his research is driven by his fascination with evangelicals' faith in an imminent apocalypse and his desire to understand the place of evangelicalism in American history. He will spend the coming year crafting the narrative by telling the stories of people who were most significant to the movement's development.

"Storytelling is certainly something I place a high priority on," said Sutton. "I look for fun characters, fun stories, quirky people. They illustrate points and are interesting to readers."

Photo: John Roach Straton and J. Frank Norris

John Roach Straton and J. Frank Norris / Source: Library of Congress

Key figures

Some notable protagonists include Mark Matthews, a prominent Seattle minister during the 1920s and a close friend and advisor to Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, and J. Frank Norris, aka the "Texas Tornado," a flamboyant Baptist preacher who, in a notorious national trial, was acquitted of first-degree murder for shooting an unarmed man on the grounds of self-defense.

One of Sutton's favorites, John Roach Straton, was a 1930s Manhattan minister whose public harangues on the evils of theater and liquor trafficking netted him scores of letters from citizens, some angry responses against his tirades and others divulging the secret locations of local speakeasies and houses of ill repute.

Previous work

Sutton's first book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007), won the publisher's Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize, awarded annually to the outstanding manuscript of a first-time author in any discipline. The book also served as the basis for the documentary "Sister Aimee," part of the "American Experience" series on PBS.

Sutton earned his doctoral degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has been featured on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," among many other news shows. He has published articles in Church History, Journal of Policy History, and Public Historian, and he is working on a short textbook and documentary reader entitled "Jerry Falwell and the Origins of the Religious Right" (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013). He has received research fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Louisville Institute.

NEH fellowships support individuals pursuing advanced research of value to humanities scholars and/or general audiences.

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