Top Young Historians: 95 – Matthew Avery Sutton


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

95: Matthew Avery Sutton, 11-17-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History at College of Liberal Arts, Washington State University, 2008-
Area of Research: 20th century United States history, cultural history, and religious history.
Education: PhD, Department of History University of California, Santa Barbara, 2005
Major Publications: Sutton is the author Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007), Matthew Avery Sutton JPGwon the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press,  awarded annually to the best book in any discipline by a first-time author. The book also served as the basis for the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Sister Aimee, part of PBS’s American Experience series.
Sutton’s current book project, tentatively entitled American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse, Harvard University Press (forthcoming, 2011) examines the relationships among American evangelicalism, apocalyptic thought, and political activism during times of national crisis and war.
Sutton is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, articles and editorials, and reviews including among others: “Crashing into Public History with Aimee Semple McPherson,” The Public Historian 29:4 (Fall 2007): 35-44; “Clutching to ‘Christian’ America: Aimee Semple McPherson, the Great Depression, and the Origins of Pentecostal Political Activism.” Journal of Policy History 17:3 (Summer 2005): 308-338; “‘Between the Refrigerator and the Wildfire’: Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostalism, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.” Church History 72:1 (March 2003): 159-188.
Awards: Sutton is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Young Scholars in American Religion Program Participant, 2007-09;
New Investigator Research Excellence Award (Oakland University), 2008;
Oakland University Faculty Research Fellowship, 2008;
Historical Society of Southern California/Haynes Research Grant, 2006;
Oakland University Faculty Research Fellowship, 2006;
Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2004-05;
Louisville Institute Dissertation Fellowship (declined), 2004-05;
University of California’s President’s Dissertation Fellowship (declined), 2004-05;
Richard Mayberry Award, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara, 2005;
Western Historical Association’s Conference Scholarship 2004;
UC Santa Barbara Humanities Research Assistantship Fellowship, 2003-04;
Walter H. Capps Center Fellowship, Department of Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara, 2003-04;
Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship, Lilly Library, University of Indiana, 2003;
History Associates Fellowship, 2003;
UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate and UCSB Foundation Distinguished Teaching Assistant Award, 2002-03;
UC Santa Barbara Humanities/Social Sciences Research Grant, 2002;
UC Santa Barbara Graduate Division Summer Dissertation Proposal Fellowship, 2002;
William H. Ellison Prize for “Re-envisioning Evangelicalism Through Pentecostal Eyes.” Best graduate student paper in any field, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara, 2001.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor of History, Oakland University, 2005-2008; Instructor, US Cultural History, UC Santa Barbara, 2005; Instructor, Religious Studies, Westmont College, 2004.
Sutton has been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition among many other news shows. He has published articles in Church History, the Journal of Policy History, and the Public Historian, and he writes for the History News Network and the Christian Century.

Personal Anecdote

I remember as an undergraduate watching teachers ruffle through their notes in the middle of a lecture, looking totally perplexed as they hunted for the one page that was eluding them. And I remember others who would check every pocket-pants, shirt, coat, and bag-looking for that lost piece of chalk, or the one white-board marker that still had some ink left. I vowed then and there that I would never become one of them-I would never be an absent minded professor. Well, I have become one. At no time was this clearer than one day last semester. Although I did not teach that day, I had a series of meetings with students. I thought everything had gone fine-until I got home that night and discovered that my polo shirt had been on inside-out the entire day. Yep, the tag was sticking out from the back of my neck, my buttons were on the inside, and the seams ran along the outside of the shirt. I hoped that students might think that I was a trend-setter, but I know what they really thought. There is Sutton-the absent-minded professor. Unfortunately, I suspect my absent-mindedness is only going to get worse. Fight it as I may, I guess I am going to have to embrace the label. I suppose I am in good company.

My research explores the intersections among religion, politics, and American culture. Despite the fact that “religion and politics” are the two things that you are not supposed to discuss at the dinner table, I can’t help myself. I grew up in Southern California’s evangelical subculture and I had a lot of family connections to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (the denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson). I was vaguely aware of who McPherson was, and as I began studying American religion during my undergraduate years I became increasingly curious about her role in shaping modern American evangelicalism. When I started applying to graduate schools, I needed a good dissertation topic and I realized that McPherson was a perfect vehicle through which to explore gender, mass media, popular culture, and politics in the interwar years. The result was my first book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007).

My current research explores the connections among evangelicals’ social/political activism and their belief in the nearness of the Apocalypse-especially in the context of national crises and war. I find few things more fun than thinking about people who predict the end of the world; my only fear is that one of these days, one of them might be right!


By Matthew Avery Sutton

  • From the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Rock to Christian Coalition canvassers working for George W. Bush, Americans have long sought to integrate faith with politics. Few have been as successful as Hollywood evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

    Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America JPGDuring the years between the two world wars, McPherson was the most flamboyant and controversial minister in the United States. She built an enormously successful and innovative megachurch, established a mass media empire, and produced spellbinding theatrical sermons that rivaled Tinseltown’s spectacular shows. As McPherson’s power grew, she moved beyond religion into the realm of politics, launching a national crusade to fight the teaching of evolution in the schools, defend Prohibition, and resurrect what she believed was the United States’ Christian heritage. Convinced that the antichrist was working to destroy the nation’s Protestant foundations, she and her allies saw themselves as a besieged minority called by God to join the “old time religion” to American patriotism…..On one level this is the story of the rise, fall and redemption of one of the most fascinating characters in American history, Aimee Semple McPherson. But it is much more than that. It is also the story of how Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism that had its roots in McPherson’s innovations and concerns, one that flourished to this day. Indeed, the tensions and controversies that characterized McPherson’s world have come to define faith and politics in the twentieth-first-century United States. — Matthew Sutton in “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America”

About Matthew Avery Sutton

  • This biography of McPherson explores how the evangelist combined old-time religion with newfangled technology to build a multimedia soul-saving juggernaut in 1920s Los Angeles…A thorough and absorbing portrait of a wholly original figure. — The Atlantic reviewing “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America”
  • [Sutton] gives an account of McPherson’s life within the cultural currents of her time. He argues that she had an almost preternatural ability to tap her audience’s social fears–about immigration, for instance, or the changing role of women–and offer reassurance in the form of simple spiritual storytelling…As Mr. Sutton’s fine book shows, she proved to be an emblem of things to come. — Christine Rosen, Wall Street Journal
  • Lively and diligently researched. — Caleb Crain, New York Review of Books
  • In the page-turning book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, Matthew Avery Sutton makes a persuasive case that the Canadian evangelist was responsible for rescuing conservative Protestantism from obscurity while creating the political model for today’s powerful Religious Right. She promoted the now- widely held conviction that Jesus Christ and the ‘American way of life’ are synonymous. Other books have been written about McPherson, but Sutton’s goes furthest in making the important argument that the Canadian evangelist was the most influential model for the merging of conservative Christian identity and American patriotism…At the time of the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ over the teaching of evolution, McPherson organized a giant parade and theatrical stage play at her baroque Angelus Temple that portrayed what she called the ‘hanging and burial of monkey teachers.’ Eighty years later, McPherson’s brand of evangelical sensationalism is again spiking up the issue of whether to teach evolution in U.S. public schools, while in most other industrialized countries the dispute barely registers…Sutton’s book deserves special praise for its socio-political analysis–for outlining Sister Aimee’s pivotal role in giving birth to today’s politicized evangelical Christianity. — Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun
  • Decades before televangelists like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker started mixing show business and conservative Christianity, there was Aimee Semple McPherson…An impressive new biography. — Don Lattin, San Francisco Chronicle
  • Sutton helps readers see in McPherson more than one paradoxical woman: her Foursquare Gospel helped catalyze a fundamental cultural realignment that brought Pentecostals and Evangelicals into the American mainstream, transforming American politics in ways that continue to write today’s headlines. A nuanced portrait of an entire movement. — Bryce Christensen, Booklist
  • Matthew Avery Sutton has done such a thorough and engaging job with Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. — John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, Washington Times
  • [A] delightful biography of the first American woman to become a celebrity-preacher. — David Crumm, Detroit Free Press
  • Matthew Avery Sutton knows how to spin a yarn. His new biography of the Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson beautifully evokes the allure of this early-twentieth-century charismatic revivalist, and manages as well to capture the boosterism and bravado of Los Angeles in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. One can easily understand why the Public Broadcasting Service chose this book as the basis for an episode of the American Experience. Sutton’s tale has all the pathos of a soap opera, while speaking at the same time to central issues of American cultural life, including gender, celebrity, sexuality, and the volatile mix of religion and politics. When Sutton harnesses his gift for storytelling to the task of critical analysis, the book is a model of what narrative history can be at its best. — Matthew S. Hedstrom, Politics and Religion
  • An impressive work…Sutton’s account of Aimee’s search for companionship and the debilitating toll her “kidnapping” took on her mentally as well as physically (in 1926, she disappeared for 36 days, then concocted a bizarre tale of kidnapping that led to a lengthy trial, the equivalent in its day of the O.J. Simpson trial) is the most persuasive portrayal of this episode to date; it also sheds light on the continuing struggles of Pentecostal women called to ministry in a man’s world…I highly recommend it, not just because it tells a good story-though it certainly does that-but also because its insights into the Pentecostal cult of personality are all too relevant today. — Arlene M. Sanchez Walsh, Books & Culture
  • [Sutton] reminds us that Aimee Semple McPherson ‘exemplified evangelicalism’s appeal to millions of Americans’ and suggests that it is time to re-examine her life and legacy. — Bryan F. LeBeau, Kansas City Star
  • In a clear and frightening way [Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America] both locates her origins in what could be called America’s mainstream fringe and her influence on today’s Christian right, with its political manipulating and media empires. — George Fetherling, Seven Oaks
  • [A] gripping new biography of Aimee Semple McPherson…Sutton has focused on McPherson’s substantive legacy– a politically powerful religious commitment shared by millions of Americans–rather than the legend of the self- proclaimed salvation-bearing empire-builder. Many readers will find themselves giving new thought to the potent and disturbing policy-shaping force that today’s Christian Right embodies. — Peter Skinner, ForeWord
  • Although it is hard to imagine in this era, the dominant view among religious Christians in the early part of the 20th century was that mixing the realms of Christ and Caesar was unholy business. McPherson smashed that taboo, and turned evangelical Protestantism into a fighting faith. — Jonathan Kay, National Post
  • [Sutton’s] delightful biography of the first American woman to become a celebrity preacher makes us want to enroll in one of his classes — Ventura County Star
  • Sutton’s study, part biography and part cultural history, attempts to explain the long 20th-century run of traditionalist Protestantism on the political stage. It is, therefore, an important book. — Anne Blue Wills, Christian Century
  • Sutton’s engaging work also makes important contributions by linking McPherson’s adept use of publicity and celebrity status, social conservatism, and American patriotism to the modern evangelical vision of a more Christian nation. — W. B. Bedford, Choice
  • [Sutton] offers progressive Christians a must-read study of this important but enigmatic figure in American religious history. If we wish to understand the use of celebrity and technology by religious conservatives, not only to spread the gospel but to influence politics as well, we must look to its beginnings in the ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson. — Rev. Robert Cornwall, Progressive Christian
  • Matthew Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson may be the best single book yet published on this icon of early twentieth-century American religion and culture. Beautifully paced and superbly researched, the book weaves McPherson’s inherently fascinating and ultimately tragic career into larger stories about California, pentecostalism, and emerging popular culture. Empathetic, critical, and insightful simultaneously, Sutton has produced a compellingly narrated book about one of modern America’s most magnetic women. — Jon Butler, author of “Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776”
  • At long last, a biographical exploration of Aimee Semple McPherson that steers clear of stereotype, caricature, and condescension. Matthew Sutton deftly addresses Sister Aimee’s fame and her legacy in his fine biography, but he does so with care and attention to her humanity as well. — William Deverell, University of Southern California
  • Aimee Semple McPherson passionately embraced her role as a religious celebrity in an increasingly mass media- oriented age and steadfastly refused to be constrained by traditional notions of gender or sexuality. Americans of the 1920s and 1930s were fascinated by her, and readers today will feel the same way, thanks to Matthew Avery Sutton’s timely and absorbing biography. — Susan Ware, editor of Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century
  • Not content to see Aimee Semple McPherson–“Sister”–simply as a woman evangelist, or even as a religious icon, Matthew Sutton places her career in a wide range of contexts, including gender, media, Southern California popular culture, and the muscular expansion of American evangelicalism. This is terrific history, reflecting meticulous research, persuasive argumentation, and a writing style as vibrant as the story it tells. — Grant Wacker, author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture
  • “This was BY FAR my favorite class this semester!….
    He’s a very good teacher. He knows a lot about what he’s teaching….
    LOVED this professor…he is really passionate about what he teaches especially his topic of choice, Mcpherson…
    He’s amazing. I absolutely loved his class. He made a subject that I care very little about, into something so intersting. I was always excited to got to his class….
    One of the best profs in any department at OU. Funny, interesting, fair, smart, caring–not too many profs have ALL of those qualities!….
    Professor Sutton is by far the most devoted teacher I have had thus far….
    I loved prof. Sutton. He’s a good guy who knows his stuff….
    Professor Sutton is incredibly passionate about the subject he teaches!….
    excellent professor. Clearly, his forte is history as he has abounding knowledge and passion for this subject area; as a history major, I enjoyed the lectures and multimedia aspects and found his method of visual and auditory stimulators to be the perfect method of teaching to all different types of people, which cannot be said for many profs!….
    Professor Sutton is young and energetic. His class is very interesting. He made me enjoy history…. I enjoyed this class and this professor. History is definitely his thing and he is very passionate and enthusiastic about the subject!….
    I never liked history before this class. He made learning American history fun and interesting he breaks up the class with documentaries, films, class discussion, reading, and lectures….
    Yeah, he is a great teacher, He is young, fun, and very multimedia, makes the new deal exciting, I would definitely recommend him to anyone, really appreciates students, very down to earth. — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 12:54 AM

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