Dayton, Tenn., author Rachel Held Evans, whose four books challenged the conservative teachings of her evangelical childhood and urged Christians to make their churches more compassionate and more inclusive, died on Saturday after a short illness. She was 37.
Evans moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Dayton when she was 14 and lived in the area for the rest of her life. She studied English at Bryan College, a conservative Christian institution founded in Dayton the year after the famous Scopes “monkey trial” — the school is named for William Jennings Bryan, who in the trial defended a Tennessee law which forbade the teaching of evolution. The year she graduated, Evans married her college sweetheart and served as an intern at the Chattanooga Times Free Press before going to work for The Herald-News in Dayton, eventually becoming the newspaper’s humor columnist.
In 2007 she started a blog, quickly earning a national reputation as a Christian writer who was willing to express both her convictions and her doubts, in the process garnering a massive online following among young conservative and liberal Christians alike. Her first book, 2010’s Evolving in Monkey Town, “traced her own evolution from religious certainty, like Bryan’s, to a faith that left room for doubt,” an obituary in The New York Times notes.
Writing about Evolving in Monkey Town, Chapter 16’s Paul V. Griffith explains: “After toeing the fundamentalist line for a goodly portion of her time at Bryan, Evans came to question the narrow Biblical worldview that drove academic life at the small Christian school. When she turned her newly acquired critical skills (learned during a Christian apologetics class) on her own faith, she found it every bit as fraught with paradox and contradiction as the humanistic and foreign belief systems she was being taught to refute.”
Three other books followed in quick succession: the New York Times bestseller A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), Searching for Sunday (2015), and Inspired (2018). Each touched in some way on Evans’ struggle to reconcile the tenets of evangelical Christianity with the world she actually lived in. “In many ways, the Bible of my youth was set up to fail,” she wrote last year in Inspired. “While American evangelicalism instilled in me a healthy love and respect for Scripture, many of its institutions taught me to expect something from the Bible it was never intended to deliver — namely, an internally consistent and self-evident worldview that provides clear, universal answers to all of life’s questions.”
Even as Evans was writing books and beginning a family, she was also becoming a sought-after public speaker and an influential voice for a more progressive Christianity. She served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, but her true arena was social media, where her following numbered in the hundreds of thousands. She fearlessly engaged angry conservatives on subjects like biblical interpretation, LGBTQ rights, leadership roles for women, and racial reconciliation. Her death has inspired an outpouring of grief from Christians on Twitter, especially from those who had felt ostracized from their own faith before they encountered Evans’ welcoming vision.
On April 14, Evans tweeted that she was being treated for the flu and an infection and had been hospitalized because of “a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics.” After two weeks in a medically induced coma to prevent seizures, she suffered severe brain swelling and died on May 4. Obituaries in national publications like The New Yorker, NPR, The Washington Post, Religion News Service, People, CNN, The Huffington Post, CBS News, Slate, Fox News, The Atlantic, and Today immediately noted her influence and mourned her loss.
“Death is a part of life,” Evans wrote in “Lent for the Lamenting,” her final blog post. “My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.”
Rachel Held Evans is survived by her husband, Dan, and two children: an infant daughter and a 3-year-old son.
Margaret Renkl is the editor of Chapter 16.