Obituaries

Rachel Held Evans, a voice of a congregation of ostracized Christians, dies at 37

Ms. Evans sought to create a community among church “refugees,” including women who wanted to be ministers, gay Christians, and those who questioned biblical tenets.
DANIEL EVANS
Ms. Evans sought to create a community among church “refugees,” including women who wanted to be ministers, gay Christians, and those who questioned biblical tenets.

NEW YORK — Rachel Held Evans, a best-selling author who challenged conservative Christianity and gave voice to a generation of wandering evangelicals wrestling with their faith, died Saturday at a hospital in Nashville. She was 37.

Her husband, Daniel Evans, said in a statement on her website that she had died from extensive brain swelling. During treatment for an infection last month, Ms. Evans began experiencing brain seizures and had been placed in a medically induced coma.

“I keep hoping it’s a nightmare from which I’ll awake,” Daniel Evans said. “Rachel’s presence in this world was a gift to us all and her work will long survive her.”

Advertisement

An Episcopalian, Ms. Evans left the evangelical church in 2014, she said, because she was done trying to end the church’s culture wars and wanted to focus instead on building a community among the church’s “refugees”: women who wanted to become ministers, gay Christians, and “those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Ms. Evans’s spiritual journey and unique writing voice fostered a community of believers who yearned to seek God and challenge conservative Christian groups that they thought were often exclusionary.

Her congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church, a gathering place for thousands to question, find safety in their doubts, and learn to believe in new ways.

Her work became the hub for a diaspora. She brought together once-disparate progressive, post-evangelical groups and hosted conferences to try to include nonwhite and sexual minorities, many of whom felt ostracized by the churches of their youth.

She wrote four popular books, which wrestled with evangelicalism and the patriarchy of her conservative Christian upbringing and documented her transition to a mainline Christian identity, which moved away from biblical literalism and to affirmation of LGBT people.

Advertisement

Her upcoming conference, called Evolving Faith, to be held in Denver in October, describes itself as “a gathering for wanderers, wonderers and spiritual refugees to help you discover . . . You are not alone.”

Her close friends Sarah Bessey and Jeffrey Chu, with whom she organized the event, recalled how she created space, and hope, for evangelicals questioning the institutions of their faith.

“She didn’t care at all about fame, except for how it enabled her to proclaim a more just and expansive vision of God’s love, to encourage others, and to amplify voices that are typically marginalized in the church and in the world,” Chu wrote in an e-mail.

“One thing about her that I have heard over and over in these days is how relentlessly she championed the voices and experiences of others, especially those whose voices were ignored or marginalized in the church,” Bessey said in an e-mail.

Ms. Evans fearlessly challenged traditional authority structures, which were often conservative and male. She would spar with evangelical men on Twitter, brazenly and publicly challenging their views of everything from human sexuality to politics to biblical inerrancy.

Advertisement

One of those men, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was her theological opposite in almost every way, but she always treated him with kindness and with humor.

“I was on the other side of her Twitter indignation many times, but I respected her because she was never a phony,” Moore said. “Even in her dissent, she made all of us think and helped those of us who are theological conservatives to be better because of the way she would challenge us.”

Her voice was accessible, raw, and piercing, and it interrupted what was more commonly heard in evangelical circles. And it drew thousands who found in her a respite, and a friend.

“I will sow the seed I have received. Thank you @rachelheldevans,” Alexandria Beightol, a young evangelical, wrote on Twitter. “I’m still a Christian thanks to you. Your legacy includes the thousands of young girls who know God doesn’t hate them.”

Rachel Grace Held was born on June 8, 1981, in Alabama to Peter and Robin Held.

When she was 14, the family moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Dayton, Tenn., where her father took an administrative job at Bryan College.

In 2003, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bryan College, which was founded in honor of William Jennings Bryan “to teach truth from a biblical perspective.” The college was chartered after the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, during which Bryan defended a state law barring the teaching of evolution.

The same year she graduated, she married her college boyfriend, Daniel Evans. She is also survived by their two children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 in a couple weeks.

After moving to Chattanooga, where she worked as an intern for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, she returned to Dayton in 2004 and joined The Herald-News. In 2007, she won an award from the Tennessee Press Association for the best personal humor column.

Ms. Evans started a blog and in 2010 published her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town,” the title a reference to the Scopes case. It was republished in 2014 under the title “Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.”

The book traced her own evolution from religious certainty, like Bryan’s, to a faith that left room for doubt.

This obituary has been updated to reflect that Ms. Evans left the evangelical church.