Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.
“She put others before herself,” her husband, Dan Evans, said in an email on Saturday. “She shared her platform. She always remembered how others had helped her. She enjoyed seeing other people in contexts where they thrived. She didn’t hold grudges, would forget as well as forgive. She had little time for pettiness and a big heart for people. And these are all things I wish I had told her more while I still had the privilege to keep her company.”
Evans was a forceful and winsome public voice for progressive evangelicalism, first as a blogger and later as an author and sought-after speaker. She started her eponymous site more than a decade ago, and in her years of writing she confronted every controversial issue in American evangelical culture. She wrote about biblical literalism, racism, abortion, evolution, theology, marriage, patriarchy, women in leadership, and evangelical support for Donald Trump. She advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church and analyzed her own complicity in racial bias after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Washington Post once called her “the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism.”
Evans’ political and cultural polemics attracted the most attention. But she also wrote passionately about her own evolving faith, her prayer life, her wrestling with doubt, and her love for the church. “Anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I have, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend,” she wrote in her most recent book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
Evans announced in 2014 that she was leaving evangelicalism, exhausted by “wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars.” She began attending an Episcopal church. But she remained widely read within evangelical circles and among Christians and others who had left evangelicalism but still felt connected to it in some way. Evans was famous enough among Christians that many referred to her online simply as “RHE.” When her friends and colleagues, the writers Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, announced an online prayer vigil for her on April 19, the hashtag #PrayforRHE became a trending topic on Twitter.
High-profile female writers and speakers in American evangelicalism have traditionally focused on spiritual questions and shied away from controversy and confrontation. But Evans often used her platform to challenge male pastors and leaders. Over the years, she sparred about theology, culture, and politics with prominent Christian men including Russell Moore, John Piper, Rod Dreher, and Mark Driscoll. (Many of them have expressed their prayers for her in recent weeks, after Evans shared the news of her illness.)
Evans reacted righteously to injustice wherever she saw it: She published a series on her blog about abuse in the church in 2013, years before many evangelical institutions began to seriously confront the problem. But her writing was also warm and funny. For her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she spent a year following the Bible’s instructions for women literally, gamely camping out in her yard in obedience to Levitical instructions for menstruating women. “She put so much of herself into her books,” her husband said. “I tell people: If you want to know Rachel, read her work.” She was the author of four books, and the co-founder of two major conferences aimed at progressive Christians, Why Christian and Evolving Faith.
Evans was born in Alabama in 1981 and moved to Dayton, Tennessee, as a teenager. She graduated from Bryan College, a small Christian institution there named for William Jennings Bryan, who had prosecuted the Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton in 1925. Evans was an enthusiastic and devout believer from the start, steeped in the American conservative evangelicalism of the 1980s and ’90s; as a teenager, she was quoted in Christianity Today praising her high school’s federally funded abstinence program. (As an adult, she became a vocal critic of “shame-based purity culture.”) She married her college boyfriend, Dan, and worked as a journalist and humor columnist before her first book was published in 2010. The couple has two young children: a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month.
Evans’ last blog post appeared online on March 6, Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. It is a day of repentance and solemnity that marks the beginning of Lent, which leads up to the joyful Easter celebration of resurrection. She wrote:
It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or your doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Death is a part of life.
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.
More on Rachel Held Evans
“A Year of Biblical Womanhood: An Evangelical Blogger Follows the Bible’s Instructions for Women”
“An Evangelical Writer Spent a Year Living Biblically. Now a Major Christian Bookseller Won’t Carry Her Book.”
“With the Religious Right in Turmoil Over Trump, Can Democrats Become the Party of God?”