Originally posted February 13, 2009.
You can read this entire series, for free, via the convenient Left Behind Index. The ebook collection The Anti-Christ Handbook: Volume 1, is available on Amazon for just $2.99. They’re not going to stop with immigrants. Volume 2 of The Anti-Christ Handbook, completing all the posts on the first Left Behind book, is also now available. Volume 3 is coming soon.
Shortly after starting to work our way through the first book in the Left Behind series, we noted that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins seemed to be “Recycling Sydney Watson.”
Writing in Books & Culture, Crawford Gribben noted L&J’s many instances of flagrant borrowing from Watson’s story, concluding that: “At best the novels are deeply intertextual; at worst, it might even be claimed, elements of their fictions are explicitly derivative.” (I think “deeply intertextual” would be a wonderful phrase to hide behind for any college student caught plagiarizing.)
What I want to highlight here are the dates of publication of Watson’s trilogy. These apocalyptic works were produced before the American involvement in World War I,* before the fundamentalist/modernist chasm erupted in the 1920s, and before Einstein and Heisenberg and the rest pulled the rug out from under modernity.
Watson was thus ahead of his time. The gloomy, fatalistic pessimism of Darby’s premillennial dispensationalism was still more of a fringe phenomenon, the province of Seventh Day Adventists, but not yet of most American evangelicals. Cyrus Scofield had completed the first version of his PMD Reference Bible, but the influential final version wouldn’t appear until after Watson’s trilogy, in 1917.
When Sydney Watson was publishing his fictional prophecies of doom and gloom, the prevailing spirit in American Christianity — including among evangelicals — was an optimistic faith in inevitable progress. Glory, glory, hallelujah, God’s truth is marching on. The outlook was millennial.** Society was improving, and the idea was that it would continue to improve to a state of perfection. Slavery had been abolished and soon other social ills — the drinking of alcohol, for example — would be abolished too. Whether or not we succeeded in electing William Jennings Bryan, we were destined, manifestly, to continue the process that Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch in his 1912 book called Christianizing the Social Order. Rauschenbusch today might be thought of as more of a “mainline Protestant” than an “evangelical,” but those dividing lines had not yet been drawn when he and Watson were writing. His theology drew upon the utopian outlook described in Charles Sheldon’s runaway best-seller In His Steps — the book that gave us the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”
Sheldon was unquestionably evangelical, but he was also, at the very least, sympathetic to the idea of what was then called “Christian socialism,” which tells you all you really need to know about the zeitgeist of American evangelicalism at the dawn of the 20th century. In His Steps was a juggernaut of a best-seller for years following its publication in 1896 (in part due to the failure of Sheldon’s original publisher to secure the copyright). It was a publishing phenomenon along the lines of Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code or, yes, the Left Behind series. Watson’s trilogy, on the other hand, proved to be influential — creating the template copied by scores of later writers — but was nowhere near as widely read as Sheldon’s book.
I have not read Sydney Watson’s books, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they were at least as well-written and engaging as L&J’s later, derivative series (ahem). So why, then, are L&J gazillionaires at the helm of a publishing empire while Watson’s books are obscure and out of print?
Two reasons, I think. Timing and marketing.
Watson was not just ahead of his time, but against it. He was peddling pessimism before it was all the rage. And he had the misfortune of publishing his series before the success of Scofield’s 1917 Reference Bible prepared the soil.
A similar misfortune befell the publication of Olive Ruth Brown Pattison’s apocalyptic thriller published by Fleming H. Revell/Spire Books. The paperback edition, as you’ve already seen from the picture above, was called Left Behind. (The hardcover edition was originally published, a few months earlier, as The Undelivered.)
Yep, same title. Same premise. Very similar End Times check list. But this book barely registered when it was published in 1969. Apart from the echo of its title in the current blockbuster series, O.R.B. Pattison’s book left little trace on the evangelical subculture. I’d never even heard of this book’s existence until Atrios sent me a copy (thank you again, kind sir) and I spent a chunk of my childhood helping my mother create card catalogs for the libraries of both a PMD church and private school.
I can’t really say that Pattison’s Left Behind is a good book, but it is far more engaging and better written than the World’s Worst Books are. (That sets the bar very low, but it clears it.) Here, for example, is how Pattison’s story begins:
The typically muggy heat of Washington’s midsummer had penetrated the basement garage, its oppressiveness exaggerated by contrast with the air-conditioned coolness of the government offices above. Evans peeled off his coat and tossed it atop his attache case before sliding behind the wheel of his two-seater Electro Town Car. With the windows rolled down, he edged into the line of similar small cars heading toward the exit ramp, wishing for the hundredth time that someone would devise a way to power the new battery driven cars for air conditioning. Beyond the jockeying congestion of Constitution Avenue, the traffic inched across Arlington bridge, accelerating slightly as it swept into the low rolling hills of Virginia. Heat mirages shimmered from the sun-baked paving.
Evans scrubbed his handkerchief over his forehead and blond brush-cut hair, irritably. Only Wednesday, he thought. Wednesday: two more days to go before the weekend. …
Ken Evans is already far more appealing than either Rayford Steele or Buck Williams ever manages to be. And unlike L&J — who have Manhattan stretching into central Connecticut while cruise ships sail in the Jordan River — she presents a recognizable geography of Washington and its suburbs. Pattison’s hints of sci-fi detail for her not-so-distant-future setting all seem, like that Electro Town Car, a bit quaintly dated, but not too bad for 1969.