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How progressive Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans changed everything

She broke ground for women in the church — even ones who didn’t agree with her.

Rachel Held Evans died on May 4, 2019, at age 37.
Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Held Evans ruled a corner of the Christian internet for the past decade, where she challenged the evangelical faith of her childhood, advocating for women and LGBTQ rights in the church and debating big questions around theology, gender, sexuality, and science. She wrote four best-selling books and amassed more than 160,000 followers on Twitter.

Evans died Saturday at age 37, following more than two weeks in a medically induced coma due to an infection. During that time, the tweets poured in — first a prayer chain tagged #PrayforRHE, which trended nationwide on Good Friday last month, and then a stream of condolences and tributes.

Her well-wishers ranged from conservative evangelical leaders who openly disagreed with her stances as well as ones so theologically liberal that they disagreed with the notion of prayer. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in American Christianity eliciting such a broad response.

This outpouring of support reflects the exceptional place Evans held as one of the most popular yet polarizing Christian figures in the internet era. Another hashtag, #BecauseofRHE, offers glimpses at her legacy — and how she shaped online discussion of faith, especially for women, and paved the way for a generation of fellow writers, speakers, and leaders to build a following online.

“An accidental feminist”

Evans hit it big in Christian circles during the blogging heyday that took off more than a decade ago. Between the rise of the mommy bloggers and the Instagram influencers taking over our feeds today, her eponymous site, RachelHeldEvans.com, launched in 2007, part of a genre of early evangelical women bloggers who gathered online for deeper discussions of their faith.

“I am an accidental feminist, for my liberation did not come from Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, but from Mary and Martha, Junia and Priscilla, Phoebe and Tabitha,” she wrote in 2012. “It came from the marvelous and radical recognition that if the gospel is good news for them, then maybe it is good news for me too … and that maybe that boy in my youth group was wrong.”

Evans and fellow Christian women engaged in rigorous theological debates once assumed reserved for male leaders with PhDs; they affirmed each other’s callings to teach, write, and lead; they posted confessions about struggling with depression or singleness or motherhood or doubt.

“When the Christian blogosphere was mostly pastors’ musings on one hand and women’s devotional ‘encouragement’ on the other, Rachel wrote confidently that her mind was made to know God,” wrote Katelyn Beaty, who co-founded a women’s blog at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today in 2009.

“Never fitting the ‘traditional Christian woman’ mold (thank goodness), Rachel labored to untangle Christianity from cultural norms that told women to be quiet and let men do the theological heavy lifting,” Beaty continued. “Rachel’s writing not only inspired other women across the theological spectrum to blog, teach, and write books; it inspired women to attend seminary and pursue preaching and lead churches.”

Evans remained relevant, even after readers shifted away from blogs in favor of social media posts

Nowadays, a single viral social media post can spur careers and book deals for Christian women — be it the record-breaking Facebook Live clip of a laughing “Chewbacca Mom” or the postpartum bikini pic posted by Rachel Hollis, who went on to become the author of the back-to-back best-sellers Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing. But fame was less instantaneous and less dependent on social media algorithms when Evans got her start; the blogosphere was all about networking and growing an audience.

Back when loyal readers bookmarked their favorites and comment sections were still a place for thoughtful debate, Evans credited her slow, steady growth in the first five years of her blog to “consistency and collaboration,” including regular guest posts fellow authors and leaders. One favorite series highlighted “women of valor,” or eshet chayil in Hebrew, a line taken from Proverbs 31, a Bible passage describing the strength of a woman of good character.

Evans not only worked her way up but also had staying power — she remained a relevant voice, even after readers shifted away from blogs in favor of social media posts, and, more significantly, when she left evangelicalism and became a member of the Episcopal Church in 2015.

Her first couple of books helped build her readership, playing into some of the publishing trends at the time. Her 2010 release was framed around living in the town made famous for fighting evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial (Evolving in Monkey Town). Then came her reflections on Scripture after spending a year living according to the Bible’s commands for women — waking up before dawn, calling her husband “master,” growing out her hair — in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which came out after a string of confessional books and magazine articles on similar experiments.

Online, Evans continued to push back against traditional evangelical positions, debating gender roles in the church and advocating for LGBTQ inclusion. At times, she was a friendly dialogue partner, and other times, a watchdog against the tradition she grew up in — earning the title “the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism” per the Washington Post, and being described as “saying the things pastors can’t” in the Christian magazine Sojourners.

One of her most-talked-about pieces was an essay on how making church “cool” wasn’t going to win back millennials. “When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity,” she wrote. “I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.” (Another was a piece defending her support as an anti-abortion Christian for Hillary Clinton, which ran at Vox.)

Evans’s legacy grew out of her “ex-vangelical” message, but also her transformative use of the blogging medium. Her trajectory modeled the blogger-to-author-to-conference-speaker path that many have gone on to follow.

“I know that there’s a lot of people who feel like, ‘Well who is she? She didn’t go to seminary, she hasn’t cut her teeth as a pastor,’” Evans told the Washington Post four years ago. “I think some people feel like it’s a little bit of a threat to authority, that somebody can just be a blogger, and people will listen to what they say.”

Recently, Evans and other popular names have found themselves at the center of a debate around authority and accountability for Christian bloggers. Online voices have become a go-to source of inspiration and Christian teaching, particularly for women who don’t have female leaders to look to in their own church communities.

Like Evans, these women have faced scrutiny. Once a female writer reaches a certain level of “Christian famous,” church leaders begin to look more closely at her beliefs and ask: Should this be the voice that millions of evangelical women listen to? If her teachings diverge from traditional evangelical positions, she too can expect to see her name in headlines calling out a “false gospel,” “blurry lines,” and even “heretical” teachings.

In 2016, Evans reached out to encourage Bible teacher Jen Hatmaker after she voiced support for same-sex marriage in an interview. The Texas mom was known for her hilarious slice-of-life blog entries and social media posts, and vocalizing her stance put her out of many conservative evangelicals’ good graces — off the shelves at LifeWay, the country’s largest Christian bookstore chain, and accused of sloppy theology by critics. “Thank you for blazing this trail when it was even harder to transverse,” Hatmaker replied. “Great will be your reward, sister.”

Popular blogger turned Oprah Book Club pick author Glennon Doyle inspired a wave of evangelical criticism a few years ago with her message of self-love and self-fulfillment as she divorced her husband and married US Women’s Soccer star Abby Wambach. Doyle has also shared Evans’s prayers for her during hard times.

Evans expressed support for other women, progressives and conservatives alike

These close friends, and her many followers, will no doubt continue Evans’s work carving out new spaces for progressive Christians in their writing and conferences. But Evans’s “atta-girls” did not just go out to like-minded writers. Even some of the most influential women in conservative evangelicalism, those whom Evans criticized and who publicly critiqued her books and views, recalled the messages they received from her over the years.

Trillia Newbell said though she would be considered “the other side” of Evans’s boundary-pushing conversation, the blogger had emailed her to compliment a piece she wrote for a conservative Christian outlet, the Gospel Coalition. “Many of us had private convos and mutual love for one another,” Newbell tweeted after Evans’s death. “Disagreed, but hoped the best.”

Despite their theological differences — these women shared the common experience being the subject of online ire. Another top Bible study author and ministry leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, Beth Moore, said, “Our tie was being the two most despised women in the Christian sector of social media and usually for opposite reasons. Talk about a peculiar bond. But it caused us to check on each other.”

Evans’s illness and death, coming on quickly and leaving behind two young children, has been a wake-up call for her followers — to grieve the sudden sting of death; to reconsider their interactions with their ideological opposites; to celebrate the good we see in others while they are still with us on earth. It’s also been a reminder of how far Christian women have come over the dozen years Evans spent writing online.

Today’s Christian women no longer have to work to prove their place; they are a vibrant and crucial force driving online discussions of faith. For those who have taken part in such conversations, Evans in some ways has offered us the “gift of going second.”

When it comes time to chronicle the history of the Christian internet, she will number among the early patron saints of the blogosophere and Twittersphere, a sharp and spunky voice that ignited progressive writers and sharpened conservative ones.

She was there from the beginning. I’m sad she won’t get to see how far Christian women go from here.

Kate Shellnutt is a journalist covering faith, women, and pop culture. She works as an editor at Christianity Today magazine. Find her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.