IT WAS devastating to hear the news that the American author and speaker Rachel Held Evans had died on 4 May, after three weeks spent in a medically induced coma: an unsuccessful attempt to treat complications from an infection (News, 10 May). As the news of Evans’s death — at just 37 years old — became public, the online community of her friends, readers, and admirers, who had mobilised to pray for her health, began to share stories of her impact on their lives, using the hashtag #BecauseOfRHE.
Evans was best-known in the United States: she was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Neighbourhood and Faith-based Partnerships. But she acquired a dedicated following in the UK, too, among readers who identified with the journey of faith that she described in her books and her blog. For many women, she was the reason that they explored a call to leadership or studying theology, or discovered that an egalitarian view of gender in the Church existed.
It was because of Evans that I, together with a group of friends, founded Project 3:28, an annual audit of the balance of men and women speaking at UK Christian festivals and conferences since 2013. A speaker database was launched in 2018 (News, 15 February). We were inspired by Evans, who had recently challenged the organisers of a conference over why so few women had been invited to contribute. It was just one example of her speaking out against inequality which made her a progressive figurehead.
WHEN she launched her blog at the end of 2007, online spaces for Christian women who did not believe in rigid gender roles seemed few and far between: egalitarian voices were drowned out by conservative takes on “biblical womanhood” and church leaders bemoaning the rise of a “feminised” Church. Evans became known for writing about her spiritual journey — one of questioning fundamentalism and moving through doubts to an “evolving faith”, and of finding feminism and speaking out against the marginalisation of women in the Church.
For other young women like me, it was inspiring to see her writing about the same questions which we were asking, engaging in rigorous debate, and building a community around our shared values. While she criticised rigid fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism’s overwhelmingly right-wing alignment, it was never her intention to reject orthodoxy: her love of scripture was always evident.
It was Evans’s second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, published in 2012, that propelled her into the spotlight as a woman who was not afraid to challenge the status quo and criticise misogyny in the Evangelical establishment (Features, 14 December 2012). Infuriated by the way in which the Proverbs 31 woman was used by Christian leaders to promote a limited view of womanhood, she spent a year living out the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as she could. It was to become a year of reflection and spiritual growth which made for a compelling read.
For the women whom this book inspired, Evans’s work was often a gateway to egalitarian and feminist views, to new perspectives on the women of the Bible, and to a host of other voices presenting a more diverse vision of the Church than they had been told was possible; for Evans was a writer who was generous with the platform that she had built. Instead of focusing solely on enhancing her own profile, she chose to amplify the voices of others, regularly featuring guest writers on her blog — including those whose perspectives she disagreed with — and many voices less frequently or seldom heard in Christian culture in the United States, spanning denominations and cultural backgrounds.
In the days after her death, Christian writers and speakers spoke of how she had helped to raise their profile, encouraged them, or given them opportunities.
IN SEARCHING for Sunday: Loving, leaving and finding the Church, published in 2015, Evans once again captured the Zeitgeist as she wrote about her disillusionment with American Evangelicalism and her quest to find her place in the Church. At a time when tales of twenty- and thirty-somethings leaving the Church in droves troubled the Christian press, the book resonated with many far beyond both Evans’s Bible Belt context and her generation.
The book came at exactly the right time for me, during a period when I was experiencing many of the same doubts and frustrations. Like many readers, Searching for Sunday left me filled with hope that there was something beyond the frustration and sadness brought on by painful experiences with church. “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable,” Evans wrote. “Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” She eventually found a new home in the Episcopal Church.
Thanks to her decade of wrestling with faith and advocacy for change in the public eye, countless people will remember Evans as someone who helped them to understand that doubt was not weakness, that God’s love was wider than they imagined, and that there was still a place for them in the Church.
Hannah Mudge is a writer who works in digital campaigns for an international development organisation.