Rachel Held Evans, a best-selling Christian author whose work challenged conservative beliefs, died on Saturday, aged 37.
Her husband, Daniel Evans, said in a statement on her website that the cause was extensive brain swelling. During treatment last month for an infection, Rachel had begun experiencing seizures and been placed in a medically induced coma. “I keep hoping it’s a nightmare from which I’ll awake,” he wrote.
“Rachel’s presence in this world was a gift to us all and her work will long survive her.”
An Episcopalian, Evans left the evangelical church in 2014, to focus on establishing a community of 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.”
She participated in enthusiastic discussions with that community via Twitter, and wrote four successful books, that engaged with evangelicalism, the patriarchy of her conservative Christian upbringing, and recorded her own evolution to a mainline Christian identity — “away from Biblical literalism and to affirmation of L.G.B.T. people,” the New York Times reported in an obituary published on Saturday.
Evans had organized a conference, 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.”
Evans was fearless in her challenges to traditional authority structures and their leaders — often conservative and male — and in her online debates. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said she always treated him with kindness and with humor, in spite of their extremely opposing points of view.
“I was on the other side of her Twitter indignation many times, but I respected her because she was never a phony,” he 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.”
That way of operating was borne out in a roundup by the Washington Post of a hashtag that trended across the weekend, #BecauseofRHE, as women came forward with testimonials of how her writing and heartfelt encouragement had changed the courses of their lives.
#BecauseOfRHE I have to write a sermon for tomorrow. I pastor a church
When I found her I wasnt church God was down with working moms. I call myself a writer. I have the title rev.
— Abby Norman MDiv (@abbynormansays) May 4, 2019
I confront scarcity, I owned my calling to be a preacher/pastor, I ask harder questions, I’m not terrified if my kids wander in their faith, I have deep life-giving friendships with queer people, I trust White women to use their voices against white supremacy, #BecauseOfRHE
— Osheta Moore (@osheta) May 4, 2019
#BecauseOfRHE I went to seminary. I became a writer. I embraced my calling. I allowed myself to love more deeply. I read And The Mountains Echoed. I found Justin Lee, Broderick Greer, Sarah Bessey, and so many more.
— Lindsay Mustafa Davis (@lmustafadavis) May 4, 2019
Some writers sent extracts of encouraging emails she had sent them, while others shared how she had helped them persist when they felt alienated within their own faith cultures, and had she had empowered women and simultaneously raised the consciousness of their male peers.
It’s amazing to see people posting the encouraging notes that Rachel Held Evans sent them over the years, at @lkoturner’s suggestion. Here’s a favorite of mine. I want to make a point to send more of these myself. #becauseofRHE pic.twitter.com/6c3kvvNa1y
— Ruth Graham (@publicroad) May 5, 2019
#becauseofRHE I am the out, liberated, progressive author I am today. my inception story began with her. there is no way to thank someone for that first permission.
— Garbage Oprah (@hannahpaasch) May 4, 2019
#BecauseofRHE I outlived my will to give up on life. I came out as gay and braved a world of rejection inside the faith tradition I had always known to be my home, I found God beyond church pews and in the faces of the most vulnerable, I started to really love people (& myself).
— Sarah Kessler (@thecoachkessler) May 4, 2019
When a relative said I wasn’t a Proverbs 31 woman because of my participation in the Women’s March, I was able to laugh and brush it off. RHE taught me that it was ok to question the theology I had been raised with and what it truly meant to be a woman of valor. #becauseofRHE
— Jennifer Anne (@_Jennifer_Anne) May 4, 2019
Men like me owe a great debt to @rachelheldevans. We can advocate for women, but we can't do what women do. Rachel didn't just empower women, she *was* a powerful woman who shared power. #BecauseofRHE, many white Christian men learned to respect and value women in leadership.
— Rev. Dan Stringer (@StringerDan) May 4, 2019
Pastor Nate Pyle, having read through the tributes on Sunday, penned by “a collection of misfits and outcasts, seekers and doubters,” summed Evans’s profound legacy up thus:
“Woke and read #BecauseOfRHE. It’s a collection of misfits and outcasts, seekers and doubters; people dubbed ‘lost’ who found solace and belonging because of her commitment to love, kindness, and grace.
“Gatekeepers called her theology dangerous. But its fruit looks like Jesus’s.”