Rachel Held Evans, progressive Christian author who challenged evangelicals, dies at 37

Rachel Held Evans, a best-selling Christian author who was unafraid to wade into fierce theological battles over issues such as the role of women, science, LGBTQ issues and politics on her blog and social media, died Saturday, after spending weeks in the hospital for an infection. She was 37.

Her husband, Dan, who has been writing health updates, wrote on her blog on Saturday that she had been weaned from an induced coma, but swelling in her brain was not survivable.

"This entire experience is surreal. I keep hoping it's a nightmare from which I'll awake," Dan Evans wrote. "I feel like I'm telling someone else's story.

Evans tweeted in mid-April that she was in the hospital with the "flu + UTI combo and a severe allergic reaction" to antibiotics and asked for prayer. Dan Evans wrote that she then developed seizures, so doctors put her into a medically induced coma.

The hashtag #PrayforRHE became a trending topic on Twitter earlier this month for Evans, who had two young children, ages 3 and almost 1. Her friends set up a GoFundMe account to cover medical expenses.

Writer Sarah Bessey, a close friend of Evans, wrote on Twitter that she was surrounded by her family and her close friend who sang and prayed. The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber tweeted that she anointed her with oil on Friday night.

“Rachel’s presence in this world was a gift to us all," Dan Evans wrote on Saturday, “and her work will long survive her.”

Evans, who emerged during a blog renaissance in the early 2000s when younger voices were getting attention, has been compared to other progressive Christian writers like Tony Campolo and Diana Butler Bass. She once said that her evangelical church's activism on a Tennessee campaign to ban same-sex marriage eventually led her to leave that church, but she continued to write about her love for her church and the Bible and joined an Episcopal church.

Evans drew a large following in the evangelical community in both progressive and conservative circles. She criticized widespread evangelical support for President Donald Trump, encouraged women in church leadership and questioned a literal reading of the Bible, among other issues. From her home in Tennessee, she became a beloved progressive speaker at many conferences around the country.

Her books — including “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” and “Searching for Sunday” — pushed theological boundaries for many conservative evangelicals, but they gave voice to many progressive evangelicals who had become frustrated with their churches. In 2012, she was named one of Christianity Today magazine’s “50 Women to Watch.”

Evans served on a White House council for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships during President Barack Obama's second term.

Obama recognized that, at a young age, she had become an influential leader within and beyond the religious community, said Melissa Rogers, who was the director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama's second term.

"Rachel brought her usual piercing insights and deep compassion to the council's work on poverty," Rogers said. "She was also a beloved member of the team."

Evans was born June 8, 1981, in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to Dayton, Tenn., when she was a teenager, according to Slate. Raised in an evangelical home, she received her bachelor’s degree in English from Bryan College in Dayton and then was a journalist at the town’s newspaper, the Herald-News, before becoming a pioneer in the Christian blogging world.

Dayton has long been famous for the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, a case about teaching evolution in schools that caused many fundamentalist Christians to feel alienated from the American mainstream. She began to question her college's teachings that shunned evolution when she published her first book on it in 2010 called "Evolving in Monkeytown" (published in 2010 and later rebranded to "Faith Unraveled").

Evans spent a year following the Bible’s instructions for women, literally, before writing her second book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” which was published in 2012. The book explored women’s roles, encouraging women in church leadership and an egalitarian approach to marriage. In 2013, she hosted a blog series on abuse in the church.

"Rachel exemplified what it meant to care for the church without mindlessly supporting the injustices it's done in the name of Christ," said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest in Denver. "This often meant watching Rachel courageously clash with those she disagreed with, publicly wrestling with ideas she found harmful."

Many people forget she was a trailblazer, said Jonathan Merritt, a popular progressive Christian author and speaker.

"She was talking about misogyny in the church long before the #MeToo movement emerged, and she was affirming LGBT relationships on the grounds of her Christian convictions when doing so could still get you run out of town," he said. "Today, many voices are championing a more progressive expression of Christian faith, and Rachel helped create space for the movement we now see."

In 2015, she wrote a piece for The Washington Post about Christian leaders trying to make church “cool” for millennials.

"For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of 'inauthentic' is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him," she wrote.

What finally brought her back to the church, she wrote, after years of running away, wasn't the lattes or the skinny jeans, but the sacraments such as baptism and communion.

“Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the internet age,” she wrote. “After all, he knows a thing or two about resurrection.”