History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 2: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800
Dale T. Irvin
Orbis Books, 2012
500 pp., $40.00
The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century: The I.B.Tauris History of the Christian Church
240 pp., $51.00
His Kingdom Stretch from Shore to Shore
If anyone needed the already obvious made still clearer, the July 2013 number of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research presented yet another compelling account of the dramatically altered shape of Christianity in the contemporary world. From the resources of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and as an update to the Atlas of Global Christianity (University of Edinburgh, 2010), Gina Bellofatto and Todd Johnson summarized the worldwide trajectory of religious adherence from 1970 into the near future (2020). Those who realize how fitting it is that the Catholics now have a pope from Argentina, or those who have read the books of Andrew Walls, Dana Robert, Lamin Sanneh, David Martin, Philip Jenkins, Jehu Hanciles, and now many others will not be surprised. Christianity and Islam continue to expand, while the world's nonreligious population continues to shrink; the number of Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is rising from about 2/5 of the world total in 1970 to about 2/3 by 2020; the Pentecostal or Pentecostal-like proportion of the world's Christians is moving in this same short span from about 5 percent to about 30 percent; the number in Africa is climbing to well over 600 million (in 1900 there were barely 500 million identifiable Christians in the whole world); the most rapid expansion of Christianity is taking place in East Asia; waves of immigration continue to disperse Christians (and Muslims) ever more widely in the world; and much more.
Quite apart from how this rapidly changing demography is affecting mission strategies, theological emphases, inter-church relations, and the typical preoccupations of "average" Christians, an awareness of contemporary world realities has pressured historians to make sense of the great transformations that are now so obvious. That task, however, is exceedingly difficult. Not only is it necessary to master events in places once considered far from the beaten path—Nairobi on its way to becoming as significant as New York, Buenos Aires more central than Brussels, Hangchow and Hanoi and Hong Kong competing with Assisi and Geneva and Wittenberg, the Christian universities of Seoul on the cusp of world leadership, etc. And not only is it necessary to reshape agendas that define the important themes—Muslim-Christian interactions sharing space with Catholic-Protestant relations; poverty as more important for theological reflection than, say, baptism; biblical signs and wonders just as relevant as biblical criticism. It has also become necessary for historians to do more than point, awe-struck, at the massive reconfiguration of world Christianity; scholars must also assess the historical record, disentangle its many forces, rethink the roster of truly important actors, and evaluate the whole with moral standards alert to both religious and secular perspectives.
Among the most serious efforts to take up these challenges are the I. B. Tauris History of the Christian Church series under the editorship of G. R. Evans (planned for seven volumes) and the projected three-volume History of the World Christian Movement by Dale Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary, and Scott Sunquist, Dean of Fuller Seminar's School of Intercultural Studies. The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century, a recently published volume in the Tauris series by David Hempton, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, and Irvin and Sunquist's second volume, Modern Christianity from 1454-1800, illustrate contrasting paths toward the goal of writing a history of Christianity that explains how it has actually come to be.
The contrast lies in the approach. Irvin and Sunquist, who have been assisted by a 43-member team of consultants, are encyclopedic. If the relatively slow pace of their narrative betrays the difficulties of Composition by Committee, the breadth and depth of their coverage more than compensate. Hempton, who repeatedly underscores the complexity of his period, is provocatively interpretive. If his exposition is riddled with questions, conundrums, and perplexities, the book's intense moral reflection is a great reward. Both volumes are especially satisfyingly for the way they integrate the oft-told story of European and North American developments with much less familiar accounts from elsewhere in the world. The authors are also exemplary for how well they exploit the burgeoning quantity of first-rate studies on Christianity in the non-Western world.
Irvin and Sunquist organize their book century-by-century. Their treatment of the16th century covers "Europe in an Age of Reform," but not until it has charted developments in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, Similarly, their account of the 17th century surveys the tensions in Christendom reflected in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648); England's Puritan Revolution; and the rise of Baptists, Quakers, and other sectarian Protestants. But many more pages are devoted to India, China, Japan, Ethiopia, Kongo, the Caribbean, Russia, Lebanon, and Egypt. It is the same with the 18th century: their refresher on the Enlightenment, pietistic and evangelical revivals, the Industrial and French Revolutions, and North American colonies is set within a great deal more on India, China, Korea, the Philippines, other Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
The pay-off is a tremendous amount of fresh information. As someone who has been paid to teach and write about "church history" for four decades, I was continually delighted by the revelation of new things. Yes, I knew quite a bit about what Martin Luther went through from 1517 (the Ninety-Five Theses) to 1525 (marriage to Katharina von Bora, publication against Erasmus on the bondage of the will, and denunciation of the Peasants' Revolt). I also had a reasonable grasp of what happened when Cortez invaded Mexico (1519) and Magellan was slain in the Philippines (1521). But I knew nothing about Malinalli, the Nahua who was baptized before becoming Cortez' common-law wife and his indispensable translator as the Spaniards moved against Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). I was also was ignorant about Henrique from the Kongo, who studied theology in Portugal, met Pope Leo X, and in 1520 was ordained as the first African Catholic bishop.
For some time I have prided myself for featuring Jesuit and Moravian missionaries in classes surveying the 17th and 18th centuries. But I had never heard of the Catholic priest Baltasar Jaime Martinez Compa—"n y Bujada, who in Peru founded six seminaries and organized more than 35 towns to protect the indigenous people; or the Franciscan Antonio Margil who set up colleges in Guatemala to train friars to help the local population; or Thomas Falkner, an English Calvinist who converted to Catholicism on the West African coast, became a Jesuit, and offered pioneering medical care in Argentina; or the Moravian Matthäus Freundlich who presided over the marriage of an African Caribbean woman and a European missionary on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean.
Most intriguingly, Irvin and Sunquist have recorded the stories of women—who, as all historians realize, have almost always made up the majority of Christian congregations but who are vastly under-represented in conventional accounts. And so we learn about Isabel Flores de Olivia, the "Holy Rose of Lima," whose identification with the Virgin Mary made her an influential spiritual guide in the Andes at the start of the 17th century. There is also a full account of Rebecca Protten, the African Caribbean woman married to a Moravian from Europe, whose journey took her from the Caribbean to Europe and then to West Africa, where in each place she carried on noteworthy work as witness, translator, and teacher.
The authors are usually reserved in their judgments. But for Kimpa Vita, a spiritual adept in Kongo (1684-1706), they do offer a comment. After she reported being possessed by a Portuguese patron saint, Kimpa Vita attacked the Capuchin priests whose immorality and political meddling certainly deserved criticism. She was also convinced that Jesus and Mary were black and had been born in the Kongo. With such a message she urged Kongolese to unite politically and resist European depredations, including the slave trade. When it began to be reported that Kimpa Vita was speaking in tongues and healing the sick, and when she generated a following to reform the Kongolese capital of São Salvador, she was apprehended, tried with the assistance of the Capuchins, and burned at the stake. Her followers were sold into slavery. Sunquist and Irvin offer this laconic conclusion: "The story of Kimpa Vita and the Antonian movement can still be heard in Central Africa today as a call for a unified spiritual community from one of the first founders of an African Initiated Church."
For what they have already accomplished in two volumes to make "the history of Christianity" relevant for the contemporary situation, Scott Sunquist and Dale Irvin are owed much thanks. They have now created real anticipation for Volume III, where they take up the daunting challenge of charting the complex course of the last two centuries.
David Hempton's "long eighteenth century" stretches from the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the fighting of the Thirty Years' War (1648) to the aftershocks of the French Revolution that extended into the early 1800s. His method for controlling a sprawling subject is to divide and conquer: first "The Expansion of Christendom," which analyzes encounters as Europeans moved out to engage the rest of the world, and then "The Transformation of Christendom," which assesses the impact of the Enlightenment, Pietism, evangelicalism, and momentous political-religious developments on Christianity's traditional European homelands. The delicate moral balance of the book as a whole is nicely captured in its last paragraph. Hempton reminds readers what he has shown about Christianity's "association with imperialism, slavery, and other unpleasant realities," but also how its character has been revealed as "unmistakably a missionary religion, capable of translating its texts, symbols, and idioms into manifold new spaces throughout the world." He concludes: "Naturally, translation, when associated with differentials of power, could produce regrettable results, but it also lay at the heart of Christianity's capacity to transcend cultural specificities to become a genuinely global religion. Christianity's worldwide expansion was not without its cruelties and cultural impositions, but neither was it devoid of heroism and humanitarianism, sacrifice and service."
As with Irvin and Sunquist, Hempton successfully connects the well-known history of Europe and North America with hitherto neglected developments elsewhere in the world. Early on he makes particularly good use of an extensive travel diary written by Vasyl Hryhorovyc-Bars'kyj, a Ukrainian who in the early 18th century undertook a 24-year journey through Eastern Europe, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, and finally Western Europe. His effort to explore the situation of the entire Orthodox world led to a particularly insightful account of Christians living under Ottoman Muslims, with full recognition of how their communities (millets) cold enjoy a reasonable level of peaceful autonomy; but the travel diary also detailed the painful conditions of Orthodox churches and believers in the Balkans, where Turkish Ottomans and various Christian rulers had long maintained a perpetual battleground.
Hempton provides a full paragraph on Kimpa Vita as well as a longer account of Rebecca Protten. The latter expands upon Irvin and Sunquist's brief assessment to record both how atypical it was for an African to become so active in recognized Christian ministry early in the 18th century and how typical it was for Rebecca and her husband Jacob Protten to encounter difficulties in their relationship with the Moravians (even though the Moravians were by far the era's most culturally flexible Protestant movement). But he goes even further to view Rebecca as sowing seeds that would later flourish as black Christian movements and, later still, for the public activity of Christian women. In even broader compass, she stands for Hempton as a particularly revealing figure who experienced the triangular slave trade "in reverse," underwent colonial and racial exploitation, mediated between traditional and populist forms of the faith, showed how important the Moravians were for internationalizing the Protestant world, participated in the era's expansion of travel, and stood for the broadening of Christianity beyond Christendom.
With the assistance of works by Jonathan Spence and other Sinologists, Hempton also parses encounters between Western Christians and the Chinese empire. He takes that story from Matteo Ricci's acceptance as a scientific-cum-religious savant at the imperial court in the late 16th century to the determination by the papacy in the early 18th century that Ricci's Jesuits had gone too far in accommodating Chinese rites that honored the ancestors and using Chinese words for the name of God. The unusual wisdom of the book is illustrated by Hempton's ability to show the logic behind the papal decision (perhaps the faith was in danger) as well as the disastrous results of that decision for Chinese Catholics (the Emperor was incensed by what he took to be barbaric cultural insults).
The expertise that Hempton displayed in several earlier books on the Methodists is put to unusually good use in describing the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. Following the landmark work of W. R. Ward, he defines the essential thrust of pietistic and evangelical religion as the resistance of personally appropriated faith to the controlling efforts of established churches and hegemonic states. Pietists and evangelicals were partly traditionalists as they stressed the liberating force of Protestantism's historical doctrine of justification by faith, but also very much of the modern 18th century as they practiced a religion keyed to "personal experience" and "personal and communal discipline." Through hymns, sermons addressing ordinary people, "testimonies" (especially recording the death scenes of the godly), and a new confidence in the inner spiritual authority accessible by the most ordinary laypeople, evangelicals and pietists began the transformations of daily life that continue to influence churches and Christian expressions to this day.
The book's care at definition leads to a striking interpretive pay-off concerning the missionary efforts that evangelical revivals did so much to inspire. Negatively considered, the dedicated certainty established by evangelical experience could impose a restrictive "narrative grid" on native converts. In the case of David Brainerd's evangelistic efforts among the Delaware Indians, for example, Hempton quotes the insightful comment of Bruce Hindmarsh that what Brainerd recorded in his famous diary as "the problems of conscience and their resolution" were being experienced by the Indians "more in terms of Elijah on Mount Carmel."
Yet positively considered, the same personally appropriated evangelicalism allowed new Christians in the non-Western world to experience Christianity freed from the burdens of Christendom. So it was for Rebecca Protten early in the 18th century, and then for growing numbers from many places as the century moved along. The African authors Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, as examples, became key contributors to the abolitionist movement; their books showed how they had discovered manhood, agency, self-direction, and personal discipline when they were liberated by the One who breaks the power of canceled sin and sets the prisoner free.
Hempton provides an even more extensive account of David George, who began life as a slave in South Carolina, was converted by evangelical preaching (before he could read), became a founding pastor of probably the first African American church in the future United States, escaped the ironic triumph of American "liberty" by moving to Nova Scotia and founding that colony's first black Baptist church, and then led the cohort of black Canadians who set up the anti-slave British colony of Sierra Leone, where he founded the first black Baptist church in Africa. At every stage in George's journey, evangelical Christians—patriotic American slaveholders, racist Canadian Loyalists, heavy-handed British philanthropists —made life difficult for him. At every stage he met and often overcome those difficulties with the resources of evangelical Christian faith.
As much as Irvin and Sunquist's encyclopedic approach illuminates the course of world Christianity, so also does David Hampton's problem-centered narrative cast much needed light on the path that has led out of the past into the realities of world Christianity today.
It is particularly intriguing that books written for such different ends coalesce in making some of the same larger judgments. Both books, thus, stress the delicate interplay between Christian expansion outside Europe and the fragmentation of Christianity within Europe. Sunquist and Irvin are particularly effective at showing how, as divisions within Europe hardened between Catholics and Protestants, and soon between established churches and sectarian opponents of state churches, Christianity became the genuinely world religion described in the recent IBMR. Hempton is equally perceptive on how 18th-century Europe witnessed intellectual, social, and political "challenges from which Christianity at least among educated elites, has never fully recovered," even as Western Protestants initiated the missionary efforts that successfully planted Christian faith around the globe.
Both books also agree that the Jesuits were the era's most farsighted and effective "world Christians." This Counter-Reformation religious order deployed the pioneers who most boldly imagined that Christian faith might take shape differently in Chinese or Caribbean or Canadian cultures than it had in Europe. The depth of Jesuit learning combined with the worldwide breadth of their missionary zeal made them the decisive figures in reaching, and then beginning to interpret, the regions lying far beyond Europe. Both books, thus, stress the particular disaster for Latin America when Spanish and Portuguese officials sent the Jesuits packing in order to preserve the top-down, exploitative, and often syncretistic faith that best served the colonizers' interests. And they record the significance of the Moravians—so to speak, married Jesuits with children—who pushed Protestants beyond the identification of Christianity as such with European Christianity.
The books are also agreed that the great Christian scandal of the early modern era was slavery. Hempton details at several places how "the execrable slave trade" undercut Christian teaching about God's benevolent will for the world. For Irvin and Sunquist, "The modern institution of chattel slavery was a juggernaut of ethnic arrogance, material greed, and religious hubris, undergirded by violence and terror." While noting the terrible effects that slavery continues to exert, the authors also detail the specifically Christian contributions that combated Christendom's most comprehensive evil.
Finally, both books clarify what most centrally defines the Christian faith itself. For Hempton it is the recognition at "the most profound level that Christianity is in its essence a missionary religion." For Irvin and Sunquist, it is the claim that Christian faith can never be adequately grasped except as a "world movement." Both thus flesh out the luminous insight of Andrew Walls that Christianity can be at home everywhere, even as it is fully at home nowhere—that every instantiation of the faith deserves to be appreciated for how it has taken up residence in a particular culture and also critiqued for how it compromises the faith's inner character by that residence. Walls describes this dual character as "the indigenous principle" in constant tension with "the pilgrim principle."3 In these two very different but complementary books we see clearly what pilgrim and indigenous principles have meant in the past; we also may glimpse a path for discerning what that combination might mean in the present and the future.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
1. Gina A. Bellofatto and Todd M. Johnson, "Key Findings of Christianity in Its Global Context, 1970-2020," IBMR, Vol. 37 (July 2013), pp. 157-64.
2. See also Irvin and Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Orbis, 2001); and the companion Readings in World Christian History, Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Orbis, 2004).
3. Andrew Walls, "The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture," in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Orbis, 1996), pp. 3-15.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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