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
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.