Article

Mark Noll


His Kingdom Stretch from Shore to Shore

Church history, decidedly not parochial.

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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."

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