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James Billington

Divided We Grow

The long-awaited second edition of David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia.

World Christian Encyclopedia

World Christian Encyclopedia

World Christian Encyclopedia
edited by David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson
Oxford Univ. Press, 2001
1,699 pp., 2 vols.; $295

The second edition of David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia is one of the richest and most original compilations of human data produced at the turn of the millennium. In two oversized volumes and 1,699 pages of fine print, this work seeks to count the number of human beings in every religion on Earth in the year 2000—and to provide comparative figures back to 1900 and projections to 2025.

This work represents a massive expansion of the single-volume first edition, which appeared in 1982. It states that more than five billion people (85 percent of the world's population) are "religionists," that is, members of one or another of the world's ten thousand distinct religions. Two billion are Christians, 1.18 billion are Muslims, and.8 billion Hindus.

The first volume is devoted largely to Christianity, which has kept pace with the rapid growth in world population but has dramatically changed its shape in the process. In the twentieth century, Christianity became a religion that is practiced everywhere in the inhabited world, but the overall growth of Christian adherents—from 588 million in 1900 to 2,000 million in 2000—has been almost entirely achieved in the world's less developed nations, where the growth over the same period was from 83 million to 1,120 million.

The overall rate of Muslim growth was greater worldwide than that of Christianity. In Africa, however, adherents of Christianity grew by 38 fold and now outnumber Muslims on that continent. (Muslims were three and a half times more numerous than Christians in Africa in 1900 but grew only by tenfold in the twentieth century.)

What emerges most dramatically from the data here presented is the accelerating fragmentation of Christianity, from 20,800 denominations in 1981 to 34,000 just 20 years later. Of the six major groups into which Christianity is here divided, growth is by the far the greatest in the "Independent" category: post-denominational Pentecostals and charismatics often unaffiliated with any but their own congregation. This category now accounts for 27.7 percent of global Christianity and 38 percent of the world's full-time Christian workers.

The great majority of Christians in this category are nonwhite, poor urban dwellers. Yet their collective wealth increased nearly tenfold between 1970 and 2000; they generally sustain family structures; and they are by far the most skillful in using modern media.

Other trends that stand out in the massive data sets include the persistence of tribal "ethnoreligions" (which grew from 117 million to 228 million in the twentieth century), the "meteoric rise of secular quasi-religions" (absolutist ideologies often framed explicitly as rivals to Christianity), and the disproportionate growth within the category labeled "marginal Christian" (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on).

This project is a tribute to the truly heroic lifelong labors of its initiator, David Barrett. An Anglican missionary in Africa for 28 years, Barrett has been based in Virginia since 1985, working on this second edition with George Kurian and Todd Johnson. Barrett has visited most of the 238 nations and territories covered in this encyclopedia, and has gathered raw material from 444 specialists all over the world as well as from national census figures and United Nations data. He and his very small staff apparently continue to work in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Richmond and are preparing a cd-rom version of the encyclopedia with additional analytic elaboration.

An attractive feature of the commentary scattered throughout the book is the fairness and modesty with which all the material is presented. The sympathy the compilers seem to feel for evangelism in general and the charismatic direction in particular lends an upbeat but far from triumphalist tone to the work. They point out at the beginning of their survey of 12,600 cultures of the world (the "Ethnosphere") that "Christ's Great Commission" to "disciple all peoples" (Matt. 28:19) is amplified by seven different descriptions of the diversity of peoples in Revelation. They conclude that "the Bible can thus be said to be fully aware of the vast ethnolinguistic diversity of the world and its importance for the Christian world mission." But they then proceed directly to a sophisticated modern analysis purely "from a descriptive or anthropological point of view."

As with any massive new set of statistics, these volumes can be cited selectively to prove contradictory propositions. But a few conclusions seem incontestable. Religion is not dying out—and indeed resumed rapid growth in the late twentieth century. Christianity has spread to "all peoples" but is now more divided than ever before and far stronger in the Southern than in the Northern hemisphere (81 percent of Christians were white in 1900; only 45 percent were in 2000). And the defections from Christianity in Europe and North America are now running at nearly two million a year.

There are, of course, limitations—particularly for believers—on the utility of itemizing the quantity of alleged adherents without clarifying the nature, let alone the qualities, of what they are adhering to. All mainline Protestant denominations (except Anglicans) are aggregated into one "megabloc," which makes their treatment less nuanced and probing than that of the Pentecostal-charismatic "trans-megabloc groupings." And while the mainline denominations are often losing numbers, their statistics are often dependably precise, whereas the independent churches and "post-denominational" groups may well be more prone to exaggerating their strength.

One of the original statistics specially cries out for deeper analysis from a Christian perspective: the alleged fact that 45 million of the 70 million martyrs in Christian history died for their faith in the twentieth century. One wonders if the future of Christianity will be shaped more by the deep experiences of martyrdom, sainthood, and sanctified community than by the shifting surface of allegiances in an uneasy world—however sophisticated the statistical predictions may be.

A disproportionate number of the twentieth-century martyrs came from Eastern Christian communions—from Ethiopia and Sudan to Armenia and China—and are still not fully recognized, let alone honored, in the broader Christian world. The Russian Orthodox Church has not yet fully honored its own many martyred believers.

The discussion of the Russian Church, it must be said, is not up to the high overall standard of the encyclopedia. It has Stalin recognizing the Patriarch after rather than during World War II, and notes that the Soviet government allowed a Catholic priest in the U.S. embassy without mentioning the total suppression of Eastern Rite Catholics in Ukraine. It states that "the church called itself the third Rome" after the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589. In fact, a single monk had called Moscow the third Rome much earlier, but the metaphor was almost never used again until the nineteenth century and never by the church as such.

But these are small points. The encyclopedia combines remarkably well scientific objectivity and tolerance with a quiet evangelical faith. Already in the first edition of his work, Barrett warned against "equating the fortunes of organized Christianity and institutionalized religion with the fortunes of the Kingdom of God" and quoted approvingly Hans Kung's injunction that "the Church must not conquer but serve the world religions." The authors have served modern social science and religious believers equally well with this magisterial work.

James Billington is the Librarian of Congress.

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