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Mark A. Noll
Turning the World Upside Down
Historians of the recent past quite naturally feature the European War of 1914 to 1918 as the first defining event of the twentieth century. It precipitated a series of interconnected and immeasurably destructive European conflicts stretching from Belgium in 1914 to Kosovo in 1998. It drew many non-European nations closer to the West, triggered a profound spiritual crisis in Europe, and began a process that moved the United States into global preeminence.
Yet decisive as World War I certainly was, it is possible to imagine that historians of Christianity may one day consider the years surrounding 1915 as supremely significant for strikingly different reasons. This alternative perspective on the past opens up from the angle of contemporary world Christianity. Violence still looms large—but not the warfare of northwestern Europe. Rather, the events of greatest significance are the genocide committed against Christian Armenians by Turkish Muslims, culminating in 1915, and the nearly simultaneous Islamic attacks throughout the Middle East on other groups of Greek, Maronite, Jacobite, Nestorian, and Chaldaean Christians. The emergence of larger-than-life historical actors is still important—but not political leaders like Woodrow Wilson or Adolf Hitler. Rather, the key personalities are prophets like William WadÉ Harris, who in 1910 was visited by the angel Gabriel in a Liberian prison cell and then went forth to evangelize with astonishing effect throughout West Africa, or Simon Kimbangu, who underwent similar experiences with similar results only a few years later in the Belgian Congo. Again, in this alternative Christian History, the speeding up of global interchange is still critical, as also the role of the United States—but not for relationships in the West. Rather, the key exchanges come from the labors of Pentecostal missionaries, who in the early years of the century carried the message of baptism in the Holy Spirit from Azusa Street in Los Angeles to Brazil, Chile, ...