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An Indispensable Account of the Global History of Christianity

Review: Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History (Princeton University Press, 2018)

By Graham Kings

Professor Brian Stanley is the doyen of British historians of mission and world Christianity. Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History (Princeton, 2018) is his magnum opus.

Stanley’s hinterland may be helpful in understanding the wisdom of his book. He was supervised for his Cambridge PhD in history by David Thompson. Stanley taught Church history at Trinity College, Bristol, before being invited to direct the North Atlantic Missiology Project of the Cambridge Faculty of Divinity. The project was based at the Henry Martyn Centre for the Study of Mission and World Christianity.

This six-year international and inter-university project (later called Currents in World Christianity) linked the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, and London with the University of Wisconsin, Boston College, and Fuller Theological Seminary. It published 27 volumes in Eerdmans’ Studies in the History of Christian Missions series, of which Stanley was the co-editor.

Stanley became director of the Henry Martyn Centre (now the Cambridge Centre for World Christianity) in 2002, before moving to the University of Edinburgh in 2009, to be professor of world Christianity and director of Centre for the Study of World Christianity. He has supervised 25 PhD dissertations, edits the Edinburgh journal Studies in World Christianity, and is a member of the editorial board of the Cambridge Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

His previous books include The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Mission and British Imperialism in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1990); The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992 (1992); World Christianities c. 1815-c. 1914, Vol. 8 in the Cambridge History of Christianity (2008) [co-edited]; The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (2009); and The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Billy Graham and John Stott (2013).

From this rich hinterland, Stanley writes a magisterial book. Part of its originality is the intriguing shape he has developed for each of the chapters: an introduction setting out the subject, two regions of the world as case studies, often manifesting unconventional juxtapositions, and concluding reflections.

The 15 chapters consider the following themes across dozens of countries: the First World War; Nationalism; Conversion; Church-State Relations; Belonging and Believing; the Ecumenical Movement; Genocide; Islamic contexts; Post-Colonialism and Vatican II; Liberation; Apartheid and Indigenous Rights; Gender and Sexuality; Pentecostalism; Eastern Orthodoxy; and Migrant Churches.

Stanley argues his case for using the phrase Global South in preference to Non-Western, Majority World, or Developing World. He states his purpose:

To understand how the churches of the world got to be the way they were in specific geographical locations at crucial turning points in the course of the [20th] century. (p.4)

He shows how the Christian faith is now a

culturally plural and geographically polycentric religion clustered around a number of new metropolitan loci in the non-European world, from Seoul to São Paulo. (p. 4)

Stanley manages to highlight the unlikely people of influence in history, such as Amir Sjarifoeddin, an Indonesian Lutheran layman and nationalist politician, and Patricia Brennan, a Sydney evangelical Anglican who shaped the Movement for the Ordination of Women in Australia.

If popes and archbishops find themselves playing second fiddle to comparatively unknown laywomen and laymen, that is no bad thing, for this is a history of Christianity in its myriad popular embodiments, not a narrow institutional history of denominations and their higher echelons of leadership. (p. 6)

Perhaps this perspective of Stanley, the Baptist layman, is worth contrasting with the work of the late Anglican historian and Provost, David L. Edwards, whose seminal early work was Leaders of the Church of England, 1828-1978 (1971).

The impact of women is also highlighted: Christabel Pankhurst, the English suffragette who was also an Adventist (Chap 1); Pilar Bellosilo, the Spanish President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (Chap 9); and “Pandita” Ramabai Dongre, the Indian Pentecostal Leader (Chap 13).

More often than not the role of female Christians in the narrative remains inevitably veiled in such historical anonymity, but it must be stressed that anonymity need not imply marginality. (p. 7)

In his chapter on Migrant Churches, (Chap 15), he notes the significance of language:

By the year 2012, within the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles alone, the Eucharist was being celebrated in forty-two different languages. (p. 340)

Concerning the German Christian response to Nazism and the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the Rwandan genocide, he comments:

In both cases Christian thinkers had failed to provide robust opposition to fundamentally anti-Christian ideologies, and had reaped the harvest of their timidity. (p. 362)

Since this book was published, Pope Francis announced in February 2019 that the Vatican Secret Archives on the papacy of Pius XII will be opened to historians in 2020. These documents will enhance the primary source material available for debates about Pius XII’s response to Nazism.

Stanley writes:

Undoubtedly the most striking single contrast between the face of the world church in 1900 and that of the world church in 2000 is the salience and near ubiquity of Pentecostal styles of Christianity by the end of the century — forms of Christian expression that in 1900 were still uncommon and deemed to be at best eccentric and at worst heretical. (p. 365)

He concludes with a tilt at the prosperity gospel:

The most serious challenge confronting the religion in the twenty-first century looks likely to be the preparedness of some sections of the church in both northern and southern hemispheres to accommodate the faith to ideologies of individual enrichment. (p. 366)

Two minor points of criticism may be the lack of discussion of the Christian ecological movements at the end of the century, especially in the World Council of Churches, and a strange bibliographical lacuna: Diarmaid MacCulloch’s colossal History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Allen Lane, 2009).

This book, by a master historian, is exceptional and well worth buying, reading, and referencing. No theological or historical library should be without it.



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