Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Jun 2014

Learning about the Past: The Church around the World

Posted By

Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted a couple of suggested reading lists. These lists have included broad overviews of church history and books on the history of Christian doctrine. In this post, I’m going to recommend a number of books that focus on the history of the Christian church in specific geographic areas.

The Church in North America

Noll, History of ChristianityMy favorite book in this category is Mark Noll’s work, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Although the vast majority of this book is about the church in the United States, Noll includes an extended section (ch. 10) on the history of Christianity in Canada, and he includes other references to Canadian Christians throughout the book. Our neighbors to the north are often overlooked and understudied by church historians, and their inclusion in this work is, to me, a strength of this volume.

In addition to Noll, a few similar books are worth mentioning. Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt’s The Religious History of America is excellent. It’s a bit shorter and perhaps a little simpler than Noll’s work, but it’s definitely worth the read. If you are feeling ambitious, you may want to check out Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People. Including the bibliographies and index, Ahlstrom’s work is just a hair short of 1,200 pages, so it is not a “read on the airplane” kind of book. But if you want to consult one of the best and most detailed works in this area, Ahlstrom is the place to turn.

The Church outside North America

Looking to our south, Justo González and his niece Ondina González have recently written a book titled Christianity in Latin America: A History. In just over 300 pages, this is currently the best overview of church history in Latin America.

Bays, New History of Christianity in ChinaWith regard to Christianity in Asia, Catholic historian Jean-Pierre Charbonnier has written a fairly robust history of Christianity in China titled Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. Beginning with the spread of Syrian Christianity eastward, Charbonnier discusses the arrival of Christianity in the Far East and the condition of the church in China during various time periods up to the present. A shorter, more readable, and more Protestant-focused work is Daniel Bays’s A New History of Christianity in China. Bays’s book isn’t very long (just over 200 pp. of text), but it’s probably the best place to begin reading about Christianity in China. And then one of the more broad sweeping works on the history of Christianity in Asia is Samuel Moffett’s 2-volume A History of Christianity in Asia (vol. 1; vol. 2). Moffett focuses largely on western missions in Asia, not Asian Christianity as such, but since the author is the son of Presbyterian missionaries to Korea, perhaps this is not too surprising. Overall, Moffett provides a remarkably full study of Christianity’s spread and growth throughout the continent of Asia.

Bremer, Cross and the KremlinIn recent months, I’ve read a couple of works related to the history of Russia and the former Soviet Union. One of the books I’m currently working through is Thomas Bremer’s Cross and the Kremlin: A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in Russia. This book is generally more topical than chronological, but it’s a good overview of major themes in the history of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. And for a helpful summary of the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as an introduction to its major beliefs and practices, one could hardly do better than Timothy Ware’s standard work, The Orthodox Church.

Concerning the church in Africa, two of the best works currently in print are Elizabeth Isichei’s A History of Christianity in Africa and Adrian Hastings’s The Church in Africa, 1450–1950. Hastings’s work is the longer of the two. Admittedly, both works are somewhat challenging for readers with limited familiarity with African history and geography, but both books are indexed and well-outlined.

In compiling the list above, I haven’t attempted to be geographically comprehensive, but if you are looking to read about the history of the church in one of these regions, these are some of the best books to check out.