Review: Christianity in the Twentieth Century

Christianity in the Twentieth Century

Christianity in the Twentieth CenturyBrian Stanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Summary: A thematic account of the development of global Christianity during the twentieth century.

It is no small challenge to write a one volume history of Christianity in the twentieth century. The Christian faith has truly become a global faith, represented with indigenous churches on every continent, expressed and experienced in as many or more ways than there are countries in the world, and facing varied internal and external pressures leading to adaptation and change.

Brian Stanley has approached this task not by trying to write a series of chapters on regional histories, or denominational histories, or theological history, but by identifying fifteen themes running through Christian experience over the last hundred years. Each chapter develops a particular theme, sketching some of the global developments, and then offers two case studies, usually specific to two different countries or regions. In the course of this study, Stanley not only touches on fifteen critical themes or trends but also shows the development of Christian faith in every part of the world in its multiplex variety.

In brief, here are the themes covered:

  • Responses to World War I
  • Christianity and Nationalism
  • Prophetic movements
  • The Persecuted Church
  • Belonging and believing
  • Ecumenism
  • Christianity, Ethnic Hatred, and Genocide
  • Christianity in Islamic contexts
  • Christian mission in the modern world
  • Theologies of liberation
  • The church addresses human rights, racism, and indigenous peoples
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Pentecostalism
  • Eastern Orthodoxy
  • Migrant Churches

As mentioned above, each theme chapter is illustrated by two case studies. For example, in looking at Christian faith and nationalism, Stanley takes the contrasting cases of Protestant nationalism in Korea, and Catholic nationalism in Poland, developing the role of the church in the movements for national autonomy in each country, as well as the uneasy alliance of Christianity and nationalism more broadly. However, in the chapter on Christian mission, he considers first the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, and two contrasting gatherings of Protestants at Uppsala in 1968, focused more on the social dimensions of Christian faith, and Lausanne in 1974, focused more on the conversionist aspects of the faith, albeit with a strong witness for justice concerns by Christians from the majority world. I was somewhat surprised that little was said about the subsequent Lausanne movement or the efforts to identify and reach unreached people groups, a missiological development from this movement.

One of the observations I made while reading is that some themes felt like well-known territory, with names, issues and movements I was well familiar with. Other chapters, like the one on Orthodoxy, for example, surprised me as I learned of Orthodox movements in Africa, and how significant diasporas have been for the development of Orthodoxy in western Europe and the United States. I’ve recently become more aware of Ghanaian Pentecostalism in my own city and this book filled in context of the development of Ghanaian Christianity as well as Pentecostalism in other parts of the world. Numerous leaders of significant movements in twentieth century Christianity were mentioned that I had not heard of, conveying what a far-flung, diverse, and global movement Christianity has become.

The author opens and closes the book discussing the renaming of The Christian Oracle as The Christian Century. Was the twentieth century a “Christian century.” A simple answer to that question is not possible in the author’s estimate. In absolute numbers, no century has witness greater growth, and yet the world’s population has grown faster. In Europe, North America, and Australasia, the church has been in retreat, except for the immigrant churches that have come from South and Central America, Asia, and Africa. Secularism and persecution have attempted to undermine the church, have made significant inroads, and yet not succeeded, and sometimes resulted in a resilient and more robust faith. Christians have both played pivotal roles in justice movements, and been inextricably involved in ethnic hatred and genocide. Great progress has occurred in some sectors toward Christian unity, even while indigenous and immigrant churches assert their own autonomy and major bodies are riven over questions about human sexuality.

Rather than offering a triumphalistic account, Stanley offers a cautionary tale inviting the reader to reflection, summarized in his closing question of “whether Christianity has converted indigenous religionists or whether indigenous religious and cultural perspectives–whether these be African, Asian, Latin American, or even white North American–have succeeded in converting Christianity.” In raising this question, I think he has identified one of the critical issues facing Christians in the early twenty first centuries, questions that ought send us to our knees, turn us to our Bibles, and challenge us to listen to the prophetic voices that speak the uncomfortable truths we need to hear.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

4 thoughts on “Review: Christianity in the Twentieth Century

  1. Is there anything about adaptation and change in twentieth century Christianity as a result of developments in science (e.g., the Big Bang and biological evolution) or will that have to wait for “Christianity in the Twenty-first Century”?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2018 | Bob on Books

  3. Pingback: The Development of Differences – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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