Review: A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition

A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Mark Nickens. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, tracing its global diffusion, and the resulting diversity within the big “tent” of Christianity.

One of the dangers of our “presentism” and “individualism” is that Christian history often reduces to what is in the Bible and my personal story. Many of us don’t even know the story of our own church body. That being the case, we miss the sense of a vast, 2000 year story in which we are caught up, and one that touches every continent on earth. This text, which may be used for introductory college or seminary courses in global church history, or in an adult study group serves as a good place to start in filling that gap and enlarging our vision of Christianity beyond our own experience and “tribe.”

This survey is organized in five sections:

  1. The Early Church: 30-400
  2. Medieval Christianity: 400-1500 (in two parts from 400 to 1000, and 1000 to 1500)
  3. Pre-Reformers, the Protestant Reformation, and European Christianity (1500-1900)
  4. American Christianity: 1500 to the Present
  5. The Global South

There are several features that make this a readable and easy to follow resource. Each section offers an introduction to the whole and each chapter includes an outline of topics to be covered, helpful if you want to zoom in on a particular topic. Along the way, there are quotes and explanatory sidebars that helpfully illuminate the text. A link is provided for each section offering a supplemental timeline on the author’s website.

I thought the first section quite helpful in covering the rise of the church from a network of local bodies to the institution it became after Constantine. There is good discussion of the canon, doctrinal issues and the early councils and creeds The second section extends this with the seven ecumenical councils, the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, the challenge of Islam, the rise and decline of the papacy, the earlier breakaway of Oriental Orthodoxy, and the later schism between the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches. The section ends with key elements leading to the Reformation: early reformers, the printing press, and the rise of the universities.

The main subject of third section is an account of the different reformation movements and figures in Germany (Luther) and Switzerland (Calvin), the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Amish, and the persecutions they faced, and the Church of England and other Protestant movements that arose, as well as the Catholic Counter Reformation. I perhaps should mention at this point that it is evident that the history reflects a Protestant point of view, but not tendentiously so, with fair descriptions of Catholic belief and practice.

In the section on American Christianity, I appreciated the focus on colonial and frontier religion, the rise of revival movements, a good amount of material on the black church, as well as the rise of Catholicism with southern and eastern European and Irish immigration and the rise of fundamentalism. The post World War 2 rise of evangelicalism is traced as well as coverage of the rise of pentecostalism, televangelism, and the Christian right, but there is no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, or the later rise of more progressive forms of neo-evangelicalism. There is very little about the complicity of churches in slavery (apart from divisions in northern and southern denominations) and the only treatment of Native Peoples are the missionary efforts of David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards

The last section was on the church in the Global South. The author provides a chart showing the number of Christians in each part of the world (leaving out Europe) showing the majority of Christians in the Global South. Yet the coverage of the history of these churches was only 25 percent of the text and confined to a single section. One strength is showing how mission movements transitioned to indigenously-led churches that often became mission movements themselves. A chapter is devoted to the history on each continent, with a fair amount of detail on movements in particular countries (for example, the churches in India tracing their roots to the Apostle Thomas). Good coverage is given to the rise of global Pentecostalism. Apart from some discussion of liberation theology, there is little on the church’s involvements in movements seeking justice. There is nothing on Samuel Escobar and Rene Padilla and other evangelicals who pressed the cause of social justice in Latin America, nor the role of religious leadership in ending apartheid (or the collapse of communism for that matter). Nor was there any coverage of the Lausanne movement, one increasingly shaped by concerns of the Global South, or of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope.

What is not here suggests an avoidance of controversy and a conservative rendering of recent history. It also suggests a history still dominated by the West, in its focus on mission movements and their indigenous offshoots. There is no acknowledgement of nor engagement with the discussion of post-colonialism in the Global South. While a history cannot engage or critique such movements, their existence is also a part of the fabric of this history. This is regrettable, because the author renders historical accounts well, and a text like this could enjoy broader circulation if it told a broader story. It is especially useful for its concise but detailed history up through the Reformation but I would recommend supplementing it with other texts on American and Global South church history.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Review: A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2021 | Bob on Books

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