Christianity in the Twentieth Century

A World History

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Brian Stanley
The Princeton History of Christianity
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , July
     512 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Was the 20th century a Christian century, a secular century, or an ecumenical century? These are questions which Brian Stanley wrestles with in Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History. In fifteen chapters, he attempts to map the contours of the major developments, events, movements, and trends that were shaped by Christianity in the 20th century, and how these events and movements reshaped Christianity.

The book argues that at the beginning of the 20th century Christianity was very Western, but by the end of the century it had become a post-Western religion. As a result, scholars must go beyond the binaries of Western and non-Western interpretations of 20th century Christianity to a more expansive cross-cultural interpretation. This new approach to Christian history will enable scholars to understand why Christianity is so different—in demography as well as influence—at the end of the 20th century. Stanley introduces navigational tools for interpreting, understanding, and evaluating the cultural and historical processes which brought about such tectonic changes in modern Christianity over a period of one hundred years. His method transgresses past approaches—going back to Eusebius—which studied Christian history either as church history, mission history, or both. Stanley argues that, in order to understand 20th century world history, one must appreciate the changing and intersecting cultural, political, and social currents driven, in part, by various Christian movements in different parts of the world.

 One must also appreciate, according to Stanley, how the momentum of Christian expansion in some parts of the world—and contraction in others—has continued to drive some of the contending narratives of modernity beyond the 20th century: mission and conversion; the relationship between church and state; religious persecution; Christianity and genocide, racism, and war; social justice, marriage, and family life. Today, add to these gender issues, ecumenism, women in ministry, same-sex marriages, and immigration. 

Christianity in the Twentieth Century is more than a book of Christian history, although those who wish to understand the history of the 20th century will benefit from it. It is, in fact, an attempt at interpretative Christian history. Each chapter consists of two case studies—chosen from two different continents and two different Christian traditions—illustrating the changing forms of Christian responses and the symmetries of experiences, as well as their impact in the shaping of Christian identity (particularly in contexts of faith and history). A major achievement of this book, is that it goes beyond the conventional understanding of Christian history and secularization theories in the 20th century by analyzing the complex cultural forces driving the changing faces of Christianity.

The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, however, successive chapters do not build on ideas from previous ones. Therefore, each chapter could be read as a separate book. This approach makes for tedious reading, though, in the conclusion, the author has made an attempt to demonstrate how the chapters connect. Chapters 1, 2, 7, and 11 examine the impact of world wars, nationalism, ethnic wars, genocide, and racism in Rwanda, Korea, Japan, Poland, Germany, Canada, and South Africa, as well as how different church denominations have responded to them. The weaknesses and limitations in those responses are noted and the consequences of the failure of the churches are well documented. 

Themes of secularization and nationalism are addressed in the book, with cases drawn from France and Russia (chapter 4), as well as Scandinavia and the US (chapter 5). However, the rise in Religious fundamentalism in Indonesia and Egypt (chapter 8), resulting in the persecution of the Copts in Egypt and religious persecution of Christian minorities in Indonesia, reflects the contrasting narratives and tensions between a secularizing tendency in some parts of the world and rising fundamentalist religiosity in others. The book proposes that these contrasts force one to identify, beyond some regnant theories on secularization, the permeable lines between secular and sacred discourses in the movement of global history, as well as the multiple levels of belonging, identity politics, and religiosity in different parts of the world. Failed attempts to suppress religion in France, and to nationalize religion in Russia, serve as a good lesson on the resilience of faith against renewed attempts in China and Indonesia to nationalize religious practices and institutionalize some religious traditions over others.

Christianity in the Twentieth Century also addresses the theme of social justice. It describes the different movements against poverty, and the contrasting approaches to liberation theology, in Latin America and Palestine (chap. 10); how the 20th century redefined the issue of the continuing marginalization of women in different Christian traditions, and the contrasting attitudes towards LGBTQ communities in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions (chapter 12), as well as in the Orthodox tradition (chapter 14). The book also discusses the changing demographics of World Christianity through migratory patterns (chapter 15), using examples of the Great Migration of liberated African-American slaves from the South to the North in the US, the migration of Jamaicans to the US and Britain, and trans-pacific migrations of Chinese to the US as case studies. Chapter 15 would have been more balanced had the author given contrasting examples of migration from the West to the non-Western world, or migratory patterns within the non-Western World, for example, in the United Arab Emirate or in Hong Kong. In chapter 3, the book draws a parallel between the growth of Christianity in Melanesia and the prophetic movements in West Africa, while highlighting some interesting commonalities. In chapter 13, we encounter the new faces and features of Christianity which emerged in the 20th century—Pentecostalism. The author supports this claim with impressive data. However, scholars may not accept the pejorative designation of Pentecostalism as “the religious chameleon” (300). Also, the treatment of Ghana as a case study for this phenomenon in Africa was wholly inadequate. 

This reader would have loved to see the emerging connections and scholarly discussions between Global Pentecostalism and ecumenism, which could have been integrated into chapters 6 and 9 where the author discusses the new understanding of Christian mission, the openness to history in the Catholic Church at Vatican II (201), and the reconceptualization of Protestant mission at Uppsala (1968) and Lausanne (1974) as well as the mission of the church in post-colonial settings in the Global South (214). I was quite surprised that, in a book of 504 pages, the author did not include the new consciousness about ecology and climate change found in Christian conversation in the 20th century. 

This book is well researched and magisterial in both its content and style, and will be a reference book for many years to come. However, there are claims in the book which, in this reviewers judgement, are overreaching and will hopefully become part of the conversation the author will have with readers. For instance, the claim that South Korean Protestant leaders gave “an unqualified support” to dictatorial regimes in their nationalistic anti-Japanese flavor, and that in Poland a “Catholic militancy” ineluctably led to anti-Semitism and xenophobia, are not supported with strong evidence (56). Also, there are Stanley’s contentious claims that the Catholic Church was an “inveterate opponent of human rights” (241) and that Catholics collaborated with the Nazis (362), and that Pentecostalism flourishes among the poor, and that rising Pentecostalism represents, in Africa, “a free market module of religious competition” (361). Despite these critiques, Christianity in the Twentieth Century is a work of outstanding scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stan Chu Ilo is Research Professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Stanley is Professor of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott and The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.


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