Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Book Review: The Essential History of CHristianity

I am not an Anglican, but I am part of the Church in England. This simple sentence might confuse some, but I strongly identify with the historic Christianity of my country, and am fascinated by its history. I recently finished J.P.Moorman's well known and lengthy “The History of the Church in England”, which whet my appetite for all things ecclesiastical and historical. However, Moorman’s effort is a 300+ page brick, so I also wanted to find a smaller version that I could recommend to people, ideally also with a more global feel. Diarmaid Mcullochs massive tome, in my opinion, is excellent but too large for people with no free time! With some reservations, I think that “The Essential History of Christianity” by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes could be that book. 

The main strength of this book lies in its concise and straightforward retelling of nearly 2000 years of Christian history. The 10 chapters cover differing lengths of time, from as few as 150 years in the case of “The Imperial Church”, or as many as 400 years in “Globalising Christianity: 1500-1900”. The brief nature of this book makes some discussions necessarily brief, but in general there is a useful amount of information here. Threlfall-Holmes writes well, with an engaging and bright style. I personally rather enjoyed chapters 4 and 5, which approach the same period (1000-1500 ad) but from different perspectives, “Western Christendom” and “Beyond Western Christendom”.

Unfortunately, however, there are some omissions and the odd biased error present in this book. Having been blown away by the history of the Oriental church, as I read it in Mcculloch’s tome, I was disappointed to see no mention of it here. Indeed, other than some nods to the Early North African church, and the Orthodox church, the global scope of this work is somewhat lacking. Regular readers will know I am a bit of a fan of John Calvin, and so the minute his name gets into a page I’m interested. Unfortunately, Threlfall-Holmes seems to take issue with Calvin, with a particularly unfair caricature regarding the affair with Servetus, something I blogged about a while ago. This seems to flow into a general issue with evangelicals - the word is mentioned once - and also the modern/recent explosion of Charismatic and Pentecostal denominations. Regardless of ones own opinions, these influential and interesting expressions of Christianity need treatment in a history that seeks to be ‘essential’!

Ultimately, though, this is a useful book. My personal niggles (and the omission of trans-denominational greats like John Stott or even Billy Graham is, bluntly, baffling) aside, this is a concise and useful history of the worlds largest religion. I would recommend it as a door into studying Church history, and would also recommend (For a specific history of the Reformation and its results) Mike Reeves’ “The Unquenchable Flame” as another, more specific approach to Church history. I'd commend Threlfall-Holmes' book to you as a readable and quick overview of Church history, which is accessible and usable.


  1. Hi Tom

    A really good, and readable, intro to church history is Mark Noll's 'Turning Points' (published in the UK by IVP) - which looks at 12 key points in church history...

    1. Mark, thanks for the comment. Its on my Amazon Wishlist!


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