Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History

The Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History gives you what it promises: the essentials. This highly informative, broad-ranging book provides vital facts on the growth and impact of Christianity from the apostles to the present day not only in the Western world but also globally, including the development of Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christianity, as well as considering Christianity in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Baltic and Slavic states, and India. The companion is organized by century, going through the major events, ideas, and personalities that have shaped Christian history around the world.

Following a brief introduction that outlines the key events of the New Testament era, there is a chapter devoted to each century of Christian history beginning with the year 100 and ending roughly at the year 2000. Each chapter flows chronologically featuring:

  • A brief overview, highlighting the main threads and issues running through the relevant century
  • Key historical developments explained
  • Thematic connections between centuries
  • Color-coded sidebars on Persons, Ideas, or Events
  • Persons: key figures either within or without the Church who have impacted Christian history significantly or who otherwise deserve special mention
  • Ideas: important Christian books, as well as heresies, doctrines, or political movements
  • Events: world-historical occurrences such as battles, natural disasters, inventions, or elections that have affected the development of Christianity in the world

The final chapter, devoted to the present century concludes the companion identifying key themes that the Christian Church is presently dealing with and suggesting future issues. A select Glossary of terms is provided at the end of the book, as well as a bibliographic list of suggested reading.

My review of this useful, if imperfect volume follows.

Backhouse traces the history of Christianity from the first days of the Christian movement to the early 21st century and he does it in less than 225 pages.  That in itself is a fantastic accomplishment.  What’s more, each page is lavishly illustrated with charts, maps, photographs, artwork, and all manner of illustrative materials.  There are also ‘sidebars’ with information essential to readers and to students.  And finally, at the conclusion of the volume, there is a glossary of terms.

This work is written for the student and as such, is self-limiting.  Backhouse cannot cover everything and he doesn’t.  Nor should he have.  But what he does cover is by and large exceedingly accurate.    His short bits on topics like Justin Martyr, the Decian persecution, the conversion of the Slavs, the Crusades, Jan Hus, the anti-papacy sentiments leading up to the Reformation, Indulgences, and many, many, many other aspects of the history of the Church in East and West are treated accurately and insightfully.

There are, however, important imperfections in the volume as well.  My purpose in pointing out one in particular is not to be pedantic, it’s in hopes that in future editions the error will be corrected.

In his treatment of The Swiss Reformation (pp. 145f) Backhouse asserts that

In 1536 the leadership of the Swiss Reformation passed to John Calvin (1509-1564), a former priest fleeing persecution in his native France.

This is incorrect.  Indeed, it is well known among specialists of the Swiss Reformation that it was in fact Heinrich Bullinger who was the de facto and de jure leader of the Swiss reformed movement.  And it was not until well into the 1560’s that as Bullinger’s health began to fail that Reformed Christians began to turn towards Calvin’s works for guidance.  Nonetheless, during his lifetime, Bullinger was the undisputed Reformed theologian who had to be taken account of.

For instance, Bullinger was consulted by Reformed communities all around Europe and as far north as Britain.  His correspondence extends beyond 10,000 letters and his network of interconnections with Reformed theologians was unsurpassed.  Indeed, during the Servetus episode Calvin sought Bullinger’s guidance and when it came to debates about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, it was Bullinger’s view that Calvin adopted (along with everyone else) rather than vice versa.

Of course Backhouse shouldn’t be expected to go into all of that.  But he should, I think, at least have mentioned Bullinger who, all should know, was far more influential among the Swiss Reformed and in Europe at large than Calvin was during his lifetime.  Calvin came into his greatness after he died.  Bullinger was great while he was still alive.

And Backhouse certainly shouldn’t have said that Calvin achieved leadership of the Swiss Reformed movement in 1536!  In 1536 no one knew who Calvin was except a few French refugees.

That said, I still love this book.  I think it should be read by everyone interested in Church history.  Not just students, but experts.  Why?  Because it is the single best overview of the history of Christianity I’ve yet seen.

It may have its imperfections, but it is still beautiful.