The Cambridge History of Christianity

By Sanneh, Lamin | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge History of Christianity


Sanneh, Lamin, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The Cambridge History of Christianity Vol. 8: World Christianities, c. 1815-c. 1914. Edited by Sheridan Gilley and Brian Stanley. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006. Pp. xvi,683. £100/$180.

As an undergraduate, I once had the opportunity to own The New Cambridge Modern History, the successor to Lord Acton's original project. Its appeal to me lay in the fact that eminent historians wrote on subjects of which they had unrivaled knowledge, and did so with the economy and succinctness that were a boon for an undergraduate's initiation into the historical craft. My history prof essor, however, whom I approached about the idea, poured cold water on it. The series, he said, might be Cambridge, but it was neither modern nor history. With sophomoric recalcitrance, I went ahead anyway and purchased the books, going on a diet for a year to help pay for them. I found the volumes disappointing, however, though I did not rush to tell my professor that. To have one's bluff called is one thing; to admit it face-to-face is another matter altogether. Put simply, like railway carriages the individual chapters duly showed up but simply did not add up, indicating how the constraint of detachable essays can detract from the momentum of unity and coherence required for historical direction.

The flow of historical explanation-such, for example, as you would encounter in a book by G. E. Rudé, D. W. Brogan, or Bernard Lewis, who all wrote for the Cambridge series in question-simply vanished in the volumes because the commissioned chapters had to proceed at the pace of the gathered convoy. There is need for collaborative history, to be sure, but only when at least three elements conspire to bring the enterprise to a symmetrical focus: a running thematic thread that suffuses and connects the individual chapters; chronological unity, which must be informed by dynamic purpose (a date is important only because of the consequences of what happened, rather than because it is a date); and, finally, a thematic introduction that should serve as a summary and as an interpretive guide. Against the need for integration, editorial aloofness is not strength.

According to the publishers, what is new and different about the nine-volume Cambridge History of Christianity is its global perspective, which is defined as something more than the history of Western European Christianity. Accordingly, volume 8 sets out to explore popular piety, nonformal expressions of the Christian faith, and the sociology of Christian formation, worship, and devotion, as well as developments beyond the West. The editors explain that "there has been no attempt to impose their own views upon the contributors" (p. 9)-that would simply be too much for academic hubris, we all know.

In reality, however, the volume is for the most part about Western Christianity, expounding the subject within its designated period of the nineteenth century in thirty-four chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue by the editors. Some twenty-seven of the chapters are on the West and its overseas impact, four on Asia, and one each on Eastern churches and Islam, Africa, and Latin America. Much of this material is excellent Western history, but given this emphasis on Western Christianity and its global ramifications, "World Christianities" in the title, with its equal-opportunity suggestion in the religion's global distribution, is overreaching. There is little question that the commanding frame of Christianity in the nineteenth century was the rise of European national states and their overseas colonial ventures, as the introduction makes clear. In design and conception, Protestant missions were an appendage of Europe's imperial mandate, and this volume does little to change that impression.

In following the well-trodden path of Western Christian predominance, the volume all but smothers seeds in the nineteenth century of the acute indigenization and its anti-Western predilections that missions sowed, as is evident, for example, in the chapters on India, China, Korea, Indochina, and Japan.

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