Christianity in the Twentieth Century: An Interview with Brian Stanley about His New Book

Attendees at this year’s meeting of the Yale-Edinburgh Group had a special treat in a book launch for Brian Stanley’s new book, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History. Professor Stanley was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book for the CSWC blog.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Well, in a sense I didn’t! I would never have dreamt of attempting such an impossible assignment. Back in November 2011 I was invited by Princeton University Press to consider writing a broad-ranging history of Christianity in the 20th century for the educated general reader. After considerable hesitation I eventually agreed.

What gaps did you see in the existing literature?

There are some useful surveys of the growth of Christianity as a world religion, and some big one-volume histories of Christianity through the centuries, but very few histories of Christianity in the twentieth century that are in principle global in their coverage.

Your book is a global history of Christianity in the twentieth century; what challenges did you face in writing a book with such a broad range?

There were some obvious challenges. How, for example, could I impart a fresh perspective of interpretation, and not simply cannibalise other people’s scholarship? How would I decide what to include and what to leave out? How would I organise the book in such a way as to keep the reader’s interest and maintain some kind of thematic coherence?

So why did you organise the book the way you did?

A regional approach would have been dreadfully predictable. A single chronological narrative would have been impossible. Instead, the book proceeds by examining fifteen big themes, and analysing each of them by means of juxtaposing two case studies, usually from different parts of the world. The case studies were selected in order to illuminate the themes, by contrast and comparison. They help readers to identify trans-national channels of influence as well as striking differences. I have tried to include some element of primary research in most of these case studies, and I hope that the unconventional nature of some of the juxtapositions in itself gives the interpretation of the studies an element of originality.

What surprises did you encounter in your research?

There were certainly several. One might be the horrific exchange of populations in 1923, enforced by the Western powers, that saw 1.1 million Turkish Christians expelled from Anatolia in exchange for 380,000 Greek Muslims, thus wiping out in one stroke the ancient Christian tradition of Asia Minor. Another might be the prominent role taken by black conservative evangelical students in the struggle against apartheid, one of them being Cyril Ramaphosa, who, since the book was written, has become president of South Africa. A third might be the extraordinary influence wielded by a former Cambridge philosophy don, Derek Prince, whose Platonic ideas of spiritual reality have found their way into modern neo-Pentecostal deliverance ministry in Africa and elsewhere.

How did you decide what to include and what to leave out; were there any stories you wish you could have included but had to leave out?

I have tried to be reasonably comprehensive in geographical terms, paying attention to parts of the world that often get neglected in scholarship, such as Melanesia, Australia, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean. Of course, there were hard decisions to be made on omission. I have written the book in Scotland, yet Scotland, alas, scarcely features! Quite deliberately, there is relatively little about the history of theology: that is a story for a scholar more theological than I am to tell. I wish there could have been more than there is on popular Christianity in China or North-East India – two of the great surprise stories of the Church in the twentieth century.

Building on your work in this book, where do we go from here? What would you like to do next and what would you like to see other scholars do with your research?

Although I shall probably write some articles related to the book, I have in mind to do something very different before too long – a scholarly biography of the pioneering India Baptist missionary, William Carey. I hope that this global history of Christianity in the twentieth century might encourage other scholars to attempt the complex but exciting challenge of writing transnational Christian history.


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About Jeffrey Cannon

Jeffrey Cannon is an historian of African Christianity and currently a PhD student in world Christianity, investigating the colonial and post-colonial experiences of African peoples. The focus of his doctoral thesis is on the use of missionary photographs to influence British perceptions of Africa in the midst of British decolonization.

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