Book Review



"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." Matthew 16:18

A History of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette

* * * *
A History of Christianity

Author: Kenneth Scott Latourette

Copyright 1953. First Edition

Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated
49 East 33rd Street, New York 16, N. Y.

  Hard Back. 1516 pages

Library of Congress catalogue card number: 53-5004

From Amazon's description: Kenneth Scott Latouretter [sic] was a Sterling Professor of Missions and Oriental History and Fellow of Berkeley College in Yale University Divinity School. Includes 20 fold-out maps. - Here is both an old and new story. It is old. Repeatedly across its nineteen and a half centuries the history of Christianity has been told and retold. It is not only old: it is also ever new. In each age it must be told afresh.

Introduction and Overview: Kenneth Scott Latourette (KSL) was a consummate scholar. His depth and breadth of knowledge are remarkable. His book consists of 61 chapters followed by an index. In general terms, he viewed Christianity under several time periods:

(1) Time of Christ to A.D. 500. Christianity's triumph over the Roman Empire.

(2) 500 - 950. The first recession punctuated by the barbarians' destruction in Europe and Islam's conquest of North Africa and Spain.

(3) 950 - 1350. Christianity advances by way of the increasing power of Roman pontiffs.

(4) 1350 - 1500. Geographic loss and internal lassitude marked by Muslim invasion, the Great Schism, the "Babylonian Captivity" of the removal of the Papacy to Avignon, and mind-boggling corruption.

(5) 1500 - 1750. Reform and Expansion. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation.

(6) 1750 - 1815. Repudiation and Revival. Disaffection caused by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, somewhat countered by "Great Awakenings" in America and Europe.

(7) 1815 - 1914. The Great Century. Growing repudiation paralleled by abounding vitality and unprecedented expansion. Trends include the growing authority of the Pope, but also the dissolution of monastic houses and the confiscation of Roman Catholic church property. The geographical expansion of Christianity throughout the world through missionary endeavors.

(8) 1914 - 1950. Vigor Amidst the Storm. Two great "World Wars" paralyzed the world in the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover oppressive ideologies afflicted mankind - Adolf Hitler's Nazism and the final solution; and the scourge of communism which dominated Russia and its Eastern European satellites, along with China. Christianity suffered losses, but it made some gains. Primarily in the Protestant wing of the Church, increasing efforts were made towards ecumenism. In America, the National Council of Churches was born and the World Council of Churches was established. According to Latourette, there was mounting vigor in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the United States and elsewhere. Around the world there were strides in evangelism. Latourette is persuaded of the final triumph of Christianity, if not in this life, then in the next.

Perceptions:    Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1918, Kenneth Scott Latourette (KSL) was an historian of China, Japan, and world Christianity. Though he was Baptist, it seems to me that he treated Roman Catholicism sympathetically, and he was at least fair toward the Eastern, or Greek wing of Christianity, and toward Russian Orthodoxy.

Another of my perceptions is that KSL fairly consistently maintained an animus toward, if I can call it this, the right wing of Christianity. In many cases, this wing was the most Biblical wing of Christianity, and the least constrained  by unbiblical church tradition. For example, he devoted an entire chapter (34, pp. 778-787) to "The Radical Reformers: The Anabaptists" (emphasis mine). Repeatedly throughout his book, he labeled the Anabaptists (and others) as radicals. At one point he stated, "As we have seen, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Zwinglians regarded Anabaptists as dangerous radicals, threatening to bring in anarchy in Church and state. Among all three there were those who sought to stamp them out by force. Late in the 1520's and early in the 1530's hundreds of Anabaptists were killed, some by drowning, some by beheading, and others by burning" (p. 782). It seems to me that the radicals were those who blithely murdered those with whom they disagreed.

Another perception of mine is that KSL was unduly enamored with the ecumenical movement at the expense of Biblical Church doctrine. In his treatment of the first half of the twentieth century he repeatedly referred to the various ecumenical movements and organizations that eventuated in the World Council of Churches (WCC) (pp. 1344, ff.). Inevitably he spoke of ecumenism in glowing tones. As a Biblicist, I personally want no part of cooperation with the WCC. I would have to sacrifice my commitment to the authority of the Bible to do so. For example, the WCC General Secretary is slated to join Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar for a Global Conference of Human Fraternity in Dubai on Feb. 3-4, 2019. What fellowship can Christians possibly have with Islam, which has butchered hundreds of thousands of Christians and Jews?

Yet another perception of mine is that KSL argues that periods of increasing monasticism indicate a positive growth and vigor in Christianity. I would argue the opposite, that monasticism glorifies unbiblical asceticism!

Evaluation of Latourette's Theory of Religious History. Dr. John D. Hannah has written an article in the Grace Theological Journal entitled, "Kenneth Scott Latourette A Trail Blazer – A Critical Evaluation of Latourette's Theory of Religious History." Hannah agrees with me on  Latourette's ecumenical bent.  He wrote, "While he was preeminently a historian, he was also one of this century's most ardent supporters of the ecumenical movement within  Protestantism ..." (p. 8).

Hannah takes issue with KSL's  understanding of history: "In general,  Latourette's concept of history can be characterized as religious, progressive, global, optimistic, and critical" (p. 10). He understand KSL to believe in  "pulsating waves of Jesus' influence." KSL would  quantify three criteria for evaluating the expanding nature  of Christianity: "first, the geographical extent of Christianity; second, the 'vitality' or quality of commitment of those called Christians; and third, the influence of Christianity upon the human race" (p. 11). Hannah argues that only the first of these is measurable. And he analyzes KSL's logic as assuming that "larger numbers of Christians mean more Christians of strong commitment and that expansion implies increasing influence" (p. 11).

Hannah also believes KSL is overly optimistic in his perception of Christianity. He quotes (p. 14) KSL in his book, The Christian Outlook as saying,

It would appear that Christianity, with long centuries,  probably millenniums, [sic] ahead of it, will progressively bring mankind into obedience. Crises will be encountered. Losses will be experienced. Yet recessions will be followed by fresh advances. The general direction will be onward."

Hannah continued: "The most frequent criticism of Latourette's pulsating linear philosophy of history is his optimistic evaluation of the present [Twentieth] century. The phrase 'post-Christian era' troubled Latourette, because to understand a diminishing view of Jesus would destroy his optimistic, progressive view of history" (p. 20).

Writing from the vantage point of 2019, my clear understanding of Christianity in North America and Western Europe and the world at large is that we are unquestionably living in a post-Christian era.That is not to say that KSL has not performed a valuable service. Hannah acknowledged, "Latourette, as a tireless chronicler of facts, pushed Christian historiography beyond the established myopic perimeters and pioneered a new conception of that history" (p. 21).

Though I disagree with KSL on a number of points, I believe he has performed herculean service on behalf of the Church. I like the history he has written far better than the history I have not written. If we wish to give him a "B" for perception, let us at least give him an "A" for effort.

Published by James T. Bartsch


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Published February 1, 2019
Updated December 2, 2019