The effects of the enormous social, political, economic, demographic, religious, and intellectual changes occurring from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries are sufficiently complex to tax the minds of the best historians for generations to come. The period 1789–1914 saw changes emanating from the West and reverberating worldwide, and these changes would have broad effects on human civilization, most certainly including the church. The task of assessing those changes and the consequential impacts on Christianity and Christians is both fascinating and demanding. Ian J. Shaw has undertaken this task in his book, Churches, Revolutions, and Empires.
Shaw is an historian of evangelicalism, with a Ph.D. in church history from Manchester University. In addition to his scholarly work, Shaw has served as a pastor ministering in the urban center of Manchester, England. His treatment of the history of Christianity and Christian missions from the American Revolution to the eve of World War I appears to be shaped by his work both in academia and ministry within an urban context. The project is expansive, well-researched, and consistently argued. It is particularly helpful as a historical study in the connections between ideas, events, and the shapers of those events.
Shaw states the work’s thesis in the first lines of the preface: “[the period 1789–1914] was a hugely eventful period dominated by the theme of revolution” (ix). Sweeping currents of change brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment caught up all patterns and systems in its force—political, social, economic, technological, cultural, and religious. The church was swept up in these revolutionary currents along with just about everything else, and it would not appear nearly the same at the beginning of the twentieth century as it did at the close of the eighteenth. In 1789, the church existed almost solely in the West. In 1914, Christianity claimed adherents all over the world.
Shaw considers the revolutions which fundamentally changed religious patterns starting with the American Revolution (this despite the fact that the title defines the period of consideration beginning after American independence). He then considers the impact of the French Revolution on Christianity, and contrasts the two. In America, Christianity would flourish as a result of the opening up of the religious environment due to disestablishment and religious freedom. In France, Christianity would be repudiated and the church would suffer greatly as a result of the Terror and Napoleon’s use of the church as a political and social tool. The contrast is striking, since the two nations had been allies in America’s bid for independence, and also since American republican ideas would have such a profound impact on the French.
As important as these revolutions were to the course of church development, during the nineteenth century there would be several more to come. The American and French Revolutions would happen as a result of a bourgeoning middle class and liberal political philosophy, effects of which both reached deeply into how Christianity would be practiced and how its relationship to state authority would be understood. But there came a moral revolution also, defined by the abolition of the slave trade, and later slavery itself, in Britain, France, and America. There also came the Industrial Revolution, bringing with it the growth of cities and the concomitant issues of urban poverty, socio-economic inequalities, and overpopulation. It introduced new technologies which considerably simplified human existence and continued a shift in attention away from the supernatural to the temporal that began in the Middle Ages. It also made imperial expansion of the Western powers into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific possible, and this would be directly tied to the growth of modern Christian missions.
Intellectual changes would come as a result of revolutions in science and theology. Darwin’s theory of evolution, introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century, would coincide with Protestant liberal theology, birthed in Germany by F. D. E. Schleiermacher. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians responded to these intellectual changes in various ways. A powerful conservative response came, particularly from America and Britain. While Christian religious life proved resilient in America (where it was flourishing in 1914), church attendance significantly waned in Europe. Still, the church expanded dramatically outside of Europe, making Christianity a world religion.
Shaw’s thesis, that the course of Christian history would be defined by the theme of revolution in the period from 1789–1914, is hardly deniable. His project of arguing this thesis is original, ambitious, and compelling, particularly when one considers the vast changes since 1789, and furthermore, that 1789 was really not that long ago. What is most helpful to Shaw’s thesis is his argument that Christianity became a global reality as a result of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Western revolutions. He shows how the spread of Christianity was contingent on various aspects of the revolutions. For example, Shaw ties imperialism and technological advancement arising from the Industrial Revolution with Christian missions into Africa and Asia. He links the Christian impetus for evangelism on the part of William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Lottie Moon, among many others, with the liberal emphasis on the value of the individual—which springs from the political and social revolutions in America and France which themselves are, in large measure, the product of the Enlightenment. Urban missions taking place in European and American cities were partially the result of the social gospel movement, which has its roots in Protestant liberal theology. These are but a few of the ways in which Shaw relates the modern missionary endeavor of the church with the revolutions taking place in pre-World War I modernity.
Other works covering the same period focus on changes in the Christian religion wrought by theological, political, social, or economic influences alone. The relationship between church and state, church and science, church and economy, church and society are all affected in various ways by modernity. These topics have been, and continue to be studied by fine historians and Shaw considers each of these in turn. But Shaw’s contribution is in the relationship between the spread of Christianity beyond the Western world as a result of the development of modernity. This is, in a sense, truly ironic given the grave challenges presented to Christian orthodoxy and practice by the revolutions producing modernity. Despite those intellectual and practical challenges, and despite whatever setbacks the church has sustained from those challenges, the Christian gospel has expanded its reach far beyond what anyone could conceivably have imagined in 1789.
Shaw’s thesis embraces the revolutions taking place up to 1914, so the time period he considers is quite vast. While Shaw treats both Western and Eastern Christianity, his emphasis is clearly on Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. This is understandable, since most of the major revolutions in the period he considers originated in Western countries. But Shaw stops short of treating what is arguably the most profound revolution of the twentieth century: the Communist revolution in Russia, which takes place only three years after the close of the period under consideration in his work. The question of this revolution’s effect on both Eastern and Western churches, but particularly on the Eastern and non-white churches, would have been an interesting one to address. In Shaw’s defense, however, this question was beyond the scope of his particular study. Still, when broadly considering church history in terms of the impact of revolutions on the church, the Communist revolutions logically fit.
Shaw’s book is a helpful resource for church leaders, students, and scholars. There is certainly a place for it in any cultural Christian context. Academically, the book fits in courses in church history, missiology, intellectual history, and history of modernity. It is also accessible as a resource for laypersons who are interested in how Christianity is situated in the development of the modern world. Shaw makes a valuable contribution in demonstrating the adaptability and resiliency of Christ’s people over the course of the centuries.