Mainstream Christian History:

Missing Its Second World Chapters

Walter Sawatsky

Missiologists Todd Johnson and Sandra Kim have noted that the “European colonial system . . . gave rise to the idea that the Christian faith is exclusively Western,” and that, in contrast, the shift to a global view of Christianity was largely a twentieth-century story.1 Although offering powerful quotations from other scholars on what must constitute “a Church in which all races are at home,” nevertheless the “Europe” they mean refers essentially to Anglo and Spanish colonialism, not the Europe of the Ottomans, the Slavs, or even the Germans and Scandinavians. The “one stream” within which so much current Christian historiography and missiology proceeds toward the global is the stream of the western side of Europe. How can our thinking become more inclusive?

For nearly a millennium the four patriarchates of the Eastern Church remained in communion, and all eyes looked to the splendor that was Byzantium and to Constantinople, the seat of the ecumenical patriarch. The latter’s efforts at assisting the other churches as they became persecuted minorities under Islam is instructive, both negatively and positively.2 Most of the modern community of church historians and missiologists, however, know little of that history.

Modern mission history has been seen as a two-part story: First, the expansion of Roman Catholicism worldwide, now claiming somewhat over one-fourth of the world’s population (1.1 billion) to become by far the largest Christian confessional body; and second, the development of Protestantism and the rise of Protestant missionary movements, thanks to the spiritual renewal of European Pietism and the Evangelical Awakenings in Britain and America. Today when we add together what missiologist David Barrett refers to as Independents (426.6 million), Protestants (375.8 million), and Anglicans (nearly 80 million), we can speak of 882.4 million believers generally linked to the influence of the Reformation.3 In 1900, according to Barrett, Orthodox churches were still statistically larger than Protestants and Independents combined, and Roman Catholic numbers were only twice as large. By 2005, however, the Orthodox total of nearly 220 million was only fourth or fifth in size to the other categories. To pay more attention to their story would automatically draw attention to the theme of Christian survival in hostile environments, since that was the setting for much of Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy’s recent history.

Global History and the Recognition of Christianity Moving South

It was historians doing mission history who drew attention to the New [non-Western] Christendom, now popularized in Philip Jenkins’ book.4 Those working and teaching in Africa, Latin America, and Asia had become profoundly troubled by church history taught in their schools which said little about Christianity in the Third World, or about theology or ethics except from a Western perspective.

Graduate study in Russian religious history became for me a time of asking questions that reflected increased astonishment. We were, after all, examining a quite fascinating part of Europe, where the social/Communist vision of a German, Karl Marx, was informed by the moral vision for social justice of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though it dismissed Christian pretensions to social teaching and practice in favor of a humanism without God. The twentieth-century history of Marxism in power included an increasingly thorough program of bringing Christian history to an end.

Many of the best analyses of Russian and Soviet history in the 1970s contained a line in the preface stating that it was impossible to understand Russian history without acknowledging how deeply it was permeated with religion. But, because the writer was not a theologian, that aspect of the story would not be covered. I recall reading with respect and appreciation Marc Raeff’s careful biography of Mikhail Speransky, an official during the reign of Tsar Alexander I, who began the process of collating Russian laws, and who initiated a serious reform of state administration that fostered the rule of law. But this biography had Speransky drawing his ideas from the French Enlightenment and British common-law traditions. As I dug into my dissertation research on a close colleague of Speransky, I discovered that Speransky had translated the Imitation of Christ into Russian, and that he had worked in partnership with Alexander Golitsyn to design a major reform of the church school system, including introducing theological academies. From those beginnings around 1808, Russian Orthodoxy reached a point around 1900 when 85 percent of its priests were seminary graduates and the professors in the theological academies were reading and reviewing the current literature from Western Europe.

My growing astonishment at the inability of the majority of Western historians of Russia and the Soviet Union to take the religious factor seriously was compounded when I searched for good critical histories of Russian Orthodoxy and failed. Nineteenth-century scholars had done yeoman work in gathering data, but neither church nor state would then tolerate critical integration. It meant that when believers faced attacks by Soviet atheist activists, they lacked good resources for defending Christian history. That lack was soon compounded by the physical destruction of much literature, the forbidding of religious publications, and a massive circulation of primitive anti-religious literature.

Better conditions for religious studies have emerged since 1989. Serious scholars are at work, but the available publications too often consist of reprints of books which first appeared in the 1890s. That has been particularly harmful for non-Orthodox Christian churches, for in the 1890s, the reigning social science from which the then-new Russian Orthodox mission society drew its theories was speaking of sectarians in the idiom of mental illness and pathological personality types.

So I approached my students in St. Petersburg in 1998 with excitement and deep distress. I was to teach a course on Christian history in the twentieth century from a Russian perspective. How would one structure a course if one were looking at the development of the twentieth century from St. Petersburg, Russia? One set of questions involved asking which were the central topics – were they the work of the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Association through various stages? How had they affected church life in Russia? What would be the appropriate way of approaching the Holocaust? How had the Gulag experience shaped the churches? And was there now a consciously post-Gulag theology? What was the value and purpose for working our way through Owen Chadwick’s very British approach to The Churches in the Cold War, or Alec Vidler’s Church in the Revolutionary Era, in which Russians are largely absent? I also had to determine what had been published in Russian that I could assign to read? Since then there have been attempts to write and think globally. One enterprising Evangelical scholar was able to publish a massive two-volume Russian-language tome on two millennia of Christianity, filling it with paintings, icons, and photos, and deliberately adjusting text space so photos of Patriarch Alexei II, Pope John Paul II, and Billy Graham shared a page, for example.5

The New Global Christian Histories

The launching of a new century spawned numerous books that consciously attempted a global perspective. Generally speaking, the new global Christian histories have brought us more from the Third World, sometimes at the expense of downsizing the space devoted to the Reformation, and mostly by describing the reception of Christianity in the regions, rather than the stories of mission accomplishments. Comparing the still widely used two-volume Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez with his earlier work reveals the mentality shift, with more attention to Latin America and Asia in the second volume.

Now the choice of newer textbooks for a survey include a single-author volume by Jakob Balling of Aarhus, Denmark,6 and another by Frederick Norris who consciously highlights Asia, Africa, and South America.7 The choices also include a multiple-author volume edited by Adrian Hastings8 and, best of all, Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist’s History of the World Christian Movement, in two volumes, and its companion set, Readings in World Christian History, edited by John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk.9

Astonishing in the new histories is the superficial treatment of the eastern half of Europe and Russia. At my query on who the experts were from the Second World on their consulting team, Sunquist indicated they lacked the connections to bring such on board. We too often fail to ask key questions. How big is the Europe referred to? Which Asia do they mean? And which Africa is getting the church historian’s attention? Thus it is rare, for example, to find in the Africa volumes noted above an indication of current publications on Ethiopian and Coptic Christian history, or the latter’s rather far-reaching mission efforts into East Africa.

More Digging for What Matters Most

No Christian leader had a bigger funeral than the late Pope John Paul II in April 2005. It was not the grandeur of Rome that attracted the millions, nor the power of the papacy claiming supremacy in triumphalist tones. Rather, it was the authenticity of this man of faith. He left an unfinished agenda that historians and missiologists must pursue further. For example, when John Paul II issued a renewed call for the evangelization of Europe, it included instructions to the clergy to go out of their way to assist the Orthodox Church in strengthening its own pastoral, evangelical outreach, rather than proselytize in the neighbor’s territory. He called for a deliberate attempt to renew the faith by acknowledging the shortcomings of the church’s history, to be taught by the faith of the martyrs, in particular to make an effort to incorporate the martyrs from other churches into one’s telling of the faith story.10

Let me offer hints of what deeper exploration of the Second World’s story and of its integration with the whole can provide. The mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs caught the attention of the West when the Slavic pope integrated it into an anniversary celebration for Catholics in Slovakia. The conversion of Rus registered internationally when its millennial year in 1988 became the year when perestroika turned to religion, and by 1989 Soviet citizens by the thousands were attending evangelization events. It was not really the forced baptism of all the people in the Dnepr River on order of Grand Prince Vladimir in 988 that caused Christianity to grow and take over the language and heart of the Russians within the next 500 years. It was much more the witness of missionary monks. Their story of a mission of patience – long years of faithful prayer, watched carefully by the people before the converting started – has been told by Johannes Reimer, a Protestant student of missiologist David Bosch.11 The classic strategy of vernacular texts for worship, rapid training and ordination of local clergy, and self-organization not only shaped Orthodox beginnings but its work in Siberia in the seventeenth-century and in Alaska in the eighteenth century.12

The most recent flurry of mission to the former Soviet Union turned out to be a sad harvest. Many missionaries who came, especially Evangelical Protestants, suffered from profound historical amnesia. Not understanding what Christian witness and suffering for faith there had been during the Communist years, the Americanized and Westernized gospel they presented or incarnated triggered a xenophobic reaction. Today missionary visas are again difficult to obtain. Evangelical missionaries from America too easily assumed that Baptists are the same everywhere; too late many noticed these were Slavic Evangelicals, living alongside Orthodoxy; and too late they noticed the new converts from a highly secularized world, who were seeking faith, looking for signs of authenticity, not necessarily for a health-and-wealth theology.13

Throughout the mission flurry, little attention was paid to the local believers – the Gulag survivors, the ones who had learned to adapt to Soviet culture, and who now found ways to adapt to new contexts and to new poverty. There were new congregations in the Caucasus learning what they could about their own language and culture that pointed back to a time before Islam came, when books and script were Christian. There were indigenously organized congregations in the multi-lingual/ethnic worlds of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Would their nearest ties be to the Russians and Ukrainians of Europe? Or when and how would the relationship to the Christians of China and Afghanistan, and even nearby India, emerge? And as prison camp archives open, to whom will its many millions of martyrs speak?

Essential to Christian mission is the claim that there is an overarching narrative of the Incarnation placed in time and history. The church universal started at Pentecost and has been guided by the Holy Spirit ever since. That its story is so compromised and convoluted has to do with the flawed humans on whom the Spirit relied, and it has to do with the many particular cultures and moments in time that shaped the expression of Christianity. The pressing challenge is to grasp the grand narrative as something other than Western Christendom gone global. For David Bosch and Hans Küng the Western, Hellenistic paradigm served to highlight a shift from Hebraic thought worlds to Greek philosophy. But the Slavic and Greek Christian worlds never fit that paradigm, nor did the Oriental Christians of Syria and farther east. Their two-thousand-year story requires more conceptual refinement than staying stuck in Hellenism.14 Therefore, for Second World Christian history to converge with First and Third requires reassessing that history outside the reigning paradigms that now shape missiology. ♦


1 Todd M. Johnson and Sandra S. Kim, “Describing the Worldwide Christian Phenomenon,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29 (April 2005), 80.

2 This comes through well in the two volumes published so far of an inclusive Eastern and Western Christian history: John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity; and Aristeides Papadakis and John Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, Vol. 4: The Church 1071-1453 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994).

3 David Barrett, “Status of Global Mission, 2005, in Context of 20th and 21st Centuries,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 29 (January 2005), 29.

4 The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford Univer­sity Press, 2002).

5 Sergei Sannikov, Dvadtsat vekov Khristianstva [Twenty Centuries of Christianity], 2 vols. (Odessa: Bogomysl, 2002).

6 Jakob Balling, The Story of Christianity from Birth to Global Presence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003; original Danish: 1986, 1996).

7 Frederick W. Norris, Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002).

8 Adrian Hastings, ed., A World History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Thirteen authors, nearly all British.

9 Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1 (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001); Vol. 2, forthcoming; John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., Readings in World Christian History, Vol. 1, Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004); Vol. 2, forthcoming.

10 Most of the agenda mentioned is discussed in John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sint (1995).

11 Johannes Reimer, Missionerskaia deiatel’nost’ drevnerusskogo monashestva [The Missionary Activity of Old Russian Monasticism] (Lage, Germany: Logos, 1996).

12 For example, Andrei A. Znamenski, Shamanism and Christianity: Native Encounters with Russian Orthodox Missions in Siberia and Alaska, 1820-1917 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).

13 There is extensive literature on Russian and Soviet Evangelicals, to which this writer has also contributed, even a massive volume by Albert Wardin describing sources in English. So it was all the more astonishing to observe in Donald M. Lewis, ed., Christianity Reborn: The Global Expansion of Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) neither an article on Slavic Evangelicals, nor even a note in the general essays about their existence! They do number in the millions.14 Going beyond Bosch’s paradigms produced a fruitful conference for Asian theologians held in Elkhart, IN., July, 2003. Conference papers were published as a special supplement to Mission Focus; Annual Review (2003). ♦

Edited exerpt reprinted with permission from Walter Sawatsky, “What if the Three Worlds of Christian History Converged?” in Evangelical, Ecumenical, and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation, Essays in Honor of Wilbert R. Shenk, ed. by James R. Krabill et al. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006.

Walter Sawatsky is professor of mission and church history at Associated Mennonite Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana