Home / Comment / In brief

Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History

Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History

Laura Moulton reviews ‘Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History’ by Brian Stanley. 20/02/2019

At the turn of the twentieth century the game plan for the global expansion of Christianity was clear: Western churches believed that the work of missionaries in the nineteenth century would pay dividends, and Christendom’s borders would expand across the world. This was certainly the view of the “Disciples of Christ” denomination in Chicago, who renamed their house magazine The Christian Century in 1908, in anticipation of things to come. But by the 1960s, the received academic wisdom was that religion in general – and Christianity in particular – was in inexorable decline, typified in the secularization thesis: as societies become more advanced, religion loses its authority and influence, and so the weakening of religious life in the West would prove the template for the rest of the world as the century wore on.

Brain Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century makes a persuasive case that neither theory proved accurate. Using a novel thematic structure, Stanley charts a course between the secularization thesis and the blanket optimism of The Christian Century. His own thesis isn’t especially daring, but it doesn’t need to be: the twentieth century should be given a greater prominence in studies of World Christianity, which is often dominated by studies of missionaries in the nineteenth. We should pay it greater historical attention due to both the volume of conversions that continued to occur through missionary efforts, and the complexity of the Christianities that emerged, solidified, and declined across the globe in more established Christian populations.

Whilst he challenges the case for labelling the twentieth century “the secular century” (and the established narratives of the ways in which the World Wars led to declining religiosity in the West) Stanley refrains from a decision on whether it can accurately be called “the Christian century”. Instead, he characterises it as one of rapid and manifold Christian conversion, in which the boundaries of Christendom expanded and contracted like a kaleidoscope, producing “radically different patterns of believing and belonging”. [360]

That fact that a coherent study like this is even possible, given the near–unfathomable range of manifestations of the religion across the globe, points to a fruitful tension at the heart of Christianity. Christianity is notable in its character as a textually stabilised faith that relies on translation for its dissemination. In other words, the Christians that Stanley writes about are connected across time and space by the Bible: a stable, unchanging text that is at the same time profoundly shaped, and to some extent changed, every time it’s translated. Unlike other world religions which rely on fluency in a text’s original language to understand scripture, or don’t place a universal canon at their heart, translation of the Bible means that Christianity is well placed to mould and be moulded by the societies it inhabits.

What could have been a diffuse flood lamp of a book is instead a series of sharp spotlights, allowing seemingly unconnected periods of history to enter into dialogue with one another. In response to the challenge of covering such a vast historical and geographical period, Stanley splits the book into 15 thematic chapters, each considering two specific and contrasting geographical case studies from any period or area in twentieth–century Christianity. Enhanced by Stanley’s bright, clear prose, this strategy of juxtaposition prompts genuinely original insight into patterns of how different Christianities interact with the societies they inhabit, be it in assimilation, critique, or rejection. For example, he compares Marian devotion as a cypher for Catholic nationalism in Poland with Protestant nationalism in South Korea; to explore the politics of Christian survival, he looks at the Coptic Church’s decline in Egypt in contrast to the experience of Christians in Indonesia. It is a model which should embolden more scholars to tackle the ‘World Christianities’ genre as a whole.

In one excellent chapter, he illustrates the comparable ways in which Christianity responded (and in fact, failed to respond adequately) to the emergence of racialized political ideologies in the twentieth century.  He contrasts the Nazi Regime in Germany and the Rwandan Genocide to show that “in times of crisis Christian perceptions of where the path of justice lies are liable to be blown off course by the prevailing winds of ethnic sentiment and ideology.” [170] He suggests that in both cases, perhaps the church’s most notable crime was not always the “bang” of outright collaboration with a genocidal regime, but the “whimper” of a furtive moral legitimisation of violence, through misguided participation in a regime’s perverse quest for “justice” against a persecuted group on behalf of the ruling population. This argument has been made before. However, by pulling out the clear comparisons between the church’s failures in such geographically and historically disparate periods his argument, that often “what Christians find hardest of all is to recognize the extent to which evil can infect even the company of the redeemed” [171], carries new weight.

More established lines of comparison are given fresh relevance in Stanley’s study. For instance, various theologies of liberation (be it responding to racial injustice in South Africa, economic oppression in Latin America, Black Theology movements in the US, or political subjugation in Palestine) are framed within the compelled re–imagining of the Christian ordo–salutis (“order of salvation”)[1] to include a greater focus on impoverished peoples than in any previous century. [363]

Stanley isn’t in the business of making predictions, but his analysis crystallises a couple of recurrent themes of note for those interested or invested in Christianity’s continued roles in the twenty–first century. For instance, it can often make more sense to view secularisation not as a linear decline, but as a series of “recoils” from overwhelming or objectionable varieties of the religious. These optics are a factor over which religious people and institutions actually have a fairly high degree of control. Linear trends of secularization (those more obviously difficult to reverse) tend to emerge not where secularization has been imposed from above by a state, but where church attendance and relevance has been allowed to decline over several decades: “churches ultimately have more to fear from cultural than political varieties of the secular”. [101].

Stanley’s self–awareness of the limitations of his study make it difficult to find fault with this book. From the outset he is clear that a truly comprehensive overview of Christianity in the twentieth century would be unmanageable, and so the case studies he chooses, and the manner in which he deploys them, are a reflection of his interests and expertise. For a less experienced scholar this might have produced a patchy read, but Stanley’s clear familiarity with the breadth of his chosen material – and the command with which he mines it – makes for a trustworthy, thematically comprehensive, and thoroughly enjoyable book.  

Perhaps the most disappointing limitation of his study is the notable absence of female voices. Stanley openly admits this as a widespread constraint of the field: “Named Christian women feature less often in the text than they should in view of the consistent predominance of women in the membership of almost all churches in the twentieth century”. [6] The chapter ‘A Noise of War in the Camp: Human Right, Gender and Sexuality’ is a key and welcome exception, which includes a fascinating discussion of women’s ordination in Australian Anglicanism. 

Nevertheless, this feels like a missed opportunity; another logged entry into the library of unwritten history books that would have included more women if only we had the time. This is particularly true in the light of the work of World Christianity scholars like Dana L. Robert who has been arguing for more than a decade that World Christianity can and should be understood as a “Women’s movement”, based on demographics of participation and the central (if often undocumented) role that women play in church growth and consolidation, particularly in the global south.[2]

But ultimately, this shouldn’t detract from the real strengths of the book. Particularly welcome is Stanley’s confidence to propose a nuanced and measured thesis where others would look for spin or sweeping gestures. To offer a blanket characterisation of Christianity’s global expansion for scholarly effect would undermine the larger point Stanley makes: Christianity entered into dialogue with the societies it encountered, whether it formed them, collaborated with them, or rejected them, when Christians had power and when they didn’t. So trends do emerge, but they’re not always easy to spot and certainly not easy to predict. It’s a series of chemical reactions in which specific combinations of era and geography react with Christianity differently to produce emergent properties: political nationalism, educational reform, state–collaboration, liberation movements, transnational co–operation and schism, etc. Stanley’s book is an excellent guide to those reactions, and the social, political properties they created.

Christianity in the Twentieth Century. A World History (2018) by Brian Stanley is published by Princeton University Press.


[1] A theological concept of the consecutive steps in the work of the Holy Spirit in the world in order to achieve salvation.

[2] Robert, Dana L. “World Christianity as a Women’s Movement.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 30, no. 4 (October 2006): 180–88.

Image from Princeton University Press.


Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton is a research assistant at Theos. She holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies and an MPhil in World Christianities both from the University of Cambridge. Prior to Theos, she worked for an international affairs think tank. Research interests include contemporary Pentecostalism and religion in the US and the Americas.

Watch, listen to or read more from Laura Moulton

Posted 19 February 2019

Christianity, Global Politics, History, Identity, Religion, Review


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.