Sheridan Gilley

Historians of modern Christianity in western Europe, writing amid the chill winds of secularism at the beginning of the twenty-first century, may be tempted to apologise for their subject. Why write about something of diminishing importance, which has been in decline since the French Revolution? No student of the medieval or early modern eras doubts the central role of religion, but modern historiography can get along without it. In fact, the historian of nineteenth-century Christianity need not be defensive about his or her theme, which still entered into the very fabric of the social and political conflicts of the era, and just as the creation of a united Italy was on one level a defeat of Catholicism, and the creation of the German Empire a victory for Protestantism, so the attack upon the churches, in what some have seen as the beginning of secularisation, makes a fascinating story which, at least in the immediate term, led not only to religious decline but also to renewal and revival.

Western Europe might, however, be considered something of an anomaly even in the present, in which Christianity continues to grow and expand elsewhere, in the Third World, in the United States and, with the collapse of atheistic communism, in eastern Europe. This must be one reason for the somewhat unconventional appearance of this volume by the standards of other histories of the nineteenth-century Christian faith, as here at least a third of the space is given to the new Christian churches outside Europe. Catholic Christianity became a global religion through the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the sixteenth century and French missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth. There are chapters here reflecting the legacy of this earlier era. These include Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth century displayed a whole range of splendours and miseries, from post-colonial anticlerical attack and with too fewpriests; the Philippines, where Catholicism set down deep roots in native culture and with a native clergy, sometimes resistant to Spanish rule; and India, where the Portuguese had i both persecuted and tried to convert the ancient Christian communities of Mar-Thomas in founding their own. Other old Catholic mission fields were Indochina, acquired in the nineteenth century by France; Canada, where the Quebecois renewed an older model of an integrally Catholic society; China, where Catholicism remained despite savage attempts to suppress it; and most remarkably Japan, where in 1865 a small Catholic Church was found to have survived the closure of the country in the seventeenth century to foreigners and the execution or exile of its clergy. The cruel martyrdom of Catholics in China, Indochina, Japan and Korea, another heroic missionary country, was connected to local fears of European invasion and conquest, which in some cases were not unjustified.

The emergence of the American colonies, and the rise of the British Empire and of the new international evangelical Protestant missionary movement of the eighteenth century, created by the leader of the Moravians, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, also made Protestantism a global religion, through a complicated combination of mission and settlement. Its enormous expansion came in the nineteenth century, especially through voluntary bodies outside the established churches in the Protestant countries, spectacularly enough in Great Britain, among several varieties of Methodist, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, as well as many minor or purely local bodies, and within the new Britain in Canada, but most dramatically in the United States, with hundreds of denominations, most of them of British origin, but some from the continent or home-grown. Indeed in spite of failures over slavery and of missions to Native Americans, and interdenominational rivalries and divisions, the new nation was dominated during the first half of this period by evangelical revivalism, although this was disturbed after i860 by the arrival of still greater numbers of Roman Catholics and, in lesser measure, of Jews and Eastern Orthodox.

A burgeoning missionary Protestantism from Britain, northern Europe and the United States itself, sometimes fed by the premillennial expectation of Christ's Second Coming which was also rooted in revivalism, created new churches in many places in which Christians remain numerous to this day, though as small minorities of the general population. Amid the extraordinary babel of cultures and languages in India, Protestant missionary effort appealed to some of the educated as well as to marginal castes and ethnic groups. In China, Protestant institutions provided an educated minority with a western education, where, as elsewhere, Catholics sought to create wholly Catholic communities in the countryside. In both countries there was alarm among local elites at an alien western threat to their authority and culture, as well as a

0 0

Post a comment