Book Review: “Churches, Revolutions, & Empires: 1789-1914” by Ian J. Shaw

Book Review: “Churches, Revolutions, & Empires: 1789-1914” by Ian J. Shaw

Published by Christian Focus, 2012

Ian J. Shaw is currently the Director of the Langham Scholarship programme in the UK.

I first became aware of this book because of a reference to it by Adam Parker on the “Bring The Books” web site (  Adam had worked on the e-Book version.  Adam wrote that the book had the endorsement of noted historians from both Notre Dame University (Mark Noll) and Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia (Carl Trueman).  So I decided to put the book on my Christmas list last year, and lo and behold, it appeared beneath the tree, and I began reading “Churches, Revolutions, & Empires.”

The book is a mix of world history and church history, beginning in 1789 (the French Revolution) and ending in 1914 (the onset of World War 1).  World history and church history make for a great read: you can’t have one without the other!

Shaw makes little effort to disguise the fact that, in addition to being an historian, he is a devout Christian.  Responding to the fact that so many foreign missionaries were willing to give their lives to their work, and often suffer martyrdom, Shaw writes,

“The desire to simply propagate imperial or Euro-centric values is insufficient explanation for this phenomenon.  Some were probably too ready to embrace martyrdom; others too reliant on European administrators and soldiers.  Yet for most the desire to spend and be spent, to endure sacrifice of self and of loved ones, even unto death, sprang ultimately from the profoundest religious convictions as to the truth of the message of Jesus Christ, and from compassion for those who lived and died without hearing and embracing it.” (p. 303)

All historians have their biases, and Shaw appears willing to put his own bias on display.  Does the author’s starting point detract from his ability to write good history?  The reader will decide, but this reviewer says “no.”

There were a number of remarkable historical events in this volume which caught my attention.  I will cite several of them, and offer brief commentary.

p. 50 — Early in the book, Shaw tells readers about the French Revolution.  In 1793, leaders of the French Revolution began to attempt to root out any vestige of their nation’s Christian history.  1400 streets were renamed, getting rid of references to saints or Biblical characters.  The very fabric of time was to be re-shaped.  The Gregorian calendar was replaced with a calendar in which time began not with the birth of Christ, but with the first proclamation of the French Republic (September 22, 1792).  The seven-day week was too closely tied to the Creation week and commandment to keep the Sabbath.  It had to go.  It was replaced by a ten-day week.  The tenth day was the ‘day off’ for workers, and it was called the ‘decadi.’  The ten-day week was supposed to be more efficient.  It turned out not to be, one reason being that many folks took both the seventh day off and the tenth day off, just to cover all the bases.  Old habits are hard to break.

p. 145  Wilberforce on slavery in the Bible:  To counter pro-slavery advocates who pointed out that slavery was part of the Biblical narrative, British MP William Wilberforce responded by noting that in the Old Testament, slaves were to be set free in the seventh year, unlike the then-current brutal practices of slave traders and owners. As well, Christ has done away with all distinctions between nations, and all mankind is now one great family.   Thank the Lord for Wilberforce and his commitment to end the slave trade, He serves as an example to Christians today who oppose many of today’s government social policies but see little hope for change.  In God’s providence, Wilberforce’s persistence carried the day in the end.  “With God, all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26)

p. 145  The theory of evolution strongly implied the idea of human backwardness.  If some people were more evolved, than some were necessarily less evolved, and the common wisdom among anthropologists was that Africans were on the bottom rung of development.  Shaw makes the point that a huge upswing in racism occurred at the same time as the theory of evolution was taking hold.  Did Darwinism contribute to racist ideas?  I once asked that question of a history professor of mine, and his response was, “Perhaps Darwinism did contribute to racist ideas, but for many people, they would have been racist no matter what scientists said.  Darwinism just gave them a convenient rationale for their views.”

p. 166  Civic laws in the eighteenth-century German state of Württemberg regulated the length of sermons (not a completely bad idea) and forbad the use of Greek and Hebrew quotations.  People back then seemed to think nothing of an organic union between church and state.

p. 167  Between 1847 and 1914, four million Germans emigrated to the USA.  Among those were my own grandparents, on both sides.  My mother’s side went to Missouri and my father’s side went to Ohio.

p. 174.  Immanuel Kant is discussed.  He said, “I had to remove knowledge to make room for faith.”  Shaw adds, “His system had no need for the incarnation, or the Cross, or resurrection.”  I have to ask, what’s left?

p. 177  Friedrich Schleiermacher is discussed.  Shaw tells us that Schleiermacher thought that doctrine comes, not from tradition or Scripture, but as a result of reflection upon feeling.  Schleiermacher wrote, “these systems of theology . . . wherein everything runs to cold argufying . . . this is certainly not the character of religion.”  He also claimed that much of what the Church sees as Scripture is actually non-canonical, and proves to be so.  Further, belief in God came not through intellectual activity, but by religious experience (p. 179).

p. 180  Shaw tells us that “Schleiermacher’s thought was also immensely significant for post-Enlightenment theology.  It was relieved of the need to seek scientific verification in an age where theologians were struggling to respond to new developments, and from the need to defend traditional doctrinal formulations in the face of Enlightenment critique.”  This was handy for folks who wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  They wanted to maintain the institutions of the church, even though the foundations of the church’s raison d’être were being eroded to almost nothing.

p. 180  Not everyone was a cheerleader for Schleiermacher.  Philosopher G. W. F. Hegel thought that if religion is simply about a feeling of absolute dependence, as Schleiermacher thought, then the best Christian is a dog who absolutely depends on his master.  Hegel thought that ideas sprang from a combination of thesis and anti-thesis, resulting in synthesis.  Shaw tells us that this sort of thinking was very influential for Darwin and his theories.  Shaw also writes that Hegel was quite interested in the Incarnation.  However, other Biblical events such as the Virgin Birth and other miracles were symbols of higher truths, not reports of events.  Hmm, on what basis did Hegel conclude such things?

p. 187  Ludwig Feuerbach was a student of Hegel, but went much further in his deconstruction of the Christian faith.  For Feuerbach, God was merely a human projection, “. . . man is the real God.”  Theology had shifted into the realm of anthropology.  Feuerbach saw himself as a ‘new Luther,’ bringing birth to a new religion of humanity.  Feuerbach was the first philosopher discussed in this book that I could respect.  If the events recorded in the Bible never happened in history, then why have a Christian faith at all?  Kudos, Ludwig, for calling a spade a spade.

p. 190   Julius Wellhausen published his book, “History of Israel” in 1878.  The book detailed his JEDP ‘Documentary Hypothesis,” and produced shock waves in the field of Biblical studies comparable to the effect of Darwin’s influence in scientific disciplines.  Again, if you take the JEDP hypothesis seriously, you are putting yourself in the position of judging the Scriptures, instead of letting Scripture judge you.  If Jesus thought that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that ought to be good enough.

p. 268

Here is a humorous passage from Shaw, which seems to be written just to see if anyone is paying attention:

“The growing anti-clericalism in Europe in the later nineteenth century, with an increased appetite for radical social democracy which had little place for formal religious practice, suggests that the efforts of the churches to resolve their relationship with the modern world were less than entirely successful.”

A funny comment, in classic British reserve.

p. 324   “Even Darwin’s great defender, T. H. Huxley, was astonished at the apparent elasticity in the ways Christians could interpret the Bible – ‘There must be some position from which the reconcilers of science and Genesis will not retreat.’”  I like Huxley.  He sees what should be obvious to all: if the Genesis creation account did not happen, then the foundation for the Christian world view is destroyed.

p. 331  “In 1871 Huxley declared himself . . . an apostle for science, a missionary, whose role was to ‘convert the Christian heathen of these islands to the true faith.’”

Again, amen to Huxley.  Darwinism is not compatible with Christianity.  He saw clearly what many churchmen could not, and do not.  Perhaps God was choosing the foolish things of this world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27).

p. 355: “The rise of Darwinian science coincided with the decline of faith in Western Europe . . . Had the ultimate source of authority now become science?”

Good question, Dr. Shaw.  Christians ought to ask themselves what the Reformation was all about.  Is our ultimate source of authority the Bible, or is it an authority outside the Bible, which tells us how to interpret it?

p. 407  “The determined efforts of late nineteenth-century overseas missionaries stand in contrast to the declining belief and practice increasingly evident within European Christianity.  It looked as if the parent plant was attempting to send out offshoots to ensure its survival.”

A poetic turn of phrase, which neatly summarized the stark reality of the situation.

p. 406  “The received wisdom that missionaries travelled to less developed parts of the world with the Bible in one hand and flag and gun in the other, or at least were the handmaiden of colonial exploitation, remains stubbornly persistent.  The anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff described missionaries in early nineteenth-century South Africa as ‘agent, scribe, and moral alibi’ for colonizers.”

Shaw devotes much ink throughout the book to correcting misinformation such as this.

p. 485  Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) has been seen as the father of American theological liberalism.  p. 488  “His approach heralded a shift in theological method from reason to the heart.”

In short, a false dichotomy.  Why must one exclude the other?

p. 494  Presbyterian David Swing (1830-94) thought that “Christianity was a way of living, rather than a doctrinal system.”  Not surprisingly, he was charged with heresy for denying substantial elements of the Westminster Confession.   As well, a good Presbyterian ought to know that if the Christian faith can be boiled down to ‘a way of living,’ then we have a faith based on our works, rather than the work of Christ.

p. 494 Charles Briggs (1841-1913) taught at Union Theological Seminary.  “He argued that Scripture was infallible in matters of faith and practice, but not in all details of history or science.  Scripture contained the Word, but was not itself the Word.”  Hmm, ‘details of history or science.’  Is the Resurrection a detail of history that can be discarded at will?  Was Christ’s body truly dead, and then truly alive?  There is some science here as well.  The point is that Christians ought to be willing to submit themselves to God’s revelation in Scripture, no matter where it takes you.  If you’re not willing to do that, why do you want to remain in the church?

p. 510  By 1900, 51% of the world had been evangelized.  My inner Calvinist comes out when I hear figures like these.  Why does God allow millions of people to live out their lives with no exposure to the Gospel?

p. 513   C. H. Spurgeon, in the midst of the “Downgrade Controversy,” said of theological liberalism, “A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements.”  I would imagine that Spurgeon was an inspiration for J. Gresham Machen, author of “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923).  The book title is brilliant.

p. 521  Shaw reminds us that Christian missionaries often were the protectors of indigenous tribes, rather than their destroyers.  The act of translating the Bible into local languages produced grammars, primers, and dictionaries, where none had existed previously.  This helped ensure the preservation of vernacular languages and cultures which would otherwise have gone extinct.

p. 522  “The primary intent of missions in 1914 remained to Christianise, and claims of a simple, direct and causal, relationship between Christianity and imperialism have been rightfully subjected to serious re-evaluation by scholars.”  “Debunking” statements like this appear with great frequency in this book.

p. 539  “The world looked a very different place after 1914.  The concept of European Christendom was probably buried amongst the war dead in the fields of Flanders and Northern France.  To find the axis of Christianity, it would be increasingly necessary to look, as the twentieth century wore on, towards the churches of the Global South.”

The book ends on that note.

It is a substantial volume, at 539 pages.  Parts of it are more interesting than others, as one might expect.  But for those interested in knowing about the history of ideas and movements during this period, which have had such a profound effect on the church of today, this book is well worth the investment of time and attention necessary to absorb it.

Sometimes reviewers feel compelled to write about “what I liked about the book” and “what I didn’t like about the book.”  I don’t think I can discuss the book in those terms.  Writing a book like “Churches, Revolutions, & Empires” is a tremendous achievement.  I feel completely unqualified to offer any critical remarks to the author, except to say, “Thank you, Brother Shaw, for reminding us that we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

About John Stebbe

John Stebbe is a music teacher from Indianapolis. He has taught music in public schools in and around Indy since 1987. John has a bachelor's degree in music education from Ball State University, and a master's degree in history from Butler University. John is a jazz pianist. John has played piano with various groups over the years, most recently with Jaden Street Jazz and the JoySwing big band. He was raised as a Lutheran, spent some years as a Presbyterian, and is now happy to be Lutheran again. He plays guitar at church, as well as piano now and then. He lives with his wife Diane, who is also a musician and public school music teacher.
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