From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story
by mark a. noll
baker, 224 pages, $19.99
In 1900, over 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and North America. By 2050, the comparable figure should be just over a quarter, with the remainder distributed across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, the geographical shift is even larger than it may initially appear, as millions of those Christians living in Europe or North America will themselves have ethnic roots in the Global South. In a fairly short span of time, the Christian world will have been transformed and, indeed, turned upside down. For the first time in human history, there exists a truly global religion.
How we comprehend the implications of that epochal change is the essential theme of Mark Noll’s enthralling and beautifully written book, From Every Tribe and Nation. What this is not, though, is a straightforward description of the rising churches, with statistical tidbits interspersed with startling anecdotes. The book is in large measure autobiographical, almost a Bildungsroman, in which an inquiring and fiercely intelligent Christian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, describes how he discovered the realities of that new world lying outside the traditional Western heartlands of the faith—in fact, how he learned to think globally.
Quite apart from these insights, Noll’s book presents a moving and almost painfully modest account of his own spiritual and personal journeys. Born in 1946, he was raised in a Baptist tradition, and used his college years at Wheaton to define and expand his religious identity. He is duly critical of the Evangelical subculture in the academy—he is, after all, the author of the classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind—but he treats it with honesty and affection. He cites the enormous debt that he owes to the professors who guided him in mind and spirit. Noll developed his particular interest in the Reformation and its implications—an uninformed reader might assume that the Martin Luther to whom he so often refers was a close personal friend and mentor—and in American Evangelicalism more generally. He would have duly become a fine American historian of religion even if his eyes had never turned further afield to global realities.
But of course, they did. In hindsight, he is clearly intrigued to trace the roots of that global obsession. In early years, both he and his wife came from churches committed to missionary ventures, but conceived in the then-standard Western-centric mode. Even so, that immersion in the heroic tales surrounding missionaries clearly left its legacy.
Noll then lists the scholars who led him to study transnational issues, and perhaps surprisingly, the first he mentions is Canadian historian George Rawlyk. Clearly, Canada is in no sense a remote province of the emerging missionary church, but undertaking comparative work so close to home nevertheless had its impact, not least in teaching Noll that “America” was not synonymous with “United States.” Even in the Western hemisphere, there were plenty of other Christian realities out there, waiting to be explored.
If he identifies a single revolutionary moment, though, it was his encounter in the late 1980s with legendary British scholar and mission historian Andrew Walls. It is a minor scandal that, even today, at least in North America, Walls still has not achieved the stellar renown he so richly merits as perhaps the key modern scholar of Global Christianity, the one who first posed the critical questions for a whole generation. Nobody goes far in studying Global Christianity before they realize they are retreading the trails Walls blazed decades ago.
Already in the 1950s, working in West Africa, it was Walls who noted the massive disparity between Western intellectual assumptions and the lived Christianity he saw around him. While he was lecturing confidently about the church history of the second century—as he admits, pontificating on the subject—local Christians were daily experiencing very much the same issues from that era in their religious practice. Just like their distant counterparts in the patristic era, these modern believers had to deal with such basic questions as establishing the credentials of wandering prophets, or determining the proper relationship between a new convert and a pagan spouse, or how best to accommodate local social customs without yielding to syncretism. These modern Africans had to conduct spiritual warfare in a society utterly convinced of the powers of witches and malevolent ancestors. Walls, too, was the first to stress the implications of this new reality for historical study, and the fact that a modern-day global Church must recover its global history. He duly traced the threefold expansion of the early Church not just westward into Europe but eastward into Asia and southward into Africa.
Many of Noll’s later insights grew from his encounter with Walls. After reading deeply in the history of the Reformation era, he realized how Christian history is often reenacted in the modern world. As in the sixteenth century, it was possible to observe the impact of Bible reading in hitherto illiterate societies, or the role of humble believers in carrying and disseminating Bibles to remote areas. As in earlier eras, too, that popular evangelization carries heavy personal risks in an era of vicious anti-Christian persecution. In listing the problems faced by these new churches, themes like secularization and the death of God rate very low.
Along the way, Noll records other critical influences, both from personal interactions and from significant books. These include, naturally enough, Joel Carpenter, Dana Robert, Lamin Sanneh, W. R. Ward, David Martin, and others. He also made full use of the critical quantitative evidence stemming from the World Christian Encyclopedia, which showed that the global shift is an incontestable reality. Not only are Global South churches developing very differently from those of the North, but they are surging in numbers, as a result both of conversions and demographic expansion. The number of African Christians, for instance, which stood at just ten million in 1900, now approaches half a billion, and will probably exceed a billion by the 2040s.
That inconceivably large numerical change will, of necessity, change the character of virtually all denominations. Just to take the Catholic example: The number of African believers will exceed the European figure no later than 2030 or so, and presumably their distinctive styles of worship and belief will become ever more influential within the Church. As the wry phrase has it, the greatest problem facing the Vatican today is that it is located two thousand miles too far north.
Noll’s book is admirably nondenominational and irenic in its approach, and he has something to offer readers of any church background. In light of his immersion in Reformation thought, it is splendid, if a little ironic, to read about the supportive environment he has over the past decade found at Notre Dame. Perhaps the long history of Catholic missions around the Global South through the centuries has left modern-day scholars in that tradition heartily predisposed to entertain the new paradigms of faith.
Already in the late 1990s, at Wheaton, Noll was one of the very first scholars anywhere to teach a systematic course on this strange and daring new concept of “World Christianity,” a topic that has now become so familiar in universities and seminaries. As he rightly says, that subject is “not exactly a coherent field of academic study, but rather an extraordinarily active venue for research, interpretation, controversy, and discussion.” The outpouring of books of all kinds, including popular surveys, research monographs, and textbooks, has also been overwhelming. “Global Christian history is unfolding at a dizzying pace, with ever-multiplying questions about how the present has grown out of the past,” Noll notes. In a few short but valuable chapters, he sketches the main themes facing scholars in various regions of Global Christianity, including China and Latin America, and the state of research on each region to date.
This is a concise book, and any interested reader can follow up his abundant citations of recent books. Were it longer, I would suggest two areas that might deserve further discussion. One is building on Walls’s historical approach, to ensure that our contemporary global perspectives fully inform our studies of the Christian past. Even when once-vibrant communities were subjugated and sadly reduced in numbers, many non-European churches never entirely went away, and we need to bring them back into the historical record. It would be quite possible, for instance, and enlightening, to write a history of the Crusades entirely from the standpoint of the Middle Eastern Christian communities who were among the chief victims of those prolonged wars and conquests.
It would also be useful to put “the Global Christian story” in comparative perspective to understand how the spread of that faith parallels or differs from the experience of Islam or Buddhism. That is all the more important because often, Christianity has grown in very much the same geographical areas as one or more of the other world religions, and comparative study might say much about the reasons for relative success or failure, and for ensuing conflicts.
In a very short time—literally, just during the present century—the new perspectives advocated by Walls, Noll, and the rest have come to be almost universally accepted. Contemporary students, in fact, wonder why they need to be told yet again the glaringly obvious fact that Christianity is booming in the Global South. Like that’s some kind of surprise? That’s the definition of a revolution: when a new idea becomes so utterly mainstream that few can remember how things were before the great change.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.