Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (4th edition)

Shelley Plain LanguageIn my review of Mark Noll’s Turning Points, I mentioned that that book is one of just a couple that I would recommend as a good first book to read about church history.  Another that would make that very short list, especially for evangelical readers, is Bruce Shelley‘s Church History in Plain Language.  I have taught from this book multiple times, and it has much to commend it, especially to an evangelical audience.

This book was first published in 1980 by Word Publishers (of Bible commentary fame) and now is produced by Thomas Nelson (who bought Word a while back).  From its first edition, the text seems to have represented Dr. Shelley‘s class notes.  This provenance manifests itself in two primary phenomena: the excellent story-telling approach that Shelley takes to his subject, and his rather idiosyncratic, laissez-faire approach to citation and quotations (more on both of these below).

In fact, for many readers it is Shelley‘s story-telling that is most attractive.  My students consistently report pleasure at this aspect of the book, as it helps them remember the characters that Shelley sketches so vividly.  Obviously, in an introductory textbook, one cannot tell all the stories, but Shelley does devote significant portions of chapters to such luminaries as Augustine, Pope Gregory I (“the Great”), Martin Luther, and John Wesley.  His descriptions truly jump off the page; in his hands, the people in question are not just two-dimensional characters, but instead they are full-bodied people that the reader can identify with.  It’s easy to imagine how these stories were originally an absorbing part of class lectures.

That said, it isn’t just people that he focuses on; there’s a nice balance of events and movements, too.  When you read the book, you learn a good bit about lots of different elements of church history, all of which can be augmented by further research into deeper specifics.  Given Shelley’s own personal commitments — he’s a conservative evangelical Protestant — it’s not surprising that there is more depth on the Protestant side than the Catholic; one example of this is that Shelley devotes a full chapter to each of the Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, and Anglican branches of Protestantism.  But the Catholic story is not left aside; readers learn about 17th-century controversies, the 19th-century attitudes that led to the proclamation of the Pope’s infallibility, and the amazingly important council of the 20th century called Vatican II.

The fourth edition does represent something of a new stage in the book’s history.  Since Dr. Shelley died in 2010, his colleague R. L. Hatchett took over the latest version.  The modifications included a new foreword, some extra charts and figures to help comprehension, and a revamping of the last part of the book.  The final four chapters of the third edition became the last three chapters in fourth, and the changes are good.  One chapter is devoted to the mixed-up situation for Christians in the “West” (North America and Western Europe), and another is for how things look in the rest of the world, where Christianity is largely booming.  The final chapter tells some stories that illustrate those insights and dovetail nicely with the rest of the book.

The strangest thing about the book, as I noted above, is Shelley’s odd practice regarding quotations and citations.  He notes in his Prologue that he acquired thousands of quotations in his preparation for classes; he then says that he tries to cite his “major quotations” at the end of the book.  But wait!  Aren’t we supposed to cite ALL of our quotations?  Isn’t non-citation what we call “plagiarism”?  The answers, of course, are “yes.”  And in fact, I’ve found at least two places where he missed some quotations — whole paragraphs that come from one of the books that I know Shelley used, since he cites it elsewhere.  I may be naïve, but I don’t think that Shelley was trying to do something dishonest; sadly, he ends up doing so accidentally.  (By the way, this phenomenon is why I think he built the book from class notes; I assume quotations became part of those notes over time, and then they ended up in the book.)  (Also, in case you’re wondering, I have contacted Thomas Nelson about this issue, but multiple conversations have ended in silence on their end.)

So, to sum up, some pros and cons:



  • Very readable; easy to follow the writing and the story
  • Excellent breadth of coverage, from the 1st to the 21st centuries, including all branches of Christianity
  • Story-telling approach is very attractive; readers get a sense of the humanity of some important figures in church history
  • Helpful maps, timelines, sidebars, and charts
  • (For Protestant readers) An emphasis on the Protestant branch of Christianity


  • Black-and-white copy is a bit old-fashioned; the lack of images is a disadvantage in our contemporary world that is so used to a plethora of pictures
  • A relative lack of depth on some of the more marginalized parts of Christianity, such as the Orthodox and other aspects of the “Christian east”
  • Difficulty in tracking down the sources of quotations and ideas; plagiarism can make the reader question the reliability of the narrative or presentation

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