Links: The Contemporary Church (Since 1800)

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen — We’re actually starting a shade before 1800, because the American and French Revolutions are considered by many to be the beginning of the contemporary world as we know it.  Most Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, but not as many know its “sister document” from France.  It is a part of the development of our modern attitudes toward freedom and personal autonomy, which have impacted Christianity in HUGE ways.  (By the way, if you need a link to the Bill of Rights, click this link.

The Concordat of 1801 — At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon worked out an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church to preserve the latter’s existence in France.  This is the text of the agreement, called the “Concordat of 1801.”  Notice that the “First Consul” (i.e., Napoleon) gets to select the bishops and archbishops, both in the present and in the future, that the bishops take an oath of allegiance before him, and that they must pray for the consuls at the end of their daily prayers.  Another chapter in the enduring conflicts between secular powers and spiritual powers…

The Syllabus of Errors — An important part of modern European history is the Roman Catholic Church’s reluctance to join it, instead favoring its medieval mentality all the way into the 20th century.  One of the classic expressions of this mentality is Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), which you can read at this link.  Note: these are modern ideas and attitudes that the church repudiated.  (Don’t be alarmed by the size of the page — the bottom 2/3-3/4 of it is devoted to user comments.)

The Declaration of Papal Infallibility — That medieval mentality was reinforced perhaps most strongly at the “First Vatican Council” of 1870, with its famous declaration of papal infallibility.  This page contains several documents from the council, and the declaration is the last one on the page.  Notice that there is a good deal of prologue — statements from Scripture and church councils, before the clear doctrine promulgated at the end.

William Wilberforce Before Parliament — Another important aspect of modern history is the abolition of slavery in many, many countries, a movement which really gained steam in the English-speaking world just before 1800, with the work of William Wilberforce, a devout Christian.  Here are two accounts of his first speech on the topic before Parliament, which you may find interesting.

More on the Abolition of Slavery in England — The story of slavery’s abolition is one that is inspiring to many people (Christian and non-), but you might not know as much about it as you’d like.  Here’s a fuller discussion of the topic.  Note that there is less emphasis on the Christian connection of the abolitionists, but make sure to catch the language of progress in this description.

The “Tracts for the Times” — Another important development in 19th-century Christianity in England was the so-called “Tractarian” movement, or “Oxford Movement.”  That group of Anglicans found themselves increasingly drawn to the early church as a way of revitalizing the Christianity of their day.  This link is to one of their “tracts” (or “treatises”), and you can see the appeal that the author makes to the early church there.  Later on, the group really got into hot water with its last, 90th tract.  If you are curious about that text, you can find it at this link.  It’s quite long, but if you scroll all the way down to the bottom, you can get a sense of what caused such protest.

William Carey’s Wikipedia Page — One of the important figures in the missions movements of the modern church is William Carey, the great Baptist missionary to India.  His Wikipedia page does a good job of telling his story, if you don’t know it, and there are also links to pages for a number of other people and organizations associated with him, including Andrew Fuller, the Baptist Missionary Society, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman.

William Carey’s Enquiry — Here you have the text of Carey’s An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians…, a hugely important text for the history of missions in terms of its author’s desire to motivate everyday Christians to participate in and contribute to mission work.  Pay attention not only to the contents of his text, but also to the persuasive tactics he uses to incite his readers to action.

A Selection from Livingstone’s Journals — “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  This famous quote refers to David Livingstone, the Westerner who did so much significant work in Africa.  Livingstone’s journals and letters did open up Africa to many Westerners, both in showing the value and dignity of African peoples, but also in demonstrating the commercial value of African goods, which helped lead to later exploitation of the African land.  This selection gives you a sense of Livingstone’s writing style.  It also was one of the most provocative pieces he wrote, stirring up pro-African feelings among many Westerners.  Incidentally, this site is dedicated to recovering and publishing Livingstone’s journals, so you may find it profitable to explore if you’re interested.

On David Livingstone’s Only Convert — Here’s a 2013 article from the BBC on Livingstone’s only convert, a man named Sechele.  The article reports that African Christianity may owe more in some ways to Sechele’s activity than to that of European missionaries!

Quotes from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — In 1835 and 1840, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published his famous Democracy in America, a discussion of the “American Experiment” in light of the history of democracy.  It will give you a sense of the political and social life of the early 19th-century United States — an important backdrop for religion at that time.

American Expansion — Another important piece of background to American Christianity in the 19th century is the westward expansion of the “white folks.”  This link is a timeline concerning the American frontier as it shifted through the centuries, which is part of a companion site to the PBS show American Experience, a fascinating PBS examination of that set of events.  You can click on a number of elements in the timeline, for various types of information and media content, if you’re interested in this or that event.

A Christian Statement about Slavery in the South — Slavery also formed an important part of the story of 19th-century Christianity in the United States, not just in Europe.  This link contains a theological statement adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America — and it’s a statement that you may find shocking, surprising, or repugnant.  Notice, though, among other things, 1) the paragraph 1/3 of the way down the page that starts “In the first place,” 2) the arguments from history, and 3) the ways that the Bible is treated and used.  Overall, it seems to me that the statement is not so much pro-slavery as it is anti-abolition.

Christian Responses to Darwin — The late 19th-century in Western Christianity included a number of challenges to traditional understandings, one of which was that represented by Darwin and the developments of modern science.  This page is hosted by the Biologos Foundation, a group of evangelical (read: healthily conservative) Christians who explore the intersections of theology and “evolutionary creation.”  The content itself gives a readable yet detailed overview of Christian responses to Darwin, including some of the very first comments.  See also the notes and the “Further Reading” resources at the bottom.

“Liberal” Christianity — Another challenge that began in the 19th century is what we sometimes call “Liberal Christianity,” a set of movements, texts, impulses, and groups that began to include using “human reason” as a legitimate source of theological inquiry, even if it meant discarding traditional beliefs or practices.  The top half of this page reproduces an article from Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary (of Theology, I think), published in 2001.  The first two sections are especially strong, and while the second half reflects a bit more conservative theological bias (not inappropriately, here, I think), the whole thing is quite instructive.

Fundamentalism — One response to “liberal” Christianity was the movement we know as Christian fundamentalism, which was a desire to go back to the foundationsof traditional Christianity.  In other words, as many commentators have noted, it is a concept that began as a positive idea and has become mostly negative. The Wikipedia article on fundamentalism is quite strong, and it helpfully discusses the phenomenon in Christianity, other world religions, and even atheism!

A Summary of Rerum Novarum — The 19th-century Western church faced a different kind of challenge at this time with the problems of industrialization, and all of its attendant social difficulties.  One important text that arose at this time was Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII in response to those social crises.  This link is an instructive summary of the document itself.  (The original document itself is rather long but can be accessed at this link.

A History of the Salvation Army — One of the ministries that arose at this time, to care for those specially affected by the problems of industrialization, was the Salvation Army.  You’ve probably heard of them, but here’s a bit more history of the group.  (Also, the “About Us” tab also includes a link describing the origins of their famous “red kettles” at Christmastime.)

The Barmen Declaration — In terms of important texts from 20th-century Christianity in Europe, it is hard to find something to top the Barmen Declaration.  It was written during the Nazi period in Germany, it was co-authored by the prominent German theologian Karl Barth, and it contained the response of the “Confessing Church” to the Nazi regime’s attempts to control and repress it.  Notice the six “evangelical truths” upon which the Confessing Church built its foundation.  (By the way, if you want some more background to the Declaration itself, see this link.

The 1933 Concordat Between the Pope and Hitler — A different response to the Nazi challenge was the 1933 Concordat between the Pope and Hitler, a sort of “non-interference agreement” between the Catholic church and the Nazi government.  Incidentally, this site is kind of weird: the actual text begins about 1/4 of the way down, and it’s long, but then there is some commentary.  You can at least get the rather positive sense of the agreement even if, as you may not surprised to learn, Hitler didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Mit brennender Sorge — Also not surprisingly, the Catholic church’s attitude toward the Nazis changed over time.  The link is to the full text of Mit brennender Sorge, the 1937 encyclical of Pius XI criticizing Nazism.  If you’d like a summary of the text before you read the whole thing, check out this link instead.  You may also be interested in Divini Redemptoris (the anti-Soviet encyclical) from just a few days later, which can be accessed at this link.

More about Auschwitz and the Holocaust — Sadly, of course, the Nazis achieved great amounts of destruction before they were defeated in 1945, and that destruction has caused great soul-searching and contemplation among Christians of many stripes.  Should you desire to read more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, you might check out this link from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  There’s more on Auschwitz, but at the bottom of the page, there are many links that can also take you elsewhere.

The Toronto Statement of the World Council of Churches — An important contribution of the 20th century to Christian history was the ecumenical movement.  In 1948, at the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, the Council adopted a statement about its self-identity.  But, just a couple of years later, they realized that this statement could lend itself to misunderstanding.  So, they issued the “Toronto Statement” in an attempt to clarify what they meant.  Focus especially on the original statement at the top of the link, and then the numbered theses down the page — they give you the essence of the piece.

A Little More on “Faith and Order” — Various movements helped lead to the World Council of Churches, one of which was the “Faith and Order” movement.  If you’re interested in learning more about it, here is a site that can help you out.

The Lausanne Covenant — Some evangelicals have been wary of joining the WCC, due to doctrinal disagreements with some of the groups involved.  In 1974, more than 2,000 evangelical leaders met in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they agreed upon the so-called “Lausanne Covenant” as an ecumenical document.  Notice here the continued emphasis on evangelization, as well as the many Scriptural references — evangelicals have always been Bible-centered!

The Documents of Vatican II — In the 20th century, the Catholic church finally emerged from its medieval fortress (okay, yes, this is an overgeneralization, but it’s not far off) in the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.  This link is the Vatican’s clearing-house for all the sixteen documents that issued from Vatican II.  Have fun reading Verbum Dei (the constitution on Scripture) in Byelorussian!   But seriously, this is where the official translations exist.  For more general information on the council, along with a summary of some of the documents — a much better place to start, probably — see this link.  (Yes, sometimes Wikipedia is, in fact, the best place to begin.)

Humanae Vitae — One of the most important documents for contemporary church history is the 1968 encyclical of Paul VI condemning the use of artificial birth control.  The reason is that this is a papal teaching that huge swaths of the Catholic church totally ignore, even if they don’t talk about it, and thus it represents the triumph of individual choice over church authority (at least in this regard).  It is a rather long text, but I’d especially encourage you to note the method by which the Pope proceeds in the text: he discusses first the appropriateness of the church to teach on such matters (which some people dispute), then considers some theological topics that come to bear.  He then moves to very practical matters, before proceeding to “pastoral directives,” in which he considers what the implications of this teaching are for various groups.  Whether or not one agrees with the doctrinal content, I find the method quite admirable.

The Expansion of Christianity in Africa — One of the amazing stories of contemporary Christianity is the explosive expansion of Christianity in Africa.  See this link for more information about that expansion, including some very impressive numbers.

Some Views on the Religious Right — An important development in late 20th-century American Christianity was the emergence of the “Moral Majority”/”Religious Right.”  As you probably know, it is extremely difficult to find unbiased sources on the Internet that concern religion.  This site is no exception, as it is not friendly to Jerry Falwell.  However, there are some interesting quotes here.  Notice especially the various ways that Falwell injects God, Christianity, and the Bible into various matters that may or may not obviously require such reference.

A Megachurch Examines Itself — Another important development in American Christianity has been the so-called “megachurches.”  In 2004 the Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek did a self-examination which they later published (and are marketing) as “REVEAL.”  It provided some really interesting data for them about how their preferred method of church work was and was not assisting its congregants in growing spiritually.  Formerly, they had a link on the relevant website to the data they found, but sadly that link now just takes one to an opportunity to buy the survey that they now administer.  Here is a link to a story about the study, though, which you may find interesting no matter your perspective on megachurches.  This blog entry from the magazine Christianity Today also considers the issue.

Christianity in Russia — The late 20th-century saw seismic changes in the political life of Russia, and those changes have had a major impact on religious life there, too.  This whole issue of Christian History magazine is devoted to the history of Christianity in Russia, and it includes material about the contemporary situation.

Famous preacher photo credit: RobertMWorsham at Wikimedia Commons

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Noll, Ch. 13: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65 CE) and the Lausanne Congress (1974 CE)

As Noll notes in the Preface to this third edition, this chapter is a bit of a gamble, because the “interpretation of recent history is always risky.”  Nonetheless, he discusses here two very important events of the past 50 years, one from the Catholic family of Christianity, and one from the evangelical-Protestant sector.

The first, known as the “Second Vatican Council” is the most recent “ecumenical council,” which you learned more about in chapters 2 and 3. (It’s called the “Second Vatican Council” because it was the second council held at the Vatican in Rome.)

The second event also gets its name from its location. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Switzerland in 1974. The focus of this meeting places it in the tradition of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which was the subject of chapter 12.

Both of these events share a theme: how to respond to the modern world. The Catholic church had spent the 400 years since the Protestant Reformation “circling the wagons,” as it were (see chapter 11). Especially as the world changed rapidly in the 19th century (think of the Industrial Revolution and the impact of Darwin’s theories, just to name two elements), the Catholic church rejected “modernism” and stuck to its traditional emphases. However, by the mid-20th century, it had become clear to many that the world was passing the Catholic church by. The Council was devoted in many ways to “aggiornamento,” or bringing the church “up to date.”

Similarly, the Lausanne Congress reflected a changing Christian world in a variety of ways. First, despite some of the images that are available, the delegates to the conference were much more international in representation. Second, as Noll notes, the conference explicitly responded to weaknesses they saw in the work of the World Council of Churches; they certainly felt that the need for traditional “conversion to Christ” had not passed, even as Christianity had spread across the world. Third, the conference also saw the challenges of the contemporary world, especially in social justice issues. They sought to address the changing world through their meeting (and future ones), and through the covenant that they shared.

Two links that might be helpful here:

So, some questions to consider:

  1. In the quotation from him given in the chapter, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) suggested that Vatican II dealt with “the type of faith which corresponds to the life of the modern Christian….”  As you look at the primary expressions of Christianity that surround you, which ones do you think “correspond to the life of modern people,” and which ones (however valuable they may be) are rather “old-fashioned”?
  2. Noll notes that there were “conservative” and “progressive” sub-groups within the Catholic church, as gathered at the Second Vatican Council. Do you see similar sub-groups in your own faith tradition? Around what issues do they have conflict? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between these groups? Why or why not?
  3. The Vatican Council is now over 50 years old, which means that the changes it enacted have become quite widespread within the Catholic church. In your experience, do Protestant understandings of Catholicism reflect the changes that have taken place? Or do they mirror more a traditional, pre-Vatican-II Catholicism? If the latter, why do you think this is so? How could Protestants become more aware of the new developments in Catholicism?
  4. Noll provides excerpts from the Lausanne covenant (and the link to the whole is above). When one compares this text with earlier ones from the “conservative” wing of Protestantism (say, for example The Fundamentals from the early 20th century), one notices continuity in theology, but a much greater concern for social matters.  As you consider the Christian expressions around you, do you see a greater focus on theology (e.g., thinking correctly) or social matters (e.g., doing things about the problems of the world)?  Or is there a balance there, in your mind?  Why do you think this is so?
  5. The Lausanne Congress was a type of “ecumenical” meeting, as they were discussed in chapter 12. What benefits do you see in meetings like these – where people from different denominations come together to discuss a particular topic? What negatives are (or could be) there?
  6. Noll spends some time describing the role that people like Billy Graham and John R. W. Stott played in the Lausanne Congress. How have you seen individual personalities shape religious movements (or aspects of Christianity)? How can this be a positive thing? How can it be negative? Feel free to give examples!

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Noll, Ch. 11: The French Revolution (1789 CE)

The history of Christianity in the modern West has been a challenging one. Things have not often become as hostile as the aftermath of the French Revolution; Christians have not always had their churches turned into “Temples of Reason,” as was the case in the drawing below at the famous Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. In fact, the story of the Revolutions of this time period often causes tension within many Western readers; we appreciate the emphasis on freedom that was celebrated here, but we don’t like the rejection of religion that we see in the France of that time.

However, because we live in a world that is becoming rapidly “post-Christian,” it is good for us to understand how our world has come to that point, especially in places (like Europe and North America) where Christianity was so important and dominant for so long. Noll does a good job describing some of the many factors here – things like secularization, Enlightenment philosophy, the rise of modern science, changing attitudes about how to study the Bible, etc.

Another important part of the chapter consists of Noll’s discussion of how Christians have responded to these challenges. Sometimes we may feel helpless in a hostile world, or uncertain of what we might do in the face of the challenges we face. However, the section toward the end of the chapter covers many different responses, from missions and evangelism, to different kinds of theology, to returns to tradition, to social relief efforts. Happily, over the recent centuries, Christians have found many ways to bring God’s kingdom more fully into the world as we know it.

Two very different links that might be helpful on this material:

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Noll talks about “secularization,” meaning the lack of a religious “core” that governs a society. Does political secularization necessarily harm Christian faith? How? Or if not, why not?
  2. Many of the important social reforms of the post-Enlightenment era, particularly Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign in England, had Christianity as their energizing force. Does Christianity still seem to promote helpful social reforms in Western society? In what ways do “secular reform” efforts borrow tools, themes, or impetus from the West’s Christian past?
  3. Noll notes that some American Christians were hopeful that the French Revolution would promote Christianity. Historically, it did not. Is violent political revolution consistent with Christianity? In what situations might it be appropriate?
  4. Noll divides Christian responses to a secularized Western society into social, intellectual, and evangelistic reactions. Which one of these do you see as most important? Which one do you see as most effective? Can these impulses work together or are they necessarily in tension?
  5. “Liberal Christianity” was an attempt to preserve Christianity in a new modern context, in that it sought a Chrsitianity that was free from many traditional practices and/or points of view (“liberated” and “liberal” are related words). To what extent was “liberal Christianity” successful in this? To what extent, if any, do you think it was a betrayal of historic Christianity?
  6. Noll presents a history of Christianity slowly but surely losing its public influence in the West from the 1700’s on. What do you think was God’s role in all of this?

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Contemporary Catholicism

As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity.  Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge.  As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.

Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week.  Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages).  Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall.  And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.


I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify.  In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.

Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know.  For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods.  Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example.  But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”

But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know.  Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.).  They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation.  They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short.  And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.

Those changes are rather well-known.  But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us?  One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements.  The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders!   Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II.  There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching.  Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.

The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.”  Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind.  And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism.  Sometimes just catching up is really important.

pope_francisBut why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us.  A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard.  Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them.  The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.

The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe.  It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences.  Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.

Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus.  May it be so among us!

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