Churches, Revolutions, and Empires

October 18, 2012 — 1 Comment


Given the time of year, it just seems natural to do a little more political reading. In Churches, Revolutions, & Empires, Ian Shaw is giving a kind of political history of the Western world from 1789-1914. Or, from just after the American War of Independence up until the dawn of World War I.


The opening chapter of the book, like every good opening chapter, sets the tone and trajectory of what follows. In this case, it is an in depth look at the American War of Independence and its consequences. While the focus of the first chapter is domestic, the second chapter turns to the continental aftershocks, and in particular the French Revolution. In part then, the book is attempting to show how the American Revolution had far reaching consequences for the church here and abroad.

As Shaw himself explains:

[R]evolution overturned the established order in the United States, and posed profound questions as to the religious identity of the new nation, the nigmatic results of which Christians non-Christans continue to debate (p. 11 of iBooks ed.)

With that in mind, Shaw gives us his purpose in writing:

This book is written for all those with an interest in the history of Christianity, whether students, church leaders, or general readers. Rather than attempting encyclopaedic comprehensiveness, Churches, Revolutions, & Empires concentrates on significant individuals, themes, and events in major chapters, in an attempt to convey a representative impression of significant developments, and also to open up debate and discussion about key issues (p. 14 iBooks ed.)

And cover those people, themes, and events it does. Shaw does as promised and offers historical insights that beg for contemporary analysis. As an example, here’s an extended quote from the first chapter concerning the difference between the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, which my Church History prof always reminded as the difference between “good” and “bad”:

Whereas the first ‘Great Awakening’ had helped to establish a more cohesive identity amongst scattered New England colonies, the ‘Second Great Awakening’ was shaped by a nation conscious of its newly won independence, and which was being rapidly transformed as it outgrew its previous confinement to the Eastern seaboard. It was a means by which Americans made religious and cultural meaning in their transformed context. Whilst some argue that it was a predominantly conservative force, Nathan Hatch has emphasised that it was moulded by the populism of the Revolution, through which the Puritan social and religious model was eroded, with a reduction in deference to clerical authority, tradition and social station. The capacity to interpret the Bible was democratised; one person’s reading of the Bible, whether lay or ordained, began to be viewed as equal to another’s, the preaching of laymen and women equally anointed with that of the clergy. Even revival was re-interpreted in populist fashion: no longer was it exclusively seen as a sovereign dispensation, but was capable of being produced by the faithful and zealous activity of ordinary Christians.” (p. 47-48, iBooks ed.)

As you can see, this historical analysis of the situation points to a current issue we face. This is even more clear in chapter 6 (Revolutions of the Theological Mind: Nineteenth-Century Germany) where Shaw traces the shaping of the modern theological mind by several key German figures: Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Strauss, Baur, Feuerbach, Ritschl, and Wellhausen. As anyone familiar with the fields of philosophy, theology, or biblical studies will tell you, each of these men is a giant who casts a shadow over his respective field to this day (and I’m using shadow casting as a negative description). Here in Shaw’s book though, we are treated to a portrait of their German context and can see some of the factors that influenced their thinking, which in turn reshaped theology for most of the modern world.

Elsewhere in the book, Shaw takes up historical analysis of missions (chapters 4, 9, and 13-14), the impact of Darwin and other advances in science (chapter 10), various social revolutions (chapters 5, 8, 11), and specific chapters on the church in Britain during this time period (chapters 3, & 7). In short, Shaw covers a massive range of topics in his historical survey and analysis of 1789-1914 and spans the globe in the process.


The climax of the book, is suggestive. I’ll tell you what I think it might all be suggesting, but first, here’s the closing lines:

The concept of European Christendom was probably buried amongst the war of 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 (p. 723, iBooks ed.)

There is a sense then, in which Shaw’s book is narrating the death of Christendom. It was a long process, and took from the American Revolution until World War I to fully take its toll. You could possibly look at the American Revolution as the catalyst that set an example other nations would follow to one extent or another. Or, you could look at the revolutionary spirit that gave rise to the American Revolution as a kind of cancer that had detrimental effects everywhere else it spread.

This is just one example of an issue worth further discussion coming from Churches, Revolutions, & Empires. Though Shaw doesn’t explicitly say the American Revolution destroyed Christendom, it certainly seems to play out that way. Consider his summary of the state of the nation post revolution:

The American revolution left the newly independent states with a Constitution that acknowledged no God, and a First Amendment that permitted no national church. That there were to be no religious tests left office holding open to people of any denomination, indeed there was no requirement that they be Christians at all (p. 57, iBooks ed.)

It seems that American threw not only the shackles of King George III off, but of any potential claim Christendom could make upon it. Other countries took notice, and went about revolution in their own ways, eventually leading to broad scale secularization.

Eventually this would play out with the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who as Shaw puts it,

helped shape a distinctly American national culture, separate from that of Europe, informed by optimistic readings of American history and democracy. Their work was indicative of increasing intellectual independence from patterns inherited from Puritanism, evangelicalism, and even the liberal and humanist approach of Unitarianism. This was reflected in Transcendentalism—an understanding that the essence of meaning in the world ‘transcended’ dogma and human institutions, coming instead through the intuitive faculties of humans. Yet, for all the aspiration towards cultural independence, the influence of European Romanticism, of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Goethe, was unmistakeable. (p. 466, iBooks ed.)

Though doesn’t make this case directly, it is argued in the book American Nietzsche that Emerson in particularly radically influenced Nietzsche and gave him a mental road map to follow. In a round about way then, the American Revolution could count among its effects a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God.


In the end, Churches, Revolutions, & Empires is a fascinating study. It clearly represents fine historical scholarship and shows the development of the church through a very turbulent period in history. Readers who want to see how the modern world has been shaped into what it is now will find very suggestive analysis throughout Shaw’s work. Though it is not the most riveting writing style (to me at least) it is not hard to follow what Shaw is saying and anyone with strong enough interest could take up and read to their heart’s content.

Book Details

  • Author: Ian Shaw
  • Title: Churches, Revolutions, & Empires: 1789-1914
  • Publisher: Christian Focus (July 9, 2012)
  • Hardcover: 576pgs
  • Reading Level: General reader (but with strong interest in history books)
  • Audience Appeal: Readers interested in history in general, and church history in particular
  • Amazon
  • Westminster

[You’re reading this review because I’m participating in a blog tour put on by Cross Focused Reviews and was provided an ePub copy of the book!]


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

One response to Churches, Revolutions, and Empires

  1. Nate,

    Thanks for being a part of the Churches, Revolutions and Empires blog tour. I’m glad that you got so much out of the book. Looking forward to working with you again on future book review blog tours.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews

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