THIS ISSUE IS A FIRST for Christian History. For twenty-seven issues we have focused on particular individuals, movements, or events. But never have we stepped back to look at the broad, two thousand year sweep of Christian history. We have looked at individual trees—grand oaks such as Augustine and Calvin—but not the forest.
The very idea seemed overwhelming. How could we possibly present an overview of church history in one issue? Latourette’s classic A History of Christianity requires 1,552 pages of fine print to accomplish the same.
Yet readers had asked for an issue that would orient them to church history, an introductory guide that might be used in classes or discussion groups. And we wanted to show how the diverse figures covered in previous issues of Christian History—Bernard of Clairvaux, John Wesley, and C. S. Lewis, to name three —fit into the sweep of history. By understanding each person’s context, we can better understand his or her contribution.
I discussed these ideas with Christian History’s founder, Dr. Ken Curtis, and he mentioned a book he was planning: The 100 Most Important Events in Church History. The idea made sense for the magazine, too. Perhaps we couldn’t draw a detailed map for every mile of the church’s journey, but we could sketch the most significant landmarks, milestones, and turns in the road. The Council of Nicea, Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, John and Charles Wesley’s conversions—these events clearly changed the course of church history. In highlighting these key events, we hoped, we could help people see the big picture, the development and change of the Christian church over time. The project would be an adventure, but we felt it was worth the risk.
How Were the Events Selected?
Selecting only one hundred key events from church history is not easy. We felt as if we had been given only an afternoon to tour the Louvre, probably the finest collection of paintings in the world. Where do you start, when the museum holds works by Vermeer, Rubens, El Greco, Raphael, and Titian?
Still, a qualified tour guide could show you what are generally considered the more significant works: Rembrandt’s The Supper at Emmaus, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This issue of Christian History aims to be a similar guide through a history filled with treasures.
To determine the dates deserving coverage, extensive research was done by the Christian History Institute and by Christianity Today, Inc. First, a survey was sent to members of the Christian History Institute. Responses were tabulated, the list of events was refined, and a new survey was written.
This was sent to five hundred members of a professional church historians’ society. The group represented a dazzling array of denominations, theological positions, and areas of historical study. Seventy-one percent of respondents hold doctoral degrees.
The survey listed nearly 150 events in church history—the Diet of Worms, the Second Vatican Council, and so on, and asked respondents to mark whether each event was “extremely important,” “very important,” “somewhat important,” “not too important” (or “not familiar” to them). The survey also invited respondents to suggest other church-history dates they considered extremely important.
Finally, the survey was sent to the editorial advisory board of Christian History. These historians completed the survey and suggested still other events worthy of inclusion.
Survey results were tabulated, and “write-in” events were thoughtfully compared and evaluated. From this information a list of the 100 most important events in church history was compiled. (And from that, a list of the 25 most important dates.)
We found the list interesting, educational—and at least in a few places, surprising.
What Does the List Represent?
The word important was not narrowly defined on the survey, so respondents’ choices may reflect various definitions: the number of people the event affected, the length of time the event made a direct impact, the extent to which it changed the direction of a group or movement, its level of effect on the Christianity we know today. Most events on the list qualify as important for several of these reasons.
However, it’s good to recognize the following factors about this list:
- We started our period of church history after (or at least outside of) the events recorded in the New Testament. We didn’t feel it within our scope to select from among the biblical events.
- The list was developed by church historians from North America, primarily, so it reflects a Western view. Christians from the Two Thirds World would compile a vastly different list.
- It’s not always easy (or desirable) to separate sacred from secular history. Yet for the sake of this list, we tried to focus on events that were caused by, or that directly influenced, the church.
- History is shaped by complex and subtle processes as well as specific events. And often a movement or person could have been represented by another significant event.
Despite these built-in limitations, we found the list gave us a fresh way of looking at church history and revealed connections we’d missed in other treatments. For example, when Benedict founded his monastic community at Monte Cassino, he didn’t know that 700 years later the medieval church’s greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas, would attend grade school there.
How Were Articles Gathered?
Many of the leading twenty-five events were then assigned to scholars who specialize in those areas of study. Several contributors are members of Christian History’s editorial advisory board.
The remaining articles were written by the authors of The 100 Most Important Events in Church History (Revell, forthcoming). Dr. Ken Curtis, director of the Christian History Institute, has guided that book and greatly influenced this issue. J. Stephen Lang, a writer and editor who has contributed previously to Christian History, deserves special thanks for writing all of the articles in the “Top 25 Events” section that do not indicate otherwise. And Randy Petersen, a frequent writer for Christian History, contributed the article on 75 Additional Events. We thank these writers for their hard work.
What About Events Missing from the List?
Obviously, many important events could not be included in our list of 100. Some of those are included in an enlarged list—over 200 entries—listed in “Important Events in Church History.” Had space permitted, we easily could have added to that.
But one real benefit in setting forth a list is that it immediately creates discussion: What is important? Which events are missing?
We offer this list, then, to spark discussion, and we would love to hear from you. Tell us which dates you think also deserve inclusion, and why. In a subsequent issue, we will publish your responses as a way of continuing the discussion. (See Issue 30, Readers Respond).
Humbled by History
Christian History has a clear publishing philosophy, and it begins by emphasizing historical humility. We present this list in that spirit. We remain humbled by our limited ability to see God’s work and determine its importance. As Christian History’s founder, Dr. Ken Curtis, has written: “We would not be at all surprised if someday we find out that God’s list differs significantly from ours—should God humor us by giving us such a listing.”
We can’t fully fathom how God’s Holy Spirit and people’s energies have come together in the history of the Christian church. But we don’t have to understand every detail of church history to celebrate it. We hope this special issue of Christian History gives you fresh understanding of—and gratitude for— what generations of Christians have accomplished.