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Some of the best books on the history of the Church, according to historians


John Burger - published on 08/19/20

If you're troubled by current events, history can give you a reassuring perspective. Here's where you can start.

Someone recently remarked that with two popes living and a pandemic raging throughout the known world, we now know what it feels like to have lived in the 14th century. 

While it might make for a cute internet meme, the comparison has a lot of holes in it. 

Nevertheless, with so much division in contemporary societies, wars percolating in several parts of the world, geopolitical rumblings, more and more people facing starvation, age-old beliefs being called into question, and civil liberties under pressure everywhere in the globe, some people feel there has never been a time in history when things feel so fragile.

Reading history is a good antidote to that feeling — an exercise that assures us that our world has been through much of the same in the past. 

The same applies to the Church. It’s true that there is more and more secularism and less faith in many societies. One might be tempted to think that in a generation or two, Christianity will be a minority religion in the world. 

“Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

That historical perspective is worth much more than a hundred attempts to explain what’s happening today through contrived theories.

But when you’re dealing with 2,000 years of Christian history, who but the most dedicated of historians has time to read even a fraction of the volumes and volumes on the history of the Church?

If you’re not quite sure where to begin, we have a little guide for you. We’ve reached out to a number of historians and Catholic thinkers with the question, “If you could recommend just one book, what would you say is the best work on Church history?”

While considering this list, it’s good to bear in mind a caveat that one of our sources pointed out. 

“After 30 years of teaching Church history, I have concluded that there is no good single-volume history of the Church that is suitable for the general reader,” said Dominican Fr. Augustine Thompson, Professor of History at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. “There are many good books on specific aspects of Church history. For example, Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners on the papacy. Or Knowles and Obolensky’s volume The Middle Ages in the old series ‘The Christian Centuries.’”

But all the one-volume histories have two problems, Fr. Thompson said. “One seems the case for all of them: except for the small period and place the author is an expert on, they are written from dated and flawed secondary literature. The second problem is that they too often have an ideological axe to grind. That is to say, they were written to forward some political or theological project in the contemporary Church favored by the author.”

History of the Church, by Hubert Jedin and John P. Dolan

That said, Fr. Thompson adds that the only Church history that he knows of that does not have those problems is Jedin and Dolan’s History of the Church. But, he said, “it is really an academic handbook and is in 11 volumes.”

Reformations, by Carlos Eire

For a more narrowly focused study, though, Thompson has high praise for a work by Carlos Eire, Professor of history and religion at Yale University. “Eire, whom most know as the author of his autobiographical Waiting for Snow in Havana, is also among the most distinguished of early modern historians. His Reformations reflects the revolution in Reformation scholarship: rejecting the linear trajectory of ‘The Reformation’ as a rejection of ‘Church corruption’ and return to the Scriptures, running directly from Erasmus, to Luther, and on to Calvin. Eire shows there were many ‘reformations,’ that they began in fifteenth-century Spain, and that the process was in no way linear, but confusing, contradictory, and often imposed by the state rather than a natural religious development.”

History of the Catholic Church, by James Hitchcock

This work is “Hitchcock at his most insightful and balanced,” said Fr. George Rutler, a New York pastor who himself has authored a number of books. George Weigel, the biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, called it “the best overview.”

A Popular History of the Church, by Philip Hughes

Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, calls this “an ideal starting place for beginners.” Fr. Rutler adds that it is ”very readable and takes us up to the modern period. He is extremely fair and judicious.”

A Dictionary of Popes, by J.N.D. Kelly and Michael Walsh 

This work is “the gold standard among papal histories,” said George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, by Michael Burleigh

“I would recommend companion volumes by this British historian,” said author Russell Shaw. “The first covers ‘the clash of religion and politics in Europe’ (that’s from the subtitle) from the French Revolution to World War I, while the second carries the story from World War I to very nearly the present. While the books have to do with ‘religion’ in general, the Catholic Church is necessarily at the center of  the narrative. Burleigh writes clearly, the books are full of fascinating information, and the author takes a generally friendly view of the Church.”

Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, by Christopher Dawson

William Doino Jr., a frequent contributor to First Things magazine, commented, “It’s indispensable for Catholics to read anything — as many things as you can — by the great Christopher Dawson, particularly Religion and the Rise of Western Culture and The Dynamics of World History, which is a great anthology of some of his best writing. It shows what the Catholic Church was doing to effect change throughout history. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture shows the indispensable role the Catholic Church had in the rise of the West and Western civilization.  

Fr. Stravinskas adds that Dawson’s The Formation of Christendom is a “superb history, with keen insights to events.”

Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church, by Steve Weidenkopf

“It is a new volume and very good,” said Fr. Dwight Longenecker, whose blog has a 23-part podcast series on the history of the Church. 

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland

Fr. Longenecker also recommends Dominion, which he said is “not so much a history of the Catholic Church per se, but a chronological overview that shows how Christian ideas changed the world in every age. It’s brilliant and would be the top of my list, along with [Eamon] Duffy.”

Doino pointed out that Holland was an agnostic who started out thinking Christianity was  a curse on mankind, but ended up showing how without it we would be “living in a much more monstrous and evil world.”

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken

Popular author Mike Aquilina said he was “torn by three different titles” by Wilken, who is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. But he said The Christians as the Romans Saw Them is “invaluable because it helps us understand the Christian problem from the persecutor’s perspective. This upstart religion was upsetting the social order. It was upsetting Roman family values. It was turning children against their parents, and parents against their children. We tend to think of the opponents of Christianity as irrational bigots. But the Roman cause made a kind of sense for people who wanted to preserve (or restore) the traditional way of life. I’m glad it failed!”

The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History, by John Vidmar, O.P.

The Amazon summary for this work “captures well its strengths: Dawson-grounded, substantive but accessible,” said Andrew T. Seeley, director of advanced formation at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. “Definitely for a general audience rather than specialists. Ideal for adult education or reading groups.”

The Christian Tradition, by Jaroslav Pelikan

This five-volume opus was “an immense achievement in the field, and I find myself regularly going back to his analysis when writing on Church history,” said Bud Marr, Director of the National Institute for Newman Studies. “Even though Pelikan was not Roman Catholic, he was always extremely careful in his handling of the source material and employed a hermeneutic of generosity in discussing historical figures. In my view, Pelikan’s first volume in the series, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to understand the patristic period. As a Newmanist, I was particularly impressed at how Pelikan used [St. John Henry] Newman’s theory of development in order to make sense of the debates and key decisions that took place during those early centuries in Christian history. 

Tried By Fire: The Story of Christianity’s First Thousand Years, by William J. Bennett

Paul G. Kengor, Professor of political science at Grove City College, called this a “very readable and engaging book on the first millennium of Christianity. … It’s quite good and accessible for readers of all faiths, with an extremely timely focus on Christian suffering and persecution.”

The English Jesuits: From Campion to Martindale, by Bernard Basset, S.J.

“This may seem a bit of an odd selection,” apologized Thomas Jodziewicz, Professor of History at the University of Dallas. “But I really appreciated it. Fr. Basset was the author of several wonderful, brief spiritual essays. Very accessible. His love for his Society shines through in his well-written narrative of the dark days of the Society under Elizabeth and for the next couple of centuries, marked of course by the 1773 suppression of the Order. He is well-read, with good judgment regarding his brothers who were not always models of Ignatian standards. And his wonderful senses of humor and irony are on full display.”

Church History
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