History is notoriously filled with names and dates—details that leave some students in tears as they approach exams. These names and dates, the historian comes to know, serve quite helpful purposes though. Names identify people and their relationships with other people, and dates locate events and publications on a continuum. Both lend support in understanding the meaning of historical events and analyzing trends and the reasons for change.
Another key identifier in the study of history is geographical location. Visualizing where events took place in history and the relationship of people living in one place with those living in another is essential to understanding the flow of history and exploring why some changes occur in one place and not another. One resource that helps students of history visualize the places of church history is Tim Dowley’s Atlas of Christian History* (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), which features the work of cartographer Nick Rowland.
Dowley’s volume provides a map on just about every two-page spread, and accompanying the map is a brief description of significant people or events related to what is depicted on the image. The discussions are necessarily introductory by nature, but nonetheless, if one were to read through the entire book, one would gain a nice overview of the flow of church history.
Of course, the focus of the book is the maps, and these are a helpful resource in the study of Christian history. Dowley takes a largely chronological approach, splitting the volume up into five parts—the early Christians, “the church under siege” (which follows theological, military, and ecclesiastical conflict from about the fourth to the eleventh century), the Middle Ages, the Reformation and its aftereffects, and the modern church.
Dowley’s book highlights some of the challenges in depicting broad trends and church prominence in a two-dimensional image. For example, a map showing what expressions of Christianity dominate different regions of the United States can reveal majority denominations but can also mask the diversity of Christian expressions common in a single region or city (146–47). Recognizing that difficulty should not take away from the value of considering such maps, even while one must remember the value of digging deeper into details to grasp the complexity of particular historical questions and situations.
From another angle, attention to the geography of church history also allows people to consider the global nature of the church both today (in its broadest form) and in centuries past (in its developing, stretching, and contracting forms).
For example, readers can see how Christianity changed over two centuries by considering a map of Christian communities in AD 100 and a map of the same in AD 300. The latter map especially highlights the church’s presence in the Near East, Eastern and Western Europe, and North Africa. The atlas also introduces readers to the Nestorian church, which spread east as far as China in the seventh century. I appreciated sections treating the Russian church and the medieval missions to the Mongols. And Christianity is shown to develop through missionary efforts in places such as the Philippines, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Japan.
Considering the geography of church history thus shows that Christianity is dynamic, not static. This reality carries both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, we can see how the church has grown and expanded to new places over the centuries. On the other hand, we can see how it has declined in places where it once held great influence—whether North Africa in the early church or Western Europe in the late twentieth century.
The story of global church history is often told as a triumphant one. But as the prophets of ancient Israel were wont to do, historians of today should remind us of the dynamic element in Christian existence. The presence of the Christian church in a given region in one era by no means ensures its presence in the future, even as the absence of the Christian church in a given region in one era by no means ensures that it will be kept out in the future.
Thus the Old Testament prophets’ call for vigilance in the current generation and hope in the all-encompassing plan of God for the world is also in order for the modern-day Christian considering the geography of church history. And Tim Dowley’s Atlas of Christian History* provides one helpful resource for visualizing how the church has spread and changed in space and time over the past two millennia.
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