Church History

Books of the Month: May 2023

Monthly Updates on Recent Books in the History of Christianity

To raise awareness of recent books in the history of Christianity, the editorial staff of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture highlights each month a list of 10-15 books in diverse periods and geographical regions that we hope will be of interest to our members.  We include here below the 34th monthly list, chosen by our staff, with excerpts from the publishers’ blurbs.

John B. Wickstrom, Fiction, Memory, and Identity in the Cult of St. Maurus, 830-1270. 2022

Palgrave Macmillan

This book explores one of the most significant medieval saints’ cults, that of St. Maurus, the first known disciple of Saint Benedict. Despite the centrality of this story to the myth of medieval Benedictine culture, no major scholarly work has been devoted to Maurus since the late nineteenth century. Drawing on memory studies, this book investigates the origins and history of the cult, from the ninth-century Life of St. Maurus by Odo, abbot of Glanfueil, to its appropriation and re-shaping by three powerful abbeys through to the thirteenth century—Fossés, Cluny, and Montecassino. It traces how these institutions deployed caches of mostly forged documents (many translated here for the first time) to adapt the cult to their aspirations and, moreover, considers how the cult adapted itself further, to face the challenges of the modern world.

Alexandra Walsham, Generations: Age, Ancestry, and Memory in the English Reformations. 2023

Oxford University Press

This book examines England's plural and protracted Reformations through the novel prism of the generations. Approaching generation as a biological unit and a social cohort, it demonstrates that the tumultuous religious developments that stretched across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not merely transformed the generations but were also forged by them. It provides compelling new insights into how people experienced and navigated the profound challenges that the Reformations posed in everyday life.

Alexandra Walsham investigates how age and ancestry were implicated in the theological and cultural upheavals of the era and how these in turn reconfigured the nexus between memory, history, and time. Generations explores the manifold ways in which the Reformations shaped the horizontal relationships that men, women, and children formed with their siblings, kin, and peers, as well as the vertical ones that tied them to their dead ancestors and their future heirs. It highlights the vital part that families bound by blood and by faith played in the making of current events and in recording the past for posterity.

Drawing on previously untapped archival evidence, in tandem with a rich array of printed texts, visual images, and material objects, this study offers poignant glimpses of individual lives and casts fascinating light on how families were both torn apart and brought closer together by the English Reformations.

Ryan Thornton, Franciscan Poverty and Franciscan Economic Thought (1209-1348). 2023


When Francis of Assisi started to use his family’s resources for religious purposes, his father took him to court. It was there that Francis dispossessed himself of everything and began a new life that soon inspired others to follow. Within a century, members of this Order of Friars Minor were among the first to dedicate complete treatises to discussions of buying, selling, and the whole of human exchange that is known as economics. The natural question to ask—and the one proposed here—is whether there might be a connection between the two, between Franciscan poverty and Franciscan economic thought?

Susan Bigelow Reynolds, People Get Ready: Ritual, Solidarity, and Lived Ecclesiology in Catholic Roxbury. 2023

Fordham University Press

St. Mary of the Angels is a tiny underground Catholic parish in the heart of Boston’s Egleston Square. More than a century of local, national, and international migrations has shaped and reshaped the neighborhood, transforming streets into borderlines and the parish into a waystation. Today, the church sustains a community of Black, Caribbean, Latin American, and Euro-American parishioners from Roxbury and beyond.

In People Get Ready, Susan Reynolds draws on six years of ethnographic research to examine embodied ritual as a site of radical solidarity in the local church. Weaving together archived letters, oral histories, stories, photographs, newspaper articles, and newly examined archdiocesan documents, Reynolds traces how the people of St. Mary’s constructed rituals of solidarity as a practical foundation for building bridges across difference. She looks beyond liturgy to unexpected places, from Mass announcements to parish council meetings, from the Good Friday Via Crucis through neighborhood streets to protests staged in and around the church in the wake of Boston’s 2004 parish shutdowns. Through ethnography and Catholic ecclesiology, Reynolds argues for a retrieval of Vatican II’s notion of ecclesial solidarity as a basis for the mission of the local church in an age of migration, displacement, and change.

It is through the work of ritual, the story of St. Mary’s reveals, that we learn to negotiate the borders in our midst—to cultivate friendships, exercise power, build peace, and, in a real way, to survive.

Helen J. Nicholson, Women and the Crusades. 2023

Oxford University Press

This book surveys women's involvement in medieval crusading between the second half of the eleventh century, when Pope Gregory VII first proposed a penitential military expedition to help the Christians of the East, and 1570, when the last crusader state, Cyprus, was captured by the Ottoman Turks. It considers women's actions not only on crusade battlefields but also in recruiting crusaders, supporting crusades through patronage, propaganda, and prayer, and as both defenders and aggressors. It argues that medieval women were deeply involved in the crusades but the roles that they could play and how their contemporaries recorded their deeds were dictated by social convention and cultural expectations. Although its main focus is the women of Latin Christendom, it also looks at the impact of the crusades and crusaders on the Jews of western Europe and the Muslims of the Middle East, and compares relations between Latin Christians and Muslims with relations between Muslims and other Christian groups.

Arthur McCalla, Religion and the Post-Revolutionary Mind: Idéologues, Catholic Traditionalists, and Liberals in France. 2023

McGill-Queen’s University Press

The French Revolution swept away the Old Regime along with many of its ideas about epistemology, history, society, and politics. In the intellectual ferment that followed, debates about religion figured prominently as diverse thinkers grappled with the philosophical and civil status of religion in a post-revolutionary age. Arthur McCalla demonstrates the central place of religion in the intellectual life of post-revolutionary France in Religion and the Post-revolutionary Mind. Certain questions – What is the nature of religion? Does society rest on religious foundations? What ought to be the place of religion in society? – drew sustained attention from across the political spectrum. Idéologues viewed religion as error and sought to eradicate it through the promotion of secular values. Catholic Traditionalists understood religion as a body of revealed truths of supernatural origin that ought to be authoritative in all aspects of life. Liberals sought to replace Christian orthodoxy with a new public faith consonant with liberal values. But these blocs were not monolithic, and McCalla reveals the complexities of each one, as well as the dialogues and rivalries among them. The categories established by the concepts of religion these thinkers constructed continue to shape debates over liberationist critiques, liberal pluralism, laïcité, and political theology. The place of religion in civil society is again a matter of urgent debate. Religion and the Post-revolutionary Mind provides essential historical context for thinking about the status of religion in the contemporary world.

Stuart M. Blumin and Glenn C. Altschuler, The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn: An American Story. 2022

Cornell University Press

In The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn, Stuart M. Blumin and Glenn C. Altschuler tell the story of nineteenth-century Brooklyn's domination by upper- and middle-class Protestants with roots in Puritan New England. This lively history describes the unraveling of the control they wielded as more ethnically diverse groups moved into the "City of Churches" during the twentieth century.

Before it became a prime American example of urban ethnic diversity, Brooklyn was a lovely and salubrious "town across the river" from Manhattan, celebrated for its churches and upright suburban living. But challenges to this way of life issued from the sheer growth of the city, from new secular institutions—department stores, theaters, professional baseball—and from the licit and illicit attractions of Coney Island, all of which were at odds with post-Puritan piety and behavior.

Despite these developments, the Yankee-Protestant hegemony largely held until the massive influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the twentieth century. As The Rise and Fall of Protestant Brooklyn demonstrates, in their churches, synagogues, and other communal institutions, and on their neighborhood streets, the new Brooklynites established the ethnic mosaic that laid the groundwork for the theory of cultural pluralism, giving it a central place within the American Creed.

David J. Endres, ed. Slavery and the Catholic Church in the United States: Historical Studies. 2023

The Catholic University of America Press

The intertwining of U.S. Catholicism and race-based slavery is a painful aspect of the Church’s history. Many scholars have shied away from this uncomfortable topic, but in recent years a cadre of historians have studied Catholics’ varied roles: as enslaved persons, slaveholders, defenders of slavery, and, in a few cases, advocates of abolition and emancipation.

This collection of nine essays is divided into three sections: enslaved persons and slaveholders, debating abolition and emancipation, and historians and historiography. The studies, many of which are informed by recent archival discoveries, offer a model for historians seeking to understand the relationship between slavery and the Church, not only topically but in terms of methods, contexts, and resources. They contribute to a broader appreciation of religion’s role in race-based slavery and, in doing so, will assist scholars, teachers, and students in the contemporary discussion involving slavery, racism, and their legacies.

Slavery and the Catholic Church in the United States witnesses to the fragility of humanity, which is capable of freedom or slavery, brotherhood or hatred. Yet each chapter offers a ray of hope, suggesting how we might acknowledge and respond to this difficult history.

Robert G. Hoyland and Andrew Palmer, eds. The Life of Theodotus of Amida: Syriac Christianity under the Umayyad Caliphate. 2023

Gorgias Press

The Life of Theodotus of Amida is that rare thing: a securely dated eye-witness account of life under Arab Muslim rule in the first century of Islam, and one of the few extant texts from seventh-century North Mesopotamia. It is imbued with local color and contemporary detail, revealing an intimate knowledge of the terrain, its inhabitants and officialdom, as well as the precariousness of the lives of those living in the borderlands between the Byzantine and Islamic empires.

 Janiece Johnson, Convicting the Mormons: The Mountain Meadows Massacre in American Culture. 2023

University of North Carolina Press

On September 11, 1857, a small band of Mormons led by John D. Lee massacred an emigrant train of men, women, and children heading west at Mountain Meadows, Utah. News of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as it became known, sent shockwaves through the western frontier of the United States, reaching the nation's capital and eventually crossing the Atlantic. In the years prior to the massacre, Americans dubbed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the "Mormon problem" as it garnered national attention for its "unusual" theocracy and practice of polygamy. In the aftermath of the massacre, many Americans viewed Mormonism as a real religious and physical threat to white civilization. Putting the Mormon Church on trial for its crimes against American purity became more important than prosecuting those responsible for the slaughter.

Religious historian Janiece Johnson analyzes how sensational media attention used the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre to enflame public sentiment and provoke legal action against Latter-day Saints. Ministers, novelists, entertainers, cartoonists, and federal officials followed suit, spreading anti-Mormon sentiment to collectively convict the Mormon religion itself. This troubling episode in American religious history sheds important light on the role of media and popular culture in provoking religious intolerance that continues to resonate in the present.

Enrico Veneziani, The Papacy and Ecclesiology of Honorius II (1124-1130): Church Governance after the Concordat of Worms. 2023

Boydell Press

The papacy of Honorius II (1124-1130) has often been overlooked by historians, usually considered uneventful, transitional and colourless. This book offers a complete reappraisal, drawing on a detailed examination of the surviving letters produced by the papal chancery to show that conversely, it was a vital and innovative pontificate. It argues that during what was a stabilising period for the papacy in an era of peace, Honorius and the chancery were able to enact the instruments and ecclesiological claims dictated by external threats and produced during previous papacies. In particular, it shows that by adapting the content and form of the letters it issued, Honorius's chancery, led by the official Haimeric, played a decisive role in extending the ecclesiological thinking of the papacy. Furthermore, these years paved the way for ideas which were further developed later in the twelfth century, especially the arguments created by the warring parties in the Schism of 1130 to legitimise their respective popes.

This study thus presents a different view of Honorius' administration, highlighting the strategies to which the papacy turned in order both to govern ecclesiastical institutions and to deal with secular matters, when previous protocols and routines could no longer be relied upon.

Finally, for staying up-to-date on the latest titles in all fields, we recommend regularly perusing New Books Network and its "New Books in Christian Studies” page. These pages are updated regularly.