Church History

Books of the Month: November 2021

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 sixteenth monthly list, chosen by our staff, with excerpts from the publishers’ blurbs.

Travis E. Ables, The Body of the Cross: Holy Victims and the Invention of the Atonement. 2021

Fordham University Press

The Body of the Cross is a study of holy victims in Western Christian history and how the uses of their bodies in Christian thought led to the idea of the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice. Since its first centuries, Christianity has traded on the suffering of victims—martyrs, mystics, and heretics—as substitutes for the Christian social body. These victims secured holiness, either by their own sacred power or by their reprobation and rejection. Just as their bodies were mediated in eucharistic, social, and Christological ways, so too did the flesh of Jesus Christ become one of those holy substitutes. But it was only late in Western history that he took on the function of the exemplary victim.

In tracing the story of this embodied development, The Body of the Cross gives special attention to popular spirituality, religious dissent, and the writing of women throughout Christian history. It examines the symbol of the cross as it functions in key moments throughout this history, including the parting of the ways of Judaism and Christianity, the gnostic debates, martyr traditions, and medieval affective devotion and heresy. Finally, in a Reformation era haunted by divine wrath, these themes concentrated in the unique concept that Jesus Christ died on the cross to absorb divine punishment for sin: a holy body and a rejected body in one.

Philip Benedict, Season of Conspiracy: Calvin, the French Reformed Churches, and Protestant Plotting in the Reign of Francis II (1559-60). 2020

American Philosophical Society Press

Season of Conspiracy considers the March 1560 conspiracy of Amboise and subsequent plots devised later that year to remove the young King Francis II from the sway of his chief advisors of the house of Guise and improve the legal situation of France's Protestant movement. New and rediscovered evidence—most important, the long-lost testimony of a cabinetmaker engaged in the plotting from January through September—reveals the conspiracies to have been more closely linked to the network of Reformed churches within France and to John Calvin in Geneva than previously understood. The results compel a reconsideration not only of events that are often said to have constituted the first act of the French Wars of Religion, but also of Calvin's political engagement and sagacity.

Kim Christiaens, Idesbald Goddeeris, and Pieter Verstraete, eds. Missionary Education: Historical Approaches and Global Perspectives. 2021

Leuven University Press

Missionaries have been subject to academic and societal debate. Some scholars highlight their contribution to the spread of modernity and development among local societies, whereas others question their motives and emphasise their inseparable connection with colonialism. In this volume, fifteen authors – from both Europe and the Global South – address these often polemical positions by focusing on education, one of the most prominent fields in which missionaries have been active. They elaborate on Protestantism as well as Catholicism, work with cases from the 18th to the 21st century, and cover different colonial empires in Asia and Africa. The volume introduces new angles, such as gender, the agency of the local population, and the perspective of the child.

Christopher Grasso, Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso. 2021

Oxford University Press

A former Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher, John R. Kelso served as a Union Army foot soldier, cavalry officer, guerrilla fighter, and spy. Kelso became driven by revenge after pro-Southern neighbors stole his property, burned down his house, and drove his family and friends from their homes. He vowed to kill twenty-five Confederates with his own hands and, often disguised as a rebel, proceeded to track and kill unsuspecting victims with "wild delight." The newspapers of the day reported on his feats of derring-do, as the Union hailed him as a hero and Confederate sympathizers called him a monster.

Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso is an account of an extraordinary nineteenth-century American life. During Reconstruction, Kelso served in the House of Representatives and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Personal tragedy then drove him west, where he became a freethinking lecturer and author, an atheist, a spiritualist, and, before his death in 1891, an anarchist. Kelso was also a strong-willed son, a passionate husband, and a loving and grieving father. The Civil War remained central to his life, challenging his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought private wars—not only against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own character.

Wolfram Kinzig, Christian Persecution in Antiquity. Translated by Markus Bockmuehl. 2021

Baylor University Press

For centuries into the Common Era, Christians faced social ostracism and suspicion from neighbors and authorities alike. At times, this antipathy erupted into violence. Following Christ was a risky allegiance: to be a Christian in the Roman Empire carried with it the implicit risk of being branded a traitor to cultural and imperial sensibilities. The prolonged experience of distrust, oppression, and outright persecution helped shape the ethos of the Christian faith and produced a wealth of literature commemorating those who gave their lives in witness to the gospel.

Wolfram Kinzig, in Christian Persecution in Antiquity, examines the motivations and legal mechanisms behind the various outbursts of violence against Christians, and chronologically tracks the course of Roman oppression of this new religion to the time of Constantine. Brief consideration is also given to persecutions of Christians outside the borders of the Roman Empire. Kinzig analyzes martyrdom accounts of the early church, cautiously drawing on these ancient voices alongside contemporary non-Christian evidence to reconstruct the church’s experience as a minority sect. In doing so, Kinzig challenges recent reductionist attempts to dismantle the idea that Christians were ever serious targets of intentional violence. While martyrdom accounts and their glorification of self-sacrifice seem strange to modern eyes, they should still be given credence as historical artifacts indicative of actual events, despite them being embellished by sanctified memory.

Jonathan Laurence, Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State. 2021

Princeton University Press

Coping with Defeat presents a historical panorama of the Islamic and Catholic political-religious empires and exposes striking parallels in their relationship with the modern state. Drawing on interviews, site visits, and archival research in Turkey, North Africa, and Western Europe, Jonathan Laurence demonstrates how, over hundreds of years, both Sunni and Catholic authorities experienced three major shocks and displacements—religious reformation, the rise of the nation-state, and mass migration. As a result, Catholic institutions eventually accepted the state’s political jurisdiction and embraced transnational spiritual leadership as their central mission. Laurence reveals an analogous process unfolding across the Sunni Muslim world in the twenty-first century.

Identifying institutional patterns before and after political collapse, Laurence shows how centralized religious communities relinquish power at different rates and times. Whereas early Christianity and Islam were characterized by missionary expansion, religious institutions forged in the modern era are primarily defensive in nature. They respond to the simple but overlooked imperative to adapt to political defeat while fighting off ideological challenges to their spiritual authority. Among Laurence’s findings is that the disestablishment of Islam—the doing away with Islamic affairs ministries in the Muslim world—would harm, not help with, reconciliation to the rule of law.

Emily Wright, Dancing to Transform: How Concert Dance Becomes Religious in American Christianity. 2021


In response to a scarcity of writings on the intersections between dance and Christianity, Dancing to Transform examines the religious lives of American Christians who, despite the historically tenuous place of dance within Christianity, are also professional dancers.

Through a multi-site study of four professional dance companies, Wright conducted participant-observations and ethnographic interviews with artistic directors, choreographers, and company members who self-identify as Christian. She then analyzed choreography from each company to determine how concert dance becomes religious and what effects danced religious practices have for these participants. Her research reveals that the participants turn what they perceive as secular professional dance into different kinds of religious practices in order to actualize individual and communal religious identities—they dance to transform.

Marilyn J. Westerkamp, The Passion of Anne Hutchinson: An Extraordinary Woman, the Puritan Patriarchs, and the World They Made and Lost. 2021

Oxford University Press

When English colonizers landed in New England in 1630, they constructed a godly commonwealth according to precepts gleaned from Scripture. For these 'Puritan' Christians, religion both provided the center and defined the margins of existence. While some Puritans were called to exercise power as magistrates and ministers, and many more as husbands and fathers, women were universally called to subject themselves to the authority of others. Their God was a God of order, and out of their religious convictions and experiences Puritan leaders found a divine mandate for a firm, clear hierarchy. Yet not all lives were overwhelmed; other religious voices made themselves heard, and inspired voices that defied that hierarchy.

Gifted with an extraordinary mind, an intense spiritual passion, and an awesome charisma, Anne Hutchinson arrived in Massachusetts in 1634 and established herself as a leader of women. She held private religious meetings in her home and later began to deliver her own sermons. She inspired a large number of disciples who challenged the colony's political, social, and ideological foundations, and scarcely three years after her arrival, Hutchinson was recognized as the primary disrupter of consensus and order--she was then banished as a heretic.

Anne Hutchinson, deeply centered in her spirituality, heard in the word of God an imperative to ignore and move beyond the socially prescribed boundaries placed around women. The Passion of Anne Hutchinson examines issues of gender, patriarchal order, and empowerment in Puritan society through the story of a woman who sought to preach, inspire, and disrupt.

Elliot Vernon, London Presbyterians and the British Revolutions, 1638-64. 2021

University of Manchester Press

This is the first book-length exploration of presbyterians and presbyterianism in London during the crisis period of the mid-seventeenth century. It charts the emergence of a movement of clergy and laity that aimed at 'reforming the Reformation' by instituting presbyterianism in London's parishes and ultimately the Church of England. The book analyses the movement's political narrative and its relationship with its patrons in the parliamentarian aristocracy and gentry. It also considers the political and social institutions of London life and examines the presbyterians' opponents within the parliamentarian camp. Finally, it focuses on the intellectual influence of presbyterian ideas on the political thought and polity of the Church and the emergence of dissent at the Restoration.

Daniel Silliman, Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith. 2021


Who are evangelicals? And what is evangelicalism? Those attempting to answer these questions usually speak in terms of political and theological stances. But those stances emerge from an evangelical world with its own institutions—institutions that shape imagination as much as they shape ideology.

In this unique exploration of evangelical subculture, Daniel Silliman shows readers how Christian fiction, and the empire of Christian publishing and bookselling it helped build, is key to understanding the formation of evangelical identity. With a close look at five best-selling novels—Love Comes SoftlyThis Present DarknessLeft BehindThe Shunning, and The Shack—Silliman considers what it was in these books that held such appeal and what effect their widespread popularity had on the evangelical imagination.

Reading Evangelicals ultimately makes the case that the worlds created in these novels reflected and shaped the world evangelicals saw themselves living in—one in which romantic love intertwines with divine love, humans play an active role in the cosmic contest between angels and demons, and the material world is infused with the literal workings of God and Satan. Silliman tells the story of how the Christian publishing industry marketed these ideas as much as they marketed books, and how, during the era of the Christian bookstore, this—every bit as much as politics or theology—became a locus of evangelical identity.

Andrew T.N. Muirhead, Scottish Presbyterianism Re-established: The Case of Stirling and Dunblane, 1687-1710. 2021

Edinburgh University Press

In 1690, the Church of Scotland rejected episcopal authority and settled as Presbyterian. The adjacent Presbyteries of Stirling and Dunblane covered an area that included both lowland and highland communities, speaking both English and Gaelic and supporting both the new government and the old – thus forming a fairly representative picture of the nation as a whole. This book will examine the ways in which the two Presbyteries operated administratively, theologically and geographically under the new regime. By surveying the complete indices of surviving church records from 1690 to 1710 at Presbytery and parish level, Andrew Muirhead will show how the two Presbyteries related to civil authorities, how they dealt with problematic discipline cases referred by the Kirk Sessions and their overall functioning as human, as well as religious, institution in seventeenth-century Scotland. The resulting study will advance our understanding of the profound impact that Presbyteries had on those involved with them in any capacity.

Matthew Levering, The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology. 2021


In this book, Matthew Levering surveys twentieth-century Catholic moral theology to construct an argument against centering ethics on conscience. He instead argues that conscience must be formed by the revealed truths of Scripture as interpreted and applied in the church. Levering shows how conscience-centered ethics came to be—both prior to and following the Second Vatican Council—and how important voices from both the Catholic and Protestant communities criticized the primacy of conscience in favor of an approach that considers conscience within the broader framework of the Christian moral organism.

Rather than engaging with current hot-button issues, Levering presents and deconstructs the work of twenty-six noteworthy theologians from the recent past in order to work through core matters. He begins by examining the place of conscience in Scripture and in the Catholic “moral manuals” of the twentieth century. He then explores the rebuttals to conscience-centered ethics offered by pre- and post-conciliar Thomists and the emergence of a new, even more problematic conscience-centered ethics in German thought. Amid this wide-ranging introduction to various strands of Catholic moral theology, Levering crafts an incisive intervention of his own against the abuse of conscience that besets the church today as it did in the last century.

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.