Thirty years ago Kenneth Scott Latourette completed his seven-volume magnum opus, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity.” His concluding chapter was a summing up of all he had written about the spread of the Christian faith during the previous two thousand years. His comments help us to see the future from the perspective of the greatest historian of missions.
In Christianity was a vigour which impelled some of its choicest and most understanding exponents to go forth as missionaries and proclaim their faith by word and deed.… The overwhelming majority of missionaries were from the minority who had committed themselves fully to Christ.
Christianity did not always expand. It failed to take advantage of what appeared to be some of its greatest opportunities. It was clear that the nature of the faith did not ensure the persistence of Christianity among peoples who had once known it. It seemed also borne out by experience that open persecution was seldom if ever solely accountable for the elimination of the faith. Nor were the attacks of a scepticism which appealed to reason much if any more successful. The most dangerous foes were more subtle—the social or political prestige of a rival religion, slow attrition by weaning away the rising generations, a secularism which held that the most desirable goods of life were not those most esteemed by Christianity but were to be obtained in other ways than through that faith, and movements of population which took millions from environments in which the outward observances of the Church were a normal part of the social conventions.
In the past hundred and fifty years Christianity has had its greatest geographic extension and its widest influence upon mankind. Throughout its history it has gone forward by major pulsations. Each advance has carried it further than the one before. Of the alternating recessions, each has been briefer and less marked than the one which preceded it.…
Is there warrant in history for confidence in the dogma of progress, so fondly cherished by man in the nineteenth century?… It may well be that in the course of the centuries Christianity will become the professed faith of all mankind. If this comes, presumably it will be only after a vast reach of time.… Yet two facts forbid the confident expectation that eventually, in the slow processes of history, all men on the planet will be brought into full conformity to the Christian pattern. One is in the very essence of that pattern. It is forever beckoning man on and appealing to him as both a duty placed on him by his nature and as a hope, yet it is unattainable within time.… Moreover, the historical record reveals the fact that in lands longest under strong Christian influence not only has striking advance been registered towards Christian ideal, but also some of the chronic sins of mankind have swelled to gigantic proportions.… A Christian conviction is not surprised by these phenomena. It expects evil and good to go on together throughout the span with which historians concern themselves and it maintains that sooner or later the historical process will be terminated by the act of God.… The Christian ideal and the historical process are each such that perfection, as the Christian judges perfection, will not be attained within time.
It is of the very core of the Christian’s faith that the God and Father of his Lord, Jesus Christ, will not be defeated. The Christian holds the resurrection of Jesus also to be fact.… The Christian is certain that Jesus is central in human history. His confident faith is that in those who give themselves to God as they see him in Jesus there is working the power of endless life and that from them God will build, to be consummated beyond time, the heavenly city, the ideal community, in which will be realized fully the possibilities of the children of God. The eternal life and this ideal community are, in the last analysis, not the fruit of men’s striving, but the gift of a love which man does not deserve, and are from the quite unmerited grace of God.
From Chapter XVIII of A History of the Expansion of Christianity: Volume VII, Advance Through Storm. Copyright 1945 by Harper and Brothers; used by permission of Harper & Row. The set is now available in a kivar edition from Zondervan.
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