The pastor's guide to church history

The pastor's guide to resource materials on church history

Must-have information for the serious student who wishes to research the historical development of the church.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.

Stories from the history of Christianity contain a treasure trove of resources for the pastor. However, unlocking the variety of print and electronic resources can be a challenge because of the large volume of material. Where do you begin? Which resources are the most valuable? If you are like me, then you want to make sure you get the most value for the limited funds available, coupled with the ever-lacking space in your bookshelf or hard drive.

This article complements two previously published articles, the first by John McVay and Phillip Long on the pastor’s guide to New Testament resources, and the second by Greg A. King on the pastor’s guide to Old Testament resources.* In addition to having adequate biblical resources, a well-rounded pastoral library should have some essential volumes on church history.

The pastor can utilize church history as a source for sermon illustrations, inspiration for a first-person narrative sermon, telling the story of a significant individual in church history, or even developing a heritage Sabbath that features the legacy of a particular tradition.

Bibliographies and general surveys

With the limits of time and money, some of the best guidance can be found in up-to-date bibliographies, guides, and broad surveys. Here are some of the best:

1. Justo L. Gonzalez, Church History: An Essential Guide (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996). This book packs a decided punch in 96 pages. Gonzalez provides one-page overviews of the nine periods of church history, along with introductory bibliographies.

2. Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000). Noll takes 15 decisive moments and uses them as seminal events that permanently altered the history of the Christian church.

3. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995). One of the best one-volume overviews, which is both simple and easy to use as a reference resource.

4. Roland H. Bainton, Christianity (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1964). Although dated, perhaps one of the most readable overviews of the history of Christianity. My personal favorite.

5. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., 3 vols. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1987). The strength of these three volumes is their detailed analysis on the development of doctrine from the early church through the twentieth century.

6. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971–1989). One of the most definitive reference series of volumes tracing the development of Christian thought.

Purchasing books online

One of my favorite memories from my Seminary years was getting together with a group of students to travel from Andrews University in southwestern Michigan to Grand Rapids, Michigan, about 90 minutes northeast. We always made sure we stopped by Eerdmans Bookstore to pick up discount copies of new books or the Kregel Bookstore. Fortunately, most bookstores now have online portals to purchase either new or used books. Here are some of my favorites:

1.—Helpful for finding used books. It is the largest collection of used books and bookstores online.

2.— Christian Book Distributors is a discount distributor of new and used books. Their Web site and catalogue each have a section with church history resources.

3.—The largest bookseller online with a wealth of selections and discount prices for church history resources. Amazon also allows the user to browse the front cover, table of contents, a few pages of content, and the back cover of most books, and offers used copies often at a discount price from affiliated sellers.

Essential church history resources for the pastor’s library

What essential books and other resources, focused on church history, should be in the pastor’s library? An adequate answer would need to take personal interests and skills into account. Of course, each author divides the history of Christianity in different ways, but loosely based on my reading, I’ve come up with the following categories of what I consider to be the essentials:

The early and medieval church. One of the best resources to own is The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers and The Ante-Nicene Fathers, available inexpensively both in print and electronically. A helpful overview is Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993), and, if you can afford it, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2008) is a benchmark reference. Also helpful are some specialized, but useful studies that include G. R. Evans, The Thought of Gregory the Great (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Rowan William, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001); R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991). Don’t miss Eusebius’s The History of the Church (numerous editions are available, although I prefer the Penguin Classics edition of 1990). For medieval studies, consult Joseph H. Lynch, The Medieval Church: A Brief History (New York: Longman, 1992) or Carl A. Volz, The Medieval Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997).

Reformation and European church. One of the best reference works related to the Reformation is Hans Hillerbrand’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1996). Helpful biographical treatments of some of the major Reformers include those by Richard Marius and Martin Brecht (perhaps the most definitive biography, in my opinion) along with Timothy F. Lull’s Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989) or one of the recent CD-ROMs containing all of Luther’s writings. Similar electronic compilations have been done for John Calvin, John Wesley, and other Reformers, although I personally prefer the print editions. Numerous biographies abound as well, but my personal favorites include Alister E. McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990) and Henry D. Rack’s Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd ed. (London: Epworth Press, 2002). Every pastor should have the definitive edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion published as a part of the Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox). The best one-volume overview of Methodism is David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). For many of the lesserknown Reformers, including those of the Anabaptist tradition, consult bibliographies or the sections on further reading in Hillerbrand’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. For a broad survey of the history of Christianity in Europe, see G. R. Evans, The History of Christian Europe (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009).

American religion. A helpful overview is Leigh Schmidt’s revision of Edwin S. Gaustad’s classic The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story From Colonial Times to Today (New York: HarperOne, 2004). Another helpful title is Theology in America: Christian Thought From the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War by E. Brooks Holifield (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). Equally definitive, but with more sensitivity to Canada and transatlantic influences, is Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992). For those interested in Puritan studies, the writings of Perry Miller are an essential starting point. See the recent edition by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001); Francis J. Bremer’s The Puritan Experiment: New England Society From Bradford to Edwards (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995); and George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004). While bibliographies can help to guide you to specific eras, some of the must-haves include Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers: 1815–1860, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997). Not to be left out is the out-ofprint three-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988) that, although two decades old, still has readable yet scholarly articles with helpful bibliographies.

Global Christianity. Christianity is a worldwide movement with the most rapid growth in recent times occurring in Africa, Asia, and South America. Church historians are beginning to chronicle the history of the church in these areas. Two helpful surveys include a collection of essays edited by Adrian Hastings, A World History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) and Jonathan Hill’s The History of Christian Thought: The Fascinating Story of the Great Christian Thinkers and How They Helped Shape the World as We Know It Today (Downer’s Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2007). A book by Charles E. Bradford, Sabbath Roots: The African Connection (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1999) may challenge some of your traditional assumptions. With all of the interest in global Christian history, I anticipate that this is an area where I will need to make room on my bookshelf in the next couple of years, although as one scholar pointed out at a recent scholarly conference, the largest challenge that historians face is a lack of access to primary sources (or possibly sources that have been destroyed). A preview of things to come are the first two volumes by Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992–2004); Justo L. Gonzalez and Odina E. Gonzalez, Christianity in Latin America: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and a great introduction to primary sources by Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Marian Delgado, eds., A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450–1990: A Documentary Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).

Adventist studies. The definitive biography of Ellen White’s life is Arthur White’s six-volume Ellen G. White (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1985). Although written by a sympathetic grandson, White does a great job of exploring in detail the life of his grandmother. A much more critical biography by Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), questions the genuineness of Ellen White’s prophetic calling. The best apologetic work that answers these questions is Herbert Douglass’s Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1998). Also helpful are volumes in the new Adventist biography series (especially George Knight’s biography on Joseph Bates) and the new series of volumes published by Andrews University Press as the Adventist Classics Library (these volumes with their scholarly introductions are a must-have for the student of Adventist history). For an out-dated but story-driven narrative, check out Arthur W. Spalding’s Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, 4 vols. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1961) or Adventism’s first historian J. N. Loughborough’s The Great Second Advent Movement: Its Rise and Progress, rev. ed. (Loma Linda, CA: Adventist Pioneer Library, 1992). Adventist pastors will especially appreciate the development of Adventist evangelism detailed in Howard B. Week’s Adventist Evangelism in the Twentieth Century (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1969). Personally, I have found Paul A. Gordon’s My Dear Brother M . . . : Why Ellen White Wrote the Letters in Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1997) a great tool for developing a prayer meeting series on the life and writings of Ellen White.

* John McVay and Phillip Long, “The Pastor’s Guide to
Resource Materials on the New Testament,” Ministry, May
2006, 22–24; Greg A. King, “The Pastor’s Guide to Resource
Materials on the Old Testament,” Ministry, July 2006, 21–24.

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Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.

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