May

17

2013

Joe Carter|12:01 AM CT

Big Question: What Day Changed the Course of Christian History?

For the inaugural article in our new series "Big Questions," The Gospel Coalition asked four Christian historians, "After AD 70, what day most changed the course of Christian history?"

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity.

A good case can be made for the Muslim invasion of the Middle East in mid-seventh century, let us say AD 650. No event during the first millennium was more unexpected, more calamitous, and more consequential for Christianity than the rise of Islam. Few irruptions in history have transformed societies so completely and irrevocably as did the conquest and expansion of the Arabs in the seventh century. And none came with greater swiftness. Within a decade three major cities in the Byzantine Christian Empire—Damascus in 635, Jerusalem in 638, and Alexandria in 641—fell to the invaders. Most of the territories that were Christian in the year 700 are now Muslim. Nothing similar has happened to Islam. Christianity seems like a rain shower that soaks the earth and then moves on, whereas Islam appears more like a great lake that constantly overflows its banks to inundate new territory.

George Marsden is professor emeritus in history at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

I think it has to be the day that Constantine was converted to Christianity. That had huge effects both for good and for ill ever after.

Philip Jenkins is the distinguished professor of history and co-director for the program on historical studies of religion for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.

I would choose May 29, 1453, known throughout the Eastern churches as "the day the world ended." Although the Byzantine Empire by that point was a pale shadow of its former self, it was still a ghostly shadow of the Roman Empire, and the seat of the Orthodox Church that once dwarfed the Catholics in power and prestige. On that day, though, the Roman capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, beginning a period of long centuries when most Eastern Christians would survive under the grudging tolerance of Islamic rule. The event may be symbolic, but it still marks a decisive turning point in Christian history.

Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University. He is writing a biography of George Whitefield and previously published The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.

On October 19, 1740, the First Great Awakening's most compelling preacher, George Whitefield, spoke at the church of the Great Awakening's most compelling theologian, Jonathan Edwards. This moment signaled the beginning of evangelicalism, the most dynamic movement in modern Christian history. Although Edwards and Whitefield did not always see eye-to-eye, they represented two aspects of evangelicalism at its best.

Edwards was the brilliant pastor of Northampton, Massachusetts, whose writings on doctrine and revival are some of the most rigorous the church has ever seen. Whitefield took the gospel to the ends of the earth (which, for this English itinerant, meant America), generating unprecedented excitement through impassioned oratory and skillful use of media. While Edwards represented the evangelical mind, and Whitefield embodied evangelical action, both still appreciated the other's strength. Edwards itinerated, too, and oversaw two major revivals at his church, while Whitefield strongly promoted Calvinist doctrine and risked permanent schism with his Methodist ally John Wesley because of it.

Whitefield and Edwards seemed to sense the significance of the moment: the normally stoic Edwards wept through much of Whitefield's sermon. Edwards thought the Whitefield's revivals might herald "the dawning of a day of God's might, power, and glorious grace."

What question should we ask next? Send your suggestions to me at joe.carter@thegospelcoalition.org.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • MarieP

    Very interesting- and those are dates that are not often discussed! (Usually, and of course for good reason, Oct. 31, 1517 is brought up).

    I also laughed a bit at the "after AD 70" part of the question because many couldn't tell you what happened then- I couldn't for a long time). Maybe you could do a post on the destruction of Jerusalem?

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    Obviously, c. AD 33 (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) but if you mean outside the Bible, then 1517, the Reformation. And that's including AD 70.

    I think Thomas S. Kidd's date of 1740 is second.

  • http://HSPandMe.com Sean Nemecek

    1450 - the invention of the mechanical movable type printing press. This led to the distribution of the Greek New Testament which influenced so many reformers and eventually led to translating the Bible into languages other than Latin.

    • Matthew

      ^^^This. Excellent answer.

  • Sean Michael Lucas

    I agree with Marsden that Edict of Milan in 313 was a major turning point. I was surprised though that none of the historians mentioned 1054--the division of the eastern and western churches and the true beginning of denominationalism.

  • Robert

    This article is great. It's nice to hear a few different perspectives. Is there any chance the current political topics that are frequently written about here can get the same sort of treatment? Multiple different perspectives, rather than a singular vision?

  • jeremiah

    I think it is the Edict of Milan and the printing press. IMHO

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  • Steve Bang

    Why is 1740 the beginning of evangelicalism? Weren't Luther and Calvin and the other reformers evangelical?

  • Jen

    1517 is too simplistic a view of Luther. 1518 is a year of much greater significance as that is the year Luther published the Heidelberg Disputation. The 95 Theses were about ecclesiastical reform NOT theological reform; Luther still considered himself a papist at that time! Furthermore, 1518 also brought the Law/Gospel disctinction that is so very vital to the true Gospel.

    This is an interesting, but slightly odd set of dates. I'm surprised no one thought of the Great Schism or any of the ecumenical councils -- certainly Nicea was incredibly significant for church history, far more so than the fall of Constantinople and Whitefield speaking at Edwards' church. If anything, the publication of Gilbert Tennent's "Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry" is more important than that.

  • http://southerngospelyankeewordpress.com Esther

    I'm a little surprised to see 1740 prioritized over 1517 here!

  • https://talmid1021.wordpress.com/ Talmid

    May I suggest getting Mark Noll's answer to this question?

  • zilch

    I'm surprised that 1859, the publication of the Origin of Species, is not here.

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  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

    Great comments that remind us of more formidable dates. Who would leave 1517 off such a list? And Gutenberg's little invention would also vie for top honors. So good to see that the Edict of Milan was mentioned since this year marks the 1700th Anniversary which is being celebrated elsewhere.

    I think 1738 would far outweigh 1740. Wesley's conversion led to a rich ministry for the rest of the century [and his last letter was to encourage Wilberforce], whereas The Great Awakening lasted some 20 years. As Sydney Ahlstrom noted, by the time of the Revolution, Christianity was on the decline, hitting a low point in the next 20 years.

    It was Wesley's Methodists, among others, that revitalized American religion later.

  • harry reeder

    with all due respect to the thoughtful and helpful answers I am amazed that what seems to me the clearest date initiating the movement that has most transformed history through the impact and influence of Christianity is October 31, 1517.. and the posting of the 95 thesis on the Wittenburg Church door by Martin Luther.. just a thoght

  • David Wiedemann

    I would add 1611 as a very significant day - the day the King James version was published.

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  • James T. O’Brien

    I have no opinion, but I might add to Professor Jenken's post, that the Fall of Constantinople also resulted in many very learned Greek scholars fleeing to Italy at just the right time for a budding Renaissance humanism to learn Greek, which had been largely unknown in the medieval West. The "return to the sources" (ad fontes) of humanism through the ability to read the NT in Greek was crucial to the rediscovery of the Biblical Gospel in the Protestant Reformation.