Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seventh volume of A History of the Expansion of Christianity, entitled Advance Through Storm, covers the period from 1914 to 1945. Latourette was highly qualified to undertake the task of writing on this topic. He served as traveling secretary for the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, missionary in China for two years, Professor of Missions and World Christianity and Chairman of the Department of Religion at Yale University, as well as Director of Graduate Studies at Yale Divinity School. He was also a Baptist minister, and served as president of the American Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. He was broadly evangelical in his convictions and an enthusiastic supporter of the ecumenical movement.
His central thesis was that “throughout its history [Christianity] 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” (History of the Expansion, vol.7 , p. 494). He believed that “in A.D. 1944 Christianity was affecting more deeply more different nations and cultures than ever before.” Yet at the time of his death he was unsure whether the period from 1914 to 1960 was a period of advance or retreat.
As the final volume of the seven volume set, Volume 7 has some unique characteristics. At the time of publication, World War II had recently finished, and many aspects of the final outcome for the world at large, as well as for Christendom, were still very much up in the air. Spanning only 30 years, the period covered in Volume 7 is by far the briefest of the seven volumes. It is debatable whether or not the date of 1945 should have been regarded as a legitimate point for closing out an era of the advance of Christianity. Evidently, during the time period covered by Volume 7, two major events had a significant bearing on the expansion of Christianity in the world, namely, World War I and World War II. Also, as the final volume of the series, Latourette gives a summary of the entire seven-volume set, as well as some concluding comments including some interesting personal observations.
By the beginning of the period covered in Volume 7, Christian churches were present in practically all regions and countries of the world, though still a tiny minority in many. Having traversed the “great century” of expansion (1800 to 1914), the geographical and numerical growth of the Christian movement continued from 1914 to 1945. At the same time, various obstacles, including, most notably, two world wars, put a damper on the enthusiasm generated by the upward trajectory of the previous era. The remarkable thing is that, in spite of these obstacles, in most places, Christianity continued to grow.
Volume 7 is organized in the following format: after a brief (4-page) introduction, two chapters—one on “Movements which Gave the Age its Distinctive Character” and one on “The Processes by which Christianity Spread”—set the stage for the bulk of the book, which is dedicated to an exploratory circuit of developments in virtually all the world, beginning in Europe, and continuing on through the United States; British, Danish, and Dutch territories in the Americas; Latin America; the lands in the Pacific; Madagascar, Africa south of the Sahara; the northern shores of Africa and the Near East; India; South-eastern Asia; China; and the Japanese Empire. Four concluding chapters provide: a summary of the material covered in Volume 7; a summary of the material covered in the entire 7-volume set; a comparison of the advance of Christianity with the advance of other world religions; and an all-important personal evaluation by the author of the implications of the content presented throughout the project.
In the introduction, the main developments from a global perspective in the period between 1914 and 1945 are presented. Following on the heels of the progress of the nineteenth century, Christianity consolidated its position as a truly worldwide religion. The rate of growth, however, was not as dramatic as that of the previous century. The title of Volume 7, “advance through storm” references the tragic incidence of the two global conflagrations that have come to be known as World War I and World War II.
With respect to movements that left their imprint on the era, scientific and technological developments led to a world in which distances were shortened and peoples which had previously lived in relative isolation were brought into contact with each other. This, in turn, provoked a resurgence of nationalism and racial tension. Political and social movements which had previously been limited to small minorities gained access to wider influence, facilitating revolutions and threatening reversals of long-term hegemonies, such as that of Christendom in Western Europe. Resentment grew among non-Western peoples toward Western imperialism, which was often associated with Christian missionary advance. In many places, individual freedoms were curtailed and replaced with increased governmental controls, many of which were adverse to Christianity.
While the trend of the preceding century had favored the advance of Protestantism, during the period covered in Volume 7, Roman Catholicism made a moderate recovery of relative strength in comparison to other Christian groups, though there were many exceptions to this in various locations and contexts. Another significant trend was a steady move away from the longstanding norm of Christianity as primarily a territorial faith holding sway culturally, albeit in relatively limited locations, to that of a minority religion spread out among a wider variety of places and cultures. This meant an overall loss of influence in many Western settings offset by a gain of influence in many non-Western settings. Linked to this trend was an increase in indigenous leadership among many of the newer churches.
Another significant development issuing forth from within Protestantism during this period was the advance of the ecumenical movement. On the heels of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, organizations such as the International Missionary Council, and subsequently, the World Council of Churches, channeled the impetus for this development. In response to what was perceived as compromise on essential doctrine, the fundamentalist movement provided an alternative rallying point.
As far as the processes by which Christianity spread are concerned, although there were still some exceptions in places like India and Africa, there was a general shift away from mass movements toward the conversion of individuals. There was practically no advance on the part of the Eastern churches, with the continued expansion of Christianity centered almost exclusively in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Although with different emphases, missionaries from Catholic sectors, as well as both liberal and more fundamentalist wings of Protestantism, continued to make inroads throughout a great part of the world. The disintegration of many non-Western cultures helped to open the door for greater influence from the West, especially when accompanied by educational and medical benefits.
As the focal point of much of both of the world wars, Europe was one of the areas of the world most directly affected by the storms of the era. According to Latourette, although organizationally, and in number of adherents, Christianity was weaker in 1945 than in 1914, in influence it was stronger.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia brought about drastic changes in the religious landscape of that country. Efforts on the part of the Communist regime to stamp out Christianity were initially focused primarily on the Orthodox Church, but later came to target the dissenting churches, such as Baptists, Brethren, and Seventh Day Adventists, as well. Though Christianity survived the persecution during this period, especially in the rural areas, the losses were significant.
In Italy, the Catholic Church was actually bolstered somewhat by the advent of Fascism, as the government saw religion as a means to unite the country. Protestant groups, however, were, in varying degrees, suppressed, and saw miniscule growth during this time. Spain, which remained neutral during World War II, preoccupied with its own recovery after a brutal civil war in the 30’s, also saw a retrenchment of Catholic domination, and a corresponding repression of Protestantism.
There was a similar attempt on the part of the Nazi regime in Germany to use the church (in this case, both Catholic and Protestant) as a tool to further the aims of the government. There were varied responses from within both faith traditions, from those who openly supported and endorsed the Nazi regime, to those who were arrested and imprisoned for their brave opposition. Although, in general, churches decreased numerically during this time period, there were signs, at the end of the war of a renewed interest in religion. In several of the countries occupied by German forces, such as Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Greece, Serbia, and Czechoslovakia, Christians were more united in their opposition, despite German attempts to persuade them to adopt a different stance. Persecution of the Jews played a special role in awakening the conscience of many in countries such as the Netherlands and France in their opposition to the Nazi agenda.
In Great Britain, where church attendance had dwindled to 5 to 10 percent in the period leading up to World War II, the tragedies of the war, although inflicting grave difficulties upon the churches, served to galvanize many toward greater involvement in serving the needy, and renewed religious commitment.
In the United States, the growth in church membership, which had steadily increased throughout the preceding century, continued, though it is possible the level of intelligent Christian commitment did not keep pace. On an international level, the prominence of the United States was growing, both in the realm of politics and religion. A drop-off in immigration numbers saw a corresponding decline among Roman Catholics, but an increased strength in finances and international influence of American Catholics. At the same time, Protestant efforts at evangelizing Catholic immigrants, and establishing ethnic congregations, met with some success. Mission efforts among Native Americans, both by Catholics and Protestants, moved forward as well. Among African-Americans, Christianity continued to grow, primarily among Protestants (most notably Baptists and Methodists), embracing a large majority of the black community, though church cooperation across racial lines was still very limited.
This period also witnessed the rapid growth of the newly born Pentecostal movement, as well as other similar minority denominations. Various developments in interdenominational cooperation, including significant American representation in the worldwide ecumenical movement, were countered by the steady progress of Fundamentalism.
In Canada, one of the most significant developments was the merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and a large percentage of Presbyterians, forming the United Church of Canada. This period also witnessed growth among Roman Catholics, and the arrival of Mennonite immigrants from Russia, especially in the Western provinces.
In many countries of Latin America, throughout this period there was a struggle for power and influence between political factions of Communism, on the one part, and Fascism, on the other. The Fascists were linked mostly with the Falangists from Spain, promoting a movement toward a united Hispanidad, and, by extension, greater commitment to Roman Catholicism. In spite of this, after 1914, the Protestant growth of Protestantism outstripped that of Catholicism, largely following the impetus of missionary efforts from the United States. Another development was greater cooperation among Protestants. Various federations and councils of Protestants/Evangelicals were formed during this period.
During the same period, strong anti-clerical sentiments provoked a decline in church growth in Mexico, especially among Catholics, but also, to some extent, among Protestants. In contrast, the vibrant growth of Christianity in Brazil, especially among Protestants, and largely through indigenous lay initiative among the lower classes, was encouraging.
Among the countries in the Pacific, there were marked differences in the overall state and advance of the Christian movement. Australia saw, simultaneously, a relative loss of attachment and interest in Christian faith, efforts toward church unity and cooperation, and a gradual lessening of dependence upon mother churches in Great Britain. New Zealand was not as affected by the losses in Christian commitment as Australia. It also saw the birth of a large sectarian movement among the Maori people during this period. The islands of Polynesia were already largely Christian, at least in name, by 1914. Church growth in Melanesia and Micronesia was significant, though, in the succeeding period. The East Indies experienced a revival of Islam as well as a continued growth of Christianity, along with increased autonomy of the churches. A change from Spanish to American control brought about a corresponding interest in American culture and Protestant growth in the Philippines, the country with the largest grouping of Christians in Asia.
Sub-Saharan Africa saw a huge jump in Christianity, with as much as a five-fold increase, as the cultures of many traditional, primitive societies were disintegrating as a result of contact with the outside world. Significant growth was seen among both Catholics and Protestants, at different rates in different countries and among different people groups, marked, at times, by competition and tension between the two groups. This period also saw the founding of various African Independent churches (with varying degrees of Christian orthodoxy), the emergence of charismatic “prophets,” and the activity of sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In North Africa and the Middle East, the picture was totally different. Primarily as a result of the decline of the older, indigenous churches in Turkey, Iraq, and Persia, and corresponding Islamic advances, the proportion of Christians to the total population in the region decreased to levels not known since the second or third century. In spite of this, there were still small gains on the part of both Protestants and Roman Catholics, linked primarily to missionary efforts from the West.
India saw a massive movement toward increased nationalism, both in the secular realm and in the Christian churches, with greater indigenous leadership. There were significant gains on the part of the Roman Catholics and Protestants, with the latter especially attracting large amounts of converts from among the lower castes. Although still comprising only 2% of the overall population, the amount of professing Christians doubled during the 30-year period between 1914 and 1945. During the same period, the growth of Christian schools had an impact beyond the boundaries of the churches. Although not all Christian groups participated equally, there were also important ecumenical advances, through the organization of the National Christian Council, and the formation of the United Church of North India and the South India United Church.
With the exception of Ceylon, Christian churches throughout the entire region of South-Eastern Asia were severely affected by the Japanese invasion of the 1940’s. Many missionaries from the United States and Great Britain fled from their places of service. In spite of this, there was uneven Christian growth in the region, from continued growth among the Karens and other ethnic minorities in Burma, the responsiveness of ethnic Chinese in the Malay Peninsula, and Roman Catholic advances in French Indo-China, to entrenched resistance to the gospel from Buddhist Burmese and Thais as well as Muslim Malays.
Some of the most revolutionary changes in the world during this period took place in China, as age-old traditions crumbled under the weight of influence from the West. This, in turn, opened the door for dramatic growth on the part of the Christian churches, especially among Protestants, although, at the end of this period, they were still significantly less numerous than the Catholics. In spite of the increasing influence of communism, and repression imposed during the Japanese invasion, Chinese Christians experienced greater unity and cooperation, and in some places, such as Shantung, extraordinary revival.
The final region considered by Latourette in Volume 7 is the Japanese Empire, including Japan, Formosa, and Korea. On the heels of the World War II, Protestant missionary efforts, proceeding mostly from the United States and Great Britain, were greatly hampered, while Catholic missions, based primarily out of France, Germany, and Spain, were able to continue without much government interference. In spite of this, the Protestant churches moved forward under indigenous leadership. One particularly significant effort was the Protestant “Kingdom of God” movement under the competent leadership of Toyohiko Kagawa. In 1941, largely as a result of government pressure, practically all the different Protestant denominations came together to form the united Church of Christ in Japan.
After summarizing the advance of Christianity throughout its first 1900 years, Latourette posits three major ways in which Christianity advanced, in spite of the storms it had to traverse, during the period from 1914 to 1944:
In the first place, Christianity and its influence were more nearly evenly distributed across the face of the earth . . . In the second place, Christianity was more deeply rooted among non-Occidental peoples . . . In the third place, Christians were being knit more consciously into a world-wide fellowship than had been the case since the first three centuries when the Catholic Church was coming into being. (464)
By the end of the first half of the twentieth century, according to Latourette, Christianity still had not become totally universal, nor had it replaced the other religions of the world. It was still largely identified with European culture, and its geographic extension came about primarily through the conversion of polytheists and animists. Although it had made some inroads among Confucianists, it still had not made many converts, comparatively speaking, from Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
In spite of this, the advance of Christianity was unique. Its advance throughout the world was more widespread than that of any other religion. By 1944, there was hardly any people group or society among whom Christianity had not made at least some converts. It had shown itself able to transcend cultures, as well as survive the death of cultures with which it had become closely linked.
Although it was likely very difficult in 1945 to predict the events of the following 64 years, there are several elements that, from a more informed vantage point, may have merited greater treatment. Among the most significant of these has been the phenomenal growth of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, as evidenced in such documents as the Pew Study on Pentecostals, the World Christian Encyclopedia, Operation World, and The Church is Bigger than You Think, by Patrick Johnstone, as well as The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. Parallel to this development has been the massive expansion of Christianity in the Global South. At the same time, the decline of Christianity in the West since 1945, both numerically as well as in influence, appears to be more significant than that foreseen by Latourette.
In Latourette’s opinion, though the future remained to be seen, there was a good possibility that Christianity would continue to expand. However, from his perspective, this expansion would not come about through absorbing other religions and creating a new synthesis, but rather an uncompromising conviction of the centrality of Jesus and loyalty to him. The different brands of Christianity which were most successful at advancing varied from age to age and from region to region. However, the greatest inroads were most often made by those who were most strongly committed to Christ, expressing this commitment through missionary proclamation.
In contrast, over the long haul, one of the most insidious influences sapping the vitality of the Christian movement has been official governmental assimilation and control, and a corresponding nominal commitment to faith on the part of its adherents. Ironically, Latourette comes across as somewhat torn between conceding prominence to the social influence of Christianity, as seen through the advance of democracy in the world, and the concurrent disintegration of Western society through tragic events such as the two world wars. In many ways, the tension underlying Latourette’s analysis of the events depicted in Volume 7 may be seen as emblematic of the shift from the postmillennial optimism of previous eras to more pessimistic eschatological visions reflective of the realities of the succeeding era.