Beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is The Museum of Westward Expansion. Though not a large museum, its displays provide brief commentaries on people or people groups vitally involved in that expansion, such as Indians, cowboys, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark. Along the way are exhibits of significant animals such as a grizzly, a bison, a beaver, an Appaloosa, and a longhorn steer. Visitors move from display to display chronologically forward through the history of the West from about 1800 to 1900.
In a similar way, by reading Sketches From Church History, you can tour a museum of church history. You won’t even have to leave your comfortable chair. As you enter each chapter, you can stop and gaze at the pictures on display. At only four to five pages in length, each of the fifty chapters provides a brief but dense sketch of a person or group significant to church history. You can move rather quickly exhibit by exhibit through the people and events critical to the development of the church.
On my own tour, I made several observations.
Observation One: History marches forward person by person more than day by day, for it is people, not time nor even events, who do history.
Observation Two: As with history in general, the history of the church is painted with plenty of red.
From the first, Christians died for their faith, including the apostles and the church fathers. For example, Ignatius was a church father who pastored in Antioch for about forty years. Early in the second century, Emperor Trajan visited Antioch and interviewed Ignatius. When Ignatius insisted that he loved Jesus Christ above all, Trajan condemned him. Facing the lions in the amphitheater at Rome, Ignatius said, “I am God’s grain, to be ground between the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become a holy loaf for the Lord” (p. 17). That’s one to read again before proceeding to the next exhibit!
I had heard of Ignatius, but this book introduced many of whom I had not heard. Eligius is one. Living in the 600s, Eligius was a gold smith so skilled that the king of France commissioned him to build a chair of gold embellished with precious stones. With the great riches Eligius gained from his work, he bought slaves and freed them to return to their own lands. After awhile, freeing slaves physically did not satisfy. So Eligius became a missionary to Flanders. There, he labored zealously for eighteen years to free souls from sin until he died. He was seventy years old (AD 659).
Centuries later, another man of wealth made widespread impact. In 1170, in Lyons, France, Peter Waldo hired a priest to translate several books of the Bible from Latin so he could read them. From the Scripture, he learned about salvation by grace alone. He learned that there is only one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, so no priest could mediate. As he learned truth, he sought to apply it and then invited others to join him in spreading the good news. They were called Waldensians, or Waldenses. The Church of Rome applied the Inquisition to stop them. Between 1177 and 1700, thousands of Waldenses spread the Word and thousands were tortured and killed, many of whom were women and children. The Waldenses were forerunners of the Reformation.
The museum tour continues through sketches of Wycliffe in England, Huss in Bohemia, Savanarola in Italy, Luther in Germany, Calvin of France and Switzerland, Knox in Scotland, Tyndale, the Huguenots, the Puritans, and so many more.
Observation Three: For the Christian, church history is family history.
While recorded histories spotlight one or only a few significant figures on the stage of any era, there are hundreds and thousands interacting with the Significants and playing their roles on that same stage unnamed and unknown. Spurgeon did not gain fame by preaching to an empty church, but because thousands were affected by his preaching, supported his Metropolitan Tabernacle, and/or assisted in the Tabernacle’s ministries like visiting the sick and teaching the children. It wasn’t just the famous who died as martyrs. Many regular people, names forgotten with the turning of the next century’s page, faithfully served Jesus Christ and died for Him. Those unnamed are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We could say that for the Christian, church history is family history.
Observation Four: No true change for God’s glory was made apart from the Holy Spirit’s work.
Consider: After the light from Wycliffe faded in England, a lamp turned on in…Bohemia! After Huss was smothered at the stake, Savanarola flared in…Italy. When his light dimmed, Luther fired up in…Germany. These are only a few. It was worse than the proverbial “putting out fires.” Although many read each other’s writings, who determined which man where would suddenly flame up for God? As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Observation Five: No true change for God’s glory was made without the influence of God’s Word.
Besides the Holy Spirit, a second similarity between leaders separated by time and distance was God’s Word. Each man flamed up when he read and understood the Bible by the Spirit’s illumination. This held true among the rank and file also. Where God’s Word was hidden, people’s minds were dark. They did not know God and they grew increasingly mystical, superstitious, and/or legalistic. Evil increased. Where God’s Word was made known, taught faithfully, obeyed diligently, and exalted as authoritative, people were converted and grew in godliness. God works through His Word and not apart from it.
These five lessons are my own deductions from the tour, not points that the book tried to make. The book simply relates sketches from church history. I received my copy as a gift. Besides reading it yourself, you could keep it in mind for someone on your gift list or your church library. It is an easy read, yet full of history and encouragement. Take a tour today.
You can find Sketches From Church History: An Illustrated Account of 20 Centuries of Christ’s Power, at Sketches from Church History: S. M. Houghton, Iain H. Murray, S.M. Houghton: 9780851513171: Amazon.com: Books and at Christianbook.com: Sketches from Church History: S.M. Houghton: 9780851513171. Written by S. M. Houghton, it is published by The Banner of Truth Trust.