Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

Book Reviews

The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland: From the First Century to the Twenty-First

Gerald Bray, Apollos (IVP), 2021, 720pp, £24.85 hb (Amazon), £23.61 (Kindle)

We are indebted to Dr Bray for this possibly unique attempt at giving a complete history of Christianity in these islands, all the way from a point somewhere in the second century down to the present day. As he admits, it is a daunting task but he does it very well.

We all know parts of the story – the Reformation, the rise of Methodism, life since 1980, etc. – but most of us do not know all of the story and often we do not know how one part follows on from another. Dr Bray does, and he takes us through the main parts of the story, step by step, with consummate skill.

We begin with the early history and are soon on to the Celtic church, Augustine’s arrival, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, Wyclif, Cranmer, the Puritans, the Westminster Assembly, dissent, etc. His determination to cover the history of all four nations is to be commended but that is no easy task and goes a long way to showing that the history of Christianity in Ireland is just as complicated as one always thought. To describe Wales as a backwater and to deny the very existence of the Scots language is probably unwise, whether he is right or not.

One enjoyed some of the etymological notes (e.g., sinecure, Dingwall, church ales, etc.), the very occasional displays of humour and the judicious use of poetry and hymns. I was amazed to learn that rural deaneries began in Norman times. Bray’s explanation of the origin of Sabbatarianism, “a peculiarly British phenomenon” (265) is controversial, to say the least.

Some statements will come as a surprise to some. For example, we are told that the piety of Alfred the Great has been exaggerated by his admirers (48) and that Wyclif is unlikely to have done any Bible translation himself (136).

The scholarship in this volume is immense but the narrative mostly rattles along at a good pace, although there are inevitably some dull moments too. Strictly speaking, we have to say that this is an Anglican history; few opportunities are missed to downplay whatever is not of that ilk. Hence, we are told, contentiously, the number involved in the Great Ejection of 1662 was likely to have been half the figure of 2000 so often quoted. William Carey was not the big deal in missionary work that some of us thought and as for people like Matthew Henry or Andrew Fuller, they merit not even a mention. On the plus side, Bunyan and Spurgeon receive due attention.

Inevitably, just as Homer nodded so there are slips. For example, to say that the 1859 revival in Wales mainly affected the Welsh speaking areas is rather redundant as at that time that was most of Wales. Whoever told Mr Bray that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ first name was Dafydd misled him; it was David.

The Protestant Truth Society will be disappointed to learn (517) that almost nothing has been heard from (or about) them since 1982. Members of FIEC churches will similarly be interested to learn (582) that the FIEC has “made no impression outside its own very limited circles”.

The book, on the whole, is a sterling piece of work, well worth obtaining to read through or to use for reference, something facilitated by the clear contents page and the two-part index. There are 27 pages of bibliography covering primary and secondary sources too and it contains 12 statistical tables of variable usefulness. Some illustrations and maps may have further enhanced an already handsome tome.

Gary Brady
Pastor, Childs Hill Baptist Church, London


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