Helpful Church History Sets

Given that I love books, church history, and sets, this article makes perfect sense – at least to me! But there are other more helpful reasons to run with a piece such as this. I think all Christians should have some awareness of church history, but there are far too many excellent volumes out there on the subject to even start a proper bibliography.

Thus looking at some of the better sets or multi-volume collections on church history instead of individual volumes might be one way to get around this. And this is not too difficult for me, as I can just pull some volumes down from my shelves and write them up.

Some of these are multi-volume works by the same author, while others feature various authors in a set. Some are older and some are more recent. But any of these can be quite helpful if you want a good grasp of church history over the past two millennia.

So here are some of these works worth getting, presented alphabetically by author, with a very brief description of each.

Bainton, Roland, Christendom. 2 vols (Harper, 1964, 1966). This important historian is especially known for his biography of Luther, Here I Stand (Pierce and Smith, 1950).

Chadwick, Owen, ed., The Penguin [originally Pelican] History of the Church. This series of paperbacks is quite useful and covers all key aspect of church history. The seven volumes are:
Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church (1967).
Southern, R.W., Western Society and Church in the Middle Ages (1970).
Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation (1964).
Cragg, Gerald, The Church in an Age of Reason 1648-1789 (1960).
Vidler, Alec, The Church in an Age of Revolution (1961).
Neill, Stephen, A History of Christian Missions (1964).
Chadwick, Owen, The Christian Church in the Cold War (1992).

Ferguson, Woodbridge and James, Church History, 2 vols (Zondervan, 2005, 2013).
Ferguson, Everett, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation.
Woodbridge, John and Frank A. James, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day.

Gonzalez, Justo, The Story of Christianity. 2 vols (Harper & Row, 1984). A helpful but brief overview.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The renowned church historian from Yale University actually has three classic sets that can be mentioned here (and if that isn’t enough, he also has a single volume history):
A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols (Zondervan, 1937-1945, 1970).
Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, 5 vols (Zondervan, 1958-1962, 1969)
A History of Christianity, 2 vols (Harper & Row, 1953, 1975).

Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church (Eerdmans, 1910, 1980). This classic work of some 7000 pages in 8 volumes is still worth getting, although it only goes up to the time of the Reformation.

Bebbington, David and Mark Noll, eds., A History of Evangelicalism. 5 vols (IVP). This series, as the name suggests, does not cover 2000 years of church history, but several hundred years of American and British evangelicalism. It is a very good set indeed. The volumes are:
Noll, Mark, The Rise of Evangelicalism. 2004.
Wolffe, John, The Expansion of Evangelicalism. 2006.
Bebbington, David, The Dominance of Evangelicalism. 2005.
Treloar, Geoff, The Disruption of Evangelicalism. 2016.
Stanley, Brian, The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism. 2013.

Image of The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Volume 3) (History of Evangelicalism Series)
The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Volume 3) (History of Evangelicalism Series) by Bebbington, David W. (Author) Amazon logo

Dowley, Tim, ed., The Monarch/Baker History of the Church. 4 vols. Monarch/Baker.
I am not fully sure if this set is worthwhile mentioning, since it is only half a set, and shall forever remain that way, alas. It was to have been 8 volumes all up, but only 4 ever appeared, and then the series was cancelled, evidently due to lack of reader interest. But what was published was a helpful collection:
Davidson, Ivor, The Birth of the Church. Vol. 1 (2005).
Davidson, Ivor, A Public Faith. Vol. 2 (2005).
Heinze, Rudolph, Reform and Conflict. Vol. 4 (2005).
Pearse, Marc, The Age of Reason. Vol. 5 (2006).

Other quite helpful sets could be mentioned, such as the 5-volume The Christian Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan (Oxford, 1971-1989) or the 3-volume A History of Christian Thought by Justo Gonzalez (Abingdon, 1970-1975), But these are really more of a history of Christian doctrine rather than general church history, so I will not feature them – and others like them – here.

Matthew Hall recently penned a piece offering 13 reasons why we must study church history. Here is the bullet point version of his article to whet your appetite:

1. Remembering is vital.
2. The sovereign Creator is also the sovereign Lord.
3. History fits into the divine drama of creation, fall, and redemption.
4. God’s meticulous providence shouldn’t make us presume on his mysterious providence.
5. God has unique purposes for his church.
6. Theological development doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
7. Truth matters.
8. A biblical doctrine of depravity makes us healthy skeptics.
9. Church history is our corporate history.
10. We must treat our subjects—our own brothers and sisters—with grace and truth.
11. Church history is a global story.
12. Historical scholarship will always be revisionist and evolving.
13. The imago dei reminds us to listen to historical actors beyond the elite and privileged.

Let me finish with a quote from Philip Schaff:

How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church, if we have no thorough knowledge of her history, or fail to apprehend it from the proper point of observation? History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the richest foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.

Happy reading and happy studying.

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3 Replies to “Helpful Church History Sets”

  1. Bill,
    As usual you blow us away with the extent of your library.
    I was happy to recognize Bainton and Chadwick in that list although I don’t have their sets.
    Both of them have graced the text book lists in Bible colleges.
    I suppose many of your readers would like to see this list graded a little, perhaps for the purpose of basic aquisitions, and or readability for the lay person. E.g Latourette’s two volume set sounds about right for me next.

    I have just spent some serious time on Wesley, Whitfield, and Toplady, with the assistance? of the very Calvanist Boettner. It is obvious from Boettner’s comments that one needs also to understand the historian before one can understand the history.

    From my perspective it has become increasingly clear that the great men of faith were human like us and subject to the mix of passion for the truth in less than glorified vessels.

    Matthew Hall’s comments don’t sound like comments targeted only at church history, but how true they are.

  2. Reading Schaff’s 8 volume history was one of the best things I’ve ever done and was a defining time in shaping my faith. It gave me a majestic panoramic overview of church history, the theological issues involved along the way, and a love for the men and women who made it. So even though it only goes up to the Reformation, I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve also read Latourette’s 7 volume on the expansion of Christianity; Bainton’s 2 volume; and some of the Penguin (though I think I have the original Pelikan). I wasn’t aware of the volume on the cold war. I’ll have to look into that one!

  3. Thanks Ed. You may be the only person on the planet interested in my Schaff/Latourette story, but here it is. While at Trinity College in Chicago from ’75 to ’77, I had the chance to get one or the other or both sets. I opted for the paperback 7-volume of Latourette along with his 5-volume paperback set.

    But when I went to YWAM California in ’78 I felt I may not need them so I foolishly sold them! I have been repenting ever since. While in YWAM Holland with you I got Schaff (in Feb. 83 according to what I wrote in the books). I read them there and enjoyed them as well.

    In the last few years I have slowly been buying back books from the 7- and 5-volume sets again, second hand, and now I have them all. It was a sad time in my life, as if my children went missing for nearly 40 years! Now all is good again!

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