Tom Nettles’ Review of HOW CHRISTIANITY TRANSFORMED THE WORLD, by Sharon James

Published on March 15, 2022 by Eugene Ho

Christian Focus, 2021 | 208 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Tom Nettles


Sharon James has combed the most relevant secondary sources as well as many modern special studies to find the most reliable presentation of how Christianity shaped, for the good, the cultures of many nations, particularly in the West. She writes in light of some strong resistance to any idea that Christianity has been a good thing for the world—not only is it false, so some would say, but it is evil. James calls the book a “short, necessarily selective account” (19) built on “some of the findings of some of the longer works that have appeared recently” (17). She is a trained historian and recognizes good source work and good arguments and has blended these into an informative narrative. Some of the oft-quoted sources are from V. Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World and Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World. Also, she has accessed helpful material from Rodney Stark and an abundance of recently produced online information. Each chapter has suggestions for further reading.

These are the nine areas of Christian influence for the good:

  • Freedom
  • religious liberty
  • justice
  • protecting life
  • the dignity of women
  • philanthropy
  • healthcare
  • education for all
  • the creation mandate
  • the value of work.

In each area, James develops a pattern. She includes a human interest story of some contemporary example or a historic example concerning the area under consideration. She compares the Christian understanding of the idea to whatever secular, philosophical, or religious views were dominant in the culture. She gives a brief discussion of the biblical principle beneath Christian efforts in improvement of the issue. She talks about individuals or organizations that were and/or are active in helping respond to the issue and the Christian conviction they demonstrated in their involvement. She writes with the conviction that “Christianity teaches that God, the supremely rational being, has created mankind in His image. He has placed humans in an ordered and coherent world with the task of stewarding and managing its resources, using their God-given gifts of reason and logic” (17).


Chapter 1 focuses on the issue of freedom. In reflecting on the present state of North Korea as the “least free country on earth” and the deadly oppression generated by Marxist governments, James then looked at ideas of slavery in the ancient world. Neither Plato nor Aristotle seems enlightened on this issue and the Roman Empire canonized sub-human cruelty to slaves. The Christian insistence on the imago dei in all persons (22, 23, 25 et al.) combined with humanity’s universal sinfulness and the implications of the incarnation (23) for redemptive purposes (70) undergirds the Christian regard for human value. James looks at the sad reality of how pervasive slavery has been in both history and demographically but also points to individual Christians that risked their lives, their reputations, and their careers to reach toward the ideal of freedom for all image-bearers. Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Harriett Tubman, M. L King, Granville Sharp, and others are names briefly mentioned in the work of Christians for universal freedom.


Chapter 2 looks at religious liberty beginning with its biblical basis. Strides forward in developing a biblical theology of religious liberty were made by Tertullian in an effort to overcome persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire. Alcuin had a positive influence in arguing for religious liberty based on the voluntary nature of true faith even after Augustine’s arguments for the use of force against the Donatists (42) had engendered an increasingly oppressive dominance of church over the consciences of people. Challenging the “sacral principle”—the coterminous relationship of church and state—were the Anabaptists (Hubmaier), the Baptists (Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams), the Quakers (William Penn), and John Locke. Roman Catholicism in its intolerant stance regarding “Christendom” fomented persecution, inquisition, and crusades.

The increasingly purely biblical insight into the nature of the church, However, including the doctrine of the graciousness of conversion supported theological foundations for liberty of conscience. These theological developments put Christian conviction at the forefront of the argument for religious liberty. How that concept relates to “proselytizing,” the work for morality, virtue, and life in the public square, the distinction between freedom of worship and full freedom of religious expression, and the ongoing quest for religious liberty in intolerant nations rounds out the chapter. The martyrdom of Dirk Willems in 1569 provides brackets for this chapter.


Chapter 3 highlights justice. James notes briefly the necessity of legal justice as foundational to all other kinds of justice. She also points to the universal sense of conscience, planted by God in his image-bearers at creation, that drives people to seek justice, for themselves perhaps first, but then for others. In the history of creating just societies, we find a discussion and a helpful chart outlining the biblical foundations of the Magna Carta. That document has had an expansive effect on the development of just societies. James cites extensive research that shows “where there has been the most impact of Bible-believing mission in the world, there are governments which are most respectful of human rights, and the rule of law, and least prone to tyranny” (67).


Chapter 4 is about “Protecting Life.” James began this chapter with a story about the loss of human dignity—and human life—in the caste system of India(69). James discusses the history of eugenics and its decline only to be replaced by the horror of legalized abortion. Ethicists such as Peter Singer and John P. Holdren and Penty Linkola elevated animal life and the inanimate earth itself to a place of greater importance than humanity. Francis Schaeffer’s Whatever happened to the Human Race? gave needed warnings to evangelicals that they no longer could stay on the sideline on these issues. The Christian doctrine of creation alone has the coherence and substantial power to overcome such idiosyncratic but confidently, and ruthlessly, stated view of human (non)dignity.


Chapter 5 looks at the part Christianity played in establishing the true dignity of women. Instead of the false narrative of radical feminism that Christianity has systemically oppressed women, James asserts, “As far as the dignity of women is concerned, the birth of Jesus Christ was the most significant turning point in human history” (88). She traces through history the seismic changes in regard to women brought about by the impact of Christians and Christian doctrine. The Roman empire was a virtual pit of horror for women until the impact of Christian teaching changed pockets of culture and eventually altered empire-wide laws (such as patria potestas) to give women dignity, safety, and increasing legal power as well as breaking up rings of sexual exploitation. Wherever Christianity spread under the missionary labors of modern missions, the care for women increased. Ann Judson, Fidelia Fisk, William Carey sensitized the world to the needs of protection for girls and women in cultures that denigrated their value.

The moral changes that occur in families when conversion brings them into the body of an evangelical church greatly increase the stability of the family and the dignity of women and children. “The countries where women are held back, forbidden an education, married off as children, and subjected to systematic abuses such as honour killings and genital cutting are the countries where Christianity is disallowed” (96). Christians do the most enduring long-term work worldwide on this issue for “only Christians are willing to devote a lifetime to ministry in those appalling conditions” (97).


Chapter 6 looks at the issue of philanthropy. The chapter opens with the story of a Vietnamese nine-year-old girl who was burned in a napalm attack. With severe burns, significant disfigurement, and a bitter spirit, her future looked bleak for herself and those who had to be around her. She became a Christian, found forgiveness of personal sin, understood the compassion and dying love of Christ, and found release also from her bitterness. She devoted her life to giving medical and emotional help to child victims of war. Genuine compassion for the weak, for those who seem useless in the eyes of the world, is virtually unique to a Christian worldview. Among the commands of the New Testament one finds “Love your enemies” and “Put on compassion,” and the convicting conditional consideration, “If one does not love his neighbor whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

The reality and winning force of compassion are traced through the patristic period, into medieval Christianity, and through the outpouring of compassion in the benevolent societies spawned by the Great Evangelical Awakenings. Persons of note that have brief discussions include Elizabeth Fry (prison reform), Earl of Shaftesbury (the mentally ill, child labor, and chimney sweeps), Thomas Jones (a variety of relief societies), Sarah Jones (literacy work and job training for prisoners) all of whom saw their labors as a manifestation of grateful Christian discipleship. James includes Christian influences on the stability of families and the work ethic, compassion for animals, and a quick survey of continuing Christian involvement today in a wide variety of compassionate endeavors. These stories could be multiplied indefinitely as each life converted to Christ introduces a pocket of stability, reliable work, and compassionate interaction into a fallen world. I recently heard a story of how one man’s trimming hedges transformed a socially and economically depressed community


Chapter 7 on healthcare reminds the reader of an impressive number of hospitals found by Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—and the involvement of myriads of medical personnel throughout the world, forgoing the money and comforts of advanced societies to bring medical hope to largely underprivileged areas of the world. Among those mentioned in this chapter are Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine Order, and provider of health care and learning for medieval European society, and Thomas Sydenham  (the father of English medicine) whose work during the plague in London in the 17th century set high standards both for medicine and for Christian stewardship of life. Andrew Reed, a non-conformist pastor in 19th century England, revolutionized care for orphans, particularly those with disabilities and mental difficulties. Another is Ida Scudder, who established Vellore Christian Medical College in India. Where Protestant missions have flourished, life expectancy has increased.


Chapter 8 deals with education. Her opening anecdote is from Vishal Mangalwadi who, upon discovering the Bible, also discovered how many of the cultural advantages he enjoyed were the product of Christian application of a biblical worldview. James posits two premises for this chapter: “We are able to study because the cosmos is ordered.” Second, she asserts, “We are able to study because we are created in the image of God.” The Christian commitment to education and the importance of learning, the connection between cognitive input and practical action is embedded in the Great Commission: “Teaching them to observe all things.” She looks at the contributions by Augustine, the monasteries, and cathedral schools that spawned the universities of Europe.

James underscores the impact of Calvin’s theology and the Puritan commitment to learning as major factors in education in western society. She gives space to John Albert Comenius and Isaac Watts in their desire for learning and for widespread knowledge among the masses based on their commitment to a biblical view of discerning the glory of God in the order and beauty of the world. Hanna More in England and Ann Judson in her work with the women of Burmah showed the value, and necessity, of education for females. William Carey in his missionary labors for the gospel and Bible translation also spread throughout India an amazing variety of advances in science, literature, education, and stabilization of language. Other residual effects emerged because the Christian gospel taught individual responsibility for thinking and acting, a trait hated and feared by totalitarian governments.


Chapter 9 gives attention to the “Creation Mandate and the Value of Work.” James begins this chapter with an anecdote about Lakshmi of the Dalit caste in India. A loan from Christians allowed her to start a basket-making business to provide a living for her and her children after the death of her husband. James commented, “When we work, we reflect and honour our Creator” (169). She traces a shift from work as demeaning to work as dignified through the inculcation of a biblical worldview. This reflects the biblical intention of dominion over the earth without the tragedy of destructive exploitation. After hitting highpoints of how Christians from the middle ages to modern times made an impact on industry and business while honoring the dignity of their workers, she observed, “We are made in the image of God, and we are created to create” (189). Gutenberg’s commitment to “give wings to truth” through the printing press shows the transforming power of innovative ideas for the glory of God and human flourishing. The energy and prosperity created by Christian principles stand in stark contrast to the oppression, the devastation, and the death incited by Marxist politics and economics.


The closing chapter gives a celebratory climax to the book by affirming the final triumph of Christ. Jonathan Edwards’s great series of sermons based on Isaiah 51:7, 8 entitled in its published form The History of Redemption serves as a theme for the chapter. She includes a sermon by the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, entitled “He Must Reign.” Showing that Christian work for eternity through prayer and evangelism also transforms the present age, she reflects the contagious optimism of her father (Erroll Hulse) in writing, “We dishonor God when we allow the challenges of our day to push us into a defensive, timid and pessimistic mindset, afraid to speak and stand for truth” (198). The book closes with a word of confidence and faith by quoting Adoniram Judson that “we can be certain that the future is ‘as bright as the promises of God’” (198).


Tom Nettles is retired professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Christian Focus, 2021 | 208 pages

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