Bruce Shelley: A Historian for the People
On Saturday, February 20, historian Bruce Shelley died at the age of 82 after having suffered a stroke a few days earlier. Dr. Shelley served for many years as a member of the Christian History advisory board. We asked his Denver Seminary colleague Dr. Scott Wenig to interpret the significance of Dr. Shelley's contribution to Christ's church. Here is his tribute:
"You must always ask the question of how this relates to ministry!" So exclaimed Dr. Bruce Shelley on countless occasions over his 40 plus years of teaching church history to students at Denver Seminary. After three decades of close contact with Bruce as a student, friend and colleague, I can't begin to recall the number of times I heard him say those words in both formal and informal settings. Ministry lay at the heart of all he said, did and wrote, be it in the study, the classroom, the pulpit, the Sunday school class or the home group bible study. He was concerned to teach others about Jesus Christ and his church, especially those he liked to call "ordinary people," the men and women who would never have the opportunity of formal theological education. So while he drew his living as a scholar of history in an academic setting, Bruce Shelley's primary focus was always on ministry to laypeople.
Both his writing and teaching reflected that singular passion. Dr. Shelley's main work, Church History in Plain Language, now in its 3rd edition, has sold over 100,000 copies, a feat almost unheard of for surveys of church history. One of the main reasons for its longevity and ongoing popularity is that it is built on the concept of story. Years ago, Bruce learned that to keep people listening—and reading—you must tell them a story. And that's something he did well for over 50 years. He regularly gave us stories from the history of the church, the Bible, his family and, of course, the beloved gang of characters in the cartoon Peanuts. Interspersing Martin Luther with Snoopy or John Wesley with Linus was no easy task but Bruce did so, always intent on communicating the story of the faith and the church in an engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking fashion.
Dr. Shelley was the author or editor of over 30 books as well as scores of other articles and book reviews but he never wrote much for the academy or other academics. It's not that he was incapable; his fine scholarship on the concept and experience of martyrdom in the early church demonstrated that. Rather, he sought to commend Christian history to those believers—students and laity alike—who suffered from what he called "historical amnesia." That meant his calling was to be a historian for the people. By channeling his efforts in their direction, he could show them how to separate the permanent from the transitory and the latest ecclesiastical or theological fad from the true and orthodox faith of the past.
Bruce once described himself as a friend talking to friends about the church and its faith, be they believers or seekers, sales people or engineers, homemakers, or students. As a master teacher he knew that meant being clear above all else. To him, clarity was the first law of learning and foundational for all communication. So in an era before PowerPoint and video clips, he consistently used overhead transparencies, charts, pictures, stimulating questions, and a passionate teaching style whenever and wherever he taught. He wanted to connect and would leverage whatever he could to help him do so.
Those of us who had the privilege of sitting at his feet—either in school or church or both—were enormously blessed. We learned from his lips and his life what genuine Christianity was all about as well as how the saints of the past walked faithfully—and sometimes not so faithfully—with our Lord. Year after year, the faith of the church and the story of her history were clearly set forth for the purposes of ministry by Bruce Shelley. And for that, thousands of us ordinary people are eternally grateful for the gifts of his writing, teaching and friendship.
Scott Wenig is Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Denver Seminar and is the author of Straightening the Altars, a study of the English Reformation.
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