When Jesus delivered the Great Commission to a small band of disciples, they might have wondered how they were supposed to carry his gospel to the ends of the earth. Yet across the nations it spread, winning converts and planting churches everywhere it went. Alice T. Ott, a missions and world Christianity professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, surveys the pivotal moments of this journey in Turning Points in the Expansion of Christianity: From Pentecost to the Present. Jay Riley Case, a historian of missions at Malone University, spoke with Ott about the big picture and the smaller details of Christianity’s global advance.
What got you interested in the history of the expansion of Christianity?
My interest is an outgrowth of my own experiences. I have loved history ever since I was a teenager. I spent 21 years of my adult life as a missionary in Germany. After my husband and I returned to the United States, I earned my PhD and started teaching courses on the history of mission and Christianity in the non-Western world. The book grew out of my research for these courses, as well as from my teaching and interacting with students.
The expansion of Christianity is an incredible story, but a challenging one to tell. Why did you choose “turning points” as the framework?
My inspiration came from Mark Noll’s book, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. I became convinced that a similar approach would be a great way to simplify the broad and complex history of Christian expansion. Rather than attempting to include every aspect of Christian expansion, I home in on crucial events and trends—on pivotal, decisive moments when something monumental changes.1
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