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The Unquenchable Light by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). This book was originally written as the William Belden Noble lectures at Harvard University in 1940.


No fact of history is more amazing than the spread of the influence of Jesus. Jesus sprang from humble surroundings among a subject people who were unimportant politically. His public career was short. At most it was only about three years and it may have been as brief as a year and a half. He wrote no book. He left behind him no carefully systematized body of teachings. Usually he spoke as occasion offered, adapting his message to the transient situation and the changing audience. He seems to have taken little or no thought for a continuing organization to perpetuate his work. His death appeared not so much tragic as pitiful and futile. On that first Good Friday night it is doubtful whether any thoughtful observer, even if he had been sympathetic, would have forecast a prolonged life for the influence of Jesus. He would probably have predicted that this Galilean would be promptly forgotten and would be simply another of those unremembered idealists who, to their own sorrow, have pitted their feeble strength against entrenched interests and have perished.

Yet no other life ever lived on this planet has been so potent in the affairs of men. The most widely spread of the religions of mankind, Christianity, has Jesus as its central figure. Christianity is not solely the product of Jesus. Into it various other components have entered. Nor has Christianity been uniform. It has varied from age to age, from country to country, and even from individual to individual. Yet all the many forms which Christianity has taken have honored Jesus. To a greater or less extent his influence has been present in each of them. From Jesus, through Christianity, have issued impulses which have helped to shape every phase of civilization. His influence has grown with the passing of the years and has never been so powerful as in the past century and a quarter. Its course has been like that of the incoming tide. Like the tide it has moved forward in waves. Each major wave has been followed by a major recession. But each major wave has set a new high-water mark and each major recession has been less pronounced than its predecessor.

In an earlier book, Anno Domini, the author has attempted to sketch the course of this influence and has sought to set forth what seems to him to be its significance for history and what it appears to him to disclose of the meaning of the universe in which man finds himself and of the fashion in which the universe deals with man. The yardsticks employed for measuring the advance and the recession were, first, geographic spread, second, the number and the strength of the new movements whose origin can be traced to Jesus, and, third, the effect of Jesus upon individual lives and upon various aspects of civilization. The first two are, in their main outlines, fairly easily determined. When tested by them, the pattern of advance seems incontestable. The impact upon individuals and upon civilization is not so readily measured. This is partly because of the repeated difficulty of discovering beyond the possibility of cavil the presence of the influence of Jesus. It is also partly because, even when the fact of that presence has been established, the precise part which it has had is not quickly ascertained. Yet, after allowances for all these qualifications have been made, the increase in the influence of Jesus seems clear and the rough accuracy of the simile appears, at least to the present author, to be indubitable.

A further question immediately emerges which was not dealt with in Anno Domini. By what processes has the influence of Jesus spread? By what means did an impulse, at the outset so unsystematized and even inchoate, perpetuate itself and grow? How was it that ideas and ideals so contradictory to much in human nature and alien to all of the cultures in which they gained currency attained such wide power?

We wish to know, moreover, why this influence persisted and increased in some areas and not in others. In some regions and among some peoples it long failed to gain entrance and then, when it obtained admittance, did not flourish. In others where it gave promise of an important future it disappeared. In still others where it was once potent it dwindled. Why this uneven record?

‘Why, moreover, has the influence of Jesus gone forward by great pulsations, and why has each major advance been followed by a recession? What accounts for each of the forward-moving waves and for each ebb? Are these fortuitous or does a common pattern run through them all?

It is clear that the influence of Jesus does not progress simply through the spontaneous response of the innate :goodness of men. Man is not by nature either fully good or completely rational. There is that in some men which at once welcomes Jesus and his message. There is that in others which is roused to furious opposition. Still more never understand him. It was thus in the days of his flesh. Some few held to him. Others crucified him. Still more were swayed by the opinions of the tough-minded and strong-willed about them and never really comprehended either the loyalty or the opposition. So it has been through the centuries. The responses to Jesus have varied. They have been determined not simply by the quality of Jesus or by the representations of him made by his professed followers, although these have entered into the issue, but also by other factors, some of them quite remote from Jesus and his teachings.

Still another question concerns us. What of the future? Mankind has just passed through a period in which the influence of Jesus has been more widespread and has done more to shape the human race as a whole than at any previous time. From the standpoint of that influence the hundred years between 1815 and 1914 were the great century. We have now entered a new age. The familiar features of the nineteenth century are being rapidly left behind. The movements and forces in connection with which the influence of Jesus spread, and many of which were to a large extent the fruits of that influence, are weakening, disappearing, or being modified almost past recognition. Are we witnessing another major recession? If so, is the previous pattern to persist, and will the recession be less pronounced than its predecessors? Or is the pattern to be broken and has a recession begun which will be more profound than any before it? Is the influence of Jesus on its way out? What are the forces with which it must reckon? How likely are these to permit it to endure? If it does survive, what forms is it likely to assume? All of this must partake of prophecy. Prophecies are notoriously fallible: "whether there be prophecies they shall fail." Yet something within us urges us to attempt to see into the future. We must, moreover, plan. We must act. We must set our course by such stars as we can see, always prepared to change it as new currents, shoals, rocks, and channels are disclosed in the uncharted seas into which we sail. We must, then, attempt to look ahead. The study of the past, to which the major portion of this book is devoted should give us some clue to the probable course as yet untraversed. A knowledge of the forces which have made for the advance and the recession of the Christian tide should enable us to assess the probabilities for the age before us. If we can discover what combinations have previously accounted for gains in the influence of Jesus and what have militated against that influence and then can compare them with what we see happening in the world of today, we should have a basis for forecasting with some degree of accuracy the main trends in at least the present and the coming generation.

In our survey our chronology is fairly well determined by the waves of the incoming Christian tide and by the major ebbings. First is a period which covers approximately five centuries, to A.D. 500. In it the Christian faith took form and the overwhelming majority of the population of the Roman Empire were won to at least a formal allegiance. Christianity became largely identified with the Roman Empire. There followed, in the second place, a prolonged and disheartening recession. This was approximately four and a half centuries in length. In it some gains were made and, actually, Christian communities became scattered over a wider area than they had been in A.D. 500. Yet in the Mediterranean basin the solid Christian bloc was broken. In about half the former Gneco-Roman world Christians became minorities on the defensive. The Roman Empire, which had seemed the great bulwark of Christianity, itself dwindled and in the West largely collapsed. Barbarians, mostly pagans, poured in from the East and the North and dealt blow after blow to Christianity in Europe. The Arabs, bearers of a new faith, swept in from the Southeast and made the Crescent dominant over fully half the coast of the Mediterranean. The morale of Christians and of the Church ebbed sickeningly. A third period stretched from about A.D. 950 to about A.D. 1350. In it the wave again moved forward. Christianity, and with it the influence of Jesus, spread more widely and in at least one major area had a more profound effect upon culture than ever before. Then followed, as the fourth period, the second major recession. Christianity again lost ground and the morale of Christians waned, although not so markedly as in the

four and a half centuries after A.D. 5oo. Not so long a period elapsed until the next great forward movement. The decline continued only from about A.D. 1350 to about A.D. 1500. The fifth period was the third advance, from about A.D. 1500 to about the middle of the eighteenth century. In it the influence of Jesus again established a new record for geographic extent, gave birth to an unprecedented number of new movements, and had profound effects upon human culture. A brief recession followed, as the sixth period, from about the middle of the eighteenth century until A.D. 1815. The loss of territory and the shrinkage of morale within the Christian community were much less pronounced than in the preceding two recessions. Indeed, in some quarters fresh gains had begun even before the recession had become obvious. The fourth great advance, and the seventh period, was roughly from A.D. 1815 to A.D. 1914. From the standpoint of geographic extent, new movements of marked vitality, and effects upon civilization the world around, this was, as we have suggested, the greatest century which the influence of Jesus has thus far known. It has been followed, in the eighth place, from A.D. 1914 to a date still in the future, by a period which, because we have only begun to enter it, is hard to characterize. In some of its aspects, especially in the past six or seven years, it is another recession. Yet in others of its features it has witnessed phenomenal gains. If, after attempting to strike an average, advance is seen to have been registered, it is clear that it is not so marked as in the hundred years before A.D. 1914. Some are inclined to believe that the forward movements since A.D. 1914 have been chiefly the final surges of the wave which was so strong in the nineteenth century. That analysis, however, is too simple. It fails to take account of the flooding tide of which waves and recessions seem only to have been the superficial features.

To this story we must now turn. We are here, we must again remind ourselves, to be concerned primarily with the processes by which the influence of Jesus has spread and the reasons for its gains and for its ebb or disappearance in some periods and areas. We have here only incidentally to do with the effects of that influence and of the details of the spread. Our purpose, too, is to gain insight into the present and future, from our knowledge of the previous course to obtain perspective on the bewildering changes about us and, if possible, to win some inkling of the course ahead.

In this survey we are to see again and again the partial dependence of the influence of Jesus upon forces extraneous to it. Some of these, indeed, have been contradictory to it and have done violence to its essence. We shall see the influence of Jesus balked in huge areas. While we shall hint at its profound effects upon culture after culture, we shall need to remind ourselves that no culture has fully embodied the ethics of Jesus. Always a tension has existed between the Christian ideal and actual human society. In the sense of being even approximately conformed to Jesus, for no section of mankind has the word Christian or Christendom ever been an accurate appellation.

Yet the spread and persistence of the influence of Jesus can never be ascribed primarily to external circumstances. Always the essential factor has been an inner vitality. No matter by what other forces the spread of Christianity has been facilitated, and these have been varied and many, most of the active agents have been those caught by Jesus and dedicated to him. Never have they perfectly embodied him. The greatest of them have been aware of falling short of "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Some have been palpably imperfect and unworthy. Yet common to all the spread of Christianity has been the compelling attraction of Jesus. He has been the persistent and the enduring light. That light has had to contend with darkness. Sometimes the two have seemed to be mixed. In places the light has been quenched. Yet always somewhere it has continued to shine. When human history is seen in the long perspective of the centuries the path of the light has broadened. It has been shining more and more—even though the perfect day seems still very remote.

This is primarily an essay. It has eschewed the outward and visible paraphernalia of scholarship. It has deliberately denied itself footnotes and appended bibliographies. For those desiring these adjuncts to scholarship, the author’s History of the Expansion of Christianity, now in process of appearing, is available. It is upon facts elaborately documented in those volumes that the following chapters are based. This little book is, however, no mere culling from the larger work. It is an attempt at a fresh interpretation of one phase of the story there narrated. It is hoped that many will find it of aid in understanding what some of us are convinced is the central current of human history, at once the clue and the hope of the human drama.

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