A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson.. has anyone read this?

Jun 2014
This is a work I bought a couple years ago, and after doing a quick run-through of it back then, and seeing how dense it was, I put it back on the shelf for a later read.

This year, on the other hand, I've made it a goal of mine to finish it, and am currently about two fifths of the way through, as I read a few other books on the side.

I'm wondering if anyone else has read it, what your thoughts are, what critiques you have, and so on.

From my stand-point, and weak knowledge of Christian history:
- Johnson isn't very sympathetic toward Christianity, which is nice
- The book has a lot of depth, almost to the point that I'd like more of a macroscopic survey of Christian history. In other words, it's detailed almost to the point of tedium, which makes it a great source, but not very readable
- Johnson seems to be a smart guy with implicit understanding of the meaning behind the 'facts'
- Occasionally he brings the reader away from the factual depth and back to the over-arching development of Christianity, which is what I enjoy the most in his writing as I'm more interested in the developmental patterns than minutiae

So, has anyone else read this?


Forum Staff
May 2013
Albuquerque, NM
I haven't read Johnson's History of Christianity, but his Birth of the Modern impressed me so much that I've give probably a dozen copies to colleagues. His scholarship was outstanding, and the book's indexes, bibliography, notes, footnotes, et. Al. all were top-notch, especially for a book aimed at the popular non-fiction market.

In the wake of reading Birth of the Modern, I sought out and read other Paul Johnson efforts, and was very disappointed. Just one example, I read his History of the American People and found it almost as bad as the Birth of the Modern was good. Johnson seemed ignorant that there were several Confederate Generals named Johnson, and he constantly erroneously confused their histories, and that is a clue that Johnson didn't do his research properly. The writing itself was sub-standard and needed a sharp editorial pencil. Some elements were overly done, while others equally important passed un-mentioned. I think that Paul Johnson is a very bright bulb who has bitten off too much to comfortably chew. Compared to Peter Ackroyd, another interpreter of history for the masses, Johnson seems to be content with lower standards of scholarship.

Whether Johnson's History of Christianity has much value, I do not know ... but I am interested in how others veiw the book and Johnson's over all scholastic reputation.
Nov 2015
Johnson isn't very sympathetic toward Christianity, which is nice
I hope that by that you mean that his distaste for Christianity makes you think that he will treat the subject more objectively. Unfortunately, an observer's lack of affinity for a group does not necessarily mean that he will provide a less biassed assessment. It could result, for example, in the misinterpretations of certain actions, the focusing on items that support his negative views about the group at the expense of those that refute them, or even those that are neutral, and even in seeing things that are not really there.

The study of Christianity is full of pitfalls because we all have to deal with our internal biases when embarking on it. But it is paramount that you understand that "Christianity" changed character several times in its history - what it meant to be recognized as a Christian in the I Century was in many ways not the same in the IV. Even Christian beliefs and practices changed dramatically over time. Persecution may have had a great deal to do with this since it targeted the ones that appeared to be the leaders, the most knowledgeable ones. By necessity, the group had to replace them with less mature members, possibly not yet prepared to safeguard the foundational teachings in their original integrity. This lead to divisions and rival "Christianities".

The group known originally for its love and meakeness, went on to become fierce and intolerant. Those who originally spread their hope for a coming Kingdom of God (a literal government in the hands of Jesus Christ himself that from heaven would rule over the Earth at some future time) and who considered themselves "not part of the world", went on to ally themselves with the most powerful worldly rulers and endorsed the forced conversion of the masses.

The Christian writings in the Bible are a great resource to understand the viewpoints of the Christianity of the I Century. Like it or not, we have no better source for that. We have evidence of their existence from early in the II Century, when there were still many people alive who may have known their authors or those who knew them. If you want to study Christianity you will have to study the Bible. But while doing so, try to put aside your preconceptions about what a Christian is supposed to be. Try to discover what it meant to be one then. It is a fascinating study. Wish you the best. And if I can be of any help, let me know.
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Forum Staff
May 2013
Albuquerque, NM
Paul Johnson is very uneven. In one book his scholarship and understanding of patterns in trends and events is first rate, and in another the material is so badly mangled that it might to have been written by a sophomore at the end of a Party night before handing in his "Hail Mary". In consistency makes Johnson a source requiring a lot of support from other sources.

David Vagamundo

Ad Honorem
Jan 2010
Atlanta, Georgia USA
I've read it as well as some of Johnson's other books (Modern Times and The Birth of the Modern among them. ) This was the least enjoyable of those I've read, partly because of his anti-Christian attitude towards Christianity (although he is a Roman Catholic). Some of the reviews of this I read on Amazon put the blame on the time when it was written--1976 or thereabouts.

However, if you enjoy it CC, go for it. It does contain a lot of interesting information, like all of Johnson's books. But he also is pretty selective on what he covers.

I am trying to think of an alternative one-volume work (aside from the Bible as recommended above) but am drawing a blank.