Heather Bellamy spoke with eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey.

Geoffrey Blainey
Geoffrey Blainey

Geoffrey Blainey is one of the world's most eminent historians. He has taught at both Harvard and the University of Melbourne and is the author of over 30 books including his newly released, A Short History of Christianity. Heather Bellamy spoke with him about the book and the history of Christianity.

Heather: Christianity has a 2,000 year history, what is covered in the book?

Geoffrey: There's a large section on the life of Christ and on St. Paul and the early spread of Christianity. A little bit about the rise of Islam and the period when Islam looked as though it would become the dominant religion of the world, rather than Christianity. There's a lot on the Reformation. I have considerable sections on the eighteenth century, with the rise of John and Charles Wesley and the nineteenth century too. I deal a lot with the various Protestant sects, as well as the mainstream Catholic religion. It goes right up to modern times.

Heather: Why did you want to write a book on this?

Geoffrey: I finished A Short History of the World in the year 2000 and in that book there is quite a lot about Christianity, but of course you can only give a limited space, given the number of things you have to cover. After a couple of years I thought I'd like to know more about Christianity and write more about it.

My background is that my ancestors came to Australia during the gold rushes of the 1850s. They were probably Anglicans in background, but they nearly all became versions of Methodism. My father was baptised as a Bible Christian, which is a West Country break-away from the Wesley's movement, and he then became a Methodist minister in the country towns in Victoria.

So I have a religious background, but Methodism doesn't really have much interest in a long stretch of Christian history; it centres, of course intentionally, on the Old and the New Testament and then it tends to jump to Luther and the eighteenth century. So my own knowledge was very deficient in many ways and I hope I've improved it enormously by writing this book.

Heather: Why is it important to know the history?

Geoffrey: History, no matter what the subject is, is really the reservoir of all human experience. We only learn from human experience and we should learn more from the history and experience of others, rather than our own. I think history is a very important subject and most of the arguments that dominate us even in the present day have a large component that would appeal to history. We appeal to history as the kind of court and we have to know history in order to appeal to it.

Heather: When you look at the influence of Christianity, how has it shaped the world?

Geoffrey: It's shaped the world largely through great individuals, whether it's St. Paul, Frances of Assisi, or John Wesley.

It spread partly because of its message; it offers a message of hope. We forget that we're the first generation, or couple of generations in the history of the world, where most people have a reasonable amount of prosperity and a reasonable assurance that they'd have enough to eat. Most of human history consisted of people living very difficult lives, dying early and facing all kinds of adversity. Christianity was a kind of anchor; a big hope. This is one of the reasons why I think Christianity has declined in modern times; we're so prosperous and materially successful compared to earlier generations.

Heather: In what ways has it shaped society, culture, politics or Government? Did you find that it had?

Geoffrey: Yes it has. I think it's probably the most influential institution in the history of the world in the last 2,000 years. I can't think of any other institution that's been as influential as Christianity in the last 2,000 years. Take democracy, the rise of democracy owes a great deal to the kind of Protestantism that insisted that you didn't depend on the priest for the version of religion that you accepted. You read the Bible yourself and you had some part in shaping your own religious beliefs. Protestantism and to some degree Catholicism, also put great emphasis on education. People had to learn to read. They had to learn to read primarily so they could read the Bible. You had a wide growth of education in modern centuries through the influence of Christianity. You also had a belief that the lay person was as good as the preacher; the lay person was as good as the priest, or the pastor. That's a very democratic idea, isn't it?