Church History

Reference questions in church history can vary from simple names and dates to complex questions about historical causation—and can be prompted by anything from a research paper or scholarly book to a church newsletter or Sunday School class.  The resources below are intended to be ones of “first resort.”  Many contain pointers to further and more in-depth treatments. 


This list can be used in one of two ways; as a quick “go-to” guide in given reference situations, or as an in-depth resource for study.   Systematically browsing through and familiarizing yourself with each resource listed will give you a better understanding of what topics and approaches church history can include.  To this end, resources are included which use many different theological, sociological, and cultural lenses.


Finally, some pointers for evaluating the usefulness of resources not on this list are included.  These may be useful to share with patrons.  “Test” yourself at the end with the list of imaginary reference questions!

Start your searches here

Encyclopedias, dictionaries and handbooks:

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (OUP, 2005) and Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (OUP, 2006).  Good brief articles with bibliographies on major people and movements in church history.  Better on British and European topics than American.

New Westminster Dictionary of Church History (Westminster John Knox, 2008) is similar to the OUP resource.  Only the first volume  (through the Reformation) is currently available.

 Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th ed. Abingdon, 2005): still the basic source for denominational histories. 

 Encyclopedia of Protestantism (Routledge, 2004) contains theological topics as well as historical.  Longer articles have bibliographies.

New Catholic Encyclopedia (Gale, 2003; see below for a link to the original 1913 edition): theological and historical coverage; some bibliographies are outdated. 

The Complete Library of Christian Worship (Hendrickson, 1995ff); several volumes (esp. v.2) focus on historical topics.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias exist for many historical eras and specific movements (some are listed below).

Survey histories:

Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (HarperOne, 1984) and The Reformation to the Present (HarperOne, 1985), written from an old-fashioned Protestant mainline perspective, contains plenty of names and dates and is good for quick reference.

Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker, 2nd ed. 2001), a more selective treatment, contains excellent “for further reading” lists at the end of each chapter.  (Good starting material for research papers.)

Irvin and Sunquist's History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Orbis, 2001) specializes in discussing non-Western traditions and groups marginalized by traditional historical approaches. Volume II spans 1454-1800 (Orbis, 2012).

The Cambridge History of Christianity is a 9-volume set with detailed coverage of specific periods (see the CUP website for specific authors, titles, and publication dates.).

A People’s History of Christianity is an 7-volume set (see the Augsburg Press website for specific authors, titles, and publication dates) with a “lived religion” perspective: “Until very recently, the story of Christianity through its first two millennia has focused almost exclusively on an elite made up of officials, leaders, religious professionals, and theologians. What invariably got lost in the telling was the religious consciousness and experience of "ordinary" Christians…. This majority - often illiterate, usually inarticulate, sometimes marginalized, and largely voiceless - are the focus of today's historians of Christianity.”

A Brief History of Christian Worship by James F. White (Abingdon, 1993) is a good first source for liturgical topics.   For in-depth liturgical questions (with some sociological and cultural coverage), the Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford UP,  2005) has good articles and bibliographies.


ATLA’s links to websites on all aspects of religion which it has deemed worthy for its “Selected Religion Websites” cataloging project.  Some excellent historical sources are included.

The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion hosts “a selective, annotated guide to a wide variety of electronic resources of interest to those who are involved in the study and practice of religion.  A little bit of everything: syllabi, collections of links, e-books,  bibliographies, newsletters, scholarly society websites, databases, etc..

Choose “Advanced search,” then search on “Bellinger” and “Bibliography” for a list of over 100 bibliographies on theological and historical topics by librarian Charles Bellinger, including most eras of church history.  (Some of his church history bibliographies are listed under “Doctrinal Theology.”)

The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (administered by a professor at Calvin College) is the grandfather of primary-source sites with comprehensive sources from the Church Fathers through the 19th century and a collection of useful reference books.  

CCEL’s “Hymnary” is a comprehensive index (including all the data from the Dictionary of North American Hymnology)  of numerous denominational hymnals; it contains sheet music and MIDI files and can be searched by text or tune. 

The Internet History Sourcebooks were developed by a history professor at Fordham University and link to both primary sources and additional resources.  The Ancient Sourcebook has a section on “Christian Origins.” In the Medieval Sourcebook, look under “Roman Church,” "Medieval Life,” “Reformation,” “Crusades,” “Empire and Papacy,” and “Saints’ Lives.” The Modern History Sourcebook has religious material in the “Reformation,” “Enlightenment,” “Early US,” “19th Century Religion,” and “Post-War Religion” sections. 

This site, hosted by ATLA, contains digitized images from the collections of libraries throughout the U.S., ranging from first century coins and manuscripts to 19th-century photographs and postcards. All are public-domain and can be used in class or church presentations and/or in printed materials such as books or newsletters.

Early and medieval Christianity

Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks

The Early Christian World (Routledge, 2000)

Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Garland, 1998)

Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 1999)

Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Handbook of European History, 1400-1600 (Eerdmans, 1996)

Survey histories (in addition to the Cambridge and Augsburg series)

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin, 1994)

W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Fortress, 1984)

J.N.D. Kelley, Early Christian Doctrines (HarperOne, 1978)

R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages  (Penguin, 1990)

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Blackwell, 1996)

Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God, a 4 v. history of early and medieval mysticism (Crossroad, 2004-)

Websites: if the first link is down); extensive bibliographies by Jesuit priest Fr. William Harmless on the NT era, early and medieval Christianity, the Reformation, spirituality (early, medieval, Reformation, and 20th century), and the sacraments.  Identifies the basic two or three works on any given topic, as well as many supplemental resources. is a site for Biblical and extrabiblical sources through 250 A.D.  Links to different translations and interpretive material are included. : This Augustine page is maintained by Georgetown professor James O’Donnell and contains the entire Confessions in full text, other full-text sources, images, and a helpful bibliography. : This page links to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913 version), the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and extensive writings of the Church Fathers.

Reformation to the present

Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks

Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford UP, 1996)

 A Companion to the Reformation World (Blackwell, 2004)

Westminster Handbook to Reformation Theology (WJK, 2010)

 Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism (Routledge, 2001)

Some of Scarecrow’s most useful historical dictionaries: Historical Dictionary of Methodism (2005), Holiness Movement (2009),  Anglicanism (2006), Catholicism (1996),  Lutheranism (2001), Reformed Churches (2009), Mormonism (2008 ), New Religious Movements ( 2001), Baptists  (2009), Friends (Quakers) (2003), Orthodox Church (1996), Reformation and Counter-Reformation (2000), Puritans (2007), Salvation Army (2006), Seventh-Day Adventists (2005), Shakers (2008), Unitarian Universalism (2003) 

Survey histories (selected topics; in addition to the Cambridge and Augsburg series)

Reformation: Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford UP, 1991); Lewis Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements (Concordia, 1987);  Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Penguin, 1964)

17th and 18th centuries: Gerald Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason (Penguin, 1990);  Stewart Brown and Timothy Tackett,  Enlightenment, Reawakening, and Revolution, 1660-1815  (Cambridge UP, 2006); Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (OUP, 1978)

Missions: Stephen Neill, History of Christian Missions (Penguin, 1986); Dana Robert, Christian Missions: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and American Women in Mission (Mercer UP, 1996); Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols. (Harper, 1937-1945); Eerdmans’ Studies in the History of Christian Mission Series (

American religion: Sydney Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People (Yale, 2004); Gaustad and Schmidt, The Religious History of America (Harper, 2002); Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land (Penguin, 1984); Toulouse and O’Duke, Makers of Christian Theology in America (Abingdon, 1997) and its companion sourcebook, Sources of Christian Theology in America (Abingdon, 1999)

Liturgy: James F. White, Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today (Pueblo, 2003) and Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (WJK, 1989).

Orthodoxy:  Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church (Pelican,  1993) and The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s, 1995)

Websites :  Project Wittenberg, developed by a librarian at Concordia Theological Seminary (Ft. Wayne), is “home to works by and about Martin Luther and other Lutherans… all manner of texts from short quotations to commentaries, hymns to statements of faith, theological treatises to biographies.”  : The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America hosts this site, combining informational articles on Orthodox history and practice with primary source documents (sayings of the Desert Fathers, summaries of church councils). site is maintained by the Society of Archbishop Justus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to putting Anglican resources online. Check out for all the versions of the Book of Common Prayer which copyright permits posting, and Project Canterbury ( for full-text source material on Anglican history. The Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University has posted on this site extensive full-text works (many not available at CCEL) of John and Charles Wesley, John Fletcher, and other Methodist theologians. In addition, you can find the works of Arminius and a comprehensive collection of Holiness movement authors. : Short interpretive essays on American religion from the National Humanities Center, designed to aid teachers in preparing lessons. Includes links to other online sites regarding American religious history. : The Vatican’s website.  “The Holy Father” has biographical information and papal documents for popes from the 1870s to the present. The “Archive” button has links to other useful documents including the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, includes many articles on the history of philosophy. 

Do not neglect the websites of denominational archives for questions about specific traditions.  A very preliminary list:

Methodist and Wesleyan traditions: (UMC); (Nazarene); (Free Methodist); (Wesleyan); (Methodist Church of Great Britain)

Presbyterian traditions: (PCUSA); (PCA)

Baptist traditions: (Southern Baptist); (American Baptist); (Freewill Baptist);

Stone-Campbell traditions: (Disciples of Christ, also serving other parts of the movement )

Episcopal/Anglican traditions: (ECUSA); (Church of England); (AMIA)

Congregational/UCC traditions:  (UCC); (Evangelical and Reformed); (Congregational)

Evaluative questions:

  •  Is the book, article, or website recommended by a source I trust?
  • Who published this work, or who is responsible for the content on this site? Is the book published by a reputable academic or popular press, and what are the author’s stated credentials?  Does the publisher publish other works of this type or on this subject?  Is the site hosted by a university, denomination, or scholarly society? If the site was developed by an individual, do they identify their qualifications or scholarly affiliation?
  • How professional does the work appear? Does it contain thoughtful organization and (if a website) clear instructions for use?  Does the book appear to be well-edited?  Do you note proper grammar and spelling on the website?
  • Does the site have an agenda (religious or otherwise)? This does not automatically disqualify it—many resources with a clear agenda are good collections of source material—but should always be kept in mind. 


Where would you start to answer the following reference questions?


  • “I want to write a series of Sunday School lessons on Martin Luther and his colleagues in the Reformation.”
  • “Are Orthodox priests allowed to get married?”
  • “I’m doing research on comparative attitudes towards liturgy in mainline and fundamentalist churches in the 20th century.”
  • “Do you have any material on Augustine’s theological opponents?”
  • “I’m researching a paper on early Methodists.  What did they believe?”
  • “Where did we get the idea of predestination?”
  • “Why do we have pews in churches?”
  • “I’m interested in tracing attitudes towards women’s  public ministry in the early church.”
  • “Who are the Anabaptists?  Are there any of them around still today?”
  • “I want to preach a sermon series on great saints of the church.”
  • “I’m researching Catholic missionary attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
  • “What did Aquinas think about baptism?”
  • “When did the church get bishops?”
  • “What’s the history of the Mormon church?  Are they Christians or not?”
  • “I’m going to be writing a survey textbook on the sacraments throughout Christian history.”
  • “What’s the Trail of Blood?”

 (Portions of this resource originally appeared as “Surfing the Sites: Church History” in Catalyst 32:2, February 2006).