By Fr. Charles Prince

Why study Church History?

In fact…

Why study History at all?

The reason most often given is the quote by the 20th Century Spanish Philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However we only have to look at the world around us to see that despite (for instance) a fairly clear memory of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, neither war nor attempts at genocide have stopped since then, in fact quite the opposite.

We might be tempted to take the somewhat more pessimistic view that we find in the book of Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done and there is nothing new under the sun.”

But I do not think that most of us would agree with that. Despite the repetition of things like war and poverty, the human race is certainly not repeating the past wholesale, but is definitely moving somewhere, swiftly. Whether or not we are heading forward, and whether or not we will be happy with our final destination, are matters for debate.

On a very basic level, the value of studying history, of simply KNOWING history, is rooted in the fact that everything is ultimately history and every choice, in fact every moment of our lives is the product of all the moments that have led us there, and without knowing about them as individuals and as humanity, we would be like goldfish in a bowl, unable to progress, and in fact unable to interact with each other at all.

So that’s a few thoughts on history in general. The history of the church (which is essentially the history of the modern western world on the whole) has a few additional factors which should motivate us to know about it.

The historical events in the life of the church cannot be separated from theology or from the actions of God in the world and so ‘Church History’ can be considered a framework on which to hang EVERYTHING related to God and the church. The story of the church is the continuation of the story of Christ in the gospels; in particular, it is the story of the attempts to bring about the Kingdom of God, which always occur in a particular cultural and social context. Therefore church history cannot be separated from general or secular history and so knowing about the history of the church is also knowing about the history of the world. Even though a lot of the better known parts of church history seem to deal almost exclusively with bishops, cardinal and popes and big events, with little reference to the vast majority of Christ’s faithful, it is those which shaped the lives of the rest of the church and world – then and now.

The study of Church history can help us to deepen our relationship with God by enlarging our own experiences and seeing how other people have tried to live out the Christian message in their lifetime. That being said, it is always important to remember when we judge the actions of others in the past, even by Gospel standards, to pause and consider how we might have reacted had we lived in those circumstances.

So how can all of this touch our lives, right now, right here? Two words: HUMILITY and HOPE.

Understanding something of the last 2000 years of history, the good and the bad, the holy and the horrendous, the glorious and the despicable, can help us to remember that we probably don’t always know best, and even when we do, we don’t always act on it. There have been many good and even holy people who have made dreadful mistakes with the best of intentions, often because they thought they were smarter or holier than they were. Knowing the history of the church should help us to be more humble, to listen better and to acknowledge our own imperfections

But it is also tempting to fall into despair by only looking at the disasters, and forgetting the greatness and the goodness and the holiness that 2000 years of building God’s Kingdom have brought to the world. Bad news always sells better than good – whether that is in this week’s newspaper or a history or the church spanning 20 centuries. In every age people have thought that the end was coming and things were falling apart; yet the church has weathered the test of time and brought light and goodness and healing and mercy and joy and, most importantly, Christ, to countless people.

That is the mission of the church. That is our mission.


Profile Fr CharlesAbout the Author

Fr. Charles Prince

Fr Charles is currently serving as the Youth Chaplain to the Archdiocese of Cape Town, as well as the Parish Priest of St Anthony’s in Langa and chaplain to the University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology – Bellville. He has always been passionate about Youth Ministry, feeling that his priestly vocation was fostered through the youth group that he was part of as a teenager. He is also involved in the Scout movement, where he has fulfilled a number of volunteer roles and currently serves as Deputy Regional Commissioner.






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