The Martyred Church – A History of the Church of the East

This absorbing book deals with the Church of the East—the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church—arguably the most interesting of all the Syriac-speaking Churches. Few Christians nowadays outside the Middle East are familiar with its name, let alone its
history, yet between the ninth and fourteenth centuries the Church of the East was in geographical extent the largest Christian Church in the world, with dioceses stretching from the Mediterranean right across Asia to China.

The Church of the East, which began life as the indigenous church of Sasanian Persia, has been harried and persecuted throughout its history. The tragic story of this ‘martyred church’ is brought vividly to life in this impressive book.

The book is organised into the following ten chapters:

The Church beyond Rome (AD 36 to 502)
Nestorians and Jacobites (503–633)
Christians and Muslims (634–779)
The Age of Timothy I (780–905)
A Church at Bay (906–1221)
The Mongol Century (1222–1317)
The Years of Darkness (1318–1552)
Nestorians and Chaldeans (1553–1830)
The Age of the European Missions (1831–1913)
The Calamitous Twentieth Century (1914–2011)
Each chapter contains an overview and a narrative history that describes major events and assesses the reigns of successive Nestorian and Chaldean patriarchs. The historical narrative is followed by thematic sections on ecclesiastical administration, monastic history, and literature and scholarship. The sections on ecclesiastical administration give ample space to the history of the Nestorian missions to Central Asia, India and China. The sections on monasticism chart the growth and decline of a distinctive form of worship that differed in important respects from monasticism in the Roman Empire. The sections on literature and scholarship pay particular attention to texts which are readily available in English translation, and are written partly with the aim of winning new readers for these texts.

The book gives due weight to the popular Sasanian and Mongol periods but also provides a detailed history of the Church of the East under the Umayyad and cAbbasid caliphs, a relatively neglected area of study in the English-speaking world. It is particularly strong on the history of the Church of the East under the Ottomans. Drawing on the research which underpinned his earlier work, Wilmshurst provides the fullest account of the history of the Church of the East between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries that has yet been published in English. He also provides a thoughtful Afterword, in which he discusses several possible futures for the Church of the East in the twenty-first century.

The author demolishes a number of fashionable myths about the Church of the East. In his exposure of the alarming amount of legendary material in its early history, his sober appraisal of the extent and effectiveness of its missionary role in the Middle Ages, and his insistence on the positive role played by the European and American missionaries in the development of the Nestorian and Chaldean Churches in the nineteenth century, he ventures onto sensitive ground. Not all readers may welcome his conclusions, but they will certainly find his arguments stimulating.


David Wilmshurst was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, where he took a first- class BA degree in Classics (1979) and a D Phil degree in Oriental Studies (1998). He has spent much of his life in Hong Kong, and is one of the few modern scholars of the Church of the East who can read both Syriac, Arabic and Chinese. He first became interested in the Church of the East during a visit in 1988 to Ch’uan-chou in southern China, whose city museum housed a fascinating collection of Nestorian tombstones from Marco Polo’s time. Presently working as Academic Editor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Wilmshurst is the author of The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318–1913 (Louvain, 2000), a study hailed as ‘an indispensable research tool for students of the Church of the East and Syriac scholars’.

I’m very excited about this book: it is a welcome, comprehensive overview of the history of the Church of the East, which takes the theological and historical issues seriously and provides a reliable account of the many vicissitudes in the Church’s long life. The Church of the East has truly been a ‘Martyred Church’ twice over; both at the hands of hostile civil regimes and, regrettably, even at the hands of fellow Christians, both east and west. Wilmshurst’s book
brings us a welcome opportunity to know anew and cherish the faithful history of the Church of the East and to work in our own time not only for a healing of memories but also for communion among the sister Christian Churches whose histories reach all the way back to the first centuries of Christianity.
Sidney H Griffith

Written with enthusiasm for the subject, this well?informed book traces the history of the Church of the East from its origins to the present day. A particularly valuable feature lies in the considerable amount of new light that Wilmshurst has been able to shed on the various obscure periods for which no narrative historical sources are available, thanks to his extensive use of information contained in the colophons of manuscripts.
Sebastian Brock

Wilmshurst displays a phenomenal knowledge of a very little known subject covering a vast area over two thousand years, and manages to convey it very lucidly and readably. The book is also a very useful corrective. Europe tends to think that it invented Christendom, and Europeans often view Christianity as centred perennially on Rome and as somehow the converse of Asia. This book is a timely reminder that Christianity spread eastwards before it spread westwards, and that there was a ‘world Church’ in the east long before the rise of the medieval popes.
Warwick Ball

232 x 154 mm, 544 pages, 14 plates and maps, hardback

ISBN 978 1907318 04 7

September 2011