My last post on the growth of the early church was an essay for my Western Civilization class (Thankfully now over). While writing it I scoured my bookshelves for material and had quite a little pile of reference works on my desk. Some of them I had read before and some of them I don't plan on ever reading; however, one book is particularly handy to have around when dealing with the history of the early church. The book is Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries by Everett Ferguson.
Although I wasn't able to glean much from it during the writing of this essay, it has been invaluable in the past. I first stumbled across it at the Simpson University library a few years ago while researching a high school paper on early Christian poetry. After that I put it on my Christmas list and received my own copy. It is more of a reference resource than something to read through. The book is divided into chapters, each one dealing with an issue of early church life and practice such as baptism, worship services, the Lord's Supper, military service, etc. The thing that makes this book great is that it is a collection of quotes. The title says it all: Early Christians Speak, not some historian almost two thousand years later. Each chapter has 10-20 relevant quotes from early church fathers and Christian apocrypha from the first three centuries. But never fear, if this seems too simple and straightforward there is also a heavily footnoted “discussion” of the material at the end of each chapter which regurgitates the information and gives some helpful historical scholarship.
A list of relevant New Testament passages are given at the beginning of each chapter so that the quotes of the fathers can be compared to them. Everett Ferguson explains in his forward that “there is, thus, a stress on historical continuity. We are talking about the same community of people, the same church, as existed in the New Testament. We are tracing out some features of its historical development through the second century” (vii). Other features of the book include a glossary, time chart, and extensive index of references.
I have not read it all but, as I mentioned before, the chapter on “Some Early Christian Hymns and Poetry” was invaluable. Other chapters I've found fascinating are: “Christian Assemblies,” “Early Worship Services,” “The Love Feast,” and “Women in the Early Church.” With each of the nineteen chapters an average of twelve pages long it is possible to get a fairly good understanding of what the early church's position on these topics were without spending a great deal of time reading and studying. Building the book around what early Christians actually said in primary documents makes this an authoritative reference. It is also interesting to hear the very words that early Christians speak.
Everett Ferguson, Early Christians speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. 3rd edition, ACU Press, Abilene, Texas, 1999.