Thursday, March 30, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember one of the preeminent Reformation Historians: Roland Bainton.

It is the 30th of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


I will take you inside the making of an episode of the Christian History Almanac as I was working on today’s show, something that happens to me that happens from time to time. As I was reading about the noted Reformation historian Roland Bainton, I thought, “I need to bump this show to a Weekend Edition.”  

I don’t often think the story of the lives of historians is as worthy of telling as the subjects of said historians: truth is, we can be a pretty boring lot. But as I was tracking down different people writing about the life of Bainton, I found that, among other things, he wrote an autobiography, delightfully called “Roly: Chronicle of a Stubborn Non-Conformist”- I will be reading, and sometime in the future we will dig deeper into this historian- a towering figure in 20th century Reformation Studies.

Roland Bainton was born on this, the 30th of March in 1894, in Derbyshire, England. 4 years later, he moved to Vancouver with his family and then 4 years later to Colfax in Washington State. He attended Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington with a B.A. in Classics. He then attended Yale Divinity School and received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1917. With America entering World War I, he declared himself a pacifist. He served without military rank with the American Friends Service Committee in France- a special group of Quakers that served with the Red Cross.

Upon returning from France, he was appointed an instructor in Church History and New Testament at Yale Divinity School. He concurrently received his Ph.D. from Yale, working in Semitics and Hellenistic Greek. In 1923 he was promoted to Assistant Professor at Yale Divinity School and, in 1926, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship- he researched the place of non-Conformists during the Reformation. He would be ordained as a Congregational minister. In 1935 was made the prestigious Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale- a position he held until his retirement in 1962- he would serve as a professor emeritus for the rest of his life.

As an author, he was most known for of his biography of Martin Luther, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.” It is, in a sense, the first “modern” biography of Luther. Bainton uses his theological training and an artist's touch to tell the man's story in a historically useful way that can be read with pleasure on a popular level. Bainton himself contributed sketches for the book- he was an amateur cartoonist who was known amongst his friends for drawing cartoon doodles of people as he met with them. He also had a 16th-century style printing press at his home in New Haven for making woodcuts. He also published a collection of Martin Luther’s Christmas sermons and would deliver them for the Yale Divinity School’s Christmas party. He wrote on Reformation topics besides Luther- focusing on those in the radical peace tradition he was a part of. He wrote On Michael Servetus- the heretic burned at stake in Calvin’s Geneva and on Desiderius Erasmus- Luther’s sometimes sparring partner. He wrote a book on Christian Attitudes towards war and peace, books on Women of the Reformation, and a survey of Christian history.

His personal papers are held in the Yale Archives and comprise 86 boxes of notes, correspondence, artwork, and personal items. His correspondence includes letters to and from the likes of Rudolph Bultmann, Erik Erikson (who wrote the notorious psycho-history “Young Man Luther”), Richard Niebuhr, and Heiko Oberman- the later biographer of Luther who followed in Bainton’s steps in writing a historically literate and readable biography of the Reformer.

Bainton was the epitome of a Christian scholar- his work on characters from the church's history stood on its own academic merit while being gracious to those with whom he didn’t share theological affinities. He was well known for his popular lectures and generosity to younger scholars. When he died, he was met with a flood of “in Memoriam” and a festschrift- a collection of essays in his honor. Roland Bainton died in 1984. Born on the 30th of March in 1894, he was 89 years old.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from  Philippians 1:

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 30th of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who knows that Walla Walla Washington is a town so nice they named it twice- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows Walla Walla as the hometown of Adam West- TV’s Batman (and also a Whitman graduate) I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.

More From 1517