Factor H (FH) is a soluble regulator of the proteolytic cascade at the core of the evolutionarily ancient vertebrate complement system. Although FH consists of a single chain of similar protein modules, it has a demanding job description. Its chief role is to prevent complement-mediated injury to healthy host cells and tissues. This entails recognition of molecular patterns on host surfaces combined with control of one of nature's most dangerous examples of a positive-feedback loop. In this way, FH modulates, where and when needed, an amplification process that otherwise exponentially escalates the production of the pro-inflammatory, pro-phagocytic, and pro-cytolytic cleavage products of complement proteins C3 and C5. Mutations and single-nucleotide polymorphisms in the FH gene and autoantibodies against FH predispose individuals to diseases, including age-related macular degeneration, dense-deposit disease, and atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome. Moreover, deletions or variations of genes for FH-related proteins also influence the risk of disease. Numerous pathogens hijack FH and use it for self-defense. As reviewed herein, a molecular understanding of FH function is emerging. While its functional oligomeric status remains uncertain, progress has been achieved in characterizing its three-dimensional architecture and, to a lesser extent, its intermodular flexibility. Models are proposed, based on the reconciliation of older data with a wealth of recent evidence, in which a latent circulating form of FH is activated by its principal target, C3b tethered to a self-surface. Such models suggest hypotheses linking sequence variations to pathophysiology, but improved, more quantitative, functional assays and rigorous data analysis are required to test these ideas.