“In America, Baptists were once the ultimate religious outsiders. The Puritans called them ‘the troublers of churches in all places’ and banned them from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1645. Unwilling to submit to official state churches, or to baptize infants, Baptists found themselves reviled, fined, and sometimes brutalized by authorities in England and in the American colonies. …Fast forward three and a half centuries, and a remarkable change has come over Baptists, who command tens of millions of American adherents…. Baptists possess vast networks of cultural influence: publishing houses, missions organizations, disaster relief agencies, advocacy groups, phenomenally popular authors and speakers, and a good deal more. …In many ways, Baptist have become religious and cultural insiders” (Kidd and Hankins, Baptists in America, [ix]).
So begins a recent book on the history of Baptists in America.
This past summer was unusually good to students of Baptist history. In the last few months several excellent new books on Baptist history have been published. I want to highlight two of the most important ones.
At the beginning of the summer, a book titled Baptists in America: A History by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins was released by Oxford University Press.* The authors of this book both teach at Baylor University, both identify as evangelical Baptists, and both have published other top-shelf books on the history of evangelicalism. This volume is no exception to that pattern. In the preface, the authors summarize their goals for the book: “…we are seeking to tell the story of Baptist growth and battles through the centuries from the founding of England’s colonies to contemporary America. Baptists, of course, now have a fully global history. We focus here on Baptists’ part in the story of American religious and cultural history, using the great variety of Baptist experience to illuminate the tug of war between America’s intense religiosity and its pioneering secularism” (x).
The book begins with a short discussion of where Baptists came from. Then having briefly traced Baptist origins to early seventeenth-century England, the authors jump the Atlantic to talk about Roger Williams and Baptist beginnings in America. Subsequent chapters focus on the relationship of Baptists to the First Great Awakening (ch. 2), the American Revolution (ch. 3), and the Second Great Awakening (ch. 5). Several chapters discuss race relations among Baptists specifically addressing the issue of slavery (chs. 6 & 7) and the later civil rights movement (ch. 12). And then toward the end of the book a few chapters address important controversies that have taken place in Baptist life, such as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (chs. 10 & 11) and the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention (ch. 13). Overall, the discussions in these chapters are fair and consistently quite good.
Interestingly, Kidd and Hankins reserve the question of what it means to be a Baptist for the book’s final chapter. The authors note that Baptists have been a very diverse group. They rightly believe that recent attempts to tie Baptist identity primarily to soul freedom or religious liberty fall short because “such matters have never been near the top of the Baptist agenda” (249). They point out that if one looks at major Baptist confessions of faith the issue of orthodoxy inevitably rises to the fore (249–50). Indeed, many of the most important Baptists confessions were written in order to show what Baptists hold in common with other orthodox Protestants. Nevertheless, Kidd and Hankins note that Baptists have been and remain quite divided over the proper interpretation of the Bible on a whole host of issues. In the end, the authors suggest that three features have traditionally marked out the Baptists: (1) the practice of believer’s baptism, (2) the independence of their local congregations, and (3) a willingness to call themselves “Baptists” (251).**
The second volume I’d like to highlight was published by B&H just a few weeks ago (in mid-August). The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement was written by Anthony Chute, Nathan Finn, and Michael Haykin. As was true of the earlier book, these writers all identify as evangelical Baptists. However, in this case the authors teach at three different Baptist educational institutions, though each of the schools is in some way connected to the Southern Baptist Convention. As the title suggests, this book is of broader scope than the book by Kidd and Hankins.
At this point, I’ve only begun dipping into The Baptist Story, but here are a few of my initial impressions. The book very accessible. It is well-outlined, user-friendly, and written in a voice that will appeal to people who may be reading a Baptist history book for the first time. The text is also interspersed with an ample number of pictures and excerpts from primary sources. What is missing, or rather is intentionally omitted, is footnotes or endnotes. Instead, each chapter is followed by a list of resources for further study and questions for discussion.
In terms of organization and content, the book is divided into four main sections comprised of thirteen chapters altogether. The first three sections are arranged chronologically by centuries with the first section discussing the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, the second covering the nineteenth century, and the third discussing the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Highlighting the book’s recent vintage is a chapter on Baptists in the twenty-first century. This chapter mostly discusses Baptists outside of North America and recent trends within Baptist life. The fourth section of the book is somewhat different from the others in that it addresses the issue of Baptist beliefs. Interestingly, although the authors raised the question of Baptist identity in their introduction, like Kidd and Hankins, they saved their real discussion of Baptist identity for the final chapter of the book. I’m still not sure that order makes the most sense in terms of methodology, but I’m sure the authors had their reasons for putting it where they did. Although I’m not using it as a textbook this semester (partially due to its release date), I anticipate this book being used as such in many college and seminary courses in years to come and for good reason. It introduces nearly all of the key people, events, controversies, etc. that need to be discussed in a survey of Baptist history, and it does so in an interesting way. In short, I like this book. It’s readable. It’s reasonably comprehensive. And it’s clearly written by men who love their subject.
Both of these new books represent significant contributions to the literature on Baptist history. If you are interested in learning more about Baptist history, The Baptist Story would be a great place to start. And if you’re particularly interested in the role that Baptists have played in American history and culture, you’ll find Baptists in America to be a great resource.
*As an aside, I find the fact that OUP published this book rather amusing in light of the fact that Baptists were effectively unable to matriculate at Oxford for roughly the first two hundred years of their existence (from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s).
**Perhaps a fourth distinguishing trait should be added to this list, namely, a tendency to have potlucks on a regular basis. Just checking to see if anyone actually reads these notes at the bottom of a post.