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Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
David W. Bebbington
Baylor University Press, 2010
320 pp., $39.95

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A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
Robert E. Johnson
Cambridge University Press, 2010
470 pp., $35.99

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Mark Noll


So You're a Baptist—

What might that mean?

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In 2007, the Baptist World Alliance reported that there were about 53 million Baptists in the world, with about two-thirds of them located in the United States. When compared with Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, and other Christian groups that in recent decades have become thoroughly international, this concentration of the Baptists in one country is striking. Yet comparison with the situation a century earlier shows that Baptists too have been experiencing the globalization that is now standard for other Christian movements. Early in the 20th century, only 3 percent of the world's Baptists lived outside of the United States, Canada, and Britain. Today that proportion is about 30 percent.

What is the best way to take account of the world's self-described Baptists? Do they constitute a movement with any real cohesion? Or is the term "Baptist" so flexible that it designates only a loosely defined collection of heterogeneous fragments clustered haphazardly in one vaguely outlined section of the world Christian landscape?

One way to illustrate the problem of Baptist identity is simply to start listing the various groups that call themselves by that name. In the United States we have, as only a partial list,

• the famously fractious Southern Baptist Convention, whose roughly 16 million members are organized into semi-autonomous state organizations;

• at least 75 other separate Baptist denominations that serve the roughly 21 million Baptists in the United States who are not Southern Baptists and that include:

• the theologically moderate to liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship;

• the theologically conservative to very conservative Baptist Bible Fellowship and General Association of Regular Baptists;

• several strongly "Landmark" denominations that insist on strict local control of all aspects of church life;

• the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., and six or seven other predominately black denominations;

• the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference;

• the German-heritage North American Baptist Conference and Swedish-heritage Baptist General Conference, whose churches may or may not reflect their immigrant origins;

• several bodies of Primitive, Regular, Old Regular, and Enterprise Baptists that stress Calvinist theology and local independence;

• the National Association of Free Will Baptists and several other strongly Arminian bodies.

Outside the United States, the substantial numbers of Baptist adherents in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia are divided into streams that resemble the diversity of U.S. Baptists. And the even greater numbers in Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Nagaland (northeast India), Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are made up of groups reflecting some emphases inherited from missionaries but also some responding to local circumstances.

Answering the question—"just what is a Baptist?"—can be equally puzzling when thinking about prominent Baptist theologians or well-known Baptists in public life. Limiting the compilation to the United States and the last century, important Baptist theologians include the orthodox but very different E. Y. Mullins and A. H. Strong; modernist or progressive William Newton Clarke, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Shailer Mathews, and Harvey Cox; self-described fundamentalists J. Frank Norris and Jerry Falwell; the Social Gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch; Bible translator and missions advocate Helen Barrett Montgomery; the general evangelical leaders Bernard Ramm, Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, and Timothy George; the post-foundationalist James McClendon; Calvinists John Piper and Albert Mohler; civil rights leaders Harold Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the southern provocateur Will Campbell.

The best-known Baptists to serve as elected American officials in the recent past have probably been Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon, a fiscal conservative and leading critic of the Vietnam War, along with two centrist Democratic presidents with radically contrasting styles, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In Canada during the 1950s and '60s, three Baptists enjoyed unusual prominence in the political sphere: John Diefenbaker, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and national prime minister; Tommy Douglas, founder of the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation that became the New Democratic Party; and Alberta's longest-serving premier, Ernest Manning, a dispensationalist radio broadcaster and head of the Social Credit Party who supported liberal, conservative, and radical policies of the sort that have rarely been combined elsewhere in North America.

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