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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., $30.99

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Mark Noll


So You're a Baptist—

What might that mean?

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From this combination of positive and negative commitments arose the advocacy of "soul competency," "religious freedom," "the right of private judgment," and a "gathered church" that have resonated through Baptist history. Yet as both Bebbington and Johnson point out, beyond the common approach to baptism itself, these prominent Baptist principles did not lead to a common theology, common church practices, or common attitudes to social engagement.

Almost inevitably, the very principles that Baptists shared made it difficult for Baptists to agree among themselves. And so within less than a century of organized Baptist existence, differences emerged in response to a number of questions that led to the formation of separate Baptist denominations: Was the atonement universal as Generals claimed or specific as Particulars urged? Should adults who were baptized also receive the laying on of hands? Should the day for public worship be the Sabbath/seventh day (Saturday) or the first day/Resurrection (Sunday)? Should local leaders accept the validity of adult baptism done elsewhere? Should they require the re-baptism of those who had received infant baptism? Should Baptist fellowships have confessions of faith? Should churches follow Christ's command literally to wash one another's feet? Should Baptists take part in politics or hold aloof? Should conferences of Baptist churches or leaders of those conferences be given any authority within local congregations? For each of these questions, and for many more that would come later, sincere believers were able to cite biblical chapter and verse that were completely convincing to themselves but that did not convince other Baptists.

In their different treatments, Bebbington and Johnson show that "Baptist identity" has been characterized by dispositional principles combined with great theological and ecclesiastical variety growing out of the application of those principles. Drawing on their insights, one way of interpreting the past is to suggest that this combination helps explain why Baptist movements experienced unusual surges of growth when they did and also why Baptist movements have remained relatively small in most parts of the world except the United States.

There have been four noteworthy eras of Baptist growth: in the 1640s and 1650s in Britain during the tumult of the English civil wars; in and after the evangelical revivals of the 1740s; in the United States after the American Revolution; and in both the United States and several parts of the non-Western world during the 20th century. In each of these eras, strong social or religious or political impulses undermined tradition and created a setting where the personal application of biblical faith answered spiritual yearning while also creating strong fellowships in unusually uncertain times. The centripetal forces that identified Baptists as Baptists were the power of Scripture and the heightened sense of individual responsibility. The centrifugal forces that created multiple Baptist movements were the varieties of scriptural interpretation and the self-confidence of individual Bible readers.

One explanation for the relative success of Baptist movements in the United States and the relatively small numbers in other parts of the world follows this same logic. In Britain, Canada, Australia, and now many non-Western regions significant Baptist communities emerged as the dispositional principles and the individual approaches to biblical authority won over a faithful loyal following. But church, social, intellectual, and political traditions of different sorts remained stronger and so worked against the main dispositions of Baptist faith.

In the United States and most recently in some parts of the non-Western world, the relation of principle to context has been different. Prevailing orders in church, state, and society have undercut the authority of traditional forms and have therefore opened up more space for the exercise of biblical faith personally appropriated and personally interpreted. In these circumstances, the broader Baptist dispositions have been reinforced by broader features of the entire society and so opened the way for significant Baptist expansion, though in a multitude of Baptist varieties.

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