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., $31.99

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Mark Noll

So You're a Baptist—

What might that mean?

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Whether or not David Bebbington or Robert Johnson would agree with this way of interpreting Baptist history, their books provide the careful scholarship that allow others to draw such conclusions. Johnson's worldwide survey is compromised to some degree by his persistent reference to "traditioning sources" and by describing Baptist convictions and organizational activities as "dreams." As a result, his conclusions about essential points of Baptist identity are fuzzier than they need to be. Thus, he sees Baptist distinctives as including the "freedom of a local faith community to determine its own theological definitions," which is helpful. But he also concludes that "Baptist traditioning sources have an innate sense of the inadequacy of simply living a life of faith that is controlled by the rules and experiences of someone else's faith," which is obfuscating. Nonetheless, the wealth of information in this work, particularly on non-Western Baptist movements, makes it a useful study.

David Bebbington's survey is an admirably clear beginning place for anyone interested in going further with study of Baptists. Global developments are sketched rather than extensively detailed, but even in brief compass Bebbington succeeds in showing how the complexities of Baptist life in the non-Western world now both reflect complexities seen in the West and offer much that is new. His conclusion about the question of Baptist identity exemplifies the compact wisdom of his entire treatment: "Taken together, these three convictions—believer's baptism, a regenerate church membership, and the kingship of all believers—do seem fundamental to Baptist life, but even when taken together they do not form a characterization that includes all Baptists while excluding all others."

On the complicated questions of identity, it is gratifying to note that these two books represent only some of the solid scholarship that is now exploring Baptist developments on many fronts. Recent controversies within the Southern Baptist Convention have directly or indirectly prompted some of that history.[1] The100th anniversary of the Baptist World Alliance in 2005 was also a stimulus.[2] But the most serious work has been appearing in the over thirty volumes that now make up the Paternoster Press series Studies in Baptist History and Thought.[3] Several of the books in this series have come from meetings of the International Conference on Baptist Studies (ICOBS), which, beginning in Oxford in 1997, has convened a gathering every three years, with the sixth such meeting planned for Wake Forest University in July 2012. The 2003 ICOBS conference in Prague led to a book that made a special contribution to the subject of "Baptist Identities." Under that very title, it offered detailed studies on Baptist history in the United States, Canada, England, Wales, and Australia, but also in France, Germany, Latvia, Nagaland, and the Philippines.[4] The result was a measurable increase in hard-won learning, but also a measurable increase in the difficulties attending the puzzle of Baptist identity that Bebbington and Johnson address so fruitfully.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).

1. Examples might include Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 2nd ed. (BandH Academic, 2001); Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2002); and Bill J. Leonard, The Challenge of Being Baptist (Baylor Univ. Press, 2010).

2. See especially Richard V. Pierard, ed., Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005: A Hundred-Year History of the Baptist World Alliance (Baptist World Alliance, 2005).

3. Those volumes are described at Code=SBHT.

4. Ian M. Randall, Toivo Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross, eds., Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster/Wipf and Stock, 2006).

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