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Baptists in America: A History
Baptists in America: A History
Barry G Hankins; Thomas S Kidd
Oxford University Press, 2015
352 pp., 29.95

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David Bebbington

"The Dregs of Christendom"

A first-rate history of Baptists in America.

One of the earliest historians of the Baptists in America, David Benedict, writing in 1813, recognized that they were seen as "the dregs of Christendom." They were associated with the "madmen of Munster," the Anabaptists who in the 16th century had seized that city, abolished marriage, and practiced cannibalism. They were also condemned as "the most rigid and uncharitable sect in the land" for their insistence that believers must be immersed in water before they could sit down together at the Lord's Supper. Consequently, as Benedict put it, they were "the long-despised and persecuted Baptists."[1] They were outsiders.

This new history of the Baptists in the United States takes up the notion of members of the denomination beginning as outsiders as its central theme. Chapter 1 dwells on their status as "Colonial Outlaws." But over time their position within American society changed. By 1920, George Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, delivered a sermon on the steps of the Capitol in which he declared that Baptists were the authors of the religious liberty that was the secret of America's greatness. In the following year for the first time a Baptist, Warren G. Harding, became President of the United States. Harding's Secretary of State, Charles E. Hughes, was later to assume office as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. By the interwar period, mainstream white Baptists had become insiders.

African American Baptists, however, remained on the outside, and, unlike those Baptists who took a liberal path in theology, the fundamentalists of the 1920s retained the mentality of those who were excluded from power and influence. In the late 20th century, on the interpretation of this book, the Southern Baptists, by far the largest grouping of the denominational family, tried to recapture outsider status in opposition to the secularization of their country's culture. All sections of American society, the authors conclude, now operate as outsiders in a pluralist nation, but the Baptists were among the first to do so.

That summary shows the extent to which Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, both historians at Baylor University, have succeeded in threading together the diversity of Baptist experience by means of a single theme. It also suggests the most striking feature of the volume—the integration of denominational history into national history. This book is not merely a catalogue of the great names and major institutions of the Baptist past but rather a study of the place of the Baptists in American life down the centuries. Thus chapter 3 addresses the role of Baptists in the American Revolution and chapter 4 examines their struggles for religious liberty at the founding of the new nation. The drawback of this method is that a certain familiarity with central themes of American history is assumed. The speech of Patrick Henry in 1775 calling for "Liberty or Death," for example, is not explained; nor is the meaning of the "Great Awakening," despite a chapter being dedicated to the subject. But it is probably true that such central features of the United States' past are well known to most of the likely readers of this book and so the absence of explanation, though it might prove a hardship for a Nigerian Baptist, is no serious problem.

There is, conversely, an enormous benefit of this approach in that major issues, of obvious importance to all, are discussed. Thus the attitude of Baptists, black and white, to slavery and its legacy is given ample space. Slavery itself supplies the content of chapter 6 and the civil rights movement is the subject of chapter 12. Because something like four-fifths of African American churches have been Baptist and because members of the denomination were often outspoken defenders of segregation, there is no artificiality in such prominence for the theme in a volume about Baptists. It is heartening that the book can record the election of the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2013.

Who would have expected Will Campbell, a radical white champion of civil rights, to exclaim, "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well"?

Yet, for all its coverage of topics central to the history of the nation, there is no neglect of the distinctive features of Baptist life. Baptists are shown to be congregational in polity, so that there is a welcome protest against the all too common practice of referring to the denomination as "the Baptist Church." There is no such entity, but only Baptist churches. A consequence is the immense variety of subgroups—Primitive Baptists, Landmark Baptists, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the Baptist Bible Fellowship, the Conservative Baptist Association, and so on. It is not the least service of this volume to put these bodies in their contexts and so to make them more intelligible. The writers conclude by conceding that all Baptists possess in common is a combination of practicing believer's baptism, upholding congregational independency, and calling themselves Baptists. Even that is an exaggeration of their common ground, since several churches have now dropped the title "Baptist" for the sake of evangelistic effectiveness.

The lion's share of attention, however, is allocated to the major denominational bodies and among them particularly to the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptists of the South, in fact, receive much more coverage than their northern coreligionists after the split between them of 1845. Oddly the creation of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907 to supersede the motley collection of agencies that had preceded it passes unrecorded here. Allusions to the American Baptist Convention (as the Northern Convention became in 1950) and the American Baptist Churches in the USA (as it became in 1972) are relatively rare. But there is some reason for this choice. The Southern Convention is vastly larger than any other Baptist grouping, and so the largest Protestant denomination in the country. And the battle for the control of the convention beginning in 1979, the subject of chapter 13, is the most absorbing denominational topic of the late 20th century. So we learn about what weighs most heavily in the scales of history.

Another principle of selection is to stress what is distinctively evangelical. Again that is to do justice to the subject-matter, for, although there have been liberal voices raised among them, Baptists have been overwhelmingly evangelical. Baptists form a larger segment of American evangelicalism than any other denominational family. Both authors are self-professed evangelicals, and so they naturally gravitate towards bringing out the evangelical characteristics of their predecessors in the faith. Thomas Kidd, the writer of the earlier part of the volume, is an authority on the history of revival. As a result, the awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries form the subject-matter of chapters 2 and 5. Barry Hankins, who wrote the second half of the book, has published studies of fundamentalism. Consequently there is welcome detail on some of the colorful features of that movement, such as the episode when in 1926 the Texas fundamentalist preacher J. Frank Norris shot a man dead in his church vestry.

The evangelical orientation does not mean that the authors lay emphasis on theological developments. Theology is mentioned from time to time, as when the Englishman Andrew Fuller is rightly credited with setting the moderate tone of the version of Calvinism espoused by most Baptists during the 19th century. The formative power of doctrine is rarely underestimated. The purpose of the book, however, is not to tease out the intellectual trajectory of Baptist belief. Rather it dwells on the main patterns of Baptist activity in society. If anything, spirituality is more prominent than theology, with some telling quotations illustrating the enthusiastic tone of Baptist devotional life during the awakenings. "Give me Christ! Give me Christ!" demanded the young people of Charleston Baptist Church in 1754. It is such cries that explain the extraordinary church growth of Baptists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The use of primary source material to make the text come alive is, in fact, another of the strengths of the book. The account in his own words of the conversion of Isaac Backus in 1741 is just one of the vivid passages quoted: "God who caused the light to shine out of darkness, shined into my heart with such a discovery of that glorious righteousness which fully satisfies the law that I had broken." The passages from primary sources continue into the 20th century. "The Baptist hour of all the centuries has sounded," declared the preacher at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1919. What better way of encapsulating the sense of the Baptists that they had ceased to be outsiders?

There is much else to surprise and intrigue the reader here. Who would have thought (unless they had already absorbed Thomas Kidd's earlier writing) that there would be eldresses among 18th-century Baptists? Or who would have expected Will Campbell, a radical white champion of civil rights, to exclaim, "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well"? Both authors of this book contrive to discover some of the byways of Baptist life as well as to chart its highways. They have done what David Benedict did at the opening of the 19th century, dwelling on the emergence of the Baptist denomination from obscurity and contempt to celebrity and prominence. But by engaging with mainstream issues in the American past they have performed the task not as denominational apologists but as professional historians.

David Bebbington is professor of history at the University of Stirling and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

1. David Benedict, Fifty Years among the Baptists (Sheldon and Company, 1860), pp. 33, 21.

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