Reviewed by Jason Duesing
If I could, I would love to find and sit with the 21st century Baptist equivalent of the Inklings. Regularly meeting with gifted colleagues at a local coffee shop (this is the Baptist version of course) sharing recent thoughts and research, all for mutual instruction and edification. Reading The Baptist Story by Drs. Chute, Finn, and Haykin in many ways accomplished this dream for me. In this volume these brothers have presented readers with a timeless textbook that I hope will be read widely and by many.
The Baptist Story is a much needed textbook as due to many of the reasons the authors provide in their introduction, as most other attempts at a Baptist history text are virtually unusable in a classroom setting. Some texts are dated, some are marred by ideological or political agendas and blind spots, and some are simply deficient — either too broad or too narrow. The Baptist Story is a conscious attempt to provide an accessible and helpful text for introducing students and readers to the story of the Baptists in history — and I cannot commend it highly enough.
The authors take time in their introduction to state clearly the parameters they have established for themselves. The eschewing of footnotes and the inclusion of recommended readings that will actually benefit the student are just two of the ways the authors have endeavored to make this volume user-friendly for students, not historians. In addition, they have an accurate appreciation of what they can do and have done stating that this volume is “a collation and updating of many stories, one that itself will need to be updated in the future” (3). The authors write with refreshing conviction and humility and yet attempt not to use “history to pressure others into confirming to a particular position” but rather, “provide a history that informs the reader of how Baptists have reached their conclusions” (6).
Were I to have the honor of sitting down with these Baptist Inklings and given the invitation to share my thoughts on their work, I would have much to say, and I can only imagine how enjoyable the time and conversation would be for all. However, for the purposes of this space and the recognition that the reader just might not be as much of a Baptist history enthusiast as the few of us that exist, I will limit my thoughts to five commendations, one critique, and one request.
First, in addition to the above strengths, The Baptist Story is truly a work that will help students. The authors state, “We have structured several sections of this book based on questions that students commonly ask and we have included areas of personal interest that we have not found in other textbooks” (4). From beginning to end, the authors deliver on this student-friendly approach. It is a book that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.
Second, by design the authors are able to provide more detail, interesting and curious anecdotes, and biographical information in the early chapters, but as the book and Baptists expand, the opportunity to continue to include such helpful devices is lost due to the need to attempt to give an adequate portrait of Baptists in their various forms and locations. While, I think the volume would be stronger if such devices were included throughout, this approach does make for a strong foundational first section.
Third, the authors also have made a conscious and fair attempt to explain and explore the role Africans and African Americans have played in Baptist history. Their exposition of events and doctrinal ramifications from the slave trade through the Civil Rights era is exceptional and heretofore unmatched in a comprehensive history of the Baptist tradition.
Fourth, when reviewing the Southern Baptist Convention’s first adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925, the authors note that “Southern Baptists ironically were far more confessional at their founding [in 1845] that they were in 1925” (249). They rightly have in mind that early Southern Baptists saw no need for a national confession, not because they were anti-confessional as some 20th century Baptists would assert, but rather because all of the churches in that era had adopted and used confessions at the local level.
Fifth, the authors deftly treat the contemporary era with great care — a challenging task for any historian writing about his own context. This is one of the first Baptist histories that has the opportunity to treat W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, Carl F. H. Henry, and Chuck Colson since their passing and The Baptist Story is all the better for it. Their contemporary era section is forthright but not polemical or agenda driven. In short, these are chapters I will gladly ask my students to read when looking for answers or help.
Finally, in terms of my one critique, I think this volume has a deficiency in the authors’ decision not to address more the Anabaptist Movement or its contribution (at whatever level) to the larger Baptist story. In the Church History courses most students will take in companion to their Baptist history course, the Anabaptists will either receive brief mention at best or often no mention at all. So, if they are not covered in discussions related to Baptist history, when will they receive adequate study? I think they are missing an important opportunity for a textbook of this scope and potential influence.
In their introduction and “Anabaptist Similarities” section in the first chapter, the authors explain well why they have made the decision to focus on “connectedness” more than “indebtedness,” with regard to their brief treatment of the Radical Reformers, but I disagree with their basis of determining what is a connected group. While it is true there is no verifiable historical connection between the European Anabaptists and the rest of the Baptist tradition, this does not mean there is no connection at all or that the Baptists are merely indebted to the Anabaptists. As G. H. Williams, W. R. Estep, Timothy George, and James Leo Garrett have noted in their works, the Anabaptists have much light to shed on the development of doctrine among the latter Baptist tradition. When one reads the authors’ fine concluding chapter in The Baptist Story, one sees that the Anabaptists share many, if not all of the same commonalities, or distinctives that the authors of The Baptist Story have concluded best represent the Baptist tradition. Furthermore, the very biblical texts that the Anabaptists used and were convinced by to adopt practices such as believer’s baptism and a regenerate church are the very same texts that motivated Baptists from England, America and beyond. This doctrinal and biblical connection is far more important than any historical connection and it is what distinguishes the Anabaptists as worthy of focus in a Baptist history textbook as opposed to other Christian groups to which the Baptists are merely indebted (i.e. the Elizabethan Puritan Tradition).
My one request for future editions it would be to reframe the scope of the project as rooted in the Reformation. That is, The Baptist Story: From Reformation Dissenters to Global Movement. Ideally, the new edition would contain a single introductory section that reviews and clarifies further the Anabaptist landscape, emphasizes their preparatory contributions toward religious liberty, believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, and provides some biographical examples of the lives of Hubmaier, the Swiss & South German beginnings, Michael Sattler, the Schlietheim Confession, and Pilgrim Marpeck.
The Baptist Story is a wonderfully engaging introduction to the work of God among people in Baptist churches. As a professor who teaches a Baptist history course, what a joy it is to read and commend the valuable work here produced by some of the finest Baptist history Inklings in our day. May the churches and the nations benefit from the telling.
Jason G. Duesing is Provost and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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The Baptist Story: From English Sect To Global Movement