To attempt a book on the story of Baptists in the United States is in itself a challenge. Among themselves, Baptists will be quite aware of what separates and differs, and many of us will find the interpretation of past events a matter of contention. Fewer will be dedicated to foster intra-Baptist (internal) relations, though that number seems to be growing in recent decades. To tell a story of Baptists in this country, as well as any global history, necessarily opens up long-held wounds and rivalries. Indeed, when mentioning this book had been received for review, more than a few Baptist clergy colleagues asked how certain angles of the history were told or expressed concern that there might be “southern” bias when discovering the authors are faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Yea verily, the divides between “North” and “South” are felt still among Baptists.
I admit I pick up any Baptist polity or history text with similar wonderings, though I have learned over the years to be an appreciative reader of any Baptist identity resource. While it may not be written from a perspective I readily embrace, each text reveals a little more of the bigger patchwork quilt that Free Church ecclesiology encourages. Also, I have long appreciated the work of Barry Hankins, who has written perceptively about the rascals and charismatic figures of early 20th century evangelicalism including his book Jesus and Gin (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). His co-author Thomas Kidd offered a great text in recent years, exploring the issue of religion and the American Revolutionary period (God of Liberty, Basic Books, 2012).
Taking up the task of writing a text, Hankins and Kidd acknowledge that they are themselves Baptists of differing perspectives from one another. With such awareness of the personal and political dimensions of writing history, especially to be read by other Baptists, they offer an insightful short history of the Baptist movement. Marginalized at their beginnings in colonial times and quite influential and prolific by the late 20th century, Baptists are woven into the political and social fabric of American history. One can appreciate how Baptists spent the last four centuries, reflecting the growth and development of the United States as well as sometimes improving or bedeviling the public square with the particular mindedness of various Baptist luminaries who were intent on keeping the Gospel at the forefront of their engagement with society.
The book traces a variety of stories and events familiar to many Baptists, yet the authors take the opportunity to highlight the ironies of history’s unfolding. Caught up in the crossfire of Revolutionary battles in upstate New York, one town’s Baptists find themselves of divided political loyalties, with some defecting to the arriving British forces. In turn, some are forced by the British to take up arms against their fellow congregants (p. 53). Missionaries to the Cherokee tribes in Michigan find themselves struggling to learn the language of the people, and then they scramble to keep connected to the tribes as they are uprooted and forcibly relocated to other parts of the country. The zeal of mission is confronted by the machinations of governmental policies and the brutality of the Trail of Tears experience (p. 107-10). Disturbingly over the passage of time, some Baptists will forget their roots as a persecuted minority and become part of the Establishment with implications religious and political alike).
Kidd and Hankins explore efforts among some Baptists to enforce doctrinal and creedal standards. As a minister within the American Baptist Churches/USA, I knew of the difficulties experienced in my denomination’s early 20th century battles over fundamentalist/modernist views. The co-authors revisit the source material, bringing arguments from long ago into sharp relief, demonstrating how the divergent perspectives among some Baptists are a hard won reality. Such tussles over biblical interpretation and the autonomy of local churches continue to flare up within ABCUSA circles just as equivalent battles continue within other mainline Protestant polities). Certainly, the growth of fundamentalism among Southern Baptists could have taken root just as easily within the Northern Baptist Convention (now ABCUSA) if it were not for some quick thinking on the convention floor and a broader sense of the criterion for being counted among the faithful.