From outcasts and outsiders, to power brokers and insiders, Baptists in America have run the gamut. Baptist historians Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins have described that gamut in Baptists in America: A History. From the pre-colonial era right up to the 21st century, Kidd and Hankins examine the character, theology, and role of Baptists in American history.
The first half of the history of Baptists in America made me proud to call myself a Baptist. We all know that many of the early colonists came to America for religious freedom. What is often forgotten is that some of them only wanted freedom for their own kind; Baptists were excluded from enjoying that freedom. Some New England Baptists wondered "whether their liberties were safer under the king of England than under colonial authorities." Baptists were imprisoned, beaten, and forbidden from meeting. They were compelled to pay taxes to support state churches. Yet as the colonies won their independence from England, the Baptists' insistence on religious liberty won the day.
Other parts of the history of Baptists in America gave me mixed feelings about being a Southern Baptist. In the growing nation, slavery became a more and more contested issue. Southern Baptists eventually split off from their northern brethren. They unconscionably defended slavery using scripture. They believed that slavery was sometimes an occasion for sin, but that the institution itself was OK. In spite of this terrible oversight (not exclusive to Baptists, of course), the Southern Baptists retained a more Orthodox theological position, in contrast to their counterparts up north, who succumbed to the liberal influences of the Social Gospel and higher criticism.
The final portion of Baptists in America reminded my why I no longer attend a Southern Baptist church. Mirroring the earlier conflicts over higher criticism, Southern Baptists in the late 20th century began narrowing the definition of Baptist, and actively excluding those who did not fit the bill. Kidd and Hankins give a nice summary history of this period of Southern Baptist life, but I felt like they were too kind to the movement. The witch hunt mentality, the outright lies that were told, the careers that were derailed, not the mention the institutions that were weakened and the personal relationships that were destroyed, all set in motion a further dissembling and weakening of the Southern Baptist Convention. This controversy led, in part, to my departure from the SBC, as well as many other Baptists.
I wish they would have covered a parallel controversy, which also played a role in many Baptists' departure for other churches. I found it interesting that, according to Kidd and Hankins, some of the early Baptist movements in America were accompanied by signs and wonders and spiritual manifestations. At some point along the way, however, Baptists became cessationists, claiming that manifestation gifts (tongues, healing, words of knowledge) were only practiced during the apostolic age and are no longer valid. About the same time the witch hunt for "liberals" was in force in the SBC, a charismatic movement was sweeping through American denominations, including Baptists. While a few churches embraced the movement, the Convention as a whole rejected it, calling home (firing) missionaries and other denominational workers who were reputed to be exercising these gifts. I wondered what Kidd and Hankins might say about this, but it wasn't addressed. (Perhaps my personal experience has inflated in my mind the importance of this expression of Baptist life!)
Kidd and Hankins's overall theme is compelling. Baptists have, in just a few hundred years, progressed from being a tiny, persecuted minority, to being a huge, diverse, and powerful force in the global church and in American life as a whole. Yet at the heart of Baptist life is a feeling of outsider status. While few Baptists hold to the Landmarkian belief that only their little strain of Baptists are true Christians, Baptists tend stubbornly to believe their way is the right way (as evidenced by the countless schisms among Baptists as they disagree about what the right way really is).
I enjoyed Kidd and Hankins's readable, engaging history. Baptists in America follows the contours of Baptist life, and is chock full of anecdote after anecdote of the activities of our Baptist forebears. I had some seminars with Hankins as student at Baylor and remember well the passion for engaging his subject; that passion comes through in Baptists in America. (I don't know Kidd, but I suspect he shares Hankins's passion and engagement.)
Kidd and Hankins conclude that there is little that defines what a Baptist is, other than "evangelism and schism." They write, "Historically, a Baptist church is a local body of baptized believers who come together and call themselves Baptist." I would think that many churches (like my own) who have eschewed denominational labels would trace their roots to Baptist denominations and would still be included in the Baptist family. Even though the word Baptist is nowhere found on my church sign, and even though my church doesn't participate in any Baptist denominational life, Kidd and Hankins have reminded me that perhaps I am still a Baptist after all.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!