Book Review: The Baptist Story

Baptist Story

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin is a newly published textbook on Baptist history that should prove to be useful for college and seminary students as well as those interested in church history. All three authors are accomplished writers and historians, but especially Michael Haykin who is very prolific in drawing out little known treasures from church history (especially 17th and 18th century Baptist figures) through the publication of multiple volumes. Haykin is not only one of the best Evangelical historians doing work today, but he is also quite conversant in theology. He has been able to show how theology and church history intersect in important ways.

The authors walk through the Baptist story from its beginnings. Baptists had their origins not in the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century Reformation, but a century later as one of the separatist movements who broke away from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Although there are parallels, Anabaptists and Baptists have distinct origins and beliefs beyond the common acceptance of believer’s (credo) baptism. The English Separatists became known as Puritans and one of these Puritans was John Smyth. He fled England to the Netherlands as did many Separatists seeking to escape persecution. Initially he was joined to the group of believers who eventually made their way to America in the Mayflower. The two groups separated over views on church polity. Smyth was initially a Calvinist but then became convinced of Arminianism during the Remonstrance controversy in the Netherlands at the time.

A split among Smyth’s followers resulted in many joining Thomas Helwys in a North London church. They became known as the General Baptists. The name stems from the fact that they believed in the Arminian doctrine that Christ’s death provided a general atonement for all people. Shortly thereafter, a new movement known as the Particular Baptists arose from 3 pastors of another London church. These became more prevalent in the early days of the Baptist movement. Their name derives from the fact that they held to the Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death provided a particular atonement only for those elected to salvation by God. While early Baptists baptized by affusion (pouring water over the head), these were the first to baptize by immersion. The Particular Baptists produced the The First London Confession of Faith in 1644 and then the influential Second London Confession in 1658.

From these modest beginnings, Baptists began to emerge as a major force in Protestant Christianity. We learn of Roger Williams, the first influential Baptist in America who fought early battles for religious freedom in the colonies for struggling Baptists even as fellow Baptists in England began to thrive. But soon, new persecution arose in England with those known as Dissenters or Nonconformists, again with regard to resisting the strong arm of the Church of England. Among this Puritan stock were famous Baptists like John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Finally, the Act of Toleration in 1689 brought religious freedom for English Baptists.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought Baptists to the very forefront of Evangelical revivals and reforms which has made them perhaps the most formidable group of Protestant denominations ever since. The authors tell us the stories of men like the pastor-theologian John Gill, Isaac Backus, Shubal Stearns, Abraham Booth, Andrew Fuller, the father of modern missions William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Francis Wayland and the greater London preacher Charles Spurgeon. We see how Baptists were instrumental in the spread of the First and Second Great Awakenings, the establishment of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the abolishment of slavery in the US South, the temperance movement and other social reforms. We learn of the Northern and Southern Baptists, the Free Will, Primitive, Landmark and Independent Baptists and the rise of educational institutions like Brown University and Southern Seminary. Along the way, the authors weave these individual stories with those of other Baptists institutions and movements, doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as well as how Baptists interfaced the culture at large and other Christian denominations.

Important Baptists and institutions of the 20th century are well covered. We learn of George Truett, B. H. Carroll, E. Y. Mullins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Carl F. H. Henry along with Baptist involvement in the Fundamentalist controversy of the 20’s and 30’s, the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, and the Conservative Resurgence of the 80’s and 90’s in the Southern Baptist Convention led by men like W. A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, and Adrian Rogers. The last chapters bring us to the contemporary scene. It focuses on Baptist figures like Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and John Piper. We see the global impact of Baptists, the Calvinist renewal and the response to renewed threats to religious liberty.  The last chapter seeks to identify what has historically distinguished Baptists from other Christian denominations in their beliefs. It is very helpful in that regard.

This textbook is brief at only 356 pages, but it does an excellent job of painting Baptist history with broad strokes while also focusing on a number of lesser known stories and figures of interest. It balances the two very well. The prose is very readable and enjoyable. This is not dry history. One may argue that some figures, movements, issues and institutions are given short-shrift, but that is to be expected in a volume of this size and purpose. It is a survey. The book contains numerous helpful photos and side-bars relating Baptists in their own words. One disappointment is that I found the indexes to be incomplete. A number of names and subjects that occur in the text are not mentioned in the indexes. This will make it harder to search and that is unfortunate. But all-in-all this is an excellent textbook for examining Baptist history. I highly recommend it.

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