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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Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

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William Boekestein has written a much needed little biography of the important Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, part EP’s Bitesize Biography series. Zwingli is not nearly as well-known as Luther or Calvin. No churches directly trace their heritage to his legacy. Yet in many ways he was just as important as these larger than life figures of the Protestant Reformation. Boekestein’s biography is short (162 pages) but very satisfying. You come to know something of Zwingli that other accounts don’t capture. Zwingli’s reformation of the Swiss canton Zurich roughly coincided with Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg. In fact, Boekestein points out that Zwingli enacted many of the same reforms before knowing anything about Luther. This would indicate that needed reform was in the air and one cannot escape the providential nature of what took place in those heady years beginning around 1517.

Zwingli’s personal turning point began in 1516, one year before Luther’s. There is no evidence that Zwingli or Luther knew of one another before 1521. By 1519, Zwingli had already begun seriously questioning papal authority, the practice of indulgences and other Catholic abuses. Zwingli’s personal reformation began through his discovery of Augustine’s treatise on the gospel of John and his fellow humanist friend Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. When Zwingli was appointed as the pastor of the Great Minister church in Zurich he quickly abandoned the mass and replaced it with expository preaching. He managed to preach through the whole New Testament within 4 years. Like the other Reformers, Zwingli became convinced of the sole authority of Scripture and refused to embrace traditions he believed were linked to the Roman Church.

Just as Zwingli was the first to experience reform in his own ministry, he was also the first Reformer to write a systematic theology entitled, A Commentary on the True and False Religion. Boekestein believes the only reason this work has not had the lasting value that Calvin’s Institutes have had is because he never bothered to revise it as Calvin did his own work—numerous times in fact. Most of Zwingli’s writings were put together hastily and lack the rigor of other Reformed writings. However, I think Boekestein has underestimated the fact that Calvin was a far more innovative, astute and careful theologian than Zwingli ever could have hoped to be and that explains Calvin’s lasting impact. The same could be said for Luther.

Like many of the Reformers, Zwingli’s life was full of contradictions. He believed in the authority of Scripture and spent a great deal of time emphasizing the preaching of the gospel and yet he spent an equal amount of time engaged in politics and meddling in civic affairs. This is understandable since the relationship of church and state during the Reformation was intricately tied to one another. Zwingli decried the mercenary culture of the Swiss military and yet found himself preaching for war when other Swiss cantons resisted and threatened the reforms in the Protestant cantons. He ended up dying at the hands of a Swiss mercenary in Second Kappel War in 1531.

Zwingli also decried the celibacy and rampant sexual immorality of the priesthood and yet himself was engaged in gross fornication early in his ministerial career. His wife Anna was 6 months pregnant before they were secretly married.

But perhaps the most egregious flaw in Zwingli’s life was his treatment of the Anabaptists. Many of these more radical reformers had been students of Zwingli such as Conrad Grebel. The Anabaptist Reformers were a broad lot; and even though they differed significantly on many points of view, most historians tend to lump genuine Anabaptist Reformers with those who are better regarded as true heretics. Boekesteien seems to fall into this familiar trap. For a time, Zwingli appears to have considered the viability of credo-baptism (believer’s baptism) that many of his students adopted and yet in the end defended paedo-baptism (infant baptism). The reason for this defense does not seem to be rooted upon Biblical grounds but political ones. Zwingli, as did other Magisterial Reformers, believed that the dispensing with infant baptism would cause a rift between the covenant community of the church and the civic community. It was believed that the strength of national unity was tied to the initiatory rite of children into the church community through baptism. This supposedly insulated society from becoming vulnerable to outside threats to the state. But the Anabaptists saw no Biblical warrant for such thinking. They believed the marriage of church and state diluted the purity of the church, but for this reason they were regarded as enemies to both church and state. The civil authorities in Zurich banned Anabaptist teaching including credo-baptism and even drowned these believers as punishment.

Boekestein expresses disappointment with Zwingli’s support of executing Anabaptists, but does not seem to express concern for the underlying flaws in the church-state mentality that proliferated the thinking of the Magisterial Reformers. It is interesting that later Baptist theology (growing out of Anabaptist thinking) developed strong arguments for religious liberty that has allowed the flourishing of Christianity in places like the United States. Ironically this thinking has allowed for a stronger Church, whereas nations that have maintained strong church-state ties (many European nations) have diminished the power of the Church over time.

Ulrich Zwingli was certainly an important Reformer and should be praised for his part in advancing the recovery of the gospel in this critical era of church history. Nonetheless, he was a flawed man imbibing many of the prevailing ideas that brought the church to the mess that required the Reformation in the first place. A couple of things should be said about this. First, as a Protestant, one should never expect that the Reformation should have cured every possible ill the church faced at that time. The times and epics in which one lives always has a blinding influence even upon those who have seen the light of better things. The Reformers had many such blind spots and we should be careful about castigating them too much, lest we discover how many blind spots we have ourselves. Secondly, God always uses cracked pots to carry forth the truth. All the great leaders of Biblical history were weak, sin tainted saints whom God used in spite of their shortcomings. Christ builds his church not by perfect men, but by grace-infused men.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

You will be Eaten by Cannibals!

John_Gibson_Paton

John G. Paton (1824-1907) left a successful inner city ministry in Glasgow, Scotland to become a missionary to the renowned cannibals of the New Hebrides Islands of the South Pacific; a place where less than 20 yrs. earlier 2 missionaries were immediately eaten by cannibals upon arriving on the shore of one of the Islands.

Most of Paton’s trusted Christian friends advised him against such a foolish venture.  In a memorable exchange, one such man, a Mr. Dickson retorted, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!”

To this Paton responded: “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”

Two great biographies of John Paton are:

King Of The Cannibals: The Story Of John G. Paton, Missionary To The Hebrides

John G. Paton – The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides

Book Review: The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

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While teaching a class on the Great Awakening I decided to read Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Although this is an informative account of the 18th century American revival, I cannot wholly endorse it. While Kidd is a great scholar, the book suffers from several things. Before I discuss those, let me first say that Kidd does a good job of surveying source materials for the Great Awakening and we learn a great deal about many of the American participants in the revival. He evenly treats the revival’s impact across the colonies without undo focus on New England, as is sometimes the case. He also shows the connection of the revival to the American Revolution and many subsequent developments such as the rise of Baptists in the south and the impact of the revival on African and Native Americans. I like the fact that he shows how the revival demonstrated some of the first attempts at addressing the abolition of slavery in the American colonies (It is of interest that the parallel Awakening in England directly led to the abolition of slavery there through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others).

Having said that, here are three problems I had with Kidd’s analysis. First of all, perhaps because the book is strictly a scholarly treatment, he does not capture the marvelous aura of the revival and what a remarkable work it was. While his writing was not necessarily dry, it was not exactly inspiring either. I am not of the opinion that works of historical scholarship have to be dry and uninspiring, even for a specialized audience. Furthermore, although Kidd is an Evangelical Christian, he tends to treat the revival strictly as a human work with some strange phenomena that is not easily explained. As a Christian, I believe the main thrust of the revival was a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a nation whose spiritual condition was in serious declension. Kidd fails to capture this reality. Unfortunately, I believe he falls into the category of many Evangelical historians who tend to ignore divinely providential explanations of history in favor of strictly human ones. This is one era of history where that simply doesn’t work. There are too many remarkable coincidences and phenomena that cannot be adequately explained apart from divine intervention. But of course this approach to history does not sit well in the secular dominated Academy and this is the milieu out of which Kidd operates. As a Christian I believe this skews the whole enterprise of historiography. If God is the God He has revealed Himself to be in the Bible, a Christian historian must recognize His providential control and purposes in history or risk misinterpreting history as something merely anthropocentric.

Secondly, I felt like Kidd focused too much on the strange and extreme aberrations of the Awakening – i.e. the ‘enthusiastical/ fanatical’ aspects that tended to sour the Awakening. Reading his account, you almost get the impression that the Awakening was marked primarily by religious hysteria. While such things prevailed in some quarters, I feel as though Kidd gives the impression they represented the main thrust of what was happening. He also provides woefully inadequate treatment of Jonathan Edwards’ reasoned response to such extremes. Edwards was the preeminent leader and shaper of the interpretation of the revival’s impact which had a profound influence on subsequent Evangelical history. Kidd underplays this important reality. If this is the only book you read on the Awakening you might walk away thinking it was a period of a great deal of uncontrolled religious hype and foolishness. In fact, I think Kidd fails to demonstrate how the Awakening birthed modern Evangelicalism.

This leads to my third criticism. Kidd fails to place the revival in its broader context. I realize he is narrowly focused upon the revival as it unfolded in the American colonies, but this is short-sighted. The revival in America was intricately tied to similar events in Great Britain, with simultaneous awakenings in England, Wales, Scotland and to some extent, Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the role of the Moravians (Germany) was instrumental in what took place both in America and Great Britain. These things receive little or no notice. Although much is said about George Whitefiled in America, we learn little of other key leaders like Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales; James Robe and William McCulloch in Scotland; and other leaders like the Countess of Huntingdon in England. John Wesley is given some mention, but his role in the broader Awakening is underplayed. In this regard, Mark Noll’s book,The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (History of Evangelicalism Series) does a better job of drawing these connections. Furthermore, it is much more readable than Kidd’s book, probably because it is addressed to a general audience. Also, Noll makes a better case for how the Awakening shaped modern Evangelicalism.

I don’t dismiss Kidd’s work altogether because much is learned here that is not readily available elsewhere and he does draw some important insights into the revival. But I would compliment his treatment with Noll’s book. I also highly recommend an older work on the Awakening, A. Skevington Wood’s The Inextinguishable Blaze: Spiritual Renewal and Advance in the Eighteenth Century (Advance of Christianity Thorugh the Centuries). Wood is an older Wesleyan scholar whose book focuses mainly on the Evangelical Revival as it is called in Great Britain, particularly England. But he also does a good job of showing the broader context to what was happening elsewhere that Kidd does not. What I also like about Wood is that although his treatment makes use of the scholarly sources available at the time (1960), his narrative of events is warm, inspiring and not afraid to demonstrate that the revival was largely a work of the Holy Spirit. He combines scholarship with a pietistic fervor for the sort of revival fires he describes. As a Christian, he views history as something God orchestrates and thus it serves to encourage Christians by its examples for our spiritual edification and not for mere historical interest or intellectual reflection. I had hoped Kidd’s work would have done the same. Sadly, it did not. It left more of a bad impression about the Awakening and that is very unfortunate, because in spite of some of its unhappy excesses, it was a wonderful work of God that is sorely needed again in our time. O God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us again!

Review: Church and State in America

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I have read a number of books on America’s religious history particularly in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, however, Church and State in America by James H. Hutson is one of the best by far. Even though it is brief, it is comprehensive in scope, giving just enough details to give a full picture of the issues without being superficial. The book is scholarly (Hutson is the Chief of the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress), yet very readable and in fact enjoyable. I could not put the book down. He covers a number of fascinating details I had not encountered elsewhere in the debate on church and state. For example, Hutson was involved in the recovery of a blackened out portion of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the famous phrase “Wall of separation between church and state” appears. With the help of the FBI, in 1998, they uncovered deleted portions of Jefferson’s letter that casts a whole new light on what he meant by this phrase. The portion was struck out before being published upon advice of his attorney general for fear that it might have political repercusions. It appears Jefferson limited his understanding of the phrase to the function the president serves in matters of religion, not the government as a whole.

Hutson makes a good case that the Supreme Court cases in the late 19th century and mid-20th century have misread the issue employing Jefferson’s phrase in a way that ignores contrary evidence. The fact that states like Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts maintained state sponsored church establishments through the early 19th century clearly indicates that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment did not rule out religious establishments in the individual states. Had that been the understanding, few states would have ratified the Constitution. Furthermore, Congress funded the publishing of Bibles as well as the proselytizing of Indians in the early Republic. Regular church services were held in the House chambers until after the Civil War. In fact, Jefferson himself, no friend of orthodox Protestantism, regularly attended these services. Furthermore, church services were also held in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Those who espouse “strict” separation often ignore these facts. Hutson points them out as well as many others.

This book changed my thinking on some key issues in this debate. I highly recommend it.