January 16, 2018

Review: The Baptist Story

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement. Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015.

reviewed by Don Johnson

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement ably tells the story of Baptist history from the first stirrings of the Baptist movement to the present day. It is designed as a textbook for an undergraduate level, but the book could be very profitably used in local churches as the text for an adult Sunday school series as well.

The title gives away its point of view on Baptist history – there is no unbroken trail all the way back to apostolic times in the opinion of the authors. They acknowledge that not all Baptists will agree with this point of view, noting that “where two or three Baptists are gathered, it seems, three or four opinions are sometimes in the midst of them.” (p. 1) Nevertheless, what they authors set out to do was to present “the reader with a historical survey of Baptists that includes not only the major organizations but the minor players and minority members as well, whose work for and among Baptists is no less important even though it may be less visible. We also believe we have stayed true to our task of presenting the Baptist story ‘warts and all.’ Baptists — or any people for that matter — are in desperate need of divine grace, and our history reflects that.” (p. 3) In addition to presenting the Baptist story as only truly existing from the seventeenth century forward, the authors make a helpful distinction between Baptists and Anabaptists. There is a relationship between the two parties, but the relationship is one of “indebtedness” rather than “connectedness.” There is likewise more of an indebtedness to the English Puritans and the later Separatists than a connection, but here there are lines of descent.

The book is broken into four sections, the first three being four chapters each and surveying Baptist history first in the Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries, then the Nineteenth Century and finally in the Twentieth to Twenty-First Centuries. There are periods in the history of any movement where, as the movement matures, the story somewhat bogs down into a kind of hum-drum normalcy. In other Baptist histories I have read those periods become extremely dull to read (usually because there is too much detail). In this volume, there are hints of the dullness of normalcy, but the authors do a good job at keeping up interest through almost all the history. The last section covers “Baptist Beliefs.” Indeed, as the history progresses, all these beliefs are touched on from time to time, but they are more thoroughly discussed in the last chapter.

The authors emphasize the history throughout, attempting to be more “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” They acknowledge that in the last chapter they move to a more “prescriptive” approach as they discuss what it means to be a Baptist in their view. But in emphasizing the history, they provide a fairly objective account of Baptist development through the years.

“We have … highlighted the primacy of history when writing this story.

“The decision to follow the historical evidence in this regard underscores our conviction that Baptists should use history in a ministerial rather than a magisterial manner. In other words, history can help us see what Baptists have believed, but it should not be used to tell us what Baptists must believe. Baptists are a ‘people of the book,’ and even though they read that book differently from time to time, they understand that nothing else carries the same authority over their lives as the Bible. Whereas Baptists have sometimes used history to pressure others into conforming to a particular position, we have attempted instead to provide a history that informs the reader of how Baptists have reached their conclusions.” (pp. 5-6)

The authors are professors at different Southern Baptist schools. Anthony L. Chute teaches at California Baptist University in Riverside, California, Nathan A. Finn at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and Michael A. G. Haykin teaches at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. As Southern Baptists one may detect a hint of a SBC-centric view of the Baptist story, but the authors have attempted to keep their preferences in check and I think have succeeded pretty well.

In particular, I appreciated the candid and objective treatment of Baptists and their attitudes toward slavery in the pre-Civil War era and after. I also appreciated the even-handed discussion of the twentieth century “Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy.” I thought they treated that particular part of the story accurately and even-handedly. Another area of contemporary interest is the coverage of the Southern Baptist resurgence, a remarkable story of which Baptists outside the SBC circle may only have a hazy understanding. Their telling of the story is interesting and informative.

As my readers might guess, I am offering a positive review of this book. I think it is very useful as a beginning Baptist history for laymen or college students. Seminarians will want to dig deeper, but this book will give a good start. Baptist pastors will find it useful in training church people concerning the grand story.

My copy of The Baptist Story was provided free of charge from the publishers for the purposes of this review.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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