Baptist history for wide theological audience has bright spots but overstates readership
Writing a comprehensive history of a tradition as diverse as the Baptist tradition is no easy task, yet such is the assignment of Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A.G. Haykin in their recently published work, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (B&H Publishing, 2015).
While I think it is fair to say that these authors approach the subject of Baptist history from a solidly conservative perspective, they should be commended for their attempt to write a comprehensive history of the Baptist people that does justice to a multiplicity of perspectives.
Three primary sections of content comprise the overall body of the work, with a few concluding pages on Baptists beliefs and distinctives.
Haykin writes the first section on 17th- and 18th-century Baptist life. Chute writes the second section on the 19th century, and Finn concludes the historical discussion with content from the 20th and 21st centuries.
The book’s strength lies in the authors’ commitment to presenting historical data in a clear and concise fashion. Sprinkled throughout the work are photographs along with breaks in the narrative for selections from church minutes, letters, hymnals, books and other primary source documents. Concluding each chapter is a list of further suggested readings and a sampling of discussion questions.
There are many bright points that should be noted within the work. In his discussion of “Baptist Beginnings,” Haykin nimbly treads the confusing waters of Baptist origins amid England’s tumultuous 17th century.
Chute’s chapter, “Transitions and Trends,” serves as a particularly articulate section that addresses Baptists toward the end of the 19th century. Likewise, Finn walks a fine tightrope in his discussion of the Southern Baptist controversy.
Unfortunately, by marketing the work as “ideally suited for graduate and undergraduate courses, as well as group study in the local church,” B&H Publishing has detracted from the work’s identity as chiefly, in my opinion, an undergraduate textbook.
If the publisher wanted a graduate textbook, it should have insisted and made accommodation for footnotes. And if the publisher wanted a work for group study, it should have published the book at a cheaper cost. Few textbooks, if any, are capable of the readership that B&H anticipates.
Even as an undergraduate textbook, the work does have shortcomings aside from my own historical grumblings and nitpickings. Specifically, I would have liked to see the authors work a little harder to incorporate global material into the dominant Euro-American narrative that runs throughout the book.
The title makes the claim that the Baptist tradition historically evolved from an English sect into a global movement, but I am not sure the book supports this most basic of claims. Each author loses sight of this central thesis at various points in the work, which leaves readers often unaware of where the narrative is taking them.
Even so, I commend Chute, Finn and Haykin for their work on this text. All in all, I am confident in saying these authors succeed in writing a Baptist history intended for a broad theological audience. The clear prose as well as the inclusion of discussion questions and primary source material make this work ideally suited for an undergraduate classroom. BT
—Andrew Gardner is a doctoral student in American religious history at Florida State University, and a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Divinity and The College of William and Mary. His work, Reimaging Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists, will be published by Nurturing Faith later this year.