Magazine article The Christian Century

What Makes a Baptist?

Magazine article The Christian Century

What Makes a Baptist?

Article excerpt

A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches

By Robert E. Johnson

Cambridge University Press, 470 pp., $33.99 paperback


Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People

By David W. Bebbington

Baylor University Press, 320 pp., $39.95 paperback


A SIGN ON the door that says "Baptist Church" often offers little guidance as to what one may find inside. Will there be speaking in tongues? Strict Calvinist theology? A prosperity gospel? A strong political message? A high liturgy?

Variations in names--"First Baptist Church," "Apostolic Baptist Church," "Burmese Baptist Church" or "Full Gospel Baptist Church"--may offer clues, but even a denominational affiliation (Southern Baptist, National Baptist Convention) will leave open a very wide range of possibilities.

Baptist history has no obvious plot, not least because no Baptist church need claim any connection with another, past or present. Scholars who devote themselves to interpreting Baptist tradition must contend with a community that is not sure it has one. Baptists who want to explain their practices or beliefs are as likely to appeal to the early church or the book of Acts as to texts or founders from their past. In fact, Baptists have no agreement about whether their story should start with 17th-century English dissenters, 16th-century Anabaptists or the first-century church.

Undaunted, Robert Johnson and David Bebbington have undertaken introductory overviews of this fractious family. Johnson's summary is a cross-section of the Baptist present, with historical background, while Bebbington's is a thematic history, with interpretive glimpses of the present.

One of the few things clear in the Baptist story is its Anglo-American axis. Baptists as a continuing community emerged in England and grew there and in the United States. Today the U.S. still has well over twice as many adherents as the rest of the world combined. In this sense, Baptists have lagged in the reversal taking place in most Christian communions whereby the membership predominantly shifts to the Southern Hemisphere. This situation raises the question of cultural fit, of whether or not this form of Christianity--so doggedly congregational, so solicitous of the individual believer, so democratic in polity--has a deeply symbiotic relation with the Anglo-Atlantic West.

Both of these books have the word global in their titles, but they take rather different approaches to this dimension of the story. Bebbington organizes his work topically, with each major chapter focused, as he says, on "a problem and not a [chronological] period." For him, the global telling of the Baptist story involves setting it in the wider framework of Christian history and taking the missionary spread of the churches into fuller account. But the central focus is on formative issues and turning points in Baptist history. He traces, for instance, the revivalism that transformed Baptists from a small sect to a large movement and the mission societies that formed the skeleton of denominational organization.

For Johnson, who has extensive firsthand knowledge of Baptists in Latin America, the word global portends a more fundamental change in outlook. In his view, the knowledge that the Baptist community has become a multicultural one suggests that its earlier history should be reexamined to emphasize the various strands of diversity already present there.

Johnson takes it as an axiom that Anglo-American voices should no longer define Baptist identity.

Both books take a largely chronological approach, but Johnson gives many parallel regional histories while Bebbington gives a unified account. Johnson understands the story through a backward glance, reading the roots from the perspective of the present diversity of Baptist life, while Bebbington offers a more narrative approach, treating the tradition as a protagonist who at certain contingent moments took this path rather than that one. …

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