Thursday, January 24, 2008

Baptist Ways: an opinion

Baptist Ways: a History. Bill J. Leonard, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003. $30.00, paper, 480 pages. ISBN 0-8170-1231-1 Bill J. Leonard is dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School, Winston-Salem, NC. He is the editor or author of fifteen books, including A Dictionary of Baptists in America; Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism; God's Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and most recently, Baptists in America.

Edwin Gaustad's foreword explains that Baptist Ways was conceived as a follow-up to and replacement of Robert G. Torbet's A History of the Baptists. Gaustad believes the result is "a fresh and exciting new interpretation and presentation of Baptists worldwide." (p. XII)

In his introduction, Mr. Leonard discusses the problem of defining a people as diverse as the Baptists. His approach views Baptist history through "eight dialectics", seeing "classic distinctives as dynamics moving in tandem across a wide spectrum of belief and practice." (p. 16) He briefly recites various views of Baptist origins. Since Leonard believes the Baptist denomination is an outgrowth of English Puritanism, he begins in the 17th century and brings Baptists forward chronologically to the present. The book consists of 16 chapters, for the most part moving back and forth between British and American Baptists, introducing other areas at appropriate times.

My brief comments draw headings from the old spaghetti western -- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, Il cattivo, Il brutto) -- rather than a standard book review format.

The Good/Il buono
Up-to-date. Leonard's book was published in 2003, making it the most up-to-date single volume Baptist history available. It provides certain recent information not available in older works.
International. Widens the scope far beyond British and American Baptists to take a closer look at other Baptists around the globe. While Leonard is an American Baptist most familiar with the American Baptist experience, he warms to the task of presenting the international scene.
Well-written. The colossal task of a single volume Baptist history requires not only archival acumen and relentless research, but also a well-written story that engages the reader. I believe Leonard accomplishes the latter. Despite the problems inherent in telling a story over several centuries and across several continents, I found the story of Baptist Ways to be skillfully interwoven. For example, Elon Galusha -- a member of the first Baptist church in Vermont and a son of the governor -- is mentioned in passing in chapter 6 (p. 125). Chapter 8 returns to Galusha, a Triennial Convention member who was an active abolitionist (pp. 187-88). Not forgotten, Galusha reappears in chapter 9 with his defection to and return from the Millerite movement (p. 213).
Hymnody. Gives us information about an important part of Baptist life that is often ignored or only superficially mentioned in Baptist histories -- their hymnody.
Women's Work. Emphasizes Baptist women, their work, societies and other auxiliaries. This information is often not available in such a work. In addition to providing historical information and recognizing the work of Baptist women, it also provides a background for current controversies over the ordination of women. Baptists did not suddenly wake up and decide to start ordaining women.
Cost. Can usually be found four or five dollars cheaper than its list price, and even as much as ten dollars less.

The Bad/Il cattivo

Hymnody. Does not follow through with this all the way through the book. Hymnody is not mentioned as much in the end as at the beginning.
Women's Work. Receives too large a focus in relation to the whole. This stress is probably intended to make up for largely ignoring Baptist women in the past -- which certainly has been done. But it may give a skewed view. Painting an object too far in front of the forest may make the object seem too large and the forest too small. Risking being called a Neanderthal (in opposing ordination of women) and a Hardshell (in opposing missionary societies*), I would have nevertheless enjoyed reading a little less of this and a little more of some things and groups not mentioned at all by Leonard. On the other hand, despite laying the groundwork for telling the modern women's ordination controversy, Leonard fails to follow up on that sufficiently. But, I suppose it is as Leonard foretold, "...some readers will be distressed that particular stories are not told."
The inexplicable. For examples: After noting the formation of the Six-Principle Calvinistic Baptist Association in New England in the 1750s, Leonard reports that the Warren Association (founded in 1767) was the first Baptist association in New England (p. 123). After setting forth the founding of the National Missionary Baptist Convention (p. 276), Leonard lists "eight specific African American denominations evident in the United States" -- a list that does not include the National MBC (p. 282).

Lack of clarity. For examples: Noting "Primitive Baptists also have a presence in Canada" (p. 244), Leonard does not clarify for the uninitiated whether these are the Arminian Primitive Baptists or the Predestinarian Primitive Baptists. Discussing Primitive Baptists in the context of Appalachian sub-denominations, he claims "Primitive Baptists have spread to the Midwest and Southwest." (p. 207) The novice might misjudge that Primitive Baptists in the Midwest and Southwest are transplants from Appalachia rather than locals who took one side of a missionary controversy. The teeming sea of Baptist sub-denominations is overwhelming, and it is not surprising that Mr. Leonard would fail to clarify them all and/or make a few hard to explain statements.
Cost. $30.00

The Ugly/Il brutto
Printing errors. It is surprising that such an important work by major denominational publishing house has quite a few typographical/printing errors. Most are of the non-invasive type -- a word left out here or there, misplaced capitalization or the lack thereof, etc. The really ugly ones are three paragraphs on page 244 and two on pages 251-2 that were damaged by a "computer glitch". These sections are not unreadable, but nearly so. My edition contained a small errata sheet stuck into the pages. I don't know if I were you, but since I'm me I'd not order online. I got my copy that way. But knowing what I know now, I'd go to a bookstore and look to see whether these pages have been corrected. Hopefully these errors, as well as issues of lack of clarity, will be addressed in future editions.

As someone said in another book review, "One could quibble about what is not included." I did. "Or one could criticize certain inclusions." I’ve done that, too. In fact, one could even question the advisability of attempting a single volume history of Baptists. It seems to be one of those things you can't live with or without. Everything about Baptists could not be told in 4250 pages, much less 425. But someone must try, because that's as far as some will ever explore the landscape of Baptist history. Better that they get an overview than nothing at well. In addition to what Leonard reveals about Baptists in the book, the book reveals something about his passions (missions and education), his priorities (ecumenism) and his prejudices (separatism, landmarkism). Despite a few reservations, I recommend that the lover of Baptist history add this book to his or her library. Students, teachers, and pastors will find Baptist Ways to be a useful tool. In the end we may all learn with Edwin Gaustad that "It is true that Baptists embrace religious liberty -- in their best days for all of humankind. It is also true that Baptists embody religious liberty -- in their worst days in the unending multiplicity of denominational tags and labels and nicknames." (p. XII)

Online reviews of Baptist Ways

Walter B. Shurden
The Baptist Studies Bulletin "A Monthly Emagazine, Bridging Baptists Yesterday and Today", September 2003 Vol. 2 No. 9

* in this I equally oppose men's and women's missionary societies
* Note added 22 Sept 2016: Bill J. Leonard is now the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

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