One of the most challenging issues in the 21st century is denominational identity. Churches of all stripes have adopted generic sounding names, offering a variety of reasons for doing so. Denominational labels seem to be a thing of the past, even among Baptists. Why be a Baptist church today anyway? Aren’t we all just Christians? Isn’t that enough?
David Bebbington, a British Baptist historian, has done all lovers of Baptist identity a great service by providing a highly readable synopsis of Baptist life during its first 400 years. While not strictly an apologetic for retaining the label “Baptist,” the book does recount a glorious, though sometimes ignominious, history of the people called Baptists. The strength of the book is not in the amassing of numerous details, though there are plenty of interesting facts for the minutiae enthusiast. The worth of the book is in its broad telling of the Baptist story. Bebbington paints the larger contours of Baptist life with vivid landscapes of important and interesting events and the people who participated in them during our growth from the early 17th century.
Following a host of recent Baptist historians, Bebbington argues for Baptist roots lying in the English separatist tradition, and rightly begins his story in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. In the first part of the book, Bebbington treats his subject chronologically, covering the important stages of Baptist development in both England and the United States. As the book progresses, he addresses some of his historical discussions from a topical vantage point, treating such essential discussions as Baptists and the social gospel and Baptists and race. Included among his conversations is a helpful chapter on women in Baptist life. Bebbington also considers the valuable contributions Baptists have made to the struggle for religious liberty and the development of the foreign missions movement. As he ends his survey, he considers the worldwide Baptist movement that has resulted.
It should be noted that Bebbington is not an American evangelical and hence is not as familiar with the nuances of fundamentalism and the hodgepodge that comprises the American evangelical spectrum. So the book gives only a passing reference to the Baptist Bible Union and its successor, the General Association of Regular Baptists (p. 118), not even listing the latter movement in the index. Nevertheless, the book retains a largely conservative approach that provides a helpful study of Baptist life “through the centuries.” It will not be the last book that students of Baptist history turn to for an exhaustive discussion on many parts of the Baptist story. But it is a good introductory survey for pastors, church members, and Bible college or seminary students if one wants a general but comprehensive discussion of the glorious history of the people called Baptists. It may not dissuade all who wish to remove “Baptist” from their church names. But this book will surely help us all see that the label “Baptist” is nothing to be ashamed of. Ours is a glorious history with many good and godly men and women who have proudly worn the label while serving the Lord Jesus. For this we owe Dr. Bebbington a hearty debt of gratitude for a helpful new study of Baptist life.
Jeff Straub is professor of historical and systematic theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn.
Baptists Through the Centuries
Baylor University Press
315 Pages, Paper, $39.95