The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870–1920
AUTHOR: Jeffrey Straub
PUBLISHER: Pickwick Publications
FORMAT: Paper, ebook

To students of church history, one of the more troubling aspects of modern church life is the common ignorance of “where we came from” doctrinally. Bible-believing Christians ought to know the major currents of theological controversy in their traditions, especially those that galvanized their American forefathers into carving out distinct theological positions.

No thorough understanding of American church history can be had without understanding the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s and ’30s. Each denomination dealt with the problem in its own way, and each has its own history. For those in the Baptist tradition, few books can shed more light than Jeff Straub’s The Making of a Battle Royal.

Straub’s book carefully traces the history of the Northern Baptist Convention and its eventual descent into liberalism. His approach to the conflict is engaging as he sketches not the conservative side but the liberal. Straub paints a clear picture of liberalism’s ascendancy from its ideological infancy to its domination of the Northern Baptist Convention.

An overview of the doctrinal battles appears in the brief yet instructive introduction. Straub points out that it was only when Baptists began to cast off their doctrinal moorings (in this case, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith) that their orthodoxy began to falter.

Beginning with the rise of Unitarianism and culminating with theological modernism, the book leaves little doubt about the specific threats to the Northern Baptist Convention. The author does an excellent job of demonstrating that the entire superstructure of the denomination adopted modernism.

The book follows a chronological outline (1870–1920), with special attention paid to certain key players. With such a broad subject to cover, Straub does a good job of highlighting the major elements without burdening the reader with too much detail. The reader who wishes to delve deeper needs only to read the excellent footnotes, which elaborate with much useful information.

The Making of a Battle Royal is an excellent compass for Baptists who wish to chart their history and what exactly their forebearers were fending off. Its strengths are its many references to primary sources so that the reader might understand liberalism through its own proponents, as well as the accurate portrayal of the different flavors of theological liberalism. In short, Straub’s volume is an excellent and thorough treatment of an often forgotten subject.

Josh Peglow is a member of Scandia Bible Church, Poulsbo, Wash.