Book reviews

Two books on Baptists around the world

Are global Baptist overviews like big red London buses ? You wait for ages, then two come along at the same time? David Bebbington has placed us all in his debt by producing his Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, based on material delivered at Baylor University, which seeks to track the story of the world community of Baptists from the early 1600’s until today. Robert E Johnson, on the staff at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas has equally sought to provide an overview A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches within the same time frame and a similar intention to Bebbington.

The authoritative work by David Bebbington, after a long academic career, will take some matching in terms of accuracy, detail and scholarship, though his book is principally devoted to Baptists in the United Kingdom and United States, but each chapter regularly makes reference to developments within the wider Baptist family, especially in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Whilst the book has early historical chapters on our Reformation roots, the Anabaptists, Particular and General Baptists and Baptists and Revival in the Eighteenth Century, later chapters are more thematic exploring key issues such as the Social Gospel, Racism, Women in Baptist life, Ministry and Sacraments, Religious Liberty and Foreign Mission. Some of these, such as the chapter on women and the one on racism are often neglected amongst us! Johnson is not so commanding a figure on the Baptist stage and he takes an approach devoted to geographical comprehensiveness and following historical time frames with chapters on Baptists in each of the main regions of the world and in three time eras which he calls – Primal, Frontier, Proliferation.

Comparison of the two volumes demands some reflection on deep scholarship based on a lifetime of research, over against a younger scholar determined to be more “global” in coverage. As we have come to expect, David Bebbington explores contentious issues in a careful analytical way, weighing up the evidence with a forensic skill before making a judgement on a specific concern. Johnson is not so well known and in his overview he makes some judgements that this reviewer would question. For instance he takes no account of Anabaptist antecedents to the General and Particular Baptists, whereas Bebbington wrestles with the on-going debate regarding their influence on the first English Baptist communities.

Now, blog readers seeking a one volume overview of Baptist history, theology and mission have a choice of contemporary authors to consult. Bebbington and Johnson undoubtedly provide works for a younger generation to be set in the context of earlier works of the same intention by Bill J Leonard, William C Brackney  with H Leon McBeth and Robert G Torbert being pioneers of this genre for an even earlier period –  all seeking to map out global Baptist history and development. This is a hard task within the compass of about 300 – 400 pages. From such a global history readers might be encouraged to delve into volumes examining the story in a particular continent, amongst a particular group or in a specific country.  However, as a starting point, David Bebbington, with his eye to detail and his measured judgements, might provide the preferred option for the present.

This is not to dismiss Johnson, for he gives us all the advantage of  more information about the development of Baptist life in Asia and in Africa than we can find in Bebbington. Yet there is a difference – measured scholarship and attention to the debates amongst us, over against a more globally comprehensive, but less forensic work.

In a perfect world both volumes should sit in your library to offer a  balanced view. If you have to make a choice, and here I am addressing readers of the IBTS blog who are mainly Europeans, despite its deficiencies in charting Baptist growth and development amongst the Slavs and Arabs, Bebbington has to be the preferred option.

Overall, both are useful and important volumes, each highly valuable from their perspective.  exploring the story of the people of god called Baptists. Both are a vital addition to any reading list on Baptist identity and ecclesiology being used in Baptist theological institutions in Europe and the Middle East.

 – Keith

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