Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Book Review of Baptists Through the Centuries by David W. Bebbington

By David Bebbington

ISBN 978-1-60258-204-0

Reviewed by Clint Walker

Baptist identity has been at the heart of a lot of discussions in Baptist churches and seminaries in the last several years, especially in American Baptist and Southern Baptist circles. It only makes sense, then, that Baptists need to do a careful job of understanding and communicating about their history. David Bebbington, a church historian from England that has been teaching Baptist History at Truett Theological Seminary, has written an excellent book on the subject. Baptists Through the Centuries:A History of a Global People is even-handed, balanced, well-organized, and thoughtful. It is a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to know where Baptists come from, what they have been about, and what that means for Baptist and American churches today.

The first several chapters of the book attempt to cover one formational issue for Baptists in each century.  Then, as the author moves toward the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century, he tackles several topics in recent Baptist history that have effected how Baptists see themselves and do ministry.

As I read, I was hooked by the first chapter. Much of this chapter was about whether Baptist churches have their roots in Anabaptist or Separatist history. This was helpful for me to think about, mostly because I do have some Anabaptist leanings. What I discovered is what I suspected, namely that the family tree that the Baptists were born out is much broader and more dynamic than some historians would have their readers believe.

I was also intrigued about the Baptists rather slow acceptance of revivalism in both America and Europe. Given the amount of churches I have attended that are Baptist and have spoken about revivals, love gospel songs, and long, drawn-out invitations I expected this way of worshipping to at the core of Baptist development from the start. In fact, it was not.

Bebbington’s approach to the Baptist identity/freedoms issue is surprisingly balanced considering he is writing for Baylor University Press. He rightly appreciates Shurden’s
Four Fragile Freedoms as an important work in the ongoing battle between fundamentalists and those who are not as “confessional”, but does not go so far as to endorse it as a landmark historical summary of Baptist belief and history. He also points out that Baptist churches have developed with more episcopal-styled church governments in places such as Moldova, and other formerly communist countries.

All in all, I appreciated Bebbington’s writing. Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People is appreciative of Baptist history and development without being overwhelming. It is wise and honest, and deftly avoids agenda-driven pitfalls that many American authors bring to their discussions of what it means to be Baptist. In other words, Bebbington is a good, honest historian that deserves to be heard by a broad audience.

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