By necessity, the study of history requires the perusal of historic texts. By devoting attention to primary sources, the student learns from the perspective of eyewitnesses and participants. Sometimes reading primary sources uncovers the student’s own bias; at other times it presents the biases of the original actors in their own context. In studying any historical period or genre, beginning students oftentimes ignore important primary sources, not necessarily from lack of interest, but because those texts are scattered in various locations. A common remedy for this problem is a sourcebook, a published edition of key primary sources on a given topic. Joseph Early’s Readings in Baptist History provides an up-to-date sourcebook of key Baptist texts in one affordable volume.
This work fills a largely overlooked niche in the literature on Baptist history. In his preface, Early observes that although several books on Baptist history have appeared since H. Leon McBeth’s Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness in 1987, no new sourcebook has been produced since the 1990 release of McBeth’s companion volume, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage. In this work, Early adds newer documents while also including “seminal older documents” (v) to provide a comprehensive update.
In selecting texts for inclusion, Early seeks “to provide as broad a scope and be as inclusive as possible” (vi). As a result, representative texts from a variety of Baptist traditions appear within the collection, including “British Baptists, Black Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Russian Baptists, Landmark Baptists, and Fundamental Baptists” (vi). Of course, selecting key texts to include means that some texts must be excluded, and Early notes that his selections were limited by word count and the interests of his intended audience of “students of Baptist history” (vi).
The selections in the book are organized chronologically, beginning with texts from the exiled English General Baptists led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys in 1609. The book exhibits a generally even distribution of texts over the course of Baptist history, with seven chapters from the seventeenth century, eight from the eighteenth century, twelve from the nineteenth century, and fourteen from the twentieth century. A complete chapter listing is included below this review for those interested in the details.
One editorial decision is unfortunate, though based on admirable motives. In the interest of appealing to a broad readership, there are no editorial introductions to the various texts included in the work. Early indicates that he chose not to include comments on individual texts so that he would not “color the interpretation of the documents” (vi). Unfortunately, this means that students sometimes struggle to understand the significance and place of the documents within the broader context of Baptist history.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book is that it includes documents relevant to the theological controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. In the chapter that includes the Baptist Faith and Message, the three different versions (1925, 1963, 2000) are presented in three parallel columns for easy comparison.
My own students reacted to the book quite positively, although at first they seemed unexcited by the prospect of reading a collection of source texts. As their background knowledge of the Baptist story developed over the semester, they became more interested in the readings. By the end of the semester, some of my students were saying that they enjoyed reading Early even more than their other textbook.
Conceived as a replacement for Robert Torbet’s well-known text, A History of the Baptists, this book attempts to survey the worldwide history of Baptists from their origins in seventeeth-century England. Leonard states his thesis clearly in the opening paragraph of his preface:
“The thesis of this book is relatively simple. It suggests that amid certain distinctives, Baptist identity is configured in a variety of ways by groups, subgroups, and individuals who claim the Baptist name. This identity extends across a theological spectrum from Arminian to Calvinist, from conservative to liberal, from open to closed communionist, and from denominationalist to independent.” (xi)
This thesis allows Leonard to include a broad survey of individuals and groups, including giving significant attention to the role of women and minorities in the history of the Baptists. One interesting feature is regular description of Baptist hymnody and worship. Throughout the work, Leonard draws primarily from secondary sources, although the notes (which are placed as endnotes after each chapter) indicate a measured use of primary sources.
The book alternates between chronological and geographical perspectives. Chapter 1 provides a standard introduction to the study of Baptist history, surveying common doctrinal distinctives and contrasting the three views of Baptist origins. Chapters 2–9 proceed chronologically, telling the story of English and American Baptists from their obscure seventeenth-century beginnings to national prominence during the nineteenth-century. Chapters 10–14 survey the Baptist movement elsewhere, giving the book a global scope. For instance, chapter 10 provides a concise summary of Baptists in Canada (227–244), followed by brief sections on Baptist efforts in various Latin American countries. These chapters will be of most interest to readers outside the United States, but are important for all readers to provide a full understanding of the various kinds of Baptists to be found throughout the world. Chapters 15 and 16 resume the story of Baptists in the West during the twentieth century.
Baptist Ways: Defining a People
Baptist Beginnings: The Historical Context
English Baptists: The Seventeenth Century
Baptists in the United States: Beginnings
English Baptists: The Eighteenth Century
Baptists in the United States: The Eighteenth Century
Baptists in Britain: The Nineteenth Century
Baptists in the United States: 1800-1845
Baptists in the United States: 1845-1900
Baptists in the Americas and the Caribbean
African American Baptists
Baptists in Greater Britain
Baptists in Europe
Baptists in Africa and Asia
Baptists in the British Isles and Europe: The Twentieth Century
Baptists in the United States: The Twentieth Century
Predictably, the book reflects the denominational affiliation of its publisher, Judson Press. As the publishing arm of the American Baptist Churches USA, Judson Press represents a particular constituency of Baptists. The book puts some emphasis on this strain of Baptist identity, tracing the development of the ABCUSA out of the Northern Baptist Convention in some detail in chapter 16.
Unfortunately, the book omits or downplays some important events in Southern Baptist history. For instance, the extensive controversy over the modernism of Crawford H. Toy receives no treatment. Toy, though he was professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1869–1879, is only mentioned as a missionary appointee to Japan who “never went because the [Foreign Mission Board] delayed all appointments in anticipation of the Civil War and related economic difficulties” (353). The dates of his professorship at Southern appear only in an otherwise unremarkable parenthesis, and there is no mention of his broken engagement to missionary Lottie Moon. As other reviewershave noted, the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC also receives scant coverage, appearing only in summary on pages 414–415.
Occasionally, the book suggests that an emphasis on biblical literalism results in erratic or erroneous conclusions. An early example of this pattern occurs in the treatment of John Smyth, the early sixteenth-century Baptist. Smyth was certainly unstable, following a spiritual trajectory that parallels that of Roger Williams in America. Smyth began as an Anglican until he adopted Separatist views. Later, he founded the General Baptists along with Thomas Helwys by baptizing himself and then his own followers. This self-baptism brought criticism, and eventually Smyth repudiated his own baptism and sought admission into a nearby Mennonite sect. The book attributes Smyth’s restlessness to his commitment to the Bible: “His biblicism took him through many Protestant communities in a search for the fullest revelation available” (25). Smyth was undoubtedly a biblicist, but there are other explanations for his repudiation of his self-baptism. On occasion, the book suggests that biblicism leads to other negative results, which will disappoint conservative readers.
Other reviews have been mixed in their final appraisal of Leonard’s text, despite the unanimous acknowledgement that producing a one-volume Baptist history is a difficult task. As a potential course textbook, the work suffers from a lack of visual aids (a deficiency that equally applies to the competing volumes by Torbet and McBeth). Other complaints include the slightly negative treatment of more conservative Baptist traditions and the deliberately international focus of chapters 10–16. On the other hand, these two complaints illustrate and, to some degree, substantiate Leonard’s thesis that Baptists are a broadly differentiated sect. As a potential textbook for a course on Baptist history, I find Leonard’s text to be useful despite these perceived weaknesses. This is especially true for me as I teach the history of the Baptists outside of the United States of America. Although Leonard’s book should not be the only volume that students of the Baptists consult, I am convinced that it is a worthy member of the body of literature on the topic.
Description: Overviews Joshua through Esther, emphasizing chronology and historical background. Highlights the introduction to each book (date of composition, author, occasion & purpose, and recipients) and themes. Discusses contemporary application.
Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. ISBN 9780801036149.
This semester, students in my Baptist History class were responsible for a group project to construct an online timeline of key events in the history of the Baptist movement. It has been rather interesting to watch this project develop as the students submitted events and presented their findings to the class. Since my students submitted their final entries this week, I thought I’d share their work, write down my observations on the project as a classroom assignment, and note some ideas I’ve had for ways to use this in the future.
I’d like to add a few comments on an interesting debate over at my Dad’s blog about the New Testament’s use of the term translated “church” (ekklesia).
In one post, he argues that the biblical usage of the term “church” suggests that there is such a thing as the “universal church,” defined as “a universal body of believers that includes all believers from all ages in one spiritual union, the church.”
In a followup, he goes further, demonstrating from biblical texts that the word is also used for what we call the “visible church,” inclusive of the sum total of professing believers on earth.
Why does this matter?
Suggesting that the word “church” can mean anything other than a “local church” can get you into trouble with some Baptists, and so an interesting discussion broke out in the comments on both posts. In the comments, my Dad asks one question for his local-church-only interlocutors: “Why is the idea of local church only so important? Or, to put it another way, why is the idea of the universal church dangerous?”
Ideas and Consequences
I’d like to suggest one reason why local-church-only advocates cannot concede the existence of the universal church. (Of course, doing so requires that they ignore the plain reading of texts such as Ephesians 1:22–23, but for the exegesis I refer you again to the original post.)
NKJEphesians 4:4-6 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
I found Hoehner to be helpful in unpacking Paul’s meaning in these verses, so I decided to share his comments on these verses.
Last Saturday I presented a lecture on the history of the King James Only movement within Fundamentalism. The slides are now available.
The lecture was based on an article by Jeff Straub titled “Fundamentalism and the King James Version: How a Venerable English Translation Became a Litmus Test for Orthodoxy.” There is more research that I’d like to do in this area at a future date, but for now, this is as far as I’ve gone with the history of the movement.
This post contains my lecture notes for a guest lecture during a block class on Bibliology at Foundation Baptist College given on March 9, 2013.
But among all our joys, there was no one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven.1
Readers of the English Bible have had the privilege of “the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word” now for centuries, a blessing that is dependent upon popular access to reliable English translations. At the time that the King James translators wrote these words, there were a handful of English translations available to the relatively small proportion of the world’s population that spoke English.
Today, those circumstances have changed. Thanks to the growth of the British Empire in the Victorian era and today’s trend toward globalization, English now serves as the trade language for the world. This burgeoning market of English readers has created a demand for updated translations, and today there is such a proliferation of English Bibles on the market that publishers now use slick marketing campaigns as they Compete for readership.
This lecture will attempt to explain how we arrived at this point from such humble beginnings.
The history of the English Bible divides into three eras:
The Medieval period (ca. 700–1500)
The English Reformation to the 19th century (ca. 1500–1900)