In 2015, the reading world saw a surge in books about Baptists. We saw the rise and domination of Baptists in America, were urged to Go Public on the issue of church membership, and encouraged to re-discover Baptist Foundations. Those volumes were certainly helpful, but how can we understand our heritage without first going back and retelling the story? The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement tells the story of a despised group who moved into a place of national influence and literally changed the world for Christ.
If you’re wondering at this point, even before we get into the story, “Hasn’t the history of the Baptist people already been written several times over?” I thought that myself and it is certainly true that a history has been complied more than once by several historians. As I moved through this volume, however, I saw a story unfold with clarity as the authors went all the way back the the beginning, well, not the beginning, but you get the idea.
I cannot think of anyone I enjoy reading more, in a historical vein, than Michael Haykin. If we must begin at the beginning, we must introduce here the Puritans. “Baptists are children of the Puritans” and as such, we must understand the historical context in which our heritage begins. In 1616 a London-based congregation was pastored successively by three men; Jacob-Lanthrop, and Jessey. The church has become known as the JLJ Church, and marks the time surrounding the origins of the Particular Baptists.
Unlike their Seperatist brethren, the Particulars thought that worship with those Puritans still left in the Church of England was just fine. This led to several groups breaking from the congregation and forming Seperatist congregations. It is from this original JLJ Church that we have the first evidence of baptism by immersion. This was quite the change from the orthodox practice of Congregationalists during the same era, a change still practiced and held to today.
Fast forward to the year 1861. Slavery is booming and an empire is being built upon those in the fields of cotton. “Pastors struggled to addressed their divided congregations, causing some to leave their pastorates in search of churches with members of like mind regarding the war” (175). This undoubtedly placed leaders like John Broadus and James Boyce in awkward situations as slave owners. They were opposed to secession, yet as the war drew on, supported the Confederacy under a concern for their troops and a sense of duty to their country.
This era also saw a new Southern Baptist institution in the founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859. Boyce brought to the South a new understanding of education and a solid reliance upon the confessional standards in the Westminster tradition. In 1858 Boyce’s Abstract of Theology was adopted by the seminary, a document still used widely among Baptist seminaries today.
As we turn the page into the era of theological modernism, we see a name rise to the top in defending the faith against its perpetual “downgrade“. Charles Spurgeon wrote of the decline of modern orthodoxy often with whimsical prose and passionate conviction that the doctrines of grace must not be impinged upon. Of modernism he said, “A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese” (208). Spurgeon, and by association his Calvinism, was deemed a “relic of the past” as the Baptist Union regarded ecumenism as being of higher regard than that of doctrinal conviction.
The 20th century saw a huge rise in Baptist men who were willing to stand against the doctrinal decline leftover from the “downgrade controversy“. Men like Carl F. Henry, Paige Patterson, W.A. Criswell, and most notably Billy Graham, the torch was lit once again as Baptists grasped firm a Kuyperian concept of engaging the culture while protecting doctrinal integrity.
Today that torch continues to burn brightly. Organizations such as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have not only elevated the Baptist people to a high position, but more importantly, have elevated the gospel of Christ and God’s glory to a place it’s not often welcomed. Six SBC Seminaries have strong, godly men leading them and preparing men and women for future ministry. It seems the future is bright for the people called Baptist, but as The Baptist Story has shown us, it’s not always been so.
I’m especially pleased with the rise and promulgation of the Reformed Baptist movement. Mentioned only briefly in this volume, partly in partnership with the Reformed resurgence, the Baptists have taken hold once again of what has been adoringly called 1689 Federalism. With the 1689 confession as a good sum of biblical doctrine, and the uncovering of doctrines such as God’s Impassibility, Covenant Theology, and Credobaptism; it seems like the Baptist people are again seeking to raise God’s glory above that of the culture.
The writing in this textbook-like volume is clear and succinct, never giving the reader an overwhelming amount of material to remember. The authors highlight the high-points as well as the low-points which have characterized the Baptists. This volume would be well suited for use in classroom studies as well as those in the local church who are looking for a well-rounded introduction. I’m grateful for the new mix of Baptist books flooding the market and owe B&H Publishing a huge applause for helping to make it so.