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Baptist Ways: a History.

By Bill J. Leonard. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003. 480 pp.

First it was Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (1892); second it was Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (1950); third it was Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (1987); now it is Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (2003). These are the four Baptist historians from the United States who have attempted a one-volume survey of Baptist history. Leonard's book is Judson's effort to replace Torbet's older and much used book. With this book, Leonard has made himself a part of the Baptist story.

The very first thing to be said about writing a one-volume history of Baptists is that it is a gargantuan task. So huge, in fact, that some suspect that it cannot be done. And then when it is done, we critics tend to highlight what was left undone or, in some cases, overdone. In his "Foreword" to Torbet's survey, Kenneth Scott Latourette correctly said, "So varied and so rich is the record of the Baptists that to reproduce it in its entirety would require many volumes and would entail several lifetimes of research in the pertinent printed and manuscript books, reports, periodicals, diaries, and letters." But then Latourette added, "However, the main outline can be compassed in one volume." I agree. The main outline can be presented in a single volume. We are in Bill Leonard's debt for accomplishing this almost impossible feat in an admirable fashion.

A good assignment for students of Baptist historiography is to compare Torbet, McBeth, and Leonard (Vedder's older work is not in the same ballpark as these other three) at the point of organization of material. Torbet tells the Baptist story first in Europe, and he then starts over with the history of Baptists in America. While it may not appear so at first glance, Leonard takes a chronological approach, very much like McBeth. McBeth corralled his history under the rubric of centuries. With little effort, one could do the same with Leonard.

The Baptist story is exceedingly difficult to organize. I have longed for someone to come along who would provide a synthetic and integrative history of the Baptists. For example, rather than separate sections discussing Baptist Beginnings in England and Baptist Beginnings in America, why not a synoptic chapter on Baptist Beginnings with some effort to relate the two countries or an explanation of why this cannot be done. I repeat: I am not sure that one could wrestle the chaos of material into such a synthesis, no matter how hard one tried. For now, we must live with the approach of McBeth and Leonard, a good approach to be sure.

Martin Marry, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, hopes that some day historians will write a history of American Christianity based upon church bulletins and newsletters. Leonard obviously did not take that approach, but in terms of the content of Baptist history, Leonard lets one peek inside of Baptist churches in a way that other histories have not done. He opens the door of Baptist churches so that one hears the hymnody, sees the worship, and observes the role of women in ministry.

What I take to be an intentional and fortunate stylistic issue by Leonard was his superb use of brief quotations to illustrate the issue at hand. Throughout my copy of the book, I repeatedly wrote "good quotation" in the tragically small margins that Judson provides (Judson, please give us more "white" space in the next edition!). Leonard's quotations from Dan Taylor on page 97 and John Gill on page 99 illustrate my point, but such quotations abound in the book.

The artistic work on the cover of Leonard's paperback (surely Judson will one day give some of us a hardback edition) depicts numerous swirling ripples from a brightly illuminated center. That image may be an excellent logo for Baptists. In the face of all of our Baptist diversity, a center exists. Leonard, however, wants his readers to know that there are many, many ripples, many "Baptist Ways." Indeed, at points in the book, Leonard may accent the diversity at the expense of the illuminated center of Baptist life. In the "Epilogue," however, he again explains the origins of the Baptist Ways. After stating that Baptists began as dissenting communions whose biblicism caused them to jettison ideas they considered unbiblical, he said, "Yet their concern for conscience, their emphasis on individual conversion, their mistrust of 'hierarchies,' and the centrality of their congregational polity made Baptists a People's Movement in which division was imminently possible." (422) The Baptist Ways, the great diversity in Baptist life, came from the illuminated center of a handful of Baptist principles.

I come away from Leonard's telling of the Baptist story with several convictions about Baptists. One, Leonard is absolutely correct; Baptists have diversity in abundance. A visit to a Baptist World Alliance meeting will confirm that for any skeptic in a hurry. Two, the impact of the charismatic movement upon Baptists in the twentieth century has not been adequately noted. While this influence shows up specifically in Europe, Asia, and Britain, it is much more of a story in the United States than is usually acknowledged. Music, worship, and architecture, among Baptists throughout the country, reflect the enormous influence of the charismatic movement upon Baptists. Three, the struggle for religious liberty was not a Baptist struggle that ended in the nineteenth century; it continued well into the twentieth and continues even into the present century. Baptists, therefore, must stay close to their heritage of freedom of conscience, and they must apply it vigorously to the contemporary world, something that Leonard passionately advocates. Four, many Baptists in the United States are blinded to the reality of the minority status of Baptists in other parts of the world. We, therefore, need Leonard's global stories of Baptists, even if in places they are necessarily limited.

I am using Leonard as my text in my class this semester on "The Baptist Tradition(s)."--Reviewed by Walter B. Shurden, Callaway Professor of Christianity and executive director, The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University.
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Author:Shurden, Walter B.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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