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Baptists in America: A History.

Baptists in America: A History. By Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 329 pp.

The rich diversity of the Baptist faith paired with more than 100 Baptist-affiliated institutions of higher education of varying persuasions ensures a steady market for scholarly introductions to the denomination's history. Among the latest surveys is Baptists in America: A History, in which Baylor University history professors Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have crafted a narrative of a once-persecuted minority sect transformed into insiders pursuing respectability and exerting influence. Their work follows other recent surveys:

* Bill Leonard's Baptist Ways (Judson, 2003) explored multidimensional Baptist identities.

* Pamela R. and Keith Durso's The Story of Baptist in the United States (Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2006) highlighted diverse individuals.

* C. Douglas Weaver's In Search of the New Testament Church (Mercer University Press, 2008) posited Baptists as scripturally driven.

* David W. Bebbington's Baptists Through the Centuries (Baylor University Press, 2010) focused on Baptists' ever-expanding diversity.

Kidd and Hankins do an excellent job of threading into their volume a diversity of Baptist views, experiences, and movements. Black Baptists, for example, receive more treatment than in most surveys. Baptist responses to the Second Great Awakening merit an entire chapter. From religious liberty to slavery to civil rights to modern controversies and a myriad other threads large and small, Kidd and Hankins skim liberally across deep and vast denominational waters in portraying Baptists' transformation into an influential majoritarian faith adept at swimming in favorable, and against threatening, cultural currents.

However, shallow draughts are sometimes less than filling. Were enslaved Baptists, for example, truly more concerned with otherworldly religion than their bondage on earth (p. 104), or did "the slave experience often" overshadow theology (p. 165)? This and other conflicting assertions result from drawing widely from an impressive and extensive body of primary and secondary literature without ample space, in a survey, for plumbing the depths for deeper analysis.

Nonetheless, the authors do dive repeatedly into one particular contemporary controversy among Baptist scholars: the narrative and scope of Baptist freedom. Persistently found throughout the text is a revisionist argument, echoed by some contemporary Baptist theologians, repositioning historically dominant Baptist freedom themes as of little, if any, importance.

Throwing qualifications to the wind, Kidd and Hankins summarize their toppling of traditional historical consensus by declaring that "issues such as soul freedom, soul competency, religious liberty, and separation of church and state" are matters that "have never been near the top of the Baptist agenda." Why? Because "individual freedom is hardly mentioned" in Baptist confessions. Rather, Baptist confessions, and hence Baptists at large, have primarily been concerned with proper orthodoxy, the authors insist (p. 249).

This revisionist argument overlooks the fact that Baptists prior to the Enlightenment and for their first two centuries often willingly endured severe and violent persecution and widespread accusations of heresy in a consistent, determined quest for freedom of conscience for all, religious liberty for all, and church-state separation. Their oppressors? Establishment, respectable orthodox Christianity distasteful of individual freedom.

While Kidd and Hawkins are on more solid ground when noting the sometimes inconsistent interpretations some Baptists have applied to freedom principles, their jettisoning of Baptist freedom identity in favor of what amounts to creedalism stakes an outlier position beyond most, if not all, Baptist historians past and present. Historically, Baptists' multiplicity of confessional statements embodied freedom of individual conscience, collectively voicing a plurality of theological constructs of which any individual Baptist remained free to embrace, qualify, modify, synthesize, or reject--all safely underneath the diverse umbrella of Baptistness.

Historians utilize revisionism, however, to cast a new narrative for a new time. Kidd and Hankins posit most contemporary white Baptists in a "new dual identity" that downplays "Baptist particularity in favor of evangelicalism" (pp. 239-240), thereby further elevating Baptists' cultural power. They may largely be right in this matter. In such a construct, traditional Baptist freedom motifs and theological plasticity are out and "doctrinal rigor" (a term the authors use in a Washington Post column discussing their book; "Here are three reasons why Southern Baptists are on the decline," June 16, 2015) is in. Yet the new narrative smells an awful lot like the old story of establishment, respectable orthodox Christianity distasteful of individual freedom.

Kidd and Hankins should not he surprised if traditional Baptists--the "moderates" and "liberals" they effectively dismiss as now irrelevant--have no interest in resurrecting that soul-killing past.--Reviewed by Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History and Heritage Society
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Author:Gourley, Bruce T.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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