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Early English Baptists.

Upwards of seven hundred Baptist congregations are utilizing the Baptists' 400th Anniversary Celebration free bulletin inserts produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society and Mercer University's Center for Baptist Studies. I suspect several thousand additional churches are making some effort to observe this year's historic anniversary. Yet, in true Baptist fashion, these congregations do not view Baptist history in a monolithic manner.

While visiting a notable urban, moderate Baptist congregation earlier this year, I was pleased to observe that the church was hosting a two-month-long weekly series about Baptist heritage. Much to my surprise, however, the series introduced Baptist history through the lens of the B. H. Carroll's Trail of Blood, a booklet espousing an unbroken line of "Baptist" immersing congregations dating to Jesus and John the Baptist. Indeed, a church bulletin board revealed that this congregation was not celebrating four hundred years of Baptist history per se, but rather "400 Years of English Baptist History."

Origin narratives provide the foundations of religious belief among faiths and within specific faith groups, establishing identity and legitimacy. The need to trace Baptist roots to New Testament times, prevalent among many nineteenth-century Baptists who wished (among other things) to distance themselves from the perceived evils of the Roman Catholic Church, has not stood up to the rigors of historical study, although some adherents obviously remain even in places unexpected.

Indeed, ongoing insights gleaned from the study of our English Baptist forebears of the early seventeenth century are far more compelling than efforts to retroactively appropriate unwitting small Christian sects of the Middle Ages into a historical marketing campaign to elevate Baptists as the only true believers.

Among the intriguing aspects of the story of early English Baptists is the question of the practice of baptismal immersion. William Whitsitt's 1896 A Question in Baptist History enraged the Trail of Blood crowd, but Whitsitt's book put into play a revisioning of the historical role of the practice of baptism. Stephen Wright's 2006 volume, The Early English Baptists, 1603-1649, an examination of primary and secondary sources of the early English Baptists, questions not only the precise date and place at which Baptists began immersing, but also argues that the practice of immersion was not borrowed from Anabaptists, as commonly held by many historians. In addition, Wright downplays the stark theological divisions traditionally attributed to the earliest Baptists, voiced in the labels of General and Particular Baptists. In short, Wright's volume represents the manner in which fresh analysis of source material raises new questions concerning early English Baptists.

While the ongoing scholarly discussions of Baptist origins will likely not emerge in many Sunday School classes across Baptistdom this year, the 400th anniversary of Baptists is a reminder that origin narratives are central to faith identity. The danger of discussing origins lies in the conforming of history to self-serving purposes, while the benefit of such engagement is the opportunity to engage historical truth and learn more about ourselves and our faith in a manner that gives greater meaning and purpose to our collective future. In pews and university classrooms, in print and online, from pulpits and podiums, and among groups small and large, the never-ending, ever-evolving narratives of Baptist beginnings now lead us into a new century.

Bruce T. Gourley

Interim Director

The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia
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Author:Gourley, Bruce T.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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