Into Deep Waters: Evangelical Spirituality and Maritime Calvinistic Baptist Ministers, 1790-1855.
"Regular" or Calvinistic Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick underwent some significant changes in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, Regular Baptists were a socially marginal group characterized by emotional outdoors baptismal services that shocked respectable Anglicans and Presbyterians, and their leaders were typically self-taught itinerant evangelists from the backwoods. By 1850, by contrast, they were a numerically significant denomination with effective educational institutions, a theological intelligentsia known for its treatises on baptism, a church press, regularly appointed settled pastors, and a fair degree of social and political clout. Did Regular Baptists succumb to formalization, professionalization, and the seductions of social respectability? Did they gain the world and lose their soul? By no means, Daniel C. Goodwin contends in this book. The denomination was consistent in its norms, values, and grassroots appeal over this period; in particular, it was unwavering in its trilateral commitment to revivalism, individual conversion, and adult baptism by immersion. What its change in style demonstrates is not spiritual decline, nor a change in its essential character, but a capacity to adapt to "different places, people, and time periods" (16).
In presenting this interpretation, Goodwin is taking aim at George Rawlyk, perhaps the most prominent historian of revivalism in the maritime provinces of British North America. Before Rawlyk's untimely death, Goodwin was his student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where this book first began to take shape as a doctoral thesis. To be clear, on the origins of the Regular Baptists, Goodwin is generally in accord with Rawlyk: the denomination was the principal beneficiary of the influential revival movement led by Henry Alline (d. 1784); it was formally organized in the context of the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s; it imported the revivalist values of personal conversion and baptismal meetings; and it replaced Alline's incoherent theology and anti-sacramentalism with an evangelical Calvinism. But Goodwin disagrees with Rawlyk on what happened in the next forty years or so. In Ravished by the Spirit (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984) Rawlyk observed an unexpected absence of "emotional excess" in maritime Baptist revivals after 1830 and a greater concern for church order; he believed that the denomination at that point was moving toward mainstream Protestantism. By contrast, Goodwin maintains that hardly any Regular Baptists during this period were attracted to the Protestant mainstream, with the significant exception of those at Granville Street Baptist Church in Halifax, a deviant congregation dominated by socially elite former Anglicans. Moreover, the extreme displays of the Alline years and the antinomian episodes of the 1790s were never of the essence for Regular Baptists. The "essence," the "spirituality," the "spiritual vitality" of the denomination lay in its trilateral faith commitment, and this essence remained consistent through the 1850s.
To support this view, Goodwin takes the approach of discussing the long lives and the writings of six "fathers" of the denomination, all of whom were young ministers during the Second Great Awakening and survived into the 1850s. He makes good use of their diaries and letters, denominational records and newspapers, and other relevant sources. These six chapters function largely as free-standing biographical sketches, which often seem intended more to inspire appreciation than to demonstrate a thesis. But their general purport is to show that although the "fathers" may well have disagreed among themselves or changed their own minds on inessentials, they remained faithful to the essentials, namely, the trilateral of revivalism, conversion, and immersionist baptism. The argument thus turns on the author's theological premises about what should be considered the "essence" of the Calvinist Baptist tradition, not on the interpretation of the historical data as such, and the biographical sketches assume, rather than prove, the thesis. Rawlyk's historical research thus survives unscathed.
As a whole, Into Deep Waters follows the pattern of the kind of century-old church historiography that sought to define the theological norms of a denominational tradition by constructing an appreciative narrative of the faithful lives and sound thought of a few male leaders (and by sprinkling some scorn on their opponents). Thus a chapter on "popular spirituality" rests almost entirely on the reports, opinions, and self-inflation of denominational leaders whose motives for writing Goodwin does not interrogate. Anticipating that social historians might object that leaders and followers sometimes have different perspectives on things, Goodwin counters that Calvinist Baptist pastors fully represented the "grassroots" in which they themselves originated, and that their success proves that their styles "resonated" with their followers. This rationale might be more persuasive if Goodwin's book did not give so many examples of the opposite. To mention a few, Harris Harding's entire church was expelled from the denomination in 1809; Joseph Crandall in 1814 expelled a quarter of the members of his congregation; Edward Manning repelled many with his hyper-Calvinism; Charles Tupper's congregation in Amherst, Nova Scotia, felt so disconnected from him that he felt obliged to leave; and Samuel Elder did what he could to repress the Regular Baptist practice of female exhortation. If Goodwin could help us hear the women who were marginalized by Elder, the dissidents who were expelled by Crandall, and the long-suffering Baptists who were bored by Tupper, we would likely have quite a more dynamic perspective on what was important to the Calvinistic Baptists of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In any event, few readers will be as confident as Goodwin that demonstrating the personal spiritual integrity of six important leaders gives proof of the vitality and theological consistency of an entire denomination over forty years.
Nevertheless, the biographical sketches in this book are very informative and frequently insightful pieces resting on solid primary research, and a chapter on the denomination's outdoors baptismal services also makes a particularly useful contribution.
Alan L. Hayes
Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
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|Author:||Hayes, Alan L.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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