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The Origins and Growth of the Baptist Faith: 20 Baptist Trailblazers in World History.

By Lawrence Holiday Harris (Spartansburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, Publishers, 2001). Notes, index, illustrations. 794 pp.

A full history of the Baptists in all their diversity is an impossible task, even in nearly 800 pages. Harris's work is not by any means the final word, but it is a good introduction to the world of Baptists. Non-Baptists and Baptists alike will find much in this work to enhance their understanding of who Baptists are and how they came to be this way.

The twenty "trailblazers" are diverse--white and black, female and male, European and American. The first made the small beginnings four hundred years ago that resulted in today's millions of adherents in hundreds of varieties throughout the world. Harris writes of, among others, founders John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, early influences Roger Williams and John Bunyan, and recent representatives Martin Luther King and Billy Graham. Baptist types include General, Particular, Landmark, and many others. Harris evolves Baptists as they develop doctrine, establish institutions and missions, split and regroup, all in history and in competition or cooperation with other denominations or political entities.

Some biographies are stronger than others, naturally, because of the availability of secondary sources. (And sources in this work are secondary, this being a synthesis rather than a groundbreaking study). But even the weaker biographies are worth reading because when personal information is scarce, the biography becomes more a history of the person's times or a biography of more than one person. Sometimes, Harris adds biographical information on a similar contemporary, sometimes one whose life serves as counterpoint. He does this in the case of the chapter on the founder of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, who also had an unintentional role in the rise of an offshoot, fundamentalist Baptist, namely, J. Frank Norris.

This is by no means a complete history of all Baptist denominations everywhere. That story requires many more volumes than this one, even at its size. But by choosing the twenty trailblazers wisely, the author captures the main developments and some of the sidebars to the story. That's an impressive accomplishment.

Harris is up front that he is a Southern Baptist unwilling to take sides in the controversy that split the denomination several years back. Appropriately, he stands neutral in writing this story as well. He does not let his personal faith intrude on his definition of the others that fall under the broad Baptist umbrella.

There is an element of intimidation in turning to page one and realizing that almost eight hundred pages more remain. The potential reader should be aware this book is well worth fighting the temptation to save it for a later date. It is consistently interesting, sometimes fascinating, and fully educational in a positive sense. It is a good primer for Baptists and non-Baptists alike.--Reviewed by John Barnhill, Yukon, Oklahoma
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Author:Barnhill, John
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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