Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

30 Jun 2014

Learning about the Past: Exploring Baptist History

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In recent weeks, I’ve posted a few suggested reading lists in the field of church history. These lists have included broad overviews of church history, books on the history of Christian doctrine, and books that discuss church history in specific areas of the world. In this post, I want to narrow in on the Baptist denomination and recommend a few books related to Baptist history.

McBeth, Baptist HeritageThe standard Baptist history survey text and the one we currently use at DBTS is H. Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (1987). This fairly large book (850 pp.) is arranged by region within an overall chronological scheme. Although McBeth’s work is largely about Baptists in England and America, it doesn’t overlook the origin and growth of Baptists in places like Canada, Australia, and continental Europe. While not as geographically broad-sweeping as Robert Johnson’s A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (2010), McBeth’s Baptist Heritage is generally a better guide. One unusual strength of McBeth’s work is that the author has also written a companion volume titled A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990). This volume follows the same basic outline as its predecessor, but it consists of primary source documents (excerpts from books, letters, confessions of faith, etc.) that support and illustrate the narrative found in Baptist Heritage.

A more recent and very substantial work (743 pp.) is James Leo Garrett’s Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (2009). This book covers much of the same ground as McBeth with the twist that Garrett emphasizes Baptist theologians. One interesting feature of Garrett’s work is a chapter on “New Voices in Baptist Theology” (ch. 13). Here Garrett includes short discussions of contemporary Baptists such as John Piper, Tom Nettles, Wayne Grudem, and David Dockery, among others. Overall, Garrett’s book is a little more biographically and theologically oriented than McBeth.

Bebbington, Baptists through the CenturiesEven more recent than Garrett’s work is David Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (2010). This book is a very interesting read, and at fewer than 300 pp. of actual text, it is also a much quicker read than either McBeth or Garrett. Although described by the publisher as “a chronological survey” (back cover), Bebbington’s work is largely arranged in a topical format that can be be helpful though it also has the potential to be a bit disorienting at times. For example, I found it rather odd to read about William Carey almost 100 pages after Walter Rauschenbusch when Carey was born exactly 100 years before Rauschenbusch. Similarly, the book includes a chapter titled “Women in Baptist Life” (ch. 10). I wondered, why not just discuss key Baptist women at appropriate points in the historical narrative (e.g., in the first nine chapters)? I don’t see a compelling reason for making that topic a distinct chapter. A similar observation could be made about the chapter on religious liberty (ch. 12). On the other hand, if one wants to read an insightful chapter on these topics or on things like Baptists and the social gospel (ch. 8) or Baptists and race relations (ch. 9), Bebbington is a very good place to turn. Overall, Bebbington’s work is definitely helpful and well worth reading, but the potential reader should realize that Bebbington doesn’t tell the story of Baptist history in anything like a chronological narrative. So I’m recommending it with the caveat that if you like to read history in a generally chronological format, Bebbington may drive you crazy. But if you want to read about some key topics in Baptist history, this is a helpful book by a first rate historian.

The last book I’d like to recommend is rather different from the rest, and it isn’t really the kind of book that one is likely to read straight through. William Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith (first published in 1959, but updated by Bill Leonard in 2011) is a classic compilation of Baptist confessions. Chronologically, it ranges from the Anabaptist confessions of the 1500s up through the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message (2000). In terms of geography, while Lumpkin and Leonard certainly include the major confessions from Baptists in England and America, they also include confessions from Baptist groups in places such as France, Germany, Romania, Russia, and New Zealand. Even a few smaller Baptist institutional confessions from places like Hong Kong and the Middle East are included thanks to Leonard’s 2011 update. If you want to explore what Baptists have professed to believe through the centuries, Lumpkin’s work is the single best place to look.