Book Review: Baptists in America: A History by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins

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In Baptists in America: A History, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, both professors of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, show how American Baptists have functioned alternatively as outsiders and insiders in American culture. Tracing Baptists from their beginning in the new world as a persecuted minority all the way to their late 20th-century prominence in the culture wars, Kidd and Hankins demonstrate that individual Baptists have often enjoyed acceptance while others have been maligned. It is a compelling narrative expertly told.

The authors are to be commended for not merely painting with a broad brush, but for dipping down into some of the individual stories and weaving the narratives together seamlessly. More than merely descriptive, Kidd and Hankins also delve into how theology shaped practice in particular areas. Most fascinating in this regard is their analysis of how the “soul competency” theology of Edgar Young Mullins (4th president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) accounts for how even progressive Southern Baptists were so little engaged in the Civil Rights movement (221-225).

While excellent overall, as a frequent reader of Baptist history I thought certain treatments were the best I have seen heretofore in an American Baptist survey text. I thought the treatments of “Baptists and Slavery” (chapter 6), “Baptist Schism in the Early Twentieth Century” (chapter 10), “Baptists and the Civil Rights Movement” (chapter 12), and “Schism in Zion: The Southern Baptist Controversy” (chapter 13) were especially well done. What made these treatments unique was the balanced way in which these controversial topics were discussed with an apparent attempt to understand and explain the why and how behind developments that could be viewed both positively and negatively.

Even the conclusion (chapter 14) is fruitful as the authors explore the markers of Baptist identity, briefly discussing important distinctives such as religious liberty, soul liberty, the authority of Scripture, and the separation of church and state. This book focused on the dual nature of Baptists variously and at sundry times as insiders and outsiders. This evidence is surveyed in the concluding chapter; but the authors also seek to drop some conclusions about what makes a Baptist a Baptist. Noting the extreme diversity of Baptists, they rightly show that we cannot “make broad claims about what makes Baptists distinct.” Instead, we should talk about what “most” or “some” Baptists believed and did. Nevertheless, the authors do propose “three features that mark all Baptists throughout history”: (1) Baptism for believers only, (2) independence of local congregations, (3) Willingness to call themselves Baptists (251).

I recommend this book to all who want to understand the history of Baptists in America or the impact of Baptists on American culture (and vice versa). It will serve as an excellent textbook for a history of religion in America or American Baptists elective course on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This book raises all the important issues and will make for a great discussion starter, while at the same time being a competent guide, for the doctrinal and practical issues that have been, and continue to be, debated by Baptists. This book could also prove useful for those from other religious traditions, or “none,” who want to understand the complexity, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, identity of Baptists.

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