Bill Leonard’s new book Baptist Ways has generated anticipatory excitement for several years. Its genesis, in part, was in a decision by the Board of the American Baptist Historical Society for a new volume to continue and expand the resources offered for half a century by Robert G. Torbet’s A History of Baptists. The ABHS believed that a new Baptist history specific in detail and comprehensive in scope was urgently needed as a resource in the new millennium.
Leonard has met the challenge admirably. The resulting work is well organized, concise within the broad parameters of its subject and continues in the strong scholarly tradition established by Torbet. Yet it is still relatively easy to read and comprehend. It is full of information, some of it new. It has a strong future as a textbook and a general resource for libraries and students, in addition to being a rewarding volume for the serious general reader with an interest in Baptists.
Baptist Ways exhibits the same strong attention to detail exhibited in Dictionary of Baptists in America edited by Leonard a decade ago. In this volume the narrative makes clear sense of things, while demonstrating both the orderly progression of Baptist development and the essential disorderliness of Baptist style.
One of the book’s strongest features is its organization. Leonard begins with perhaps the most difficult task: defining who Baptists are. His scholarship is evident as he summarizes the variety of definitions and shaping principles offered by others. He presents these sometimes confusing perspectives concisely and clearly for general readers, and then offers his own perspective.
Subsequent chapters on the historical context in which Baptists developed–in particular, the development of the early Baptist movement in England in the 17th century–present familiar material in a fresh and accessible way.
Leonard chooses a broad chronological approach to his presentation of the broad Baptist story, especially in focusing on developments in Britain and the United States. Chapters entitled “Baptists in the United States: 1800-1845,” and “Baptists in Britain in the Nineteenth Century,” for example, are then broken into smaller headings, which describe the effects of significant leaders, institutional developments, controversies and achievements during specific periods. This approach enables clarity in understanding a particular period of Baptist development, while letting the reader locate Baptists in the broader context of general history.
Readers will also greatly appreciate the inclusion of material describing the origins and progress of younger traditions of Baptists. It has long been difficult to obtain concise, accurate descriptions of Baptists in, for example, the Caribbean, South American, Africa or Asia. Other material makes sense of the important but often confusing development of African-American Baptist life. The inclusion of this information, much of it the result of new research or new presentation, makes the book especially valuable.
At times Baptist Ways suffers from an attempt to say at least a word about all things Baptist, sometimes veering off in the direction of a Baptist encyclopedia. Nevertheless, it does present a clear historian’s perspective.
In the epilogue, especially, Leonard identifies the impact of diversity, pluralism and globalism on recent Baptist history. Likewise, he enumerates a number of principles which both highlight Baptist individuality and call Baptists to an essential, core unity.
In fact, a reader who finds the book’s length daunting might do well to use the experienced graduate student’s technique of reading the first chapter–with Leonard’s fine approach to defining who Baptists are—and then turning to the epilogue to glean his sense of what Baptist are recently becoming. Much of the rest of the book can sit near at hand for reference about specific doctrines, developments or events.
Baptist Ways is not likely to be a best seller, but it will be a long-seller. It is a book that will serve well as a comprehensive resource for students of Baptist history for several decades. Therefore, we can hope that subsequent printings or editions will correct several matters of presentation.
One is that the volume’s small print, narrow margins and occasionally lengthy, dense paragraphs make reading a challenge for the modern reader. Another is a number of errors and typographical mistakes that seemed to have escaped both copy editors and proof readers. Similarly, a few odd word choices such as “monasticlike,” instead of the more suitable “monastic” on page 127 are distracting. Most importantly, I hope that, despite the additional cost, the book will soon also be available in hardcover to ensure that its form will endure as long as its usefulness.
But any criticism of presentation is minor. This is a much needed and well executed resource for Baptists and those interested in a thorough presentation of Baptist history. Baptist Ways deserves to be in the libraries of homes, churches and pastor’s studies. It also belongs in institutional libraries, where a broad audience can learn more about Baptists. I heartily recommend it.
Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.
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