Five years ago a former seminary professor who was doing volunteer work at our church was cleaning out his files. He walked into my office and handed me an old legal-size poster that said “Baptists Through the Ages.”
I had seen the chart in books in college and seminary, but never close up. With a kind of obligatory nod, he said, “We used to take this stuff really seriously – probably too seriously. I thought you might appreciate it.”
I read through the chart and tried to suppress a laugh here and there. Anyone who has studied Baptist history knows of Landmarkism – an attempt to tie the Baptist kind of Christian all the way back to John the Baptist (who, for the record, wasn’t exactly asking people, “If you died tonight, do you know you would go to heaven?”).
The Landmark effort may or may not have had the best intentions. We all like to appeal to history and, regardless of doctrine, we all want to be told we’re right – that we have the correct version of things. We’re that much better off if our great-great-great-great-grandfather thought the same thing.
Fast forward to a recent weekend, when I found myself locked in conversation with my great aunt. While taking some continuing education courses at her local university, my septuagenarian relative was tasked with discovering her family’s religious genealogy. Loosely, she was supposed to figure out who in the family introduced the faith tradition she and my grandfather were reared in.
My wife and I have pored over this stuff for the last few years. After telling my great aunt every conceivable story, she shook her head and said, “Wow, that’s fascinating … I never knew all that. So I guess we’ve always been Baptist?”
I hesitated for a second because for all the research we had done – digging through piles of records online, scanning old county history books and archiving old photos – I hadn’t let that reality settle in on me.
The truth is I have a picture in my bedroom of my great-grandfather baptizing my great-grandmother in a lake. Not far from that lake is a church that my fifth great-grandfather founded in 1853. His headstone details his call into ministry at the age of 33 and, for some reason, I find strength in that fact in the harder days of my own ministry.
Imagine my excitement when I realized that of the three Lyon brothers who first came to the colonies in the late 1600s, one bought a farm in New Jersey and donated land and money to build a Baptist church on the property. I reached religious historical nirvana, but feelings can be fleeting.
I also remember my dad and aunt arguing over the names of the churches my great-grandfather served. My aunt insisted (and rightly so) that for a short time he served as pastor of “Landmark Baptist Church.” I knew the name “Landmark” had nothing to do with the local geography.
I had much the same feeling when I read the minutes of the old Providence Baptist Church as they voted to remove from their congregation a man who had “fallen under the spell of the heretic Arminius.”
Somebody once said, “You don’t choose your family.” I might add, “You don’t choose your family’s theology, either.”
Truth be told, I still find encouragement in my family’s faith heritage, even if my own peculiar brand of Baptist might get me kicked out of their churches. In the same way that I chuckled over the chart where the Baptist kind of Christians claimed heretical groups like the Donatists to maintain their “trail of blood,” I have to keep the same sense of humor when it comes to my own family. Looking at your own history requires a certain measure of humility and a willingness to know that behind every heroic tale lies at least a skeleton or five.
So I told my great aunt, “Yeah, I guess we have. We’ve been Baptist at least as long as we’ve been in the states – and Protestant before that all the way back to the Reformation.” And as I actually said those words – sitting in the fellowship hall of the church my cousins were baptized in – I felt connected to something, however fractious and tenuous that connection may be.
Moreover, I was glad I could call myself a Baptist – despite holding very different beliefs from my Baptist ancestors – and know that we could all have a seat at the table. That kind of faith and history is a gift I find difficult to articulate. Perhaps the only proper response is gratitude.