Roman Catholics can trace a direct line of institutional continuity all the way back to the first century. At times, Baptists have envied that heritage and have tried to supplant it.
One of the most popular attempts to do so was written by J.M. Carroll, who served as president of Oklahoma Baptist University and was the brother of B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Carroll’s 1931 booklet, titled “The Trail of Blood,” boasts on its front cover that it traces “The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day.” The booklet was wildly popular among fundamentalist-minded Baptists for more than a generation.
I got my copy of “The Trail of Blood” from my mother. She wanted me to read it after she glanced through the textbook for my seventh-grade New Mexico history class and found it full of glowing references to the Catholic priests accompanying the conquistadors who laid claim to that territory for Spain.
She was upset to find so many religious references in a public school textbook and thought I was being taught an unduly sanitized version of the role of the Catholic Church in the subjugation of Mexicans and Native Americans. She believed in the separation of church and state and thought the public schools should steer clear of references to religion – whether positive or negative.
Carroll’s booklet was my introduction to church history, Baptist theology, the history of religious persecution and the Baptist legacy as advocates for religious liberty. Reading it at the age of 13, I swallowed it all – hook, line and sinker. That lasted until I was assigned the task of making a presentation on the history of the church to my entire high school humanities class.
When I received my assignment, I thought I knew exactly what I would be reporting. I got my copy of “The Trail of Blood,” made an outline and was preparing to instruct my predominantly Roman Catholic friends that Baptists traced their lineage further back than even the Apostle Peter. I would show them that the roots of the True Church go back to John the Baptist at the Jordan River.
All I needed to do, or so I thought, was to quote from their own history books to demonstrate my thesis. To do that, I needed to go to a bigger library than the one at my high school. So I went to the library at the University of New Mexico and found shelves and shelves of books on church history.
What I discovered was that historians who were Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and (gasp) – even the overwhelming majority of Baptist historians – were all agreed. Baptists were but one branch, albeit one of the more radical branches, out of the Protestant Reformation. No lineage could possibly be traced earlier than the 16th-century Anabaptists.
Looking more closely at J.M. Carroll’s pamphlet, I concluded that all he did was trace the history of religious intolerance. Then he claimed that almost everyone who was persecuted for their faith was a Baptist.
There were two kernels of truth in “The Trail of Blood.” First, the history of Western civilization has been a bloody trail of religious persecution. Second, Baptists were at the forefront of those calling for an end to it. All the people who were persecuted were not Baptists. In fact, a lot of them were genuine heretics. None of them, however, deserved to be persecuted for their faith.
Preparing that high school report proved to be one of the most sobering experiences of my entire life. I still shudder to think of how ignorant and foolish I would have been had I merely trusted the reliability of my original source.
The experience completely undermined the confidence that I had in the credibility and integrity of my spiritual mentors. If Baptists cannot trust the scholarly abilities of the preachers who rise to become presidents of institutions of higher learning, who can they trust?
I resolved then that I would never draw a firm conclusion on issues of religious significance without examining the matter from several sources and from multiple perspectives.
Undoubtedly, this is the most decisive step away from fundamentalism that I have ever made.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.