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A Review of
Baptists in America: A History
Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2015
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Reviewed by Theron St. John
Geroge Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, learning from history is not simply recollecting what has happened in the past; learning from history also gives consideration to the present and future. This pertains to not only American history or history of civilizations, but it involves church history, specifically Baptist history. Indeed Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have compiled such a work, Baptists in America: A History. They understand the importance of history for the church. In the book, they take the reader on a tour, sharing how Baptists were outsiders who became insiders to only become outsiders again. Their work on Baptist history in American can be summarized as extensive within the Baptist denomination and faithful to the events in the history of the denomination.
The tour of the Baptist denomination sets out in the description of Baptists as outsiders. Against the likes of the Puritans and Anglicans, Baptists faced persecution because they refused to believe or practice infant baptism (Kidd and Hankins 7, 11). Their commitment to their understanding of Scripture is admirable and certainly worth taking notice. Their fight for religious liberty in the past illumines the reader on why Baptists today are so strong on religious liberty. Once Baptists gained liberty, they moved from being outsiders to being insiders. This presented challenges of its own. White Christians, for example, looked to the South and thought it “could become a religious kingdom” (Kidd and Hankins 166). Their thought of American democracy equating with Baptist democracy was faulty at its foundation. The end result, for the present, in the history of Baptists in America was to return to the profile of an outsider. For now, “Southern Baptists seek to recapture the outsider status of their forebears in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (Kidd and Hankins 244). The only different between the past and the present are the opponents. Back then, Baptists faced opposition by other Protestants. Today, their opponent is the secular culture (Kidd and Hankins 244).
Kidd and Hankins write extensively in the sense they do not merely focus on one branch, or sect, of the Baptist church. For instance, they discuss Calvinistic, or Particular, Baptists in the same chapter where they speak on the Separate Baptist, those who did not fully support revivals (26, 30). In the time of great revival, you see this pull back from mission agencies by Primitive Baptists (110) as opposed to Missionary Baptists. With the Civil War, there was a distinction made between white Baptist churches and black Baptist churches (151-153). Even in the last one hundred years, the divide between liberalism and fundamentalism has separated professing Baptists (chapters 9-11). This is to say, then, Baptists in America do not just scratch the surface but they lay out a history of Baptists in the nation that stretches across the denomination.
A second characteristic of this book is its faithfulness to the events of history in the Baptist church. This aspect of faithfulness becomes most apparent in the section on slavery. When unbelievers confront Christians with the claim of hypocrisy and pretense, they are likely to use religion’s approval of slavery. While such a claim is somewhat skewed, there is some truth to it. Religious beliefs were used to twist and seek approval for slavery. At the same time, all who held to religious convictions were not in favor of slavery. In other words, there was a struggle among Baptists as it pertained to slavery. Now, while there were white Baptists who did condemn slavery of blacks, they stopped short of speaking out against it (Kidd and Hankins 98). They generally opposed it but did not attempt to go to bloody lengths on behalf of their black brothers and sisters in Christ (118). Nevertheless, as has been said, a number of Baptists saw no problem with slavery. James Boyce, in connection with the Southern Baptists and their seminary, was proslavery (Kidd and Hankins 135). This dark past was brought to light and a formal apology came from the denomination in 1995 (128-129). Whether the cowardice of anti-slavery Baptists or the distortedness of pro-slavery Baptists, Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins do an honest and faithful job in their portrayal of Baptists in the history of American life.
Baptists in America: A History makes a thorough effort to give a window into Baptist life in America. That said, there are a few surprises. Mysticism from the time of the Great Awakening occurred in the line of the Baptists (Kidd and Hankins 25). Not all approved of such acts but certainly for any number of Baptist to accept experiences like this is one of the surprises found in this book. Baptists normally are skeptical about mystical experiences. Other surprises can be found throughout the book.
While Baptists in America: A History by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins can be described as an informative, extensive, and faithful account of Baptist history, critiques can be made. One minor critique comes in chapter six on the subject of Baptists and slavery. From the title, the reader would assume the chapter to address the issues of slavery in relation with the Baptist denomination. The chapter opens in that manner and closes in that manner. However, in the middle of the chapter, the authors begin to discuss the evangelism of Native Americans and the challenges there (107). Therefore, I was left confused on the sudden change in direction. It appeared to be out of place in the chapter, especially with the next chapter picking back up the theme of slavery. It would have been better if the chapter was worded in a way to let the reader know all of what the chapter involved.
In conclusion, Kidd’s and Hankins’ Baptist in America: A History is a book for anyone who is interested in the history of the church in America. Baptists will benefit from learning more about the history of their denomination in America and non-Baptists will be edified in how to live as outsiders in an age hostile to their beliefs.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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