WACO—For all their diversity and predisposition to dissent, Baptists are “well-positioned to thrive” as outsiders on the edge of America’s increasingly pluralistic, secular culture, a pair of Baylor University history professors contend in their new book.
Baptists in America: A History by Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd covers almost four centuries and examines the nation’s second-largest religious group from just about every angle.
The book describes a mystifying denomination whose adherents span the spectrum of differences—from biblical interpretation and theological understanding, to race and ethnicity, to social status, worship style, educational attainment and comfort among other faiths.
Hankins and Kidd started talking about writing a book together more than a dozen years ago, when Kidd joined Hankins on the Baylor faculty. Both are professors in the university’s history department. Their historical specialties—Kidd in early America and Hankins in contemporary America—complement the quest to cover the arc of U.S. Baptist life.
Baptists in America is “not a hard, thesis-driven book,” Hankins said in an interview. “We wanted it to be readable, narrative history … for people to come away with an understanding of Baptists in America.”
The authors set out with a two-part purpose or “soft thesis,” Hankins explained.
“One is how diverse Baptists have been,” he said. Indeed, the Baptist banner flies over a broad array of U.S. Christians. All kinds of Baptists—Arminians and Calvinists, missionaries and anti-missionaries, slaves and slave-holders, erudite and uneducated, blacks and whites and myriad ethnicities, fundamentalists and liberals, cultural insiders and outsiders, and more—populate the pages of Baptists in America.
Scanning the range of Baptist beliefs, Hankins and Kidd note: “As is often said, there is no Baptist Church, only Baptist churches. Similarly, there is no Baptist theology, only Baptist theologies.”
“At the end of the book, we say that almost anything anyone writes about Baptists should have the word ‘some’ in front of it,” Hankins noted in the interview. “‘Some’ believe this, and ‘some’ believe that. ‘Some’ do this, and ‘some’ do that. Other than believer’s baptism and the independence of Baptists, there’s not a lot that holds Baptists together.”
Hankins’ and Kidd’s second thesis focuses on Baptists’ ever-changing relationship to the broader culture, he added. “We found it fascinating that Baptists started out as the largest group of outside religious dissenters. Then they were insiders. Then some were insiders while others were outsiders. And now, more and more, the Baptists who have been insiders are feeling like outsiders.”
Baptists’ penchant for dissension—whether they’re social outsiders, clamoring against culture or they’re casting each other outside the parameters of their own Baptist group—echoes through the book.
Hankins and Kidd start by describing “Colonial outlaws,” Baptists who resisted the restrictions of established churches in early America. They proceed to tell the tale of a people who fight with each other when they aren’t skirmishing with anyone else.
Baptists in America have battled over, among other issues, believer’s baptism versus infant baptism, the American Revolution, established state churches, the necessity of missions and revivalism, slavery and the Civil War, cooperation between black and white Baptists, science and modernism, adaptation to culture, segregation and civil rights and, to narrow their latest great conflict down to one point, the Bible.
Why do they do it? Why all that fighting?
“It’s hard to answer that question definitively,” Hankins acknowledged. “There’s something about a group that, in its origins, had to fight so hard against a religious establishment,” such as the colony- and state-backed tax-supported churches in early America.
A culture of dissent
“I guess when your movement is born out of that, just to maintain your identity, you have to dissent from the majority and fight for the right to independently interpret Scripture as you think God would have you do it. … When you’re born of that, there is something in the cultural DNA of dissent that you see in every generation of Baptists.”
Dissent also springs from Baptists’ unique mix of values, he said.
“If you combine Baptists’ fierce determination to interpret the Bible and to justify everything on biblical grounds with congregational independence, you’re going to have a lot of disagreement about the Bible,” he explained. Add in Baptist populism, which affirms every individual’s right to interpret Scripture, and “Baptists have more opportunities for dissent over biblical interpretation than do other denominations. That leads to a lot of disagreement.”
Dissent has produced both bad fruit and good, Hankins observed. “On the bad side, you get schisms and splits,” he said. But positively, “Baptists always are trumpeting the need for religious liberty.”
U.S. Baptists’ tendency toward schism carries right up to the conclusion of the book. Hankins and Kidd provide a fair treatment of the battle that divided the Southern Baptist Convention, what Hankins called in the interview “one of the biggest stories of religion in the 20th century.”
Close observers will note the book basically concludes with the so-called conservatives’ triumph over the so-called moderates, a conflict that ended more than two decades ago but whose battle heat still radiates in some quarters.
“Historians always get really nervous when we get too close to the present,” Hankins said, explaining their decision not to cover more recent developments—such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the struggle between Calvinists and modified Arminians in the SBC, and increasing tensions between the national SBC and its previously loyal state conventions.
“When you bring (a book) too close to the present, you might look at a phenomenon that seems really significant, and in five years, it may be completely forgotten.
“Also, when you write a book, it doesn’t take long to think how you might do it differently. We included the SBC schism. … In 15 to 20 years from now, the diffusion of the Southern Baptists may be the next chapter of a revised book.”
In the meantime, Hankins predicted, Baptists are prepared to handle change and survive.
“Baptists are quite well-positioned for the culture today, which is pluralistic and increasingly diverse,” he said. “Today, it’s as if there is no culturally dominant worldview; all worldviews are competing for space within the culture.”
University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock has observed the shifting nature of groups within society, Hankins recalled, saying: “Because we live in this world where, at one time or another, every group is a minority, then at one time or another, every group is being discriminated against.
“Baptists are well-positioned for that culture, because they have a memory of being dissenters or outsiders. … The Baptist phenomenon continues. More and more are recapturing how it is to be an outsider. … Those who can manage being outsiders in culture and find appealing ways of being outsiders, those Baptists will survive.”