Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Baptist Book Review #3

Continuing my review of books to read (and ones to avoid) in helping to remember, understand, deepen, and renew the Baptist heritage as the tradition nears 400 in 2009.

Curtis W. Freeman, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., & C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva, eds.,

Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People

(Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999).

Although the selections are a bit idiosyncratic in places, this is one of the best collections of primary sources on Baptist life and thought in print, and the best sourcebook for specifically theological writings by individual “baptists.” This collection has many strengths and a few weaknesses. I’ll mention the weaknesses first, so as to end on the positive note this work deserves.

The weaknesses in this collection all stem from an ambiguity in the editors’ use of the term “baptists.” One of the editors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr., has popularized a practice of using the term “baptists” with a lower-case “b” to refer to all adult-baptizing groups, that is to the collection of denominations usually called the “Free Church” or “Believers’ Church,” groups–many stemming from the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation, but others from later movements. The editors use the term “baptists” that way in this collection. This allows them to include Baptist forerunners in the Radical Reformation and also some “kindred spirits” among other contemporary Believers’ Church groups. But this is confusing because (a) most of the “baptist” voices included in this collection are also Baptists proper. If this was to be a collection of Believers’ Church voices many more non-Baptist baptists should have been included which would have left less room for the many Baptists represented.

It is also confusing because (b) readers expect to be getting a sense of the Baptist tradition (within the larger Believers’ Church tradition) and can come away thinking that certain people (e.g. Anne Hutchinson; John Milton; Alexander Campbell–only briefly a Baptist before founding the Disciples; Takashi Yamada & John Howard Yoder–both Mennonites) are Baptist who actually belong to other parts of the Believers’ Church. It is also possible that Disciples or Mennonites, etc. would feel that this collection was robbing them of some of their best theologians because of the baptist/Baptist conflation. In short, if the collection was of Believers’ Church theologians, I might quibble with one or two selections, but but not as much as I do with its current title and contents.

These weaknesses (or idiosyncracies), however, pale before the many strengths of this sourcebook. More women are included than in most such collections, along with more people of non-European origin. Liberals and conservatives, the self-educated and the highly educated, Anabaptists and Puritans, Calvinists and Arminians, missionaries and social reformers–all can be found within. Something of the breadth of the Baptist heritage can be seen in these pages. Further, despite my comments above, there is value in seeing the connections (at least in similar life and thought patterns if not always due to a historical connection) between Baptists and others in the Believers’ Church.

The collection is divided by centuries with an editorial introduction to each “chapter,” and each concluding with a hymn from that period. A five-page appendix gives a wider selection yet of voices in their historical context. An extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources invites much further study by readers.

For this Leveller, it is frustrating to see Richard Overton omitted even from such a radical collection and I had to wonder why, if one was to include Menno Simons one did not excerpt his Foundation of Christian Doctrine which had a direct influence on the 1644 First London Confession of the Particular Baptists. Omitting Francis Wayland in the 19th C., and John Clifford in the 20th are also inexcusable. An updated edition would need to include more recovered voices of female theologians (e.g., Dorothy Hazzard, Anne Dutton, Marianne Farningham) from earlier periods of Baptist life and, perhaps, a selection from McClendon himself for he was certainly one of the more creative voices in 20th C. Baptist thought, especially of those coming from the Southern Baptist convention.

While far from perfect, studying this collection will go a long way toward the creation of a global, multi-cultural view of Baptist identity and theology. That, in itself, makes it indispensable.

September 3, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists

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