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

Book Review: Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics

Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. by Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008). 

This is a difficult book to review for several reasons:  1) I know many of the “Shapers” personally as teachers.  2) I know both the editors and many of the contributors. 3) This is my field of academic expertise and these are mostly my frieds.  4) The figures included in this collection represent what I consider to be some of the best of my denominational or theological tradition–rather than the images more often associated with Baptists as narrow bigots and hypocrites, uncritical warmongers and lovers of money.  The individuals profiled in this book, and many of the profilers, are among the strongest reasons why I continue to identify with the Baptist tradition. 5) I was initially invited by one of the editors to contribute to the volume, but Mercer University Press was already complaining about the length of the book (343 pp.). None of this makes objectivity easy.

Let me say it clearly: I liked this book and all the chapters included.  My criticisms are those of an insider and perfectionist who would be trying to get a profile and analysis better. I did not find any chapter that was fundamentally off in characterization, although I did have some differences of emphasis and some differences on who should be included.

After an introductory chapter by the editors, the volume includes chapters that profile Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester, Nannie Helen Burroughs, T. B. Maston, Henlee Hulix Barnette, James
Wm. McClendon, Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, Paul D. Simmons (since Simmons’ focus has been on biomedical ethics and sexual ethics, it is not clear that he has been a shaper of Baptist social ethics, despite a Ph.D. dissertation on Just War Theory and Selective Conscientious Objection and many writings on religious liberty and church-state separation), Clarence Jordan, Martin England, Millard Fuller and Koinonia Farm, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, C. Anne Davis, Glen Harold Stassen, Tony Campolo, J. M. Dawson and James Dunn, and Foy Dan Valentine.  It is part of my mindset that I first notice who is omitted in collections like this:  This collection focuses almost entirely on the U.S. scene (with the exception of Muriel Lester, an English Baptist), although it includes more African-Americans and women than most similar collections.  Nonetheless, I thought immediately of Tommy Douglass, the Canadian Baptist minister-turned-politician who was a product of the Social Gospel and who created Canada’s publicly funded healthcare system–and was recently voted by Canadians as “The Greatest Canadian.”  Or Britain’s John Clifford, the U.K.’s answer to Rauschenbusch or Australia’s maverick Baptist, Athol Gill.  And, if one were to include Baptists from the Global South, the book would look very different.

Even in the U.S., I wondered at some omissions:  Where are Howard Thurman, C. René Padilla, Orlando Costas, Will D. Campbell, Culbert Rutenber, Dorothy Cotton, Marian Wright Edelman, Peter Paris, Cornel West, Peter Gomes, Ken Sehested and Nancy Hastings Sehested, W. W. Finlator, Stanley Grenz, Diana Garland, or Carlyle Marney?  Needless to say, a sequel or companion volume would be easy to fill.  In a future volume, many of the current volumes contributing authors will probably find a place, including Paul Lewis (author of the chapter on Rauschenbusch), William Tillman, Jr. (T. B. Maston), David Emmanuel Goatley (J. Deotis Roberts), T. Laine Scales (C. Anne Davis), David P. Gushee (Glen Harold Stassen), Michelle Tooley (Tony Campolo), J. Brent Walker (J. M. Dawson and James Dunn), and, perhaps others.  I agree with the editors that a volume on Twenty-FIRST Century “shapers of Baptist social ethics” would include far more women, be far more racially/ethnically diverse, and probably be dominated by voices from the Global South.  More Christians now live South of the equator than North of it and more Christians live in Africa and Latin America than in Europe or North America–a trend that is likely to continue.  African and Asian Christians have begun to send missionaries to post-Christian Europe and to North America (where U.S. Christians who vote for war and torture seem to have completely misunderstood the gospel in DROVES!).

But given the limits of any volume like this in size and scope, this is an excellent work and I highly recommend it.  Sections Two and Three are divided between “Thinkers and Teachers” (section two) and “Activists: Dreamers of a New World Order.” But the division should not be seen as airtight. Many of the activists (e.g., Tony Campolo, C. Anne Davis and Glen Stassen) have spent most of their careers in the classroom and have pioneered in various academic areas.  Some of the other activists (e.g., Jimmy Carter, James Dunn, Foy Valentine) have also had teaching responsibilities for parts of their careers.  Also, many of the teachers and thinkers (e.g., Henlee Barnette, Deotis Roberts, and James Wm. McClendon) have all engaged in action for social justice, especially Barnette.

In fact, one major thread connecting all these different Baptist social ethicists is a refusal to divide theory and practice, faith and discipleship, salvation and social reform.  Though most of the figures profiled herein have high christologies and orthodox theologies, they have not exhibited (with Luther) any desire to remove the Epistle of James from their working canon.  In differing ways, each has incarnational faith that must be lived out in the world. 

Because of the price ($45!), I am hoping MUP puts out a paperback edition of this volume soon.  I recommend it for church libraries, for those seeking to understand the 20th C. history of one major Christian tradition, and for those of us in the Baptist (or, more broadly, Believers’ Church) tradition who seek to learn from guides in previous generations as we try to be faithful disciples in our own contexts in this 21st C.

October 6, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, books, ethics, heroes


  1. I have read some of it, and I found it to be very helpful. Maybe there is some similar book that you could edit. You are certainly putting together a wide range of topical material at Levellers. Maybe there is a place for a collection of the ones who should have shaped Baptist thought but who have largely been ignored.

    Comment by Mike Broadway | November 7, 2008

  2. […] C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Chapter by Chapter Longtime readers may remember my book review of  Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen […]

    Pingback by 20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Chapter by Chapter « Levellers | December 17, 2008

  3. […] constructive roles in church leadership grows constantly.  He has been considered one of the Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics and has been influential as well in mainline Protestant and evangelical circles.  His “just […]

    Pingback by Theological Mentors # 2 Glen H. Stassen « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | August 20, 2010

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