Baptist Ways: A History. By Bill J. Leonard. Valley Forge: Judson, 2003. xv + 480 pages. Softcover, $30.00.
Texts that chronicle the history of the Christian people called Baptists abound in various forms. Books once heralded as the most comprehensive have over time revealed their oversights. Texts written in centuries past received revision and eventually passed the baton to the modern texts of future centuries. All histories reveal the culture in which their author writes as well as his theological persuasion and method of historiographical interpretation. Indeed, many factors contribute to the development and production of a text, and all combine to speak of its value. Baptist Ways: A History, without exception, takes its place in line behind the forerunners of Baptist history volumes. The culture in which its author wrote, the author’s historiographical method, as well as other factors combine to speak of its value to historians, students, and church members.
Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School, received, in 1995, an invitation from Judson Press to write a new Baptist History to replace Robert Torbet’s A History of the Baptists. A considerable task for any historian, Leonard’s occupational changes and other circumstances pushed the project length to eight years. A trained specialist in American Christianity, Leonard notes in his preface that the “traumatic” issues that began in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 “compelled” him to become a student of Baptists (xiv). In the twenty–four years that followed, Leonard quickly transitioned from Baptist student to Baptist academician, participating in various roles in the events of his denomination. In this sense, Baptist Ways: A History represents the commentary of one Baptist on his people’s history.
The preface and first chapter provide Leonard’s thesis and articulation of Baptist identity in history. The plural term in the title, Baptist Ways, is intentional. Leonard believes that “amid certain distinctives, Baptist identity is configured in a variety of ways” (xii). He discusses the various classifications of Baptist distinctives by historians and offers his preference of viewing these as “dynamics moving in tandem across a wide spectrum of belief and practice” (6). Diversity in history is key for Leonard, and his book is an effort to “revisit Baptist ways, whatever they mean and wherever they appear” (xv).
Chapters two through nine constitute roughly the first half of the text. This section contains the standard corpus of information common to most Baptist histories. A Reformation foundation that flourished in England in the seventeenth century marks the beginning of these believers’ history. Baptists sailed to the Americas and by the eighteenth century grew to a size able to make their voice heard, especially in regard to religious liberty. The nineteenth century in America saw Baptists forming and separating over missions and slavery.
Leonard’s chronology pauses with chapters ten through fourteen as he investigates Baptists in various countries and cultures. With these chapters, Leonard makes a conscious decision to produce a world history of the Baptists. The many names, dates, and places are understandably brief, but this brevity adds little to the value of the volume. Perhaps it would only occur under a different philosophical thesis, but the elimination of these chapters would only strengthen the volume’s clarity, content and influence. This is not to say there is no place for other countries and cultures in a history of Baptists. Leonard’s volume, however, would benefit if this aspect were reserved for a separate text of a different scope and purpose.
Chapters fifteen and sixteen return the reader to the British Isles and the United States in the twentieth century. These chapters begin where chapter nine ends, and explore the modern expression of Baptists in these nations. Leonard lends space, in understandable deference to the publisher, to a lengthy presentation of the history of the Northern Baptist Convention and its transition to the American Baptist Convention, USA. Here he also recounts the rise and expansion of his own Southern Baptist Convention. Remarkably, the single stated event responsible for his entrée into Baptist Studies, namely the controversy in the SBC, receives a mere two page overview at the conclusion of the book.
Baptist Ways: A History offers those interested in this niche of history a modern and contemporary text unique from comparable volumes in the genre. The sections covering the history of Baptists in England and the United States are concise and fair. Leonard should be commended for his efforts to highlight the history of Baptist women as well as Baptist hymnody. Rarely mentioned in other texts, women’s mission societies and the like clearly played a critical role in the development of denominations.
The layout and structure of Leonard’s text hinders it from broad recommendation. A history of this size requires photos, charts, and maps to increase effectiveness. The chapter divisions and overall content makes various aspects and events difficult to locate and prohibits a general understanding of a broad chronology of Baptist history. Regrettably, Leonard’s writing style reads as if this project received his attention only intermittingly throughout the eight years. These aesthetic issues make it difficult to recommend for the classroom.
While Leonard’s treatment of women in general is a commendable contribution, the length to which he ventures to highlight these Baptists is strained at times and gives the impression of a special interest emphasis. For example, the reader will note Leonard’s willingness to offer a one page treatment of Baptist women in Canada at the expense of the role Baptists played in evangelicalism. Carl F. H. Henry’s name is not found in the text.
Leonard’s epilogue rearticulates his underlying theme of Baptist diversity. He states that “delineating what is distinctively Baptist poses a challenge for those who would assess and understand the movement” (423). Yet, the diversity in Baptist life should “challenge Baptists worldwide to revisit their history in search of identity old and new” (424). These paradoxical statements read as if Leonard does not believe that one can define what it means to be a Baptist, yet Baptists should be reading history to find a definition.
Several factors contribute to the composition of a text such as Bill Leonard’s Baptist Ways: A History. One should expect the personal history and historiographical preference of the author to influence the overall value of a book. In the case of this text, the perspectives and preferences of Bill Leonard combined with the limitations in style and clarity prevent me from commending this recent interpretation of the history of Baptists.
Jason G. Duesing
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 47:1 (Fall 2004): 86-89.