The Early English Baptists, 1603–1649. By Stephen Wright. Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom: The Boydell Press, 2006. x + 278 pages. Hardcover, £60.00.
The publication of Stephen Wright’s PhD thesis by Boydell and Brewer signals a revived interest in the turbulent days that played host to the formation of Baptists in England. This field of study was mined deeply at the end of the nineteenth century by Whitsitt, Lofton, Whitley, and Burrage, and then mined again in the third quarter of the twentieth century by Nuttall, White, Tolmie, and Brachlow. And now Wright returns to reveal that there are still plenty of riches to be found and examined by those with an interest in the origins of English Baptist Christians.
While Wright retraces the steps of those who have gone before, especially Whitley, Burrage, and Tolmie, he provides a fresh and compelling presentation of the facts that sheds light on long standing classifications. Wright essentially concludes that due to the complexity of the first five decades of the seventeenth century, Baptists in England rarely were denominated as uniquely “General” or “Particular” until after the First London Confession was adopted in 1644.
An introduction and six chapters are presented chronologically leading the reader through the developments of each decade for not only the Baptists, but also the early Separatists, Independents, Puritans, Levellers, and everyone in between. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is Wright’s ability to frame the landscape while simultaneously providing detailed information such as the precise number of Baptists who served in Cromwell’s army (186–94). The author or reviser of more than 300 biographical articles for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Wright sets a high standard for meticulous scholarship that advances new and persuasive theories for a foundational time period in Baptist history.
Wright’s interaction with the Stinton Repository, the lone source document for Baptist beginnings in England, is long overdue. Since it is common to refer to Whitley’s transcription of Stinton in the Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society as the standard (with Burrage’s account often used interchangeably), it is helpful to see a new study return to the eighteenth century originals instead of relying on these later transcriptions. In fact, Wright’s work in this regard reveals the need for a new publication of the entire Stinton Repository.
Stephen Wright’s work is exhaustive, detailed, and persuasive. Just as B.R. White’s The English Separatist Tradition sparked a generation of interest into the world of Baptists in the seventeenth century, this reviewer hopes Wright’s volume will do the same. These Baptists defined and defended their identity in a climate of political upheaval and religious chaos, all against the backdrop of wars and national calamities. A revival of interest in the study of this era should only prove to help modern day Baptists who live in a world not unlike the early English Baptists, 1603–1649.
Jason G. Duesing
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary