Historical Dictionary of the Baptists. By William H. Brackney. In Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, No. 25. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999. 495 pages.
William Brackney is one of the leading Baptist historians of the late twentieth century. His credentials indicate that he is capable of presenting a comprehensive dictionary of Baptist history that includes people, places, movements, and controversies. Brackney provides breadth of the Baptist tradition without sacrificing specificity on particular individuals or groups. One is also struck with Brackney’s general fairness to controversial figures or events in the Baptist story.
In his introduction, Brackney surveys the history of the Baptist tradition from the early 17th century to the late 20th century. He presents Baptists as being affected by the cultural setting and driven by their theological beliefs. He describes Baptists as a “movement, a denomination, and a tradition”. These three categories serve as parameters for Brackney’s presentation of the Baptist story in the style of a dictionary.
The articles of the dictionary demonstrate the diversity of Brackney’s research. He includes information on the Baptist work in Kazakhstan as well as a mention of the connections between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Walter Rauschenbusch. Another example of his diverse interests is where he relates the founding role that the British Baptist Missionary Society played in the founding of Baptist work in the Bahamas. Brackney also describes the development of the Baptist World Alliance during the twentieth century as a world-wide organization of Baptists. He portrays fringe Baptist groups such as the 18th century Leg of Mutton Baptists, who ate lamb with the Lord’s Supper, and the 20th century Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, who remain open on the issue of homosexuality.
Brackney is willing to deal with the tougher issues in Baptist history. He makes no attempt to dodge the important role that the slavery issue played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention though he also indicates the major differences between northern and southern Baptists on church polity. Even the striking character, J. Frank Norris, gets an objective rendering in the dictionary. Instead of using more pejorative terms, Brackney describes Norris as a “flamboyant” preacher whose “controversial behavior” and his “celebrated indictment” caused an “ouster” from his Baptist associations.
In spite of the obvious strengths of Brackney’s work, there are some articles where correction or further consideration is needed. Due to the nature of the book, Brackney makes a few oversights or oversimplifications. For example, concerning John Smyth, the English Baptist pioneer, there is no literary evidence that Smyth “led his flock in close cooperation with the Mennonite congregation” prior to their baptism as Brackney implies. Also, John Smyth hardly parted ways with Thomas Helwys because the former “took a radical stand on the matter of religious liberty” when it was Helwys who later presents an equally strong argument on religious liberty to King James I. Also, in his article on Dan Taylor and the New Connexion of General Baptists, Brackney indicates that spiritual laxity was the deciding issue for Taylor’s break with other General Baptists. Actually, the main problem between the two groups was that the Old Connexion failed to affirm traditional Christology. Taylor took issue with their “Arian” and “Socinian” views and formed his group around a declaration of orthodox Christology. An editorial correction is needed in the displacement of the entry “Grenada” which precedes “Grantham, Thomas” and therefore is not in alphabetical order.
Overall, Brackney’s work serves as excellent reference tool. His entries provide an introduction to many movements, places, and people. While this dictionary does not have the advantage of a cohesive narrative, its ease of use allows access to concise descriptions of many facets of the Baptist tradition. Anyone interested the Baptist tradition would find Brackney’s entries interesting and clear.
Jason K. Lee
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in Faith and Mission, 17:3 (Summer 2000), 118-119.