Baptists Through the Centuries

A History of a Global People, 2nd Ed.

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David W. Bebbington
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781481308663.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David W. Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries explores the Baptist tradition across four centuries and several continents. Building primarily on published research, Bebbington works to synthesize scholarship on Baptists and organize it in a way that gives order to the diverse emphases, theologies, and practices that have characterized the tradition. In this second edition, Bebbington also attempts to broaden the narrative by extending it beyond North America and England to include Latin America, Nigeria, and the Naga Hills of India.

According to Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries is “the printed equivalent of a course” (xi) he has taught to seminary students. Not surprisingly, then, the tone is generally that of a textbook. Indeed, the book would provide a helpful resource for students in a Baptist history course. It begins, as one might expect, with an overview of the reformation. Subsequent chapters are arranged both chronologically and topically with the goal of exploring central themes and developments in the Baptist story—especially as it unfolded in England and America. The author includes recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter but provides only minimal endnotes for those interested in digging deeper into specific topics in the book.

In the midst of providing a broad survey of Baptist history, Bebbington occasionally offers a much more detailed exploration of particular topics. This can particularly be seen in his discussion of the relationship between Anabaptists and Baptists. Here, a number of historiographical controversies receive attention. Bebbington offers both the specific data that supports opposing viewpoints and his own conclusion that Baptists derived little from the Anabaptists except for their non-predestinarian theology of salvation.

A number of qualities make Bebbington’s work particularly enlightening. First, throughout his writing, he weaves together the stories of Baptists in North America and England. He then describes the broader philosophical and cultural trends underlying life in both places. The similarities and differences in context become an interesting story in and of themselves. Second, Bebbington presents each topic in a way that is simultaneously inclusive of the most pertinent details and limited to key elements and figures. The reader is given enough information to be drawn into the story but is not overwhelmed with an unnecessary inundation of names and dates. Third, although Bebbington describes a variety of viewpoints on topics of historiographical debate, he is willing to share his informed conclusions. In a broad history like this one, it is helpful to know where at least one contemporary historical expert lands. Finally, Bebbington’s willingness to address three locations where the Baptist movement spread in the 19th century and beyond gives his story greater depth. Although limited historical resources make research outside the West much more difficult, it allows the reader to understand the important shift in Baptist life toward the Global South.

As Bebbington draws his work to a close, he describes seven distinct strands of contemporary Baptist life, especially as seen in the United States. This helps to make sense of the many Baptist identities present in the early 21st century. Bebbington also offers a summary of what he discovered through his research and writing, and the implications that can be drawn from his work. Ultimately, though, Bebbington, like many other historians, concludes that the Baptist identity may “elude definition” (338). Although this is certainly true, Bebbington has provided an excellent attempt at describing the variety of Baptist identities across time and place.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lydia H. Hoyle is Associate Professor of Baptist History and Heritage at Campbell University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David W. Bebbington is Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Baylor University and Professor of History at the University of Stirling. He is also the author of Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought.

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