Harvey on _Baptists in America_



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KELLY BAKER

Our illustrious managing editor, Paul Harvey, reviewed Bill Leonard's Baptists in America for H-Amstdy. For this informative, if encyclopedic work, Harvey has praise for the breadth of coverage, but he turns a critical eye to the small presence of Southern Baptist history. According to Harvey, Leonard aptly presents the tension between "soul liberty" and "church purity." Here's an excerpt from the review:

The opening chapter quickly surveys the basics of Baptist history from its origins in the early seventeenth century and growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a position of cultural dominance in the South in the twentieth century. Subsequent chapters provide summaries of Baptist beliefs and practices in all their bewildering variety, Baptist styles of theology, race and gender in Baptist life and history, and Baptist positions on various sides in the recent culture wars. Curiously underplayed, to my mind, is Southern Baptist history in particular. I say "curiously" given Leonard's preeminence as a cultural interpreter of Southern Baptists. I say "underplayed" given that Baptists reached a predominance in the South, among both whites and blacks, that they did not achieve elsewhere to the same degree. This is an encyclopedic and reference tool sort of book, not a strongly interpretive argument and analysis, but I expected a greater degree of focus on Baptists in the region of the United States where, unarguably, they have played a more significant role than anywhere else.

Baptists appear here as a kind of case study in miniature of some of the broader themes and paradoxes of American Protestant history. Baptist theology is a varied as could possibly be imagined within a generally evangelical framework--ranging from the nearly Universalist "No-Hellers" of Appalachia to the "Hell-for-Just-About-Everyone-ers"of the Primitive and "Two-Seed in the Spirit" varieties, to just about every position on the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum in between for the majority of American Baptists. On questions of social policy, politics, gender, and race, Baptists may be found everywhere on a continuum from, say, proslavery theorist Thornton Stringfellow and racist demagogue Strom Thurmond (misspelled in the book), to social gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch, to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, to black spiritual earth mother Maya Angelou. What defines Baptist history--and, arguably, all of Protestant history--is the constant tension between "conversionist particularlism and pluralistic libertarianism" (p. 253). Of American thought on ethnicity, the historian David Hollinger once asked, "How wide the circle of we?" Baptists constantly ask the same question and redefine their answers, contingent in part on nearly universal Baptist themes of congregational democracy and soul liberty but also on the threads of associationalism and evangelical standards of sin, redemption, and conversion.

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