Author: Leonard, Bill J
Date published: January 1, 2012
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches. By Robert E. Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 444pp. $32.99.
In this fine volume, Robert E. Johnson, professor of Christian heritage and academic dean at the Central Baptist Theological Seminary m Kansas City, Kansas, offers an introduction to Baptist history and praxis throughout the world. Because Baptists have a worldwide presence and then practices mirror great diversity within the wide bounds of then shared beliefs and histories, this is no easy task. From the beginning of the book, Johnson seeks to go beyond the Anglocentric approach that has long characterized many general histories of the reUgious communion. He notes the EngUsh origins of the earUest Baptist groups in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and London but moves quickly and intentionally to include extensive detaüs of the larger Baptist cornmunity evident m black Baptists, Asian Baptists, Latino Baptists, and Native American Baptists. In that effort Johnson succeeds, providing a good overview and analysis of the history of Baptist traditions.
In the introduction, Johnson acknowledges his frustration with efforts "to make Baptist identity fit around one center" (p. 3). That inappropriate approach, he believes, contributed to the marginalization of women and non-Anglo Baptists, along with others who did not fit the thesis. Instead, he prefers a polycentric approach that looks for multiple responses to Baptist identity and community throughout the world. Thus, the first chapter focuses on multipletraditioning sources around which elements of Baptist life and thought took shape. This is one of the book's most important contributions and sets the stage for its survey of global identities that continue to shape and inform Baptists' present and future. Johnson contends correctly that if the Baptist tradition is to extend across the twenty-first century, greater attention must be given to these diverse communities and their regional, national, and international influence.
This is a history text, and Johnson details the Baptists' history clearly, concisely, and with a well-ordered approach that should be especially helpful to students. Johnson's concern for diversity and the Baptist margins is evident in every chapter. This is particularly the case in his attention to the role and work of women from the earliest days of Baptist history. He surveys distinct Baptist communions throughout the world and gives serious attention to the varied Baptist denominations or subdenominations in North America, the largest configuration of Baptists in the world. Although he offers a good survey of the many global Baptist communities, Johnson's chapter on traditioning sources in Latin America is particularly important because that valuable geographical segment of Baptist life has often been overlooked or understudied, at least in English language histories. That chapter alone should be especially helpful to North Americans, given changes in church and culture impacted by immigration as well as the need for greater understanding of Baptist/Protestant roots in the region.
The concluding chapters focus on Baptist belief s and the possibility of a renewal of Baptist identity in the future. Johnson is good at distmgmshing varied interpretations and practices from culture to culture. For example, he reminds readers that although Baptist groups generally agree on the need for believers' baptism as a sign of profession of faith in Christ, they differ as to the minimum age when such baptism would be permitted. The chronological boundaries for professing faith and receiving baptism vary considerably, running from childhood to early adulthood, a fascinating diversity.
The section on "God and Salvation" is likewise helpful in distinguishing multiple approaches to conversion, a central issue for a communion that understands itself as a beUevers' church. Yet limited attention is given to ordination Ui Baptist Ufe. This is regrettable, given that the ordination of ministers is one of the most critical and neglected elements of local church practice among Baptists m the West, and perhaps elsewhere. Likewise, the chapter on beliefs seems a bit anti-climactic at the end of the book and might have offered more insight to readers had it been placed earlier Ui the volume.
Nonetheless, Johnson's work is a valuable contribution to Baptist studies and wiU be helpful for students young and old. It provides insight Ulto and analysis of Baptist identities worldwide, exploring those individuals and groups that too long were left on the margins or ignored altogether.
BiU J. Leonard
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Advance Access Publication 11 January 2012