Author: Pratt, J Kristian
Date published: March 1, 2012
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Most attempts to record Baptist history have focused on the Anglo-American tradition, engaging only other Baptist groups as their history has intersected with that tradition. With the recent four-hundredth anniversary of Baptists, noted scholars have begun to widen the scope of Baptist history to include non-Western traditions. Robert Johnson has written the most comprehensive exploration of global Baptist traditions to date. Johnson documents the origin of the Baptist movement on each continent, the developments and emergence of new Baptist groups, and the global nature of Baptists today. In doing so, he articulates the basic problem of telling the global Baptist story: "when the Baptist movement is examined closely, one finds an amalgam of traditions--many totally independent of the others--that defies serious efforts genuinely to interpret them as one" (11).
Johnson undertakes the task of tracing these various traditions, organizing his work both chronologically and geographically. He discusses not only the familiar English and North American Baptist story, but includes the significant contributions of Baptists from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, continental Europe, and the Caribbean, as well as special sections dedicated to Baptist women in each chapter. This global introduction includes extensive coverage of influential German Baptist Johann Oncken, the rapid twentieth-century growth of Baptist churches in Africa, the struggles and successes of Baptists in the Soviet bloc, and the challenges of adapting Baptist ideals to cultures as varied as Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean.
After establishing that Baptists indeed have a variety of "traditioning sources," Johnson addresses the history of these global Baptist traditions. The bulk of the book follows the development of the Baptist movement, focusing on Baptist origins from 1600-1792, the age of Baptist expansion from 1792-1890, and finally the proliferation of Baptist traditions in the twentieth century. Johnson meticulously chronicles Baptist development on each continent, giving voice to many long-neglected traditions, concluding that even in their earliest phase, "Baptist churches constituted a movement made up of many denominations, each distinguished by cultural and theological particularities" (95). These "cultural and theological particularities" only grew in number with the expansion of the Baptist movement through the work of various mission organizations. This frontier age of Baptists extended around the globe, and led to new cultural adaptations within the Baptist movement. Johnson traces the mission endeavors of British and American Baptists, but also includes a chapter on the developing Baptist communities in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America during this frontier phase. At the end of the nineteenth century, Baptists were indeed a global movement, although still dominated by English and North American Baptists. Johnson notes the changes within the Baptist movement as native traditions combined with Baptist principles to create new Baptist denominations, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The section on the proliferation of Baptist traditions is perhaps the strongest in Johnson's work. Here he traces the development of indigenous Baptist traditions on every continent, placing Baptist traditions in the context of larger historical movements. Johnson's coverage of the growing Baptist community during the twentieth century is comprehensive, with sections devoted to every major Baptist denominational family.
This global introduction closes with a discussion of Baptist beliefs and practices. Rather than try to force Baptists into a particular theological mold, Johnson discusses "certain tendencies in Baptist belief and polity" (387) organized around themes found in many Baptist confessions of faith such as scripture, salvation, church-state relations, church ordinances, worship, leadership, church autonomy, and inter-church cooperation. Since one of the basic Baptist values is "the freedom of a local faith community to determine its own theological definitions" (429), Baptists naturally possess a variety of practices and beliefs.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of telling the Baptist story is addressing both the diversity and the shared values and ideas within the movement. Johnson has expertly captured the diverse voices of Baptists, while also connecting each Baptist tradition to the larger movement. Johnson's work covers the breadth of the Baptist movement, often at the expense of providing a deeper discussion of specific Baptist traditions, but such is the nature of a global introduction. To his credit, Johnson recognizes this limitation and offers helpful footnotes directing the reader to more detailed discussions of these global traditions.
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches fills a void in Baptist scholarship and is by far the most inclusive discussion of the Baptist movement. Scholars and students will value Johnson's work, and it will quickly become indispensible for those interested in Baptist history. This expansive view of the Baptist movement introduces the reader to the diversity of Baptists, provides a framework for understanding Baptists in a global context, and reminds all Baptists of the complexity of their heritage.
Spartanburg Methodist College