Author: Leonard, Bill J
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
This book is important for numerous reasons. First, it offers a new history of the beginnings of the Freewill Baptist movement, a group that has not been studied sufficiently by students of Baptist and North American Protestant life. Second, it challenges earlier views of the theological and ecclesiological formation of Benjamin Randall, Freewill Baptists' most prominent founding figure. Third, it provides a new examination of the nature of religious experience evident in certain revivalistic periods in America and the debates that developed around them.
The author, Scott Bryant, developed much of this material while a Ph.D. student at Baylor University. He anchors the study of Benjamin Randall and the Freewill Baptists thoroughly in the context of colonial Protestantism, sketching details of the Great Awakening and the developing Baptist presence in such leaders as Roger Williams, Dr. John Clarke, and Isaac Backus as well as in the founding of institutions, such as Rhode Island College (later Brown University). Bryant then turns to the nature of religious experience as evident not only in the Awakening, but specifically in the spiritual and ideological formation of Benjamin Randall. From a historiographical perspective, Bryant challenges earlier research by George Rawlyk whose study of the Canadian New Light preacher Henry Alline led him to suggest that Benjamin Randall's theology was essentially that of Alline. Bryant insists that Randall's evangelical and freewill views were his own, born of his own conversion experience and continuing New Light spirituality. Bryant's study of Randall also provides excellent documentation for the way in which certain segments of the Baptist community challenged the prevailing Calvinism of the colonial period. Indeed, Bryant sees Randall's conversion as distinctive in part because it led him to oppose "the Calvinistic norm of his era" and to embrace the concept of "universal atonement" (71). Thus his commitment to the general atonement of Christ was closely related to his own revivalistic conversion experience and his own study of scripture. The intensity of that conversion led him to part company with the establishmentarian New Hampshire Puritans and seek believer's baptism with Baptists in Maine and New Hampshire.
The post-conversion Randall was initially somewhat naïve as to the distinctions between Calvinist and Arminian theology, but he soon became a major disputant in challenging the predominant Calvinism of New England, creating controversy and ultimately division among Baptists in the region. Arminianism was not unknown among Baptists, but Randall offered a renewed emphasis that was especially divisive in the colonies. Thus Bryant's study offers a fine illustration of the development of a new Baptist communion centering on "enthusiastical" religion and an unapologetic Arminian theology.
Bryant then gives extensive attention to the shaping of Freewill Baptists, their early organizational structure, controversies, and competition. Such competition came quickly, specifically from the New England Shakers whose religious enthusiasm paralleled that of the revivalistic Baptists. Randall's use of the church covenant in organizing Freewill churches and in responding to competing groups also illustrates the importance of covenants in the spiritual and organizational foundation of Baptist congregations. Contemporary Baptists of varying theological orientation will surely find value in Bryant's discussion of these formative expressions of early Freewill Baptist identity.
A chapter on the "theology of the Freewill Baptists" is important, not only for detailing the belief and practices of the movement, but also in documenting the centrality of conversion and the believer's church as foundational. Acceptance into church membership involved both the personal testimony of an individual experience of grace, and the confirmation of that experience by the believing community. Bryant writes that, "membership was extended only to those individuals who could convince the members of the vitality of their faith" (139). These processes of individual and communal verification would be minimized later on as revivalistic experientialism became the primary criteria. Randall's founding congregation, the Church of Christ of New Durham, New Hampshire, set the standard of open communion that prevailed in other churches that accepted Freewill views. Likewise, if persons had the free will to choose Christ, they also had the free will to reject him along the way. Thus falling from grace was a distinct Freewill Baptist possibility. The study also explores the nature of church discipline, very strong among the Freewills, and the controversies that erupted when excommunication or dismissal prevailed.
Bryant's lengthy discussion of the differences and similarities between the thought of Randall and the Canadian Henry Alline is indeed an important historiographical contribution to Baptist and revival studies. Alline's acceptance of infant baptism was a clear difference between the two revival preachers and the discussion illustrates the more sectarian spirit of the Baptists.
This is an excellent study that adds considerably to the history and theology of the Freewill Baptists, a group often sadly overlooked or at least minimally studied by students of Baptist history. Bryant's thesis sets Benjamin Randall squarely inside the New Light movement of the Awakening, but also shows the ways in which his theology contrasted with the dominant Calvinism and related to other sectarian expressions shaped by radical religious experience.
Wake Forest University