This is a catch-all introduction to its subject, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. In this case, the strengths are more buttressed and the weaknesses less exaggerated, but all are present and correct.
The three editors each take the reins for each of three particular periods, and then, presumably, combine for the section on Baptist beliefs. With minimal footnotes, with brisk tone and at a good pace, the book carries us through the events, personalities, sermons, churches, tensions and efforts of Baptist history, with excerpts from primary sources. You will either be delighted or devastated at the inclusions or exclusions.
Baptists outside America may find the book less and less useful as it advances, because the focus is more and more on the United States and its distinctive groups, denominations, interests and battles.
In addition, the concern for ‘balance’ sometimes leads to the inclusion of what seem to me to be rabbit trails. Although the closing historical chapters make every effort to give a global sense, it seems a survey through American eyes. Of course, as the stream of Baptist history broadens, one has to sit on a particular island in order to take one’s view.
The chapter on identity and distinctives is fascinating. After discussion of Baptist attitudes to confessions of faith, the authors suggest that Baptists are marked by regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational polity, local church autonomy and religious freedom.
To all of which the answer might be, ‘Yes, but …’ For, what these things look like in practice; who embraces them; and how many are embraced at any particular point and in what way, even by those who call themselves Baptists, make even this summary a surprising absolutism.
The conclusion suggests that promoting liberty of conscience, following Christ’s will in our individual lives and churches, and proclaiming the gospel everywhere, are the three interrelated themes of Baptist history that crop up again and again. Up to a point, that is indisputable; in other respects, it is indistinct.
As an introduction to its topic, and if you are a student of American Baptist history, this will prove a fine volume. Others will find much of real value and genuine interest, but it will feel more like looking over the wall than playing the game.