An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 13, No. 1]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History and Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“The Baptist Calling”
Part Four: Striving for Human Equality
by Bruce T. Gourley
In Search of the Christian Atom (The First of a Series)
by Richard F. Wilson
“Book Notes: New Offerings from Mercer University Press”
Compiled by Bruce T. Gourley
THE BAPTIST CALLING
Part Three: Striving for Human Equality
by Bruce T. Gourley
This is a series focused on how Baptists are called to live out their faith. Click here for the introduction to this series, entitled “Beyond Belief”.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, influential American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, in a 1984 paper in Natural History argued that human equality emerged as a byproduct of human history that did not have to be, but rather “it just worked out that way.”
According to Gould, “The history of Western views on race is a tale of denial–a long series of progressive retreats from initial claims for strict separation and ranking by intrinsic worth toward an admission of the trivial differences revealed by this contingent history.” This description could also apply to gender and sexual orientation differences, both of which modern humanity has struggled to absorb within the sphere of human equality.
Biblically speaking, the creation narratives of Judaism / Christianity and Islam offer hints of human equality at the level of gender. In the Genesis account, God creates earthlings out of earth and makes them male and female in His own image. Al-Hujurat 49:13 of the Quran parallels this broad motif. Yet in both the Old Testament and the Quran males dominate females, tribalism separates people groups, the social strata starkly separates citizens, lepers are quarantined outside city gates, and even worship is segregated.
Robert Wright–who was raised in Oklahoma in a Southern Baptist family and studied sociobiology at Princeton, where he now teaches religion and science–in The Evolution of God points to Jesus as a pivot point at which religion began turning away from being a zero-sum affair and turning toward a non-zero-sum dynamic. In short, Wright argues that Jesus’ teachings and his followers created a faith that transcended tribalism and other artificial human differences, in the process steering monotheistic religion on a path toward shaping a world of harmony, inclusiveness, compassion and, ultimately, synthesis.
In the biblical New Testament, the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 offers a forward-looking glimpse of human harmony founded upon equality that transcends religious creeds, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender and geographical boundaries: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV).
Yet some fifteen hundred-plus years passed before the stream that would become human equality swelled upward in tandem with the maturing of representative democracy and the birth of Baptists in the 17th century. The earliest Baptists adopted the Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers (spiritual equality among the faithful) to which they added freedom of conscience for all persons (in effect, an equality of the human soul that transcended religion and was based on all of humanity as God’s creation) and, as an extension of their freedom and equality convictions, embraced democracy ecclesiologically and (in America) politically. Late 17th century English philosopher John Locke, influenced by Baptists (Roger Williams in particular) and the Bible (Genesis 1), followed Baptists in advocating freedom of conscience on the basis of human equality, from which he moved the conversation into the realm of natural and moral philosophy. From this provenance came America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence declaring, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that “all men are created equal.”
Although the United States Constitution limited functional equality to land-owning white males, the founding of America on the theoretical principle of human equality created a lofty expectation that future generations slowly but steadily pressed forward toward. According to Google’s Ngram database, the phrase “human equality” began appearing in English volumes around the turn of the 19th century, its usage spiking in correspondence to clearly-defined chapters in the story of the advance of human equality in America: the Civil War years (1860-1865), the pinnacle of the women’s suffrage (1917-1921), the early civil rights years (1950-1955), the women’s rights movement (1970s), and the early years of the gay right’s movement (1990s).
The Baptist story as it relates to human equality can be told alongside the larger narrative in the Western world. Leading the way for (believer’s) spiritual and (universal) soul equality (soul freedom) in the 17th and 18th centuries, Baptists thereafter vividly fractured over issues of racial (19th century) and gender (early 20th century) equality, fissures which have yet to be fully resolved. The civil rights era in America revealed that many, certainly most in the South, white Baptists a century after black Emancipation remained resolutely unwilling to grant equality to African Americans. The story of the late 20th century is one in which black Baptists, through tremendous sacrifice and persecution, led white Baptists to reluctantly embrace racial equality, while gender equality among Baptists gradually advanced among some Baptist groups. The early 21st century has witnessed a slow Baptist advance toward equality of sexual orientation, with persons under the age of 35, regardless of theological convictions, more readily embracive than older Baptists.
In summary, the narrative of the march of human equality in Baptist thought and life has been fueled by the 17th century Baptist conviction that human beings, as the creation of God, are inherently equal. The story of the Baptist striving for human equality is one of halting, albeit measurable progress in the face of ongoing conflict concerning the extent of the definition of “equality.”
In the midst of historical and present struggles, the movement toward human equality is part of the DNA of Baptists. The four-centuries-old Baptist journey of retreating from pre-modern “claims for strict separation and ranking by intrinsic worth toward an admission of the trivial differences” among humans (both within and without the Church), although uneven and far from over, continues. As the technologically-enabled, knowledge-driven 21st century world quickens the pace of the advance of human equality, the manner in which Baptists navigate the human dynamic in coming decades may be critical for the future vitality of the people called Baptists.
Next month — The Baptist Calling: Redeeming the World
Rick Wilson is a teaching theologian who takes risks, who believes that theological reflection and confession always risks saying too little or too much about the mysteries of God in Christ. Since 1988 he has been on the faculty in The Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University; since 2001 he has been chair of the department. In addition to taking theological risks, Rick is at home in the company of Lucy (wife of 38 years and counting), in the kitchen, in the stands of baseball stadiums at all levels, in the beeyard, and in diverse cultures. In 2014 Rick is on loan to the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, serving as President of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.
Like Esau and Jacob, heresy and orthodoxy grew up together. They are twins in conflict from the womb to adulthood and beyond. And, history shows, “the elder [does] serve the younger” (Gen 25.23). Often I hear “heresy is the mother of orthodoxy,” but I demur. They are twins born of the same mother and father. It makes no matter to me which we call “mother” or “father,” but the parents are well known: the early witness and confession that “Jesus is the Christ” (or “Jesus is Lord”), and the subsequent struggles to interpret what that means.
There is a pattern in church history that we should observe. A choice for a practice or an articulation of a belief leads to the establishment of a doctrine (teaching) that has the effect of drawing in the circumference of the circle of acceptable confession and practice.
The most compelling example of that principle is the Reformation in the sixteenth century. We cannot fully refer to the Roman Church (i.e., Roman Catholicism) until there were Protestants. And, Protestantism in all of its forms are responses to Roman Catholicism. Yes, in the West, Catholics and Protestants are twins born of the same parents: the early witness and confession that “Jesus is the Christ” (or “Jesus is Lord”), and the subsequent struggles to interpret what that means.
In the case of the Reformation, however, there is a long development of rapprochement that shifts attention away from heresy and toward schism. Despite the virulent condemnations that Catholics and Lutherans traded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the end those two world bodies conceded that the hostility between them was shaped by a history of misunderstanding. In the late 1990s the two groups agreed to (a) acknowledge their virulent pasts and (b) forge ahead with a renewed spirit of gospel unity. Note, however, that neither attempted to retract the condemnations, because they were, after all, woven into the fabric of history and could not be undone.
That leaves us with the question: What is heresy and what is orthodoxy and how are they woven into the fabric of history in ways that rarely allows the tension to be resolved? Why are the Marcionites, the Ebionites, the Nestorians, the Arians, and the Pelagians reviled and, at the same time, Protestants, Mormons, Dispensationalists, and Pentecostals have been regularized and, broadly, accepted under the umbrella of Christian faith? And, too, what of the prosperity gospel that is sweeping across West Africa and other places in the developing world?
If heresy and orthodoxy, like Esau and Jacob, are twins that grew up together, how can we distinguish between them?
I offer two models: one from geometry and one from physical chemistry. Let us agree that there is a core confession that describes Christianity. Let’s call it a center. Euclid–the father of geometry–defined a circle as “a set of points equidistant from an immovable central point.” He understood (a) that the roundness of a circle demanded a stable center and (b) that there could be an infinite number of circles emanating from the center. The idea of concentric circles allows for rich diversity of radii without compromising the center.
In the realm of physical chemistry we may find a more sophisticated model. The Periodic Table is arranged according to the atomic weight (or mass) of elements. Elements, as I understand it, have indivisible characteristics and are, at least, described by atomic weight, which depends upon the number of protons; even though electrons have minimal mass, their negative charge balances the positive charge of each proton. Carbon, for example, AN:6 always has six protons (+ charge) and six electrons (- charge).
Ah, but here is the sub-atomic mystery! Some nuclei have additional neutrons and, thereby, alter the radioactivity of the atom. We call these variations isotopes. An isotope is a variation of an atom that maintains its elemental integrity (number of protons), but is less stable because of the addition of one or more neutrons.
Following these models, we propose that heresy changes the center of the confession of faith (“Jesus is the Christ” or “Jesus is Lord”), or, heresy changes the charge to the confessions to the point that they are no longer elemental–indivisible components of the gospel’s core.
The inclusion of isotopes (physical chemistry) allows for a recognition that Protestantism, e.g., is still Christian at its core. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not our model can or should affirm the Marcionites, the Ebionites, the Nestorians, the Arians, and the Pelagians, or the Protestants, Mormons, Dispensationalists, and Pentecostals as “Christian.”
We are embarking upon an adventure of critical reflection about the core of our faith, with attention to doctrine(s) that address the tensions framed by heresy and orthodoxy. We will not assume to be definitive, but we will aspire to be reflective.
Books for Baptist bookshelves
Baptists in Early North America: A Series
Each volume is hardback and priced at $60. The two volumes noted below were published in 2013.
Mercer University Press is doing the Baptist world a great service in publishing this impressive series focused on early Baptists of North America.
The volumes are indeed, as the publisher notes, “a unique contribution to religious and Baptist scholarship” in their recovery and compilation of transcribed original documents from the 17th and 18th centuries. With historical introductions, scholarly notations, comprehensive bibliographies and indexes, these volumes are a researcher’s fantasy.
The first volume in this series is edited by William H. Brackney and Charles K. Hartman and features the Baptist congregation at Swansea, Massachusetts. Swansea’s greatest contribution to Baptist history is the treasured “Ilston Book,” the oldest surviving record of a Baptist congregation in North America. Reproduced in this volume, the material “follows the history, theology, and community development of a congregation transplanted from Wales to Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.” The material also “covers virtually all of the American religious heritage of the era—colonial community development, the Great Awakening, theological diversification, and the Second Great Awakenings.”
The second volume (pictured above) focuses on the influential First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, the church is often referred to simply and appropriately as the First Baptist Church in America. Featuring twelve original manuscripts and record books, as well as other church documents, this volume is edited and introduced by J. Stanley Lemons, Professor Emeritus of History at Rhode Island College.
Future volumes in the series promise to just as significant and will include:
First Baptist, Charleston South Carolina: K. Scott Culpepper,
First Freewill Baptist Meeting, New Durham, NH,: Scott Bryant
First Baptist, Philadelphia, Pa/Pennypack: Wm. Brackney
First Baptist Boston, MA: Thomas McKibbens
Middletown Baptist Church, Middletown, NY: David Laubach
Newport RI, 7th Day Baptist Church: Janet Thorngate
Sandy Creek, NC, Baptist Church: Keith Harper
Meherrin Baptis church, VA: Fred Anderson
First Baptist, Wolfville, NS: Patricia Townsend
History of New England, with particular Reference to the Baptists (1777-1796) by Isaac Backus: James P. Byrd
Materials Toward a History of the Baptists by Morgan Edwards: Curtis Freeman
The Father of Landmarkism: The Life of Ben M. Bogard
by J. Kristian Pratt
Hardback, 2013, 192 p. (website)
This fascinating volume is the authoritative word on Ben M. Bogard, “the preeminent leader of Landmark Baptists during the first half of the twentieth century … the personification of polemics, engaging the political, cultural, and religious issues of his day.” A contemporary of Frank Norris and Aimee Semple McPherson, he criticized both alongside his opposition to evolution and ecumenism. Bogard in “his roles as pastor, newspaper editor, and denominational leader … helped create sustaining organizations that met the needs of local congregations without violating the key Landmark Baptist principle of congregational independence … and became the father of the modern Landmark Baptist movement.”
The BH&HS’s newly-redesigned and expanded website offers many free online resources for Baptist clergy, laity and congregations. Following is a sampling of available resources:
1) One of the Society’s more popular resource collections is that of sermons featuring Baptist history, heritage and identity. The Sermons Resource section features dozens of sermons written by Baptist ministers including (the late) William Hull, Chuck Poole, Slayden Yarbrough, Thomas R. McKibbens, Joe Cutter, Craig Sherouse, Bob Setzer Jr, Dan Day, Robert Knight, Bill Salyers and Ken Sehested.
2) Baptists and Their Theology by Fisher Humphreys is an excellent brief, historical overview of how theology has impacted Baptist life and thought.
3) New this month is “Baptist Churches and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) in the United Kingdom,” an essay by Ian McDonald, member of the UK Baptist Historical Society.
4) One of the hotter topics in Baptist circles right now is that of “Nones,” a descriptor for the 1/3 of millennial Americans (a demographic age group of 18 to 34 year olds) who in surveys claim no religious affiliation. “Baptists and Nones? What Does the Future Hold” is an outline of challenges facing today’s churches. Discussion questions for congregations are included.
5) This month marks the third year of the Baptists and the American Civil War digital journal, a five year project sponsored by the BH&HS. A new essay is published daily, corresponding to 150 years ago on that day. In 1864 while Baptists of the South struggle with the plunging fortunes of their beloved Confederacy, while the black Baptist community North and South rejoices over the growing numbers of emancipated slaves. Within the struggles, joys, and complex dynamics of this saga are important lessons for the present.
June 4-6, 2014
This year’s annual, combined conference of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and the Association of Librarians and Archivists of Baptist Institutions (ALABI) is themed “Exploring the ‘Other’ Baptists.”
The host venue of the conference is Sioux Falls Seminary in conjunction with the University of Sioux Falls.
Keynote speakers include Bill Leonard (Wake Forest University). Approximately 35 break out papers are on tap.
Online registration is now open; BH&HS members receive a discount.
March 28-29 2014 — Annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina General Assembly, First Baptist Church, Greensboro. The Baptist History and Heritage Society will be hosting a workshop and will have a display. More information.
June 4-6, 2014 — The annual Baptist History and Heritage Society conference, held in conjunction with the Association of Librarians and Archivists of Baptist Institutions (ALABI), will be Sioux Falls, South Dakota this year. Host: Sioux Falls Seminary. Theme: “Exploring the ‘Other’ Baptists.” Registration is now open. More information.
June 23-27, 2014 — Annual national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Atlanta, Georgia. More information.
July 6-12, 2014 — BWA Annual Gathering, Izmir, Turkey at the Swissotel Grand Efes Izmir. More information.