Review: Through a Glass Darkly

Courtney Pace

Courtney Pace is Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary.

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Courtney Pace, "Review: Through a Glass Darkly," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Keith Harper, editor. Through a Glass Darkly: Contested Notions of Baptist Identity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. 333 pp.  ISBN 978-0817357122.

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Through a Glass Darkly explores themes, biographies, and historiographies in Baptist history. It aims to facilitate new scholarly perspectives of the Baptist past in order to understand Baptists in the present day. This task necessarily involves explaining the long history of contested Baptist identity, including the various ways this identity has manifested itself.

Keith Harper has assembled essays by many of today’s leading scholars of Baptist history. Ten of the thirteen authors are senior scholars, and three are Associate Professors. Institutional representation is equally divided among public universities, private universities, and Baptist institutions. The authors display strong geographic diversity, though leaning somewhat to the southeast.

The essays in Through a Glass Darkly’s first section on key themes argue for religious liberty as crucial to Baptist identity. Bill Leonard maintains that early Baptists enacted religious liberty via individual conscience. Although later Baptists have enjoyed religious privilege, the truest Baptist identity exists with separation between church and state. Jewel Spangler recovers lost narratives of dissent, rejecting oversimplified notions of democratic Baptist life, given ways that Baptists internally suppressed equality for women and slaves. These two essays both highlight the importance of religious liberty and acknowledge how Baptists have deviated from this historical commitment.

Through a Glass Darkly’s five biographical essays examine the tension between accurate biography and the appropriation of historical figures to support various agendas. James Byrd argues that Baptists have made Roger Williams whatever they needed him to be for their causes—the ideal Baptist. Curtis Freeman maintains that E.Y. Mullins avoided the fundamentalist / liberalist dichotomy for the sake of unity. Elizabeth Flowers explores how Southern Baptists have appropriated the legacy of Lottie Moon to serve their particular political and theological purposes; Baptist portrayals of the missionary have vacillated between martyr, debutante, preacher, and domestic role model. Christopher Evans demonstrates the legacy of Walter Rauschebusch in all later study of social gospel ministry. Edward Crowther examines biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., favoring those that describe him as radically oriented toward the social gospel. These essays demonstrate how Baptists have revised these figures to support emerging Baptist identities, and they uncover patterns of revisionist history and their effects within Baptist life.

In the collection’s five historiographical essays, John G. Crowley examines the limitations of Primitive Baptist historiography. This historiography’s oral nature has resulted in skepticism about written histories and disagreements regarding key elements of Primitive Baptist history. James Patterson discloses how Landmarkers revised history to support their agenda, but also how twentieth century historians have projected twentieth century issues into nineteenth century history. Paul Harvey nuances the commonly held belief that black Baptist churches were entrenched in the civil rights movement: Black Baptist preachers supported the movement such that the movement was rooted in churches, but few did so publicly of prohibitive danger, a dynamic that persists for Black Baptists in the South. Alan Scot Willis argues that SBC leaders in the Cold War era conflated conservative theology with patriotism. The New Christian Right capitalized on this conflation, pitting secular political ideologies against notions of Christian America. Finally, Barry Hankins examines the theory that fundamentalism was irreconcilable with Baptist identity. Though liberals and hyper-conservatives vary in their understandings of Baptist identity, Hankins ultimately argues that “Baptist” can describe them all. These pieces all seek to frame current understandings of Baptist identity within historical precedent, examining how the study of Baptist history has been shaped by and continues to shape Baptist identity. These pieces also reveal the ongoing disagreements among Baptists on issues like race, gender, intellectualism, civic engagement, and ecumenism.

Through a Glass Darkly lacks a concluding piece that brings together the book’s themes. What do these articles tell us about the study of Baptist history, and about where Baptists are moving based on their understanding of historic Baptist identity? Do the primary figures in Baptist history (Williams, Rauschenbusch, Mullins, King, etc) accurately convey Baptist history, or do their narratives counter the experiences of most Baptists in their time? What practices among Baptists lead to continuity with Baptist beginnings, and which are evolving to new Baptist identities? Is there space in Baptist life to critique such disparities, or does Baptist soul competency leave the door open wide for any who seek shelter within? Individual articles within this volume address these issues in part, but a concluding chapter would have helped integrate the collective scholarship of the book and invited reflection on new directions in Baptist studies.

Harper’s impressive collection also contains some glaring inequities. Eleven of the thirteen authors are male, and all thirteen are white. This imbalance extends to the essays, which focus almost exclusively on white Baptist males. Of twelve chapters, two address [white] women, and two address race (one on Martin Luther King, Jr., the other on the civil rights movement, yet both omit black women). The discussion focuses overwhelmingly on the Southern Baptist Convention, with minimal exploration of contested notions of Black Baptist identity or other Baptist denominations.

Baptist scholarship clearly needs to recover lost voices, reexamine familiar texts, and reframe narratives to incorporate new, representative knowledge of Baptist history and identity. Ann Braude’s “Women’s History Is American Religious History” (1996) wisely argues that women’s numerical dominance in American Christianity necessitates studying their religious experience. How would Baptist studies evolve with acknowledgement of its full constituencies, requiring representative sources for beliefs and practices, and acknowledging the complexity of Baptist identity across intellectual, class, racial, gender, sexual, and geographical divides? Only then can Baptist scholarship accurately explore Baptist identities.