Archive for January, 2008

New Year’s Resolution: This Year a Budding Historian!

January 4th, 2008 Posted in Historians

I have entered a new phase of my life: full-time professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I am deeply humbled and in some ways terrified! But I see it also as an opportunity to be what God has called me to be: an historian.

I wrestled with that calling long and hard. By that I do not mean that I ever fled from being an historian. In some ways it fits me as naturally as my skin! But for a long time, in a church culture that sees calling as primarily meaning becoming a missionary or pastor, I could not believe that this was my calling. I suppose it was not until I was fortyish that I began to accept it as my calling.

Since then I have been learning what it is that God has called me to do—and learning what he has not called me to do. The latter has been especially very difficult, since there is this underground rivulet (or is it a stream?) in my heart that keeps hankering to be more than an historian. But that is my calling—after Christian, husband, dad, and friend.

And then I look at what it means to be an historian—and that daunts me as well! Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, I will begin to be an historian, I think. But I am nowhere near where I should be—and I am in my early fifties!

A fitting new year’s resolution: this year a budding historian!

Interpreting English Calvinistic Baptist History

January 4th, 2008 Posted in 17th Century, 18th Century

The reigning paradigm for interpreting English Calvinistic Baptist history is as follows:

Significant growth in the 1640s and 1650s

Persecution but still growth from 1660-1688

Increasing stagnation and even decline from 1688 to the 1770s /1780s

Revival between the 1770s/1780s and the 1830s

This is a common-enough hermeneutic grid for making sense of the English Calvinistic Baptist story. But it makes sense only if one presumes that the whole story is about numerical growth.

But what if we approached the whole history from the 1640s to the 1830s from a somewhat different angle, say the angle of being pilgrims and strangers? Do you still get the same graph of growth, decline and growth? No, then the pattern is somewhat different. Then the early period—when the historical background was the Puritan Cause Triumphant—is not as close to the New Testament pattern, since many of the Calvinistic Baptists were wielding power in the army and were influential in Puritan politics (witness Ireland, for example, and William Kiffin). The second era, the one of overt persecution, looks a lot more like New Testament faithfulness.

And the third era is not so stark. Why? Because the Baptists have been relegated to second-class status—and there are significant numbers abandoning the good ship Dissent (witness the Wesley brothers’ parents and Faithful Teate’s son, Nahum Tate). Then, the Baptists increasingly see themselves as a beleaguered minority, a pilgrim people in an alien land. Now, the question which must be asked is this: how did the Baptists of the third era from the 1680s to the 1770s—nearly hundred years—interpret the pilgrim people themes of the New Testament. Are they truly a pilgrim people? If so, then the story of that period is not so bad after all.

Two important caveats to all of this: I am not discounting the importance of evangelism. Far from it. But I am asking whether or not that is the only heuristic tool available. Second, I am not completely rejecting the older interpretation of this era from the 1688 to the 1770s as one of stagnation and decline. I am just seeking to see whether or not other interpretative models can yield valuable insights. PS: a blessed new year to all of my readers!