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The Challenge of Being Baptist

Owning a Scandalous Past and an Uncertain Future

Bill J. Leonard

Publication Year: 2010

The largest Protestant denomination in the United States is in the midst of a serious identity crisis; many Baptists are revisiting or turning away from the tradition, leaving others to become increasingly uncertain that the denomination can remain viable. Here, however, noted Baptist historian Bill Leonard wades through the murky waters of the Baptist past and explores the historic commitments of this unique people—all in an effort to shed light on its contemporary dilemmas and evaluate the prospects for a Baptist future. While encouraging members of the faith to thoroughly and fairly evaluate their heritage—and its many blunders along the way—Leonard ultimately argues that the Baptists’ contentious “audacious witness” shown throughout its history still has a worthy role to play in the twenty-first century.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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Preface: What’s in a Name?

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pp. ix-xii

It was the order of the day (though I am sorry to say it) that we were constantly followed by a certain set of proselyting Baptist preachers. These new and wicked settlements were seldom visited by these Baptist preachers until the Methodist preacher entered them; then, when a revival was gotten up, or the work of God revived, these Baptist preachers came rushing in, and they generally sung their sermons; and when they struck the long roll, or their sing-song mode of preaching, in substance it was “water!” “water!” “you must follow your blessed Lord down to the water!”. . .

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1 Being Baptist

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pp. 1-14

On the eve of the American Revolution, Anglican parson Charles Woodmason described the carryings on among the people called Baptists in the “Carolina backcountry.” He wrote,..

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2 Historical Consciousness among Baptists

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pp. 15-38

For some Baptists, past and present, that bit of nineteenth-century doggerel illustrates one popular response to a sense of historical consciousness. It reflects a powerful and enduring theory of Baptist origins, the Old Landmark belief that Baptists antedate all other churches through a historical lineage stretching directly to Jesus' immersion by John in the river Jordan. As one frontier preacher ...

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3 Baptist Polity

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pp. 39-52

In a confession of faith written in 1611 and titled A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, the earliest Baptists described the congregational polity of their new communion. The article declared,...

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4 Biblicist but Not Bible?

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pp. 53-74

In 1608 Baptist founder John Smyth wrote to distinguish his constantly changing theology from that of the “brethren of the separation,” those Puritans with whom he had departed from the Church of England, a church he called “anti-Christ.” While his views on church government and Scripture differed significantly from the Presbyterian-Separatists with whom he was previously aligned, Smyth nonetheless agreed with them as to the foundation of the “true church” as distinguished from the “falsehood” of the Anglicans.

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5 Once Saved, Almost Saved

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pp. 75-94

In 1609 John Smyth and Thomas Helwys led a small group of English expatriates in forming the first Baptist church in the world, constituted around faith and baptism by triune affusion (pouring water on the head three times). In 1610 the group took another action that was to become classically Baptist: they split, with Smyth and others seeking membership with the Waterlander Mennonites and Helwys retaining leadership of the Baptist remnant.

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6 A Congregational Sacramentalism

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pp. 95-106

Previous chapters have already confirmed that early Baptist identity was characterized by emphasis on biblical authority, regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism by immersion, congregational church polity, religious liberty, and the priesthood of all who claim faith in Christ. Amid those initially separatist, ultimately sectarian characteristics is an enduring legacy centered in (to repeat) the importance of uncoerced faith grounded in the power of conscience and the inevitability of dissent.

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7 Toward a Baptist Future

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pp. 107-128

If Baptists are a case study in denominational transition in twentyfirst- century America, then great challenges lie ahead for all Protestant traditions as churches, boards, agencies, schools, and other institutions confront the period of permanent transition that has descended on religious bodies across the nation and around the world. Contemporary congregations, whether thriving or declining in membership, focused or distracted in their identity, face great challenges related to the nature of the church, the purpose of its ministry, worship, and sacraments, and its sense of mission.


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pp. 129-138


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pp. 139-146


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pp. 147-154

E-ISBN-13: 9781602584877
E-ISBN-10: 1602584877
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602583061
Print-ISBN-10: 1602583064

Page Count: 162
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1