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Shapers of Baptist social ethics

Larry L. McSwain & William Loyd Allen (eds), Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2008).

By Rod Benson

In November 2004, I wrote to 42 Australian Baptist leaders, asking each of them the following question: “If Henlee Barnette, T.B. Maston, Martin Luther King, Jr and Clarence Jordan are viewed by some as prominent North American heirs of the rich Baptist tradition in social ethics, who would you name as Australian equivalents?”

Those who replied submitted a total of 15 names, including two women and six deceased. Only three received more than one mention: Tim Costello (9), Thorwald Lorenzen (4), and Athol Gil (3). All 15 deserve to be better known by Australian Baptists, and there are others largely unknown whose contributions warrant celebration and analysis. And there is much more that can be achieved—whether in theological ethics, teaching the political and professional implications of the gospel, demonstrating Christian commitment to social ethics and social justice through prophetic action, or engaging in grass-roots advocacy or political lobbying.

As with all mentoring, however, we can look to what others are doing elsewhere in the world, or have done in the past, for ideas and inspiration. The editors of this 354-page book have done this for their own community, and for Baptists more widely. Larry McSwain is Professor of Ethics and Leadership and holds the Watkins Christian Foundation Chair of Christian Ministry at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. Loyd Allen is Professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation and holds the Sylvan Hills Church Chair of Baptist History at the same institution. Each chapter is written by an expert on the subject under discussion.

The book falls into three parts. The first, titled “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” examines the Christian social witness of Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester and Nannie Helen Burroughs. The second section is on “Thinkers and Teachers,” with chapters on T.B. Maston, Henlee Barnette, James McClendon, J. Deotis Roberts, and Paul D. Simmons. The third part, “Activists: Dreamers of a New World Order,” celebrates the contributions of Clarence Jordan, Jasper Martin and Millard Fuller at Koinonia Farm, Martin Luther King Jr, Jimmy Carter, C. Anne Davis, Glen Stassen, Tony Campolo, J.M. Dawson and James Dunn, and Foy Valentine.

A ten-page preface sets the chapters in context, a concluding essay identifies key issues and potential trends, and there is a bibliography and an index. The primary criterion in selecting persons for consideration was that they represent an unapologetically Baptist stance whose central vision was social change. Many of the chapter authors are also significant Baptist teachers and activists, such as Bill Tillman, David Goatley, David Stricklin and David Gushee (who presented the third annual John Saunders Lecture on behalf of the Baptist Union of NSW Social Issues Committee at Morling College in July 2010).

One of the joys of reading a book like this is discovering Baptist luminaries of whom one was unaware. For me, this included Muriel Lester, Paul D. Simmons and C. Anne Davis. The chapter on Koinonia Farm filled out my otherwise sketchy knowledge of a brilliant if flawed Baptist social justice experiment; and the chapters on very well known leaders offer important background information that elucidates how their early education and experience, and their spiritual influences, informed their commitment to and practice of social ethics.

“Telling the Baptist story is somewhat like a group of adventurers documenting one of the world’s least known river systems,” observe McSwain and Allen in their preface (p. ix). Indeed it is, but it is a story well worth telling for our own edification, and for the blessing and chastening of the whole church.

This book provides an important contribution to twentieth century Baptist history, biography and social ethics from a North American perspective unconstrained by the hegemony of the Southern Baptist Convention. For a subsequent volume I would recommend chapters on Americans Denton Lotz, Robert Parham and Al Gore, and Australians Athol Gil, Jill Manton, Tim Costello and Dave Andrews.

I am not very familiar with contemporary British Baptist social ethics, with its stronger ecumenical approach to justice issues, but there are no doubt worthy subjects for consideration among British Baptists too, along with those from other places.  Perhaps the time will come for publication of an Australian and New Zealand volume.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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