Extract from a column by Martyn E. Marty, “American Baptists,” Sightings, 24 October 2011, published by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School:
… Notre Dame’s Mark Noll, who knows as much as anyone about this subject, wrote in the July-August issue of Books & Culture magazine, “So You’re a Baptist—What Might that Mean?” Answer: almost anything and everything, most of which is congruent with basic (Protestant) Christian church positions as professed in many other (and mainly conservative) Protestant bodies. He points to the Southern Baptist Convention’s 16 million members in the United States, plus more in 75 other separate Baptist denominations, based in thousands of local churches, many of them gathered into and/or separated into many thousands of congregations. Large African American Baptist groups enrich the mix and render even more complex all attempts to generalize.
Two recent books which Noll reviews help him sort out themes, but he cannot avoid gasping a bit at internal varieties. The books and review pay attention to niceties of Baptist teaching about, yes, baptism plus “soul liberty” and more. Whoever reads the books and the review cannot miss the accent on Baptist suspicion of “earthly authority,” such as that in the civil order and in blunt practical politics. Here is where irony comes in: the public sees many kinds of Baptists, including those in the Southern Baptist Convention, fearing anyone’s use of the Christian cross and message (about a kingdom “not of this world”) now seeking privilege for many kinds of Christian endeavor.
Celebrators of “separation of church and state” who were not Baptist but were friendly to Baptists for their independent and non-dependent-on-the-state stances busy themselves now making sense of modern Baptist flip-flops, or reassuring themselves with the reminder that there are many different kinds of Baptists’ stances—and Baptists.
Mark Noll, “So You’re a Baptist: What Might that Mean?,” Books & Culture: A Christian Review, July/August 2011.
David W. Bebbington, Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (Baylor University Press, 2010).
Robert E. Johnson, A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Cambridge University Press, 2010).