Dr. Thomas Kidd and Dr. Barry Hankins were kind enough to field a few questions I threw their way arising from their excellent book, Baptists in America. I do greatly appreciate their willingness to do so! For other interviews I’ve conducted over the years, go here.
Drs. Hankins and Kidd, I would like to thank you for writing Baptists in America. It was very well done and very helpful. I could not help but wonder while reading your chronicle of the many divisions within the Baptist family over the years whether or not detractors of the Reformation might not point to Baptists in particular as evidence for the claim that the only thing we accomplish in ridding ourselves of a single pope is making every person their own pope? Does the Baptist experience validate warnings from detractors about unending schisms among those who detach themselves from something like a magisterium?
Kidd: I don’t think Baptists have the market cornered on theological schism, but they’ve been awfully good at it! Of course, we have to begin any such discussion with whether God intended to establish a magisterium. If He did, then we’d better get in line with it. If not, then He must have anticipated that believers would occasionally have a hard time agreeing about what the Bible teaches about issues such as church governance, baptism, and other important matters. I adhere to the latter view.
I would like to thank you for your very insightful emphasis on the experience of African American Baptists. It was fascinating to see how Baptists in America occupied places all along the spectrum on the question of race and integration. Furthermore, I learned a great deal about the journey of African American Baptists that I simply did not know. Could you speak to this emphasis on the black Baptist experience in the book? Asking as one who has been more ignorant of this story than I care to admit, is it safe to say that the experience of African American Baptists has been neglected in the majority of recountings of the Baptist story? Do we have reasons today to hope that things are, overall, better on this front, or is that naive?
Hankins: It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of Baptist churches in the African-American experience. According to Pew Research, 40% of African-Americans identify with a black Baptist denomination. Added to this are black Baptists in predominately white denominations like the SBC. By comparison, roughly 11% of the total U.S. population identifies as Baptist. As we say in the book, the National Baptist Convention is not only the largest black denomination in America, but the largest African-American organization of any kind. The contribution of black Baptists to the development black gospel music is highly significant in the story of American religion, not to mention the connections between black gospel, R&B, soul, jazz, and even hip-hop musical styles.
Then, there’s politics. African-American political movements and leaders have come straight out of the black churches for much of American history after the Civil War. In short, black Baptists make up only about 4% of the total American population, but their influence far exceeds what their numbers would warrant. Finally, there’s the tragic story of slavery followed by the almost complete segregation of black and white Baptists that continues to today, which, of course, is true in other denominations as well. I had a general idea of all of this when we started the book, but when asked once by a reporter what surprised me in my study of Baptists overall, my response was the influence, importance, and significance of the black Baptist experience for the development of American culture, not just American religion.
Does the rise of modern Evangelicalism perhaps offer an avenue for reunification among otherwise divided Baptist groups and is it fair to say that even the SBC has embraced the reality of post-denominationalism to some extent?
Hankins: Even though Protestant groups often downplay their denominational identity, I think it unlikely that most will take the next step toward unification. Much of the time in religious history when two groups unite, a faction from each opposes the merger and starts a separate group. The result is that the merger of two denominations results in three. I’m speaking somewhat in jest, but I do think a more constructive approach is for groups to remain distinct, even cultivate their distinctiveness, then work together on common projects while respecting differences. A good example was the old Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. It consisted of 8 or 9 separate Baptist groups that all worked together on religious liberty issues in Washington. But, they didn’t merge as denominations, and, in fact, the SBC pulled out after the conservatives took over.
The whole unification thing is compounded when it comes to Baptists because, as we argue in the book, Baptists are so diverse. Theologically liberal Baptists have no interest in merging with conservative or fundamentalist Baptists, and conservatives are often even more opposed to any such notion. That said, there is no doubt that the conservative dominated SBC (circa 1992-present), does identify as “evangelical” in a way the old moderate SBC never did. Still, while accepting the evangelical mantle, and recognizing they have much in common with other evangelicals, SBC’ers usually maintain a strong sense of being distinctively Southern Baptist, and I expect that to continue. As a recruiting/evangelism measure, many churches have changed the sign in front of their buildings to eliminate the word “Baptist.” But, I don’t see mass mergers on the horizon.
As Protestant/Baptist historians, I wonder if you would be willing to offer a response to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s famous statement, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”?
Kidd: It is true that the broad sweep of church history gives us a deeper sense of connection to the great figures of that history, many of whom were not Protestants! For Baptists, history can be pretty humbling, knowing that for about a millennium, very few Christians ever practiced believer’s baptism. Nevertheless, we have to set revelation and the biblical record as higher authorities than church history. Sometimes the church did lose key teachings and practices during eras of its history.
Finally, just how significant do you think the revival of Calvinism will end up being in shaping the future of the SBC?
Kidd: As we show in the book, the revival of Calvinism is just that, a “re-viving” of a once-vibrant theological tradition within Baptist life. There were Calvinist and Arminian strains within the Baptist movement from its early modern beginnings. But because of changes associated with the Great Awakening of the mid-1700s, Baptists in America became, for a time, overwhelmingly Calvinist. That distinctive Calvinism faded somewhat in the nineteenth century, because of a new emphasis on human liberty coming out of the American Revolution. Doctrinaire Calvinism also became associated, fairly or not, with the Primitive Baptist tradition, or the “anti-mission” Baptist movement of the antebellum era. Missionary-minded Baptists came to see hard-edged Calvinism as contrary to missions and evangelism, even though many of the greatest champions of evangelism, such as George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon, have also been Calvinists.
I won’t try to adjudicate the Arminian/Calvinist controversy of recent years here, but I hope that Bible-believing Baptists will leave space for that theological tension to exist without going to war over it. It has always been a part of Baptist life, and of the broader evangelical movement.