Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Baptist History Archive



February 2014



Noteworthy Links: Early Baptists and Anabaptists

Written by , Posted in Books, History, Theology

Anabaptists and Contemporary BaptistsMy friend Steve Weaver has written a helpful post titled “Are We Entering  Golden Age of 17th-Century Baptist Literature?” He mentions eight new or forthcoming works, including both scholarly monographs and popular reprints with semi-scholarly introductions. Publishers include Mercer University Press, Regents Park College Publications, Pickwick, Borderstone and Reformed Baptist Academic Press. Some of the works are related to Particular Baptists, while two are monographs on the General Baptist messenger/theologian Thomas Grantham. (Grantham is my all-time favorite Arminian-ish Baptist.) My own expertise is in Baptist Studies in the 18th and 20th centuries, so I’m very interested in learning from these new publications. Thanks to Steve for pointing them out.

Scot McKnight has an interesting post on Anabaptist identity as envisioned by the influential 20th-century scholar Harold Bender. McKnight interacts with Bender’s vision of Anabaptism while also referencing the thought of other scholars who demur from the Bender thesis. This is a good, short introduction to the interpretation of Anabaptism that has influenced many Baptist scholars (both conservative and moderate) who hold to an “Anabaptist-kinship” view of Baptist origins and/or an Anabaptist-friendly understanding of Baptist identity. If you are interested in reading a helpful volume written from this perspective, see the recent festschrift in honor of Paige Patterson, The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists (B&H Academic, 2013), edited by my friend Malcolm Yarnell.

If you are wondering about my own views about the possible relationship between some of the Anabaptists and the earliest English Baptists, I would point you to three  blog posts I’ve written for Between the Times:  “Toward a Convergent View of Baptist Origins” (part one and part two) and “Why I Don’t Freak Out about the Anabaptists.” I would also recommend the first chapter of James Leo Garrett’s Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Mercer University Press, 2009) and the introduction to Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People (Judson Press, 1999), edited by Curtis Freeman, James Wm. McClendon and C. Rosalee Velloso Da Silva.





December 2013



Springtime in Tennessee, Or, Where We Will Be During My Sabbatical

Written by , Posted in Family, Ministry

Union UniversityThis coming Friday, we will celebrate our fall graduation exercises at Southeastern Seminary. When the ceremony ends around noon, I will be finished teaching for several months. The trustees and administration at Southeastern have been gracious enough to grant me a sabbatical during the spring semester 2014. I will not have any classes at Southeastern until I teach our SBC Annual Meeting class in June 2014.

In recent months, we began to look at the possibility of relocating during my sabbatical so that I would have more freedom to research and write. I have several contracted projects to work on during my study leave: 1) I’m finishing up a co-authored Baptist history textbook with B&H Academic; 2) I’m editing a volume in the forthcoming Works of Andrew Fuller series with Walter de Gruyter; 3) I’m co-edited a collection of essays on Andrew Fuller and his contemporaries for Pickwick Press; 4) I’m contributing two entries to A Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia with Eerdmans; and 5) I’m contributing a chapter on John L. Dagg to a volume with Particular Baptist Press. Because this is a lot of work in a relatively short amount of time, we decided it was paramount to get in an atmosphere where there are as few distractions as possible.

I’m excited to announce that our family will be relocating to Union University in Jackson, Tennessee for the spring 2014 semester. If you are not familiar with Union, it is one of the healthiest evangelical universities in America. I have many friends who teach at Union and we are excited about being a part of their vibrant campus community. We will move to Jackson in early January and will likely remain there until the end of June. We are truly grateful to President David Dockery and the Union administration for their hospitality and look forward to spending almost six months in Jackson. We are also excited about being a short distance from good friends (and key archival collections) in Nashville.

We will miss our friends at Southeastern Seminary and First Baptist Church of Durham. But we are excited about this providential opportunity to pull back from our regular routine and spend some focused time on research, writing and, Lord willing, family excursions to new places. We would covet your prayers as we prepare for our relocation in less than a month and as I try to be as productive as I can during my study leave.



May 2013



Recommended Books on Baptist Historical Theology

Written by , Posted in SBC, Theology

James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Mercer University Press, 2009). This volume, written by the dean of Southern Baptist theologians, is the most exhaustive survey of Baptist theology. As a general rule, Garrett sticks with description rather than prescription, providing a useful summary of major figures, movements, themes, and controversies. One particularly helpful contribution is Garrett’s discussion of Baptist biblical theologians alongside historical theologians.

William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Mercer University Press, 2004). Brackney is arguably the most influential Baptist historian in North America. His volume is more interpretive than Garrett’s and is more overtly colored by a more moderate perspective. Brackney is particularly interested in mapping out the evolution of Baptist identity, using the image of genetics as an interpretive grid. Brackney was for many years an American Baptist, so his discussion of theological trends among Baptists in the North is especially helpful.

Timothy George and David S.Dockery, eds., Baptist Theologians(Broadman, 1990). This volume is a collection of essays introducing some of the key theologians in the Baptist tradition. The subjects and contributors represent a wide variety of theological perspectives. A shorter (and more uniformly conservative) version of this book, which includes some new essays, was published as Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (B&H Academic, 2001).

Fisher Humphreys, The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed and What It Means To Us All, 2nd ed. (Smyth & Helwys, 2002). Paul Basden, ed., Has Our Theology Changed? Southern Baptist Thought Since 1845 (B&H, 1994). These two volumes survey the history of Southern Baptist theology from a mostly moderate perspective. Humphrey’s volume does a fairly good job of identifying different theological “camps” among Southern Baptists, while Basden’s collection of essays focuses upon specific doctrinal topics.

L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, 2nd ed. (B&H Academic, 2000). This influential volume looks at the history of Baptist perspectives on the inspiration, authority, and truthfulness of the Bible. The authors demonstrate that Baptists have normally held to a high view of Scripture and defended its inerrancy and infallibility.

Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, 20th Anniversary ed. (Founders Press, 2006). Nettles’s volume focuses upon the history of Calvinism in the Baptist tradition. His overall thesis is sound, though historians might quibble with him over specific details and individuals. This revised edition includes controversies in the SBC over Calvinism through 2005.

Anthony R. Cross, Baptism and the Baptists: Theology and Practice in Twentieth-Century Britain (Paternoster, 2000). Stanley K. Fowler,More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism (Wipf and Stock, 2007). These two volumes discuss the history of the debate among British Baptists over the nature of baptism, specifically whether or not there is a sacramental element to baptism. Though relatively few North American Baptists have been participants in this debate, this issue has dominated British Baptist discussions much like biblical inerrancy and gender roles have dominated Southern Baptist discussions.

(Note: This post is cross-published at Historica Ecclesiastica, the blog of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies)



May 2013



Leon McBeth and My Personal Journey into Baptist Studies

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Longtime Southwestern Seminary church historian Leon McBeth passed away last week at the age of 81. I never met Dr. McBeth, though I have been around him once or twice at conferences. My own career in theological education began shortly after his had ended. But like anyone interested in Baptist history, I have learned much from Dr. McBeth. His widely adopted textbook The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Broadman, 1987) influenced my personal journey into Baptist Studies at a key moment in my spiritual pilgrimage.

By the time I was a senior at Brewton-Parker College (BPC), I had become very interested in the history, identity, and theology of the Baptists—what I now call Baptist Studies. My interest arose from my own existential struggles with my place in the Baptist world. I came of age in a conservative Southern Baptist congregation in Waycross, Georgia. When I transferred to BPC as a college junior and began taking classes in the Christianity Department, I discovered that most of my professors were not as conservative as I was. The next eighteen months proved to be crucial in forming me into the minister and professor that I am today.

Honestly, I was pretty confused for those first three semesters I was at Brewton-Parker. On the one hand, I was quite certain my home church wasn’t “fundamentalist,” a word I heard a lot at BPC. (I knew plenty of real fundamentalists.) On the other hand, I was pretty sure that my professors weren’t “liberals,” another word wafting through the South Georgia air. (I had read some real liberals, and my professors weren’t that.) My professors had each earned one or more degrees at either Southern Seminary or Baylor University (or both) during the1980s and now considered themselves to be moderates. My home church’s pastor, on the other hand, was a Criswell College graduate who spoke of W.A. Criswell and Paige Patterson with great reverence. Where was my place in SBC life?

I began reading about recent Southern Baptist history in my spare time, trying to get a handle on “The Controversy” that had clearly affected everything around me. I read books by Grady Cothen, Walter Shurden, Fisher Humphreys, and Bill Leonard. I read Paul Pressler’s autobiography. I found articles by Paige Patterson and Al Mohler and read everything I could find written by David Dockery or Timothy George. Though I learned much and began to figure out where I stood in SBC life, I was in danger of having an ahistorical understanding of Baptist identity. I didn’t yet know the wider Baptist story or really even the Southern Baptist story prior to about 1960. This is where Leon McBeth helped me the most.

My senior year at BPC, I took an elective course in Baptist history. Our textbook was The Baptist Heritage. The book provided me with a coherent grand narrative of Baptist history into which I could contextualize my own Baptist identity. One of our assignments in the class was to write a critical book review of a recent work in Baptist Studies. My professor, knowing of my interest in this topic, assigned me Paul Basden’s edited volume Has Our Theology Changed? Southern Baptist Thought since 1845 (B&H, 1994). Basden was a fine historical theological complement to McBeth, helping me to further put together some of the pieces.

What began as a personal struggle to understand my own sense of Baptist identity was fast evolving into a professional calling. In the fall of 2000, just weeks before I married Leah, we were on a date at a restaurant in Vidalia, Georgia. I asked Leah if she could see me as a church history professor whose expertise was Baptist history. She said that she could. I told her I would have to take school more seriously and work harder to make high grades in all my classes. She told me she thought that I could do that (Leah had always thought I was pretty lazy in my academics, and she was right). I told her I would have to earn a PhD after I finished my MDiv. She said she was fine with me pursuing research doctoral studies. I finished at BPC in December 2001, relocated to Southern Seminary in June 2002, and by August 2007 was teaching church history full-time at Southeastern Seminary.

Leon McBeth didn’t introduce me to Baptist history, but he provided the initial scaffolding from which I’ve erected my own teaching ministry. I don’t agree with many of Dr. McBeth’s interpretations of Baptist history, and The Baptist Heritage is now pretty dated, but I still haven’t found a textbook that is as exhaustive as “Big Blue,” the nickname many have given to McBeth’s magnum opus. I have used it in my classes and regularly recommend it to others. If you are a Baptist minister, you really need to have The Baptist Heritage on your shelf.

Dr. McBeth also wrote many other books on such topics as women in Baptist life, Texas Baptist history, and English Baptist writings on religious liberty, in addition to dozens of influential scholarly articles and contributed book chapters. In 2011, Mercer University Press published a festschrift in honor of Dr. McBeth titled Turning Points in Baptist History, edited by Walter Shurden and Michael Williams. The latest issue of the scholarly journal Baptist History and Heritage is also dedicated to Dr. McBeth. If you want to read some of the obituaries and tributes to Dr. McBeth that have been written in the past few days, check out the links below.

Baptist Historian Leon McBeth Dies” (Associated Baptist Press)

A Tribute to H. Leon McBeth” (Charles DeWeese)

Dr. Leon McBeth Dies at Age 81” (Baptist History and Heritage Society)

Harry Leon McBeth” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Church history professor for 45 years, Leon McBeth, dies at 81” (Southwestern Seminary)



April 2013



Baptists, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Racial Reconciliation

Written by , Posted in History, SBC, Theology

The Baptist History and Heritage Society will hold its annual meeting on May 20-22 in Richmond, VA. This year’s theme is “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time.” The keynote speakers include Harry Stout of Yale University, Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond, and Andrew Manis of Middle Georgia State College. These men are significant scholars of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and race relations in the South, respectively. Over two dozen other scholars and graduate students will be reading shorter papers on topics related to the conference theme.

I will be reading a paper at the conference titled “Francis Wayland’s Moderate Critique of Southern Slavery.” Wayland was the longtime president of Brown University and arguably the leading Baptist public intellectual and missions advocate in mid-nineteenth century America. He outlined an influential “moderate” critique of slavery in his writings, most notably his Elements of Moral Science (1835; revised 1843) and Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution (1845). The latter work, a point-counterpoint volume co-authored with Southern Baptist pastor and pro-slavery advocate Richard Fuller, was republished in 2008 by Mercer University Press; my SEBTS colleague and PhD mentor Keith Harper and I co-edited the new edition.

You can register for the conference and see the full list of speakers at the BH&HS website. If you are interested in Baptist history, the Civil War, or the intersection of religion and race in southern history, then you should consider attending the conference.