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Four Centuries of Baptist Voices

Oct. 29, 2009

Baptist minister Vavasor Powell of Wales ruffled feathers in 1649 when he quoted the book of Acts to scold pastors who disdained youthful preachers as upstarts.

The late Clarence Jordan, a 1960s civil rights activist, raised eyebrows with his interpretation of Acts, in which he compared a Jewish judicial council to the Ku Klux Klan.

And the late Baptist minister Ella Mitchell stirred things up in 1985, remarking that when it came to the Holy Spirit, God had "dumped the bucket on a whole lot of women a whole lot of times" -- including by calling her to preach.

A weighty -- literally -- 948-page volume released this year by scholars of history and religion -- contains those and hundreds of other historical nuggets about interpretations of Acts by Baptists, who this year mark their 400th anniversary.

Baptist ministers are enthusiastic, saying it provides new insights for congregants.

Baptists began as religious refugees from England who gathered in 1609 to worship in an Amsterdam bakery. Today, they number more than 100 million members worldwide. Through it all, they have struggled to stay true to Scripture and to the early Christian Church.

They have done so as they wrote sermons, faith confessions, devotions, commentaries -- and debates.

In the book The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation (Baylor University Press) the views of more than 120 Baptist ministers, authors and scholars through the years have been gathered. The book is the product of four years of research by more than 30 scholars and students from Texas to Scotland.

"We started with Acts because it's such a pivotal book, with emphasis on baptism and the beginnings of the early church," said Dr. Beth Allison Barr, a co-editor of the book and an assistant professor of European women's history at Baylor University in Waco.

"The goal is to try to figure out how Baptists incorporated Scripture into confessions and sermons and articulated their identities -- and to help us preserve and understand what it means to be Baptist."

Some Baptists quoted in the book are high profile: the Rev. Billy Graham, London preacher Charles Spurgeon of the 19th century and pastor/best-selling author Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life).

But the book also includes interpretations from dozens of lesser known Baptists, as well as a 1924 translation of Acts by one of the first Baptist women to have a biblical translation published.

The book "takes folks to places they had never planned on going, and where others do not wish them to go at all," the editors wrote in the book's introduction.

But "we have decided to present the whole Baptist tradition, 'warts and all' some of which may be judged to be racist, misogynist or heretical."

Pastors are receptive.

"It is my go-to book on Acts," said the Rev. Duane Brooks of Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston.

The Rev. Dorisanne Cooper of Waco's Lake Shore Baptist Church said the book is "a user-friendly, comprehensive resource.

"I add voices from my own tradition that I would otherwise have a hard time tracking down," she said. "In true Baptist fashion, I can agree with them or argue with them, but always find myself enriched by them in some way."

The volume includes views from fundamental to liberal and worship styles from charismatic to liturgical. It remains faithful to original interpretations -- even spelling and punctuation irregularities.

"One of the major values is that it contains a whole lot of writings from rare sources,and it puts all this in one book," said Dr. C. Douglas Weaver, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.

Not only does the book recover Baptist voices from long ago, but also ones from far away, said Dr. Mikeal Parsons, a co-editor and Kidd L. and Buna Hitchcock Macon Chair in religion at Baylor University.

The authors went global, including African Baptists, Native American Baptists and Australian Baptists.

A Nigerian Baptist quoted in the book said that members of the Yoruba tribe view the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts as "a sort of spiritual ancestor," Parsons said. While many Baptists are hesitant about charismatic expressions, "speaking in tongues comes very naturally to the tribe," he said.

Many Baptists' interpretations reflect the spirit of their times.

Civil rights activist Clarence Jordan wrote The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus' Doings and the Happenings, in which Paul is hauled to city hall while the Ku Klux Klan plots to lynch him.

In Jordan's take on Acts 23:11, "the Lord stood beside Paul and said, 'Keep your chin up, because you've got to stand up for me in Washington just as you have here in Atlanta.'"

At the Baptist World Alliance annual meeting in the Netherlands in the summer, 150 copies of the book were distributed.

"While it is too early for reviews, the feedback from buyers has been strong and positive," said Dr. Carey Newman, director of Baylor University Press. "Those receiving the volume could not have been more pleased."

The book, which costs $100, has been selling briskly, and he predicted that it will be on the publisher's top 10 list for the year.

Despite Baptists' diverse views, some values have remained constant: autonomy of local churches, laity taking part in ministry, allowing for dissenting voices and the "priesthood of the believer" -- direct access to God through Christ.