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Baptists rejecting modernism, historian tells Golden Gate

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Baptists in America and England are in the midst of a move from a “wholesale adoption of modernity” to a turning away from modernism, Baptist historian William Brackney told students at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary during the annual Deere Lecture Series.

Named in honor of the late Derward Deere, professor of Old Testament at Golden Gate from 1950 to 1968, the lectures address rotating topics in biblical studies, theology and church history.

Brackney, professor of Christian thought and ethics at Acadia Divinity College at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, explored three phases of Baptist history: as a movement, as a tradition and as a denomination. Then he explored the two major turning points among Baptists: towards modernity and away from modernism.

He cited several aspects of the Baptist embrace of modernity, including their organizational structure with local associations, state conventions and national conventions, which reflected the power and political structures around them when the structure was devised. A second proof occurred following the Civil War as Baptist colleges began to further develop master’s level degrees, often including science in order to gain university status.

Third, Baptists responded to the twin cultural products of modernity, urbanization and industrialization, Brackney said.

“Though Baptists were historically of the rural areas, as America became urbanized, the prestige of ‘old first church’ downtown grew, and Baptist congregations in cities grew greatly,” he said.

Baptists responded to industrialization by forming organized missions to reach the increasingly diverse population of America’s cities even though, as Brackney said, “Most Baptists, being from English-speaking traditions, were culturally foreign from these new immigrants. But there was a desire to convert them nonetheless.”

All of these factors contributed to the Baptist rise into the mainstream religious scene where they were never going to be completely at ease, Brackney said, because of their birth as a movement of dissenters.

“In every movement, there is a countermovement, and this is true of the Baptist denomination,” he said. “What we are seeing now is the conservatives and fundamentals reacting against all that modernism and moving to a new denominationalism.”

Even such associations as Willow Creek and the network of churches affiliated with Saddleback Church are not non-denominations, Brackney said, but new ones.

“Every movement, even within a denomination, moves relentlessly to the pursuit of order,” he said.

Brackney is the author of several books, including “A Genetic History of Baptist Theology” and “Human Rights and the Christian Condition,” and he is completing a historical analysis of Baptists in higher education. Brackney was ordained by Frank Pollard, a former president of Golden Gate Seminary, and is a longtime friend of Morgan Patterson, who served as academic dean of the seminary from 1976 to 1984.

“I had the privilege of editing a draft of this 600-page work, every single word of it, and I can assure you every Baptist minister should have this book in his library,” Patterson said while holding up a copy of A Genetic History of Baptist Theology at one of Brackney’s lectures.

Brackney has also taught at Baylor University, Houghton College, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Toronto School of Theology and McMaster University. He has served as pastor at two churches.

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  • Amanda Phifer