In 1983 the historian of Christianity, Martin Marty, warned in the pages of Christianity Today about a looming ‘baptistification’ of American religion. Everyone, whether Baptist or Episcopalian or Buddhist, was adopting a ‘baptistic’ character of free choice and voluntary association, the religious emphasis being on who I am, what I decide, and how I square with the Divine. He called it “the most dramatic shift in power style on the Christian scene in our time, perhaps in our epoch.” And he predicted “the process toward baptistification is long-term.”
Marty might have been surprised to learn that, forty years in the future, some Baptists would come to lament baptistification no less than he had.
We Were a Peculiar People Once: Reflections of an Old-Time Baptist, is one such lament. It is written by Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus David Lyle Jeffrey. Part memoir, part religious culture commentary, part altar call, it reminds Baptists, and not only those of the Canadian Scottish Calvinist type to which Jeffrey belonged, of what we were and what we lost, and maybe how we might gain something back again.
The book is split into thirteen short, enjoyable chapters, with an apparently out of place academic essay appended. The first seven concern memories from Jeffrey’s upbringing in a small Canadian Scottish Baptist church, the last six key theological themes in Baptist Christian life. His memories are often associated with “peculiar” Baptist rituals and rigors, such as Wednesday night prayer meetings, a once-strict adherence of the Sabbath, and of course baptisms in rivers. The reader will delight in Jeffrey’s retelling these memories. I do not wish to describe most of them for fear of spoiling the fun. This portion of this work will cause audible laughs, groans, indeeds!, and sniffles. Suffice it to say you will find cow manure and cursing, badly matched baptism pairs, and deathbed resolutions that don’t quite resolve everything but do just enough. What comes out is a story of a small group of Reformed Canadian Baptists who are rural, hardworking, self-educated (largely by reading the Bible), and persistent in becoming holy, but not without earning some dry humor along the way. Jeffrey excels at the hard task of publishing the culture of his upbringing, as well as some of the best of his private life, with both charity and clarity.
While we’re at disclosing one’s personal life: I read this book with great interest because I study at Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the United States. I am a lifelong Baptist, which is something of an oxymoron, but anyone acquainted with Baptists would get the idea. We were Southern Baptists in south Louisiana with a free-will streak, not Scotch Canadian deep-water Presbyterians. Albeit the resemblances between the two get uncanny at times. Growing up, we were made to rest on the Sabbath, including from sports. In kindergarten Sunday school, I overheard two teachers working their way through the nuances of taking the Lord’s name in vain: it is alright to say ‘golly,’ but a sin as soon as there is emphasis, ‘GAW-lee.’ ‘Oh my word’ was acceptable and often spoken. We once put on a play called “Dare to be a Daniel,” though we did not refer to that eponymous hymn Jeffrey wishes Baptists still sang. Most glaring of all: as of about twenty-five years ago, Baptists did not drink alcohol and were serious about it. Yet today, even the quite conservative Baptists are comfortable with the bottle, especially after they cut the grass on Sundays. And there aren’t many kids’ choirs anymore, while there are many more cuss words now acceptable to Baptist tongue and ear, especially if typed online or played by secular music.
That, therefore, is peculiar: I feel much of the same sense of loss as Jeffrey does, though I am around fifty years younger than he. What I mourn is but a shadow of what Jeffrey mourns. Strictly by comparison, we were much more worldly than those old Baptists, and much of my upbringing resembles less the young Jeffrey’s country church and more the now pervasive evangelical mega-church. Perhaps in fifty years another writer shall lament the loss of those bland ecclesial factories, constructed and decorated by plastic and metal, headed by preachers in skinny jeans. And that would not necessarily prove memory is just nostalgia. It could mean that things can get keep getting worse.
The most affecting theological point in the book is when Jeffrey recalls an old preacher who returned to a church that sold out and became popular. He was asked to preach at the church anniversary celebration, and preach he did, at one point turning back to the current pastor and proclaiming, “What you win them with is what you win them to!” Understand, had he been satisfied with what his successor had been winning souls with, he wouldn’t have rebuked him to his face.
As felt by that old preacher, something like Marty’s prophecy of baptistification has come true. But Marty was partly wrong in his assessment of individualism. Baptists have won the world over to a formidable kind of individualism that may well live on longer than the Baptists denominations declining today. Yet it is often a stifling, conformist individualism, in which every non-denominational church looks the same and sings the same contemporary songs and whose congregants wear the same clothes and read the same books and tweet the same opinions and divorce at the same rates and die the same deaths of despair as the unbelievers do. Individuality is rare these days. Now, there are many, many explanations for all this. But one of them is the fact that what Baptists won seekers with was what they won them to. And as Jeffrey argues, that was not so much a historic Baptist piety as it was a late 20th century consumer culture. (Whether Baptists were hapless victims or willing contributors to that culture likely depends on context—though Jeffrey’s book is evidence enough that Baptist life cannot be reduced to the bland, baptistified religion we have today.)
This brings us to the latter section of theological themes and assessments. What is at stake is not the peculiar culture of a bygone era. This book could have been another of many current popular books, which bore with self-help steps to re-enchantment, often by aping habits of exotic past generations. Mass religious culture could be due for another Puritan fad. And Jeffrey could have given an ‘old-time Baptist’ flavor of re-enchantment. But he doesn’t. I think that is because he knows this is not a matter of whether Baptists shouldn’t drink, but that our Baptist forebears took all this Christianity business earnestly enough not to drink, cuss, or play travel ball on Sabbath. You might be thinking these commands aren’t exactly what is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. But beware. Often enough, that complaint is a way to evade a sincere responsibility to God, which these Baptists took seriously, rather than to exercise that responsibility more faithfully.
But how to find that sincerity for oneself? Culture and tradition are dead as soon as they become objects unto themselves. For culture is only living so long as it is, for the most part unconsciously, encultured in the pursuit, collective and individual, of what is above culture: the true, the good, the beautiful. The dignity of those old Baptists lay in their firm belief that the Truth was found and to be pursued, day by day, in the simple proclamation of the Holy Scriptures and the individual imitation of Jesus Christ. That’s all there was to it. To be conscious of the death of that culture, to be aware of a culture that once was, is to be in the most precarious spot: it is to be so self-aware that one cannot easily get back to that unconscious simplicity of these old Baptists, which one misses and mourns.
Getting out of that trap of self-awareness demands not an imitation of old Baptist mores, but a turn back to the higher things that made the old Baptists in the first place and, again, made them largely un-self-aware. So, Jeffrey raises basic but radical theological tenets that need renewal and respect: the Holiness of God, a reverent worship demanded by that Holiness, and the Authority of the Scriptures—each deserving their capital letters. The appendix to the book, an essay on the apart-ness of the Scriptures from a reader’s interpretation thereof, is only apparently misplaced, and effectively it reveals the underlying method to Jeffrey’s basic theology here: God and God’s Word are Above and Authoritative, we are below and must submit, and the only way the old Baptists thrived and could be revived is by coming to know and practice this truth.
Note that, while these capital letters demand a strictest individual commitment, they mention not at all the individual, or the community or culture for that matter. For it is God and God’s Majesty Alone—and not commitments to being different from the culture by forming another culture, or winning the culture by mimicking the culture, or whatever other already stillborn culture one could drum up by oneself—that could truly revive a peculiar Baptist culture.
I’ll end with one last thought: I find it odd that enchantment is a very popular word right now but holiness is not. With the help of We Were a Peculiar People Once, the reader might find that odd as well and decide to pursue holiness instead of enchantment. And that would make for a peculiar sort of baptistification that even old Marty could appreciate.