Introduction by Phill Lytle
Tolstoy wrote, “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” Perhaps that seems like an odd way to introduce a book about the history of Free Will Baptists, yet hopefully there is a method to the madness. Historians do ask questions no one has asked because too often, many of us non-historians don’t know what to ask or even care enough to ascertain the best line of questioning. We opt for ignorance, much to our great shame. I would offer David McCullough’s view of history as a better guide. He wisely stated, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” With Arminian Baptists: A Biographical History of Free Will Baptists, David Lytle (frequent Rambling Ever On contributor) and Charles Cook have answered questions no one has asked and in doing so, they tell us who Free Will Baptists are and illuminate our place in church history.
To help introduce their book, we opted for a Question-and-Answer format with one of the authors, David Lytle. We hope this brief look piques your interest and answers some questions you didn’t even realize needed answering.
1. Tell us a little about the book.
It’s a work of Church history. It is called Arminian Baptists: A Biographical History of Free Will Baptists. Charles Cook and I are the editors and authors of many of the chapters. We set out to tell the story of the English General Baptists and American Free Will Baptists who are their spiritual posterity in America. It contains 28 different biographies of about 10 to 15 pages each. We got contributions from some great scholars like J. Matthew Pinson, Robert Picirilli, Kevin Hester, Jesse Owens, and Scott Bryant.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve had at least one foot in the world of Baptist history for almost 20 years. I did my master’s thesis on a seventeenth-century Baptist congregation, and I’ve published a couple of journal articles on the topic. About two years ago, I was taking a seminary class on Baptist history at Gateway Seminary. Gateway is a Southern Baptist seminary, and the class was primarily on that history. One book we read was Witness to the Baptist Heritage edited by Michael Williams. Sr.
The book was great. I loved the short chapters and biographical approach to Baptist history. As I read it, I was very much aware of where the starting points of the book were. It was written from a Cooperative Baptist perspective. The Cooperative Baptists are the ones who left the Southern Baptist Convention when the SBC turned in a much more conservative direction in the 80s and 90s. The book was a biographical history of the broader Baptist/Southern Baptist movement, but when it came to the late 20th century it took a slight left turn. As I read, I realized two things: 1) Williams was on to something by using biography to tell a compelling story. 2) Institutions shape the history we tell. Williams had Dallas Baptist University and Mercer University Press behind him, empowering him to collect these stories. No one writes about certain groups because these groups don’t have enough institutional capital (academic institutions, publishing houses, etc.) to produce well-researched books.
So, I had an idea. Maybe I could get Randall House (the Free Will Baptist publishing house) and professors from Welch College, Randall University, and other places to write a similar book that tells the story of a different thread of Baptist history. Because my area of expertise is mostly seventeenth-century General Baptists, I needed someone else to help me with twentieth-century Free Will Baptist history. I asked my college friend Charles Cook to help me pull this off. Charles is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and has done extensive research on key players in modern evangelicalism like Stan Mooneyham and Billy Melvin. Mooneyham and Melvin were key early leaders in the National Association of Evangelicals and World Vision. They worked closely with influential people like Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry, but they were also FWB pastors and denominational leaders. Charles knows FWB history as well as anyone and he loves to tell a good story.
Charles said “yes” to my idea. We proposed it to Randall House, and they were 100% on board. I was actually pretty surprised that we got the green light that easily.
3. What were some of the biggest challenges in putting this book together?
The biggest challenge would have to be working with 19 different contributors to make this happen. Charles and I wrote the section introductions and 3-4 biographies each, but we had to solicit essays from 17 other authors. Most of the contributors were prompt and easy to work with, but everyone (including me and Charles) was very busy. This was nobody’s full-time job. So, this challenge is why it took over two years to turn an idea into an actual book. It also isn’t a short book. We wanted to get it right so we waited and cajoled people until we got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. I think the final product is about 350 pages.
4. What makes this book unique?
Even though it isn’t a short book, its style makes it possible to skip around in if the reader so desires. Maybe you are interested in theologians like Robert Picirilli and Leroy Forlines? You can read their biographies (with reflections on their theology) by reading 10-15 pages for each person. Maybe you are interested in reading about early FWB in America? There are several biographies of people like Paul Palmer, Benjamin Randall, Joseph Parker, and David Marks. Some deal more with a person’s life story, some with their influence, and some with their theology. Each chapter has a unique flavor.
5. Why should Free Will Baptists care about this book?
History shapes identity. The Passover meal was a way for the Jews to remember what God had done for them and what God had made them into (his people). In the same way, Jesus calls his disciples to remember him in their celebration of communion. There is a lot going on in these key biblical passages, but one thing is for sure—God wants his people to remember because through remembering they become who they are supposed to be.
Now, denominational history is not anything near these key events in the biblical record, but history still shapes identity. Free Will Baptists are wise to educate themselves as to their history. This isn’t to blindly emulate the past, but rather to be shaped by it. We are wise to make Laura Belle Barnard’s drive to reach the untouchables in India part of our own story. We do well to be shaped by Thomas Grantham’s careful interaction with the Church Fathers in articulating his theology.
I also wanted this book to speak to other people outside of FWB circles. Because I’ve lived in Indonesia, Peru, and Southern California, I’ve been pretty removed from FWB life. I enjoy learning church history even if it’s not my own tradition. I just finished a biography of Andrew Fuller (a Particular Baptist theologian and pastor). I can really appreciate what this Calvinist did to further the cause of the gospel through his leadership over the Baptist Mission Society. In the same way, I hope people outside the FWB world will read this book and be enriched by it.
6. When does the book come out?
It releases today. You can order it through Randall House’s website right here.