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Down by the Riverside: A Brief History of Baptist Faith

Down by the Riverside: A Brief History of Baptist Faith is exactly what I look for to put into the hands of new converts, as a study guide for laypeople, and for new members coming to the Baptist church from other traditions.

But this is certain: The responsibility for handing down this great heritage will fall heavier upon local congregations and pastors than ever before. Pastors therefore need readable and understandable resources for teaching that heritage.            <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Everett Goodwin has already done us a favor by updating the classic pastor’s manual, The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches, in 1995. Now Goodwin, a lifelong Baptist minister who has been a campus minister and teacher, brings us a gem worthy of our heirs.   
Down by the Riverside: A Brief History of Baptist Faith is exactly what I look for to put into the hands of new converts, as a study guide for laypeople, and for new members coming to the Baptist church from other traditions.           
The book is neatly organized into three sections. The first two, “Baptist Beginnings” and “Baptist Foundations and Growth,” essentially summarize Baptist history. Since he condenses that history into 69 pages, you would expect it to overly generalize. I found, however, that the book hits the main points well and manages to give some surprising particulars along the way.             
Goodwin’s writing makes for easy reading. He tells the stories of the great personalities of the Baptist movement, rather than telling us too much about organizations and structures. This will appeal to the general reader and still give the essentials we need to “get hold” of Baptist identity.  
The reader learns about a pantheon of Baptists: Helwys, Backus, Leland, Roger Williams and their familiar kin. We meet Fosdick and Falwell, Carey and Jimmy Carter, Pat Robertson, Martin Luther King and many others.             
By book’s end, the reader is impressed with the sweep of Baptist influence and institutions in American culture. Goodwin gives a needed and helpful overview of the televangelist phenomenon and its impact on our movement. His ability to understand the importance of Baptist heritage in the ministry and work of Martin Luther King enables us to claim King and his contributions as a proud chapter belonging to us all.           
Part three is a brief treatment of “Basic Baptist Beliefs,” in which Goodwin includes four chapters on the Bible and theology, the church, freedom, and outreach and mission. It is a balanced and solid summary. He weaves historical and institutional developments into the doctrinal summaries, but he does not shrink from difficult questions. 
He honestly recounts the role of race in Southern Baptist founding, and yet he is fair to Southern Baptists in doing so. It is neither jeremiad nor denial, but a fair story of historical tragedy. 
He finds the good in Baptist ethos and faith that shines through even the most obvious flaws. His insights into current divisions will help laypeople see first that these are neither new nor insignificant, but also that they not hopeless. Perhaps, he opines, the “twenty-first century may yet see a unification of many Baptists in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />North America.” I hope he’s right.             
The book’s conclusion offers six trends that will shape this future. These are: (1) a growing diversity that disrupts established cultural and institutional patterns; (2) the responses to this, both declining loyalty to traditions and hardening of identity to resist it; (3) established churches losing participants while new organizations and expressions grow; (4) Baptist identification with fundamentalism and absolutist views that may create barriers to many, especially after Sept. 11; (5) non-evangelical communities that are growing; and (6) the shift from “religion” to “spirituality.”          
People will like this book. It is current, readable and accessible. For Southern Baptists, it might even be refreshing to see the world without having to be the center of it.  
Goodwin’s evenhanded treatment of American and Southern Baptists makes it usable in either tradition. Baptists are starving for these kinds of resources, so Down by the Riverside is welcomed indeed. 
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and adjunct professor of religion at SamfordUniversity. 
Buy Down by the Riverside now from Amazon.com.