Looking back to celebrate and looking forward in hope: The Baptist Union of Scotland 1869-2019
Brian Talbot introduces his new book Building on a Common Foundation: The Baptist Union of Scotland 1869-2019. It highlights past successes, but also intends to provide grounds for hope for continuing witness in the 21st century
Why was this book written and why did the author want to write it? At a formal level, the previous General Director of the Baptist Union, Alan Donaldson, invited the author to write the 150th anniversary history of the Baptist Union of Scotland. The author had previously written Search for a Common Identity: The Origin of the Baptist Union of Scotland,1800-1870
in 2003, a work that explored the earlier witness of different networks of Baptist churches in Scotland and told the story of how they came together to form a union of churches in 1869.
However, for a decade prior to that 2014 conversation, the author had been fascinated by this remarkable story of how a small and struggling network of churches in the mid-19th century saw some remarkable numerical growth over a sustained period of time and had also played a much larger role in Scottish Christian life over the 20th century than might have been expected. There were, of course, a small number of outstanding leaders whose contribution is duly noted, but the picture that emerges so clearly is of many ordinary Scottish Baptists playing their part in the growth and continuation of its work.
Scottish Baptists in 1869 were a small group of Christians, 3,794 members in 51 congregations, who had struggled through the 19th century to find common ground with each other, but had now made a conscious choice to highlight the things they had in common and to focus on agreed common goals of home evangelism, strengthening weaker churches through the establishment of a common fund for that purpose, theological education for those training for pastoral ministry and to disseminate information between the churches on their progress in the work of the gospel.
What difference did this strong commitment to working together to accomplish common goals make compared to congregations simply working on their own? Within the first three years alone there was nearly 20 per cent growth from 51 to 60 churches. There was a targeted focus on urban evangelism in under-churched areas of larger population.
After a decade in 1879, there were now 80 churches in fellowship of which 29 were newly planted. It was a remarkable story, none more so than Leslie Baptist Church in Fife, planted under the leadership of a teenager Thomas Lister, who was called as the first pastor aged 19 in 1880. Sunday Schools and youth work also prospered in the new congregations.
By 1889, 20 years after the launch of this Baptist Union, there were now 89 churches with 11,543 members. Twenty-eight Sunday Schools in 1869 had grown to 80; and from 16 to 55 Bible classes for older young people. In addition, there were 155 preaching stations or home-based evangelistic meetings. It is an encouraging account of God at work in the life of particular congregations.
In the late 1890s to 1914 numerical growth continued with the October 1913 Annual Assembly informed that there were now 137 churches with 20,527 members associated with this Baptist Union. However, a closer look at the statistical returns from the member churches revealed a more complex picture than might have been expected. Fifty-eight churches reported growth in membership that year, 56 had seen decline and 15 no change in total membership.
Underneath the headline figures, though, there was a more complex picture that emerged when social and economic factors were taken into account. Even in years when the bigger picture looked so promising there were local churches and communities going through tough times. The benefit of co-operation through belonging to a union of churches was self-evident in those challenging times.
The growth in numbers of members and churches continued up to 1935 which was a remarkable achievement, considering that many other denominations had begun to see decline in their membership figures much earlier in the century. This book explains how Scottish Baptists managed in creative ways to expand their witness in the earlier part of the century. An even more remarkable achievement was the ability from the 1960s to the late 1980s to find new approaches for effective evangelism and church-planting strategies. Examples are given of what took place and the difference it made.
In more recent years, in the midst of an increasingly secular public square in Scotland, Scottish Baptists have once more reshaped their vision for mission and ministry and their approach to Continuing Ministry Development. There are, of course, similarities to some ministry developments among BUGB Baptists. This is not a new step because over the past two centuries British Baptists have influenced one another across the different Unions.
In addition to denominational developments, this book also highlights the contributions of certain individual Baptists. One example, in the chapter on World War One, focussed on a particular minister’s sermons at the beginning and end of that war, highlighting his attempts to bring a Christian public perspective on what was taking place. It also drew attention to his two volumes of poems written at the beginning and end of the war respectively. The poetry conveyed more clearly his personal views on what was taking place. His Echoes of Strife
, published in 1919, conveyed so powerfully the horrors of that war.
These volumes by Walter Mursell, minister of The Thomas Coats Memorial Church, Paisley allow us a window into a world of over a century ago.
The author strongly believes that it is good to take time to look back and reflect on what has been accomplished in the past, but then encouraged by it to look for the new and creative ways to advance the mission of God in the present day.
The Red Dr Brian R Talbot is the minister of Broughty Ferry Baptist Church in Dundee. He is also a tutor at Greenwich School of Theology & the Dept of Theology at North-West University South Africa.
He has written a number of books on Baptist history and served on the Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.