With his most recent work, Baptist Ways: A History, Bill Leonard lives up to his reputation as one of the most prominent Baptist historians of our time. The thesis and guiding principle of Leonard's comprehensive yet relatively concise history of the Baptist movement is that "amid certain distinctives, Baptist identity is configured in a variety of ways by groups, subgroups, and individuals who claim the Baptist name" (Preface, XIII). Throughout the history of the movement, such variegated 'Baptist ways' have extended across a theological spectrum from Armenian to Calvinist, from conservative to liberal, from open to closed communionist, and from denominationalist to independent. Indeed, Leonard perspicaciously points out that early Baptists created (and modern Baptists maintain) a theological and ecclesiastical framework that ensures debate, dispute, and division (see, e.g., 9, 38, 58, 79, 85-6, 95, 120, 141-2, 151-5, 180-9, 397-405). It is precisely on account of the theological diversity, congregational autonomy, and freedom of conscience that characterize Baptists (and the innumerable historical interactions among these three), that "[d]issent is one of the Baptist ways" and "schism is an inescapable element of Baptist life" (10, 14).
Baptist Ways traces significant aspects of the movement's history from the seventeenth to the early twenty-first century. While Leonard focuses largely upon Baptists in England and the United States, his work also recognizes the global nature of the movement with chapters treating Baptists in the Americas and the Caribbean (i.e., in Canada, Jamaica, the West Indies, Mexico, Nicaragua, and South America: Ch. 10), Baptists in Greater Britain (i.e., in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, and New Zealand: Ch. 12), Baptists in Europe (i.e., in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, the Ukraine, Estonia, and Georgia: Ch. 13), and Baptists in Africa and Asia (Ch. 14). Additionally, Leonard's work advances contemporary Baptist historiography in other significant ways. For example, it highlights the indispensable role of women throughout the history of the movement (see, e.g., 61, 124-5, 149-50, 161-2, 176-8, 200-2, 240-1, 277-80, 348-9,) as well as the significance of various minorities, particularly African Americans (Ch. 11). Finally, Leonard considers the importance of hymnody, a theme often neglected in general histories of the Baptists (see, e.g., 58-61, 94, 126). Of all the 'Baptist ways' that have come to characterize this religious movement, those of dissent and division take center-stage in Leonard's history. Indeed, contrary to the Old Landmarkists, a group of nineteenth-century Baptists in the United States who claimed that Baptist churches have existed in an unbroken line from Jesus' baptism at the hands of John (conspicuously called "the Baptist"!), Leonard recounts how the Baptist movement began when John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) and a small band of his followers rejected the pedobaptism of seventeenth-century Separatist Puritanism (itself a dissenting, schismatic movement with its origins in the Church of England) in favor of believer's baptism. From the time of Smyth's own self-baptism by trine affusion, questions of baptism, its mode and meaning for church membership, have created controversy and disunity among Baptists, according to Leonard. Disagreements over such issues as hymn-singing, open versus closed communion, and whether the newly baptized should receive the laying on of hands resulted in numerous schisms among fledgling Baptist congregations in the Old and New World.
Leonard's nuanced and well-balanced treatment of a number of major intra-Baptist schismatic communities or subgroups contributes considerably to the historical picture of the movement during its first three centuries. Among the most significant and noteworthy of these "sectarian group[s] within a sectarian group" (86) are: (1) Seventh-Day or Sabbatarian Baptists, who opposed Sunday worship and instead kept the Lord's seventh day holy (84-5); (2) Rogerenes, a group of Sabbatarians who insisted that Christians were free to work on any day of the week, and performed manual labor in church to prove it (85-6); (3) German Seventh Day Baptists, who practiced a kind of monastic communitarian life that included celibacy, poverty, daily prayer, and the wearing of white habits (127); (4) Restorationists or "Campbellites," who believed that the true church of Jesus Christ had been lost through corrupt doctrine and alliances with the state, and that they themselves had reconstructed or restored apostolic Christianity directly from the New Testament (182-3); and (5) Old Landmarkists, who argued that all Christian communities during the first three centuries were, in their constitution and practice, of the Baptist denomination, and that an unbroken succession of Baptist churches is traceable back to Christ himself (183-5).
Leonard concludes his story of Baptist ways by considering how the internal debate and division that had come to characterize the movement over three hundred years continued throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the United States. The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, for example, divided conservatives and liberals, and gave rise to Independent Baptists, who shun elaborate denominational organization in favor of congregational independence. In the first years of the twenty-first century, debate and disagreement arising from such controversies continue to pose a challenge to Baptist identity. Yet, Leonard's history provides hopeful evidence that the movement will survive, for as he astutely and convincingly argues throughout Baptist Ways, "[b]eing Baptist is [inherently] messy, controversial, and divisive" (425).