The news has come that Barrie White, the Baptist historian and former Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford died on Saturday 12th November 2016.
I'm sadly too young to have any memories of Barrie White in his prime. Hopefully others will fill that gap.
White was Principal of Regent's Park College, 1972-1989 and in the 1970s and 1980s the leading Baptist historian of his generation, especially of Baptist 17th century beginnings. His doctoral work completed in 1961 was published as The English Separatist Tradition: From the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (Oxford, 1971). His other major work was The English Baptists of the Seventeeth Century (1983, 1994), but alongside that was as editor of three volumes of Association Records of the Particular Baptists. There would have surely been other book-length pieces if dementia had not taken its toll on his mind from the early 1990s onwards. White remains one of the most important non-conformist and Baptist historians and will be remembered alongside the likes of W. T. Whitley, E. A. Payne and G. F. Nuttall. He was honoured in 1999 with a festschrift, Pilgrim Pathways, edited by William Brackney, Paul Fiddes and John H. Y. Briggs.
Here are some extracts from early short articles written on the task of Baptist history.
The first is 'Writing and Preserving Baptist History', The Fraternal (April, 1965)
Why does more and better Baptist history need to be written? So that the wisdom and experience of our past may be harnessed to the making of decisions about our present and our future.
Tradition has a place: what the Holy Spirit taught yesterday may have, must have, a bearing upon what He would teach us today. Nevertheless we must beware of a crude fundamentalism, which in place of "Holy Church says" or "the Bible says" inserts "the Puritans say" and so commit our mind and conscience to the keeping of another age. That way lies blind dogmatism and a theological strait-jacket. Some of our brethren might like to appeal to John Smyth, others to the Confession of 1677, others yet again to the assembly of 1689, and still others to the wide canvas of the 17th century Baptists. They are all wrong: we may not confide ourselves to the keeping of a man, or of a confession, or of an assembly, or of an era. But we should listen respectfully to what they have to say when, in the light of Scripture and of the Spirit, we are on our knees on behalf of our tomorrow.
When we make up our minds about our denominational policy and future (and these may not be quite as much bound up together as some people think), when we strive to evaluate just what it is that God has entrusted to us, which we have to contribute to the wider family of the people of God- then let us take into account our yesterdays. To neglect this is to deny, implicitly at least, that the Holy Spirit ever had anything worth saying to another generation which has not yet been said (or heard!) by ours.
... the brutal fact of the matter is that the state of Baptist historical writing at the moment, in both quality and quantity of work done, is such that it is virtually impossible to claim that any era of our history has been treated in depth.
I believe it is high time that we got down to producing big books on Baptist history ... What we need is detailed studies covering the ground at six inches to the mile, and they are just not available. And not only are the monographs chiefly notable for their absence but, as a denomination we are, generally speaking, almost criminally careless with our primary records.
... it is really remarkable that there is no detailed study of what English Baptists have said about Baptism over the years. Neither have there been full-length studies across the centuries of our attitudes to ordination, to the Lord's Supper, to authority in Church and State.
Fifty years on we have made some progress. Some big books have been written - the four volume series on English Baptists, to which White contributed the 17th volume, and more recently David Bebbington's one volume Baptist Through the Centuries. Likewise we now have more detailed studies of Grantham, Kiffin, Taylor, Keach, Rippon, Fuller, Spurgeon, Faringham, Steele, Shakespeare, as well as a reader on 17th Baptist Women Preachers.
Sadly I think it might be said that we can still be not as careful with our recent primary records as perhaps we should, but as Baptists we now have a wonderful, accessible resource in the Angus Library, in which Barrie must have spent many hours.
The second selection of extracts comes from 'The Task of the Baptist Historian', Baptist Quarterly 22 (1968):
... "Why bother with Baptist history anyway?" there are certain things which can be said at once: first, if Baptists do not investigate and care about Baptist history no-one else will. No-one else is likely to take the time or the interest to sift the diamonds from the dust of our denominational yesterday. No-one else will be prepared to attempt the reconstruction of that yesterday from our generous but annually diminishing early source materials. No-one. else will have the same creative sympathy with that yesterday and under- standing of the texture, the subtle overtones and undertones, of our denominational heritage in its national setting. To say this does not, of course, mean that non-Baptists should not be encouraged to write Baptist history or that Baptists from other lands should not touch English Baptist history. There is certainly always a sense in which the onlooker sees most of the game: a detached observer may well discern patterns and meanings which those too closely caught up in their own personal or partisan enthusiasms. may miss. Nevertheless, when all this has been readily and cheerfully admitted, it remains true that if Baptists are to wait for others to do their fundamental research for them they will still be waiting, with a sense of growing disappointment, for a good many years to come.
... Baptists can far less easily ignore their own history, their own heritage, than they can that of other Christians. To slam the door, as it were, upon their yesterday would be, first, to lose their identity and most of their understanding of why they stand where they do and, secondly, to limit all their insights into the Word and the Will of God to the narrow vision of the present generation and even, on some occasions, to that of the local congregation. On the other hand Baptists dare not allow their yesterday to dominate their today for two other reasons: first, because their own past does not speak with one voice; there is, for them, no golden age of an "undivided church" where all the Fathers spoke with a single unanimous voice. T h e second reason why Baptists cannot allow their past to have the last word is that to do so would be to bolt and bar another door: that against the continuing, contemporary, guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
... Baptist historiography is always in danger of domination by a spirit of historical fundamentalism according to which the past becomes a chunk of dead rock from which anachronistic but superficially relevant proof-texts are chiselled to the required shape.
... it is not the denominational historian's task to be a partisan, he must always be aware of the greater army marching the same way to the left and right of him; he must resist the temptation to rub the rough edges off history in the interests of a later respectability and he dare not forget that whilst Baptists have often been brave they have even more often been bigoted. It is not the Church historian's task to whitewash anyone, least of all his own side.
... One thing should now be entirely plain: whilst the basic ingredients [of Baptist history] may remain the same, there is a great. deal more involved in telling that plain, unvarnished tale adequately than perhaps some of our predecessors ever realised.
There will be a thanksgiving service at New Road Baptist Church, Oxford, where Barrie had been a member for many years, on Monday 28th November, 12pm.