Landmarkism and Today's Baptist Church: The Bad Idea that Will Not Go Away - Tim Holmes
My personal experience in ministry has made me aware of issues within the Southern Baptist Faith that continue to deviate from scripture and historical facts. The views and practices of Landmarkism are consistent throughout Northeast Kentucky and other parts of the South today. The controversies within the ideas of Landmarkism are simply its presence in today's Southern Baptist churches. The main reason for the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention was due to an attempted escape of Landmark ideas in the church. The one thing that doesn't make sense is that Landmarkism is still practiced in some of today's churches, especially in Northeastern Kentucky. In the early 1800's, Baptists were looking for an identity of their own in the midst of rival denominations. The use of the Landmark view, allowed Baptist to not only define themselves, but also create a superior church, or "true church.
Spawning from the ideas of Landmarkism were doctrines that left no room for accepting the validity of other faiths or churches. Landmarkers began to view and describe other denominations as mere societies with invalid ministers and doctrine. Ordinances prescribed for the church in the Bible like baptism and communion, were major topics of debate and continue to be so within many different denominations. The views of Landmarkism start and end with the speculation of church succession from the time Jesus Christ walked. They claimed that they were the original church and that all others were desperately in need of becoming Baptists in order to gain salvation.
Landmarkism has influenced the way churches do ministry today, and many pastors are unaware of the matter, or unwilling to change things. Personally, Landmarkism has changed the way I view Baptists as well as encourage me to further my education as to never make the same mistakes. Their view of succession of the churches has no biblical or historical validity, yet continues to influence the way ministers think and lead their congregations in ministry. Landmarkism is a bad idea that was injected deep in the Southern Baptist blood stream. One cannot know anything about the Southern Baptist faith without knowing something about the Landmark movement of the nineteenth century.
Landmarkism and Today's Baptist Church: The Bad Idea that Will Not Go Away.
Seven years have passed and I have preached in over forty different churches in Northeast Kentucky, as well as served in formal ministry positions within two churches. Set on becoming a full-time lead Pastor somewhere in the future, I began to focus more energy towards studying the Bible while working hard as a Youth Minister at a small Southern Baptist church. Through my experiences as a licensed and ordained minister in this area of Kentucky, I was exposed to something I didn't see coming: an attitude of sorts that appeared to be consistent throughout the majority of these Southern Baptist churches. These attitudes stem from the ideas of Landmarkism, which research proves to be invalid biblically and historically.
One distinguished historian has called Landmarkism, "Southern Baptists' 'greatest internal crisis' of the nineteenth century" (Heritage 447). It would be impossible to understand Southern Baptists apart from the Landmark movement. This movement reached its full development in the South where intense denominational rivalries prevailed among Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other denominations during the mid-1800s. It was a way for the members of the Baptist community of that time to convince themselves that their church was the only true and valid church, while the others were just mere societies without valid preachers or church doctrines. Baptists began to view themselves in a whole new light that gave them superiority as the true church based upon the landmark view of church succession throughout history. This movement began partially because of the Campbell movement in the early 1800s. Landmarkers sought to separate and become a truly identifiable denomination among the others represented during that time (Heritage 447).
Even though this movement is over one hundred years old, there are many Southern Baptist churches in Northeastern Kentucky that continue to operate in a Landmark way. The irony discovered after interviewing pastors and parishioners of these churches is that they say they don't agree with Landmarkism at all. It appears that they may not know exactly what the movement was all about and how it has affected their beliefs. The greatest reason for the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention was to move away from Landmark views. These churches in question act as if Landmark views are extinct, along with the practices. This kind of ignorance says a great deal about the maturity or educational level of most of the Baptist churches in this area.
The movement of Landmarkism could easily be described as an attendance battle that was carried too far. Picture a Baptist church on one side of the road and a Church of Christ on the other. The Church of Christ is doing well in attendance every Sunday morning while the Baptist church is barely recognized. The Baptist church begins to spread the news of succession to the community around them. A dynamic Baptist preacher comes to town telling the people that unless they become Baptists, they will not see heaven. Word gets around and before you know it, people from the Church of Christ begin showing up in the Baptist Church. Since the Baptists believed that the Church of Christ congregation to be unsaved, those people were all re-baptized to make it all official in the eyes of the Landmark view.
The idea of Baptists being the "True Church" was Landmark's central doctrine, and all other Landmark views spawned from that notion. J. R. Graves, a preacher of that time, is responsible for setting this movement adrift during the 1850s and pressed hard to have the SBC support his views. Perhaps no other individual in the nineteenth century influenced Southern Baptist as much as Graves, however his lack of education contributed to the weakness and imbalance of his own system. He had developed a defense against Campbellism (today's Church of Christ) with his ideas, and for the next forty years strove to inject them deep into the Southern Baptist doctrine. Known by many of that time as a very successful and dynamic orator, Graves often held audiences spellbound for over three hours at a time and was without any doubt one of the most powerful preachers and debaters of the nineteenth century (His Preaching). Because of his magnetic personality and speaking abilities, he had little opposition while spreading his views across the Southern states.
W. H. Whitsitt, a seminary professor and writer, suggested that the modern Baptist church originated in the early 1600s. This was heavily opposed by Landmark Baptists, because they believed that Baptist heritage could be traced all the way back to Christ himself (Heritage 453). The most distinct doctrine of Landmarkism was that "the terms 'church' and 'God's kingdom' were used synonymously with each other. The Kingdom embraced the first church, and now it embraces all the churches" (Handbook). For Landmarkers, this meant that the Kingdom of God is made up of the sum total of Baptist churches. Graves would illustrate this by saying: "One could not be a citizen of the United States unless they were first a citizen of a State." Since there was only one way to enter the kingdom, Graves taught that it had to be done through one of its true churches, Baptist. This was often translated as saying that only Baptist can receive salvation from God and that everyone else claims a non-valid faith" (Heritage 451).
A close look into the history of any organization or institution will unearth a bad idea now and again, but most bad ideas are thrown out in order to thrive or even survive. Although many Baptist churches claim that they have nothing to do with Landmark views, on account that the movement had no true biblical basis, they continue to hold onto some of the very same practices and beliefs set forth by the J. R. Graves, the "Father of Landmarkism." His relentless attempts to implement his views into the Southern Baptist Convention failed corporately in 1859 (Heritage 459), but his ideas remain active within most Baptist churches today in different parts of the South, and my concerns, Northeast Kentucky.
Landmarkism has greatly effected the way Southern Baptists conduct church in Northeast Kentucky. The largest portion of Landmark influence can be found today in the church ordinances on baptism and communion, as well as pulpit sharing. Baptism wasn't considered valid by Landmarkers unless it was performed by a Landmark Baptist Minister. Baptism had more to do with membership in a local body than it did an expression of one's faith. This view of Baptism is currently in action in the majority of churches in Northeast Kentucky. They would refuse to allow a person baptized in a Methodist church to be a member of their church unless they were re-baptized. This practice continues today in many churches and is referred to as "Alien Immersion" because there is no validity in other baptisms. J. R. Graves even had his own Mother re-baptized when she joined his church in Nashville in 1832 (Heritage 454). Restricted communion is still enforced to this day in the majority of SB churches because Landmarkers taught that only the true church could take part in the service. Today, visitors are still being asked to leave from some churches during this sacred moment, because there is no validity of the person's baptism or faith. Some Baptists continue to invite only such as in their judgment are qualified (Frost).
I have personally witnessed the negative affects of "restricted" or "closed communion" in many churches. Imagine visiting a church for the first time, where you feel partly welcomed and you have just listened to a heart-warming sermon that lifted your spirits and encouraged your walk of faith. The pastor then closes the sermon with a prayer that is just as sweet and uplifting as the sermon. He then announces that the church will now take part in the Lord's Supper and all visitors are asked to exit the building. Certainly to you, or others visiting, the message of the day would be a mixed one. First, that of love, peace, and joy, and the other that of judgment and condemnation. It is clear even in this situation that only one negative can destroy a hundred positives.
It was a very common thing to find pastors of different denominations sharing each other's pulpits from time to time in the early 1800's. This was certainly opposed by the Landmarkers, based on the belief that anyone outside of their own faith had no authority to preach on the pretense that they were not part of the true church. Landmarkers rejected even Baptist preaching except as authorized by the church, and this was the thinking that led to their opposition against the SBC Foreign Mission Board. In this sense, Graves protested that only local autonomous churches could send out missionaries, and not a board. He debated with the SBC in 1859 in order to dismantle the FMB, but was declined (Heritage 453).
The issue is explained like this:
If Pedobaptist societies are not churches of Christ, whence do their ministers derive their authority to preach? Is there any scriptural authority to preach which does not come through a church of Christ? And if Pedobaptist ministers are not in Christian churches, have they any right to preach? That is to say, have they any authority according to the gospel? They are doubtless authorized by the forms and regulations of their respective societies. But do they act under evangelical authority? It is perfectly evident to the writer that they do not. It would be strange indeed for them to act under a commission, some of the injunctions of which they utterly disregard. The ordinance of baptism in its action and subject they pervert. (Pendleton)
Of course, the strongest point that was pushed onto the people by the movement was certainly the Landmark views of the succession of the church. Since it would be unthinkable to believe that the kingdom Jesus Christ set up for his people would ever cease to exist for even a short time, and that this kingdom was basically a Baptist church, then there have always been Baptists around. Makes perfect sense if one were to completely refute history and speculate about succession of the universal church. The opposing views of succession, during that time and now, would be that the church began on the day of Pentecost. Mostly, the Pentecostal and Charismatic type denominations adopted this view of succession based upon scripture in Acts Two, where it is first mentioned that people were added to the church (NIV Acts 2).
There were others who helped this movement grow during the mid-1800s. J. L. Pendleton of Bowling Green Kentucky, wrote extensively on the validity of Landmark Baptist ministers in an 1854 article to the churches entitled "An Old Landmark Reset" (Heritage 449). He is most popular for his "Church manual" of which is still in circulation today throughout some churches: "Through this manual, generations of Southern Baptist churches have absorbed Landmarkism, often without knowing it" (Heritage 449). A very interesting find about Author and Pastor James Marion Frost wrote in 1888 "The Consistency of Restricted Communion." This pamphlet supported Landmark views of communion, but he was the same person who helped start the SB Sunday School Board, of which Landmarkism opposed from it's beginnings (Biography). It appears that Frost could have been either ignorant of true Landmark views, or simply out to please who ever he was around in the denomination at that time.
Probably the most popular writing on the Landmark view of succession was a pamphlet by J. M. Carroll, "The Trail of Blood," which is still in print today and often very handy in SB vestibules in several churches in the South.
When the pamphlet is opened, here is what the faithful would read:
THIS LITTLE BOOK is sent forth for the purpose of making known the little-known history of those FAITHFUL WITNESSES of the Lord Jesus, who, as members of the CHURCH JESUS BUILT, 'Overcame Satan by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony: and they loved not their lives unto death,' Rev. 12:11. (Trail of Blood).
This introduction to J. M. Carroll's lengthy pamphlet gives an example of how Landmarkism took scripture, and used it to imply reference to the Baptist church. This view of succession primarily focused attention on Christian martyrs throughout history, and a connection with the Baptist church of the present day. The title explains that the history of the true church could be traced back to Christ, via a trail of blood. J. M. Carroll spent his entire life trying to find the "True Church" and finally completed this writing at the age of seventy. The "Trail of Blood" was first published by the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington Kentucky, 1931.
My first years doing ministry in Northeast Kentucky were filled with a great deal of joy and a youthful, innocent approach to the testimony that I shared with the churches that called upon me to preach. I recall my mother telling me that anyone can be a "Preacher," but it takes someone whom truly loves people and acts upon that love to be a "Minister." She was very encouraging, and reminded me to study so I would grow in my faith, instead of just my beliefs. I know now that she wanted me to be a man of faith, instead of a man of beliefs about my faith. The real problem with Landmarkism is that it takes a church away from the essential matters at hand. It changes the congregation from being a church, to a social club. The definition of church loses its meaning and is no longer an "assembly" of people of faith, but a building that we go to on Sundays (Dictionary). Today, in a thousand common expressions, we refer to the church as a place.
Having witnessed the arrogance of Landmarkism personally, along with my own research, I have discovered that there truly is no historical or biblical validity to these ideas. The Landmark view of Baptist history is based upon assumption instead of true historical research. They looked for historical evidence to support their views instead of drawing their conclusions from historical data. These ideas produced by Landmarkers were of religious ideas alone based upon speculation of the history of the church. One confusing point to understand is that Landmark Baptist tended to be fundamentalists that took the Bible for exactly the way it read. One would think that since the words "Baptist church" are not found anywhere in the scripture together, Landmarkers would have chucked that idea long before it got anywhere. It is amazing how an impressive speaker with a magnetic personality can effect the way people believe or perceive things in life the way J. R. Graves did. I am sure that Appalachians were lacking entertainment in the early 1800's and when a good preacher came to town, everyone was sure to be packing a pew for the show.
Although J. R. Graves' doctrine of Landmarkism remains to this day collapsible by historical data, I believe Landmarkism has served a positive purpose. For myself, it serves to further my education in hopes of not repeating history in a negative fashion. In other words, I would say it is a good reason to go to Seminary. I am certain the line of thinking produced from Landmarkism allows people to feel better about themselves and the church organization they are involved in, but it does not mean that it is correct or even spiritually unifying in a healthy sense. These beliefs were very unifying for the early Baptists who sought an identity among the other denominations. I find it very hard to buy into any religious idea that excludes others as less than worthy, based upon some interpretation of the Bible. I personally believe that the Bible is infallible, but our interpretations are not. Landmarkism has no room for acceptance, love, peace, or joy, except those that are like-minded on the subject. Landmarkism, in my opinion, was a bad idea that will not go away.
Carroll, J.M. The Trail of Blood. 12 Mar. 1997
Frost, J.M. The Consistency of Restricted Communion. Nashville TN: npub, 1888.
Frost, James Marion. Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives: Biographies.
A Handbook of Christian Theology. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1958.
Holy Bible. New International Version. Michigan: Zondevan, 1984.
McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1987.
J.M. Pendelton. An Old Landmark Reset
Tenney, Merrill C. Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Michigan: Zondervan, 1967.