J.R. Graves: Looking back at Landmarkism?

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James Robinson Graves blew into the South like a blackberry winter blizzard rolling down the Appalachian Trail. His indomitable spirit and potent pen, mixed with bold and brash persuasive skills, attracted both the admiration and disdain of Baptists for over four decades. Many young Southern Baptists today have never heard of this man, nor his movement.

This Vermonter, born in 1820, arrived in Dixie on the heels of two separate religious movements having left Baptists in the South weak and weary. Both the anti-missions Hardshellers and anti-confessional Campbellites splintered many Baptist congregations, divided families, and after 1845 weakened home and foreign mission endeavors of the newly-formed Southern Baptist Convention.

Concerning the Campbellites (Churches of Christ), Graves had no notion of restoring their “true church” for he fervently believed Baptists had perpetually preserved New Testament beliefs and practices having never departed from apostolic truth and tradition. With this understanding, a restoration of the “true church” was not needed, for Graves believed that Baptists had never lost it!

The Trail of Blood

J.R. Graves, with pen, pulpit, and partners (James M. Pendleton of Kentucky and Amos C. Dayton of Mississippi), sought to enlighten and indoctrinate Baptists concerning the “old landmarks” which according, to his thesis, could be traced back to apostolic authority; some say even to John the Baptist. Many years later J.M. Carroll (younger brother of B.H. Carroll) was inspired by Graves in the writing of his historiography of martyrdom entitled The Trail of Blood (1931).  Graves had used the phrase “trail of blood” in his book The Tri-lemma (1881) and Carroll used it as his title. Incidentally, James M. Pendleton first used the term “Landmark” in an 1854 essay.

In Dr. James Leo Garrett’s Systematic Theology, he believes that Graves saw the kingdom of God being composed of all the true churches of Christ in perpetuity through Christian history and these “true churches” have been and are solely Baptist churches, though not always bearing that name, but properly organized by the New Testament pattern and ordinances.

James Robison Graves

Landmarkism eventually became the name of Grave’s movement and he used the newspaper, the Tennessee Baptist and his book publishing business (Graves, Marks, and Co.) to spread his message of Baptist identity and successionism through the hills, hollers, and homesteads in the years leading up to the Civil War and beyond.

After the war, Graves moved his ministry operations to Memphis, Tennessee. Following several setbacks and sorrows, Graves’ influence never again afforded him the recognition and respect of being the editor of the most read Baptist paper in the world like those Nashville days of the 1850’s. Nevertheless, Graves was a key influencer in Southern Baptist life until his death in 1893. Going against the tenets of Landmarkism landed you in hot water for many years in SBC life.

Around 1896, the sixth professor and third president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) found himself embroiled in a heated controversy for questioning Landmarkist claims of Baptist successionism and the antiquity of an unbroken practice of immersion throughout church history. This convention-wide controversy challenged the very future of our first theological intuition and precipitated a forced resignation of Dr. W.H. Whitsitt.

Personal Accomplishments

Graves helped Baptists in the South close its back door! Alexander Campbell led a large exodus from Baptists ranks; some historians estimate that half of all Baptists in Tennessee and Kentucky followed the “true church” claims of Campbell. The bolder counterclaim of Landmarkism became a vaccination that inoculated Baptists against Campbellism. Believing that Baptists have an unbroken succession of local Baptist churches from New Testament times and having jealously guarded the sacred ordinances of believers’ baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper with apostolic authority gave Baptists a strong sense of identity with distinctive markers. It also contested the 2,000-year-old chain of succession of bishops among Roman Catholics and The Church of England.

Graves organized the Nashville Indian and Missionary Association by 1846 and was a missionary to American Indians throughout his life. Three tract societies were established by Graves (1847,1869, and 1883). Graves was a key leader in the founding of Mary Sharp College (for women) in Tennessee (1850). He used his money-raising skills to help fund the chair of theology for my alma mater, Union University. His quarterly, The Christian Review was published for six years. He helped publish The Southern Psalmist (1858) and The New Baptist Psalmist for Churches and Sunday Schools (1873).

He authored over a dozen books and numerous articles and editorials. In short, few Baptists have ever exhibited his level of energy, stamina, and persuasiveness with pen or pulpit. On numerous occasions, Graves held the utter attention of hundreds of people for over two and a half hours straight.

Even after suffering a stroke and later a bad fall which confined him to a wheelchair, Graves endured great personal discomfort in continuous travels delivering his “chair talks” throughout the South before his death on June 26, 1893, at the age of 73.

Questions in the 21st Century

It is quite possible that Dr. W.H. Whitsitt’s dour personality and lecturing style, with questions concerning his commitment to Biblical inspiration and authority, played an equal role in his forced resignation, along with questioning the historicity of Landmark successionism. I say this because Dr. E.Y. Mullins, the 4th president of the SBTS, and Dr. W.J. McGlothlin who followed Whitsitt as professor of church history, both agreed with Whitsitt’s history of the Church.

Nonetheless, one sentence (and one word) by Dr. Whitsitt, would always be questioned by followers of Graves, for he wrote in an 1893 article these words, “…and that immersion of believers among English Baptists was ‘invented’ by Edward Barber in 1641.”

Desiring to chat with someone more acquainted and akin with the beliefs and influence of Landmarkism in SBC life, I called my friend Dr. Ronnie Mayes, a pastor in Arkansas and who formerly taught at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis. Our conversation was frank and forthright.

My friend asked me a very powerful question: Did the Church die? 

In other words, if you do not believe in some form of successionism, you must believe the Church died at some point.

If you believe the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ died then may I ask, “when did it die?” How long was it dead? Who or what had the power to kill the Church?

Picking up again, who re-birthed or revived the Church? Was it the Roman Emperor Constantine? Did Augustine restart the Church? Did the Magisterial Reformers rebirth the Church? What about the Radical Reformers? Was it John Smyth? Was it (gulp) Alexander Campbell?

Respectfully, I am not a Graves successionist, nor a Campbell restorationist, but I do firmly believe Jesus when He said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13). The Church that Jesus founded (Matt. 16:18), and purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28), and indwells (Acts 2) has and will always live.

Lastly, I believe there is a unique need for the over 47,000 local cooperating Baptist churches making up the Southern Baptist Convention. We preach the same Gospel of salvation by grace through faith as the first-century apostles. We baptize new believers by immersion and for the same reasons as the apostles. We share the same memorial meal, free of sacramentalism. We are following the same marching orders that our Commander in Chief issued, the Great Commission. We find these truths in the B.I.B.L.E.

We know that we can’t complete the task alone, therefore, we cherish others that value a fidelity to Scripture, an abiding love of Jesus, a Great Commission focus, and who long for the arrival of Jesus Christ as the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever (Rev. 11:15).

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