The Landmark Controversy: A Study in Baptist History and Polity

by Fred Moritz

In the nineteenth century a series of controversies rocked Baptist life and threatened the peace and survival of Baptist churches in the United States. The three controversies were sequentially related. The Campbellite controversy, with its linkage of regeneration to baptism, was the first great disruptive battle. James R. Graves developed his Landmark theory of Baptist succession, and that controversy became the middle battle of those three conflicts. William Heth Whitsitt originally identified himself with Graves, but later reacted against that position. He adopted what was then the new theory that Baptists “rediscovered” immersion in the middle of the seventeenth century. This third controversy eventually cost him his position as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

The purpose of this article is to trace the origins of the Landmark controversy and to see its ramifications for ecclesiology and local church polity. It will be necessary to briefly examine the preceding Campbellite controversy in order to set the stage for it. The later Whitsitt controversy will not be discussed in this article, for that is worthy of a study all its own.

The Campbellite Movement

The Campbellite heresy brought great disruption to churches. “By far the most important schism suffered by the Baptist body in the United States was that of which Alexander Campbell was the occasion and one of the chief agents.”Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), father of Alexander (1788–1866), was a Presbyterian pastor in Scotland who came to Pennsylvania in 1807.He pastored a Presbyterian church, but stressed unity among Christians of various denominations. In 1809 the Christian Associa­tion of Washington (Pennsylvania) was formed in an effort to bring unity across denominational lines.In 1811 they “transformed this gathering into the Brush Run Church so they could observe the Lord’s Supper.”

Alexander was ordained in 1812. Having become persuaded of the truth of baptism by immersion, he was baptized on June 12, 1812, by Matthew Luce, a neighboring Baptist pastor. The following year the Brush Run Church united with the Redstone Baptist Association.Campbell preached in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee and was identified with the Baptists until 1830. In that year he and his followers formed a new denomination known as the Disciples of Christ.

Campbell’s Motivation

Alexander Campbell seems to have been driven by a passion to reform Christendom. He held that the “ancient gospel” had been obscured by “human traditions,” and thus he sought to return the churches to the practices of the New Testament.He stood against a paid clergy, all human institutions for propagating the gospel, and the use of creeds or doctrinal statements. “The professed object was to return to the simplicity of the New Testament faith and practice.”

Campbell’s Doctrine

Campbell adopted several aberrant doctrinal views. His first error, and one of the most critical, dealt with the nature of saving faith. Campbell had studied at the University of Glasgow before coming to the United States. There he had absorbed the teaching of Robert Sandeman, which effectively reduced saving faith to “head belief” or “mental assent.”

Sandemanianism refers primarily to an aspect of theology regarding the nature of faith promoted by Robert Sandeman (1718–1781), from which it derives its name, and his father-in-law John Glas (1695–1773) in Scotland and England during the mid-eighteenth century.

To the Sandemanians, the nature of saving faith reduces to mere intellectual assent to a fact or proposition. This is illustrated rather clearly in the following quote. “In a series of letters to James Hervey, the author of Theron and Aspasia, he [Sandeman] maintained that justifying faith is a simple assent to the divine testimony concerning Jesus Christ, differing in no way in its character from belief in any ordinary testimony.”

Following this, “Campbell taught that baptism by immersion completes the process of salvation.” Campbell is quoted as saying:

We have the most explicit proof that God forgives sins for the name’s sake of his Son, or when the name of Jesus Christ is named upon us in immersion:—that in, and by, the act of immersion, so soon as our bodies are put under water, at that very instant our former, or “old sins,” are washed away, provided only that we are true believers.

The effect of Campbellism also greatly minimized the work of the Holy Spirit. McBeth cites minutes of the Franklin Association in Kentucky affirming that the Campbellites held “that there is no direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind prior to baptism—that baptism procures the remission of sins.”

“Campbell’s view of Scripture differed from that of most Baptists. The essence of Campbell’s controversial ‘Sermon on the Law’ in 1816 was a rejection of the binding authority of the Old Testament upon Christians.” While dispensa­tionalists would agree with his view of the authority of the Old Testament on a New Testament believer, Campbell used this position as an argument to “restore” church order to only those practices that have New Testament precedent. “Campbell embraced a stark literalism which required that all church practices have precept or precedent in Scripture.  By that hermeneutic, he rejected missionary societies, instrumental music in worship, the use of written confessions, regular salaries for ministers, the use of ministerial titles, and many other practices.”

Campbell’s Divisiveness

Campbell’s doctrine devastated Baptist churches across the South. “Historians estimate, for example, that fully half the Baptist churches of Kentucky switched to the new Disciples movement.” The historical records tell of local Baptist associations being split, some churches dividing, and other churches defecting to the new doctrine.

The story of the Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church in Gray, Tennessee, is an example of the havoc Campbellism wreaked on local churches. This church was founded in 1779 and is the oldest Baptist church in Tennessee. Today it is a thriving church with more than five hundred attending on Sunday mornings. In the 1820s its attendance averaged 250–300, which was large for that day. When the Campbellite heresy invaded, however, the assembly was left nearly extinct, with only twenty-five to thirty attending.

The Stage Set for the Landmark Movement

It was in this context and against this backdrop that James R. Graves developed his movement known as Landmarkism. In combating the Campbellite heresies of their supposed “reformation,” Graves sought to establish an authenticity for church succession. It is a classic example of overreaction.

Historians have debated the inevitability of the rise of a movement like Landmarkism. Alan Lefever, the director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, argues that the Landmark movement was:

a direct response to Alexander Campbell, who taught baptismal regeneration and trumpeted the desire to restore the New Testament church. Campbell, a former Baptist, founded the movement out of which the modern-day Disciples of Christ denomination and the Churches of Christ—a loose grouping of conservative, independent congregations—developed.

“Landmarkism was a reaction to the Campbellite movement. It was like a vaccine to inoculate Baptists against Campbellite influence,” [Lefever] said, pointing out that it contained “just enough of the disease” to provide supposed protection.

“If Alexander Campbell had never come along, we’d never have had Landmarkism. There never would have been a need,” Lefever insisted.

In contrast to Campbell, who claimed to be restoring biblical Christianity, Graves argued that Baptists have always represented biblical Christianity. Lefever explained: “A so-called Campbellite might say, ‘We have restored the New Testament church.’ But a Landmark Baptist could respond, ‘We are the New Testament church.’”

The Birth of the Landmark Movement

James R. Graves (1820–1893) is one of the most controversial personalities in the history of Baptists in America. Graves was a dynamic preacher and popular editor and enjoyed a wide following. He was editor of The Baptist (later The Tennessee Baptist) from 1848–1889.

Preacher, publisher, author, and editor. He influenced Southern Baptist life of the 19th century in more ways, and probably to a greater degree, than any other person. As an agitator and controversialist of the first magnitude, he kept his denomination in almost continual and often bitter controversy for about 30 years. He also engaged in frequent and prolonged debates and controversies with outstanding representatives of other denomi­nations. Being magnetic and dynamic, he won the enthusiastic and loyal support of thousands; but being acrimonious in his disputations and attacks, he made many determined enemies. . . . Graves led in the Landmark movement from its beginning in 1851 and sought to make its ideology dominant in Southern Baptist life. During 1854-58, when Amos Cooper Dayton [a second Landmark leader] was corresponding secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention Bible Board (Nashville, 1851-62), Landmarkers were in control. Dayton resigned under pressure in Apr., 1858. Growing out of the conflict that developed, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1859 appointed no Landmarkers from Nashville to serve on the Bible Board.

James Madison Pendleton was a third leader in the movement. “His opinions were less extreme than those of Graves and Dayton and constituted a moderating influence.” Pendleton is perhaps best known for his book Christian Doctrines, first published in 1878. The book remains in print.

In February 1852 Pendleton invited Graves to preach a revival meeting for him in Bowling Green, Kentucky.The two men discussed issues of ecclesiology during this time. Pendleton never completely agreed with Graves, but his ecclesiology formed a basis for Graves’ position.

The Impetus for the Landmark Theory

Graves’ primary concerns had to do with practices he observed in Baptist churches and how those churches related to other denominations. He was concerned that the Baptist testimony had been greatly wounded by the Campbellite controversy some years earlier. He was also concerned by the growth and strength of the Methodists across the South.

He was troubled by the fact that Baptist churches received alien immersion, exchanged pulpits with non-Baptist churches, and cooperated in union Sunday schools and union church meetings. He held that these practices “departed from primitive Baptist principles and undermined Baptist distinctives. . . . He sought to underscore an individuality that belonged uniquely to Baptists.”

Alien Immersion

“Alien immersion” is the practice of a Baptist church receiving members who have been immersed upon their profession of faith in Christ, but that immersion would have been administered by a Presbyterian, Methodist, or clergy from some other non-Baptist denomination.

The reasoning for rejecting “alien immersion” is that a pedobaptist church is not, by New Testament standards, a true church. His questions dated to 1832.

He had seen a pedobaptist minister who at one service immersed several converts (including Graves’s mother and sister), poured upon another who knelt in the stream, and sprinkled others who stood on the bank. How could these different acts constitute the “one baptism” of the New Testament? Can an unbaptized person perform valid baptism? Troubled by these questions, Graves concluded that only Baptist immersion constitutes valid baptism [emphasis mine].

Controversy in Nashville

Graves was a controversialist by nature. He engaged in a bitter dispute with Robert Boyte Crawford Howell, who was his pastor at First Baptist Church of Nashville. This controversy occurred when Graves published an accusation that Howell had slandered him. The controversy extended over two years, 1858–1859, and resulted in Graves leaving the church. The church investigated the matter and began a procedure of discipline against Graves. He apparently raised a parliamentary objection, and with that procedural move he led a group to leave and form a new church. Forty-six of his followers were excluded from the church over the next year. Wills reports that this division “polarized the denomination in the South.”

Controversy in the Convention

Campbell also engaged in controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, and that agitation centered on the Foreign Mission Board. At the 1859 SBC meeting in Richmond, he moved “to take from the Foreign Mission Board its power to examine, choose, support, and direct its missionaries, on the ground that these were the rights of churches and associations, or groups of churches that might wish to work together.” The messengers refused to “dismantle” the FMB.

“The gospel mission movement that developed among a few Southern Baptist missionaries in China (1886-93), and the Landmark Baptist conventions in Arkansas and Texas, organized about 1905, were logical developments of the views Graves sought to implement at Richmond in 1859.”

T.P. Crawford was a missionary in China and led the “the gospel mission movement,” which advocated that missionaries should be appointed by churches, not boards. Crawford attacked the SBC and its mission boards and was dismissed from the SBC in 1892.

Controversy with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Graves not only led in opposition to the Foreign Mission Board, but also against Southern Seminary in Louisville and several other Southern Baptist organizations. His contentions with the seminary centered on a personal animosity against president and founder James Petigru Boyce and differences over the terms of communion and alien immersion.

The Civil War (1861–1865) disrupted Graves’ printing ministry, which took heavy losses as a result of the Union occupation of Nashville after 1862. He did not publish his paper again until 1867. After the war, Graves relocated to Memphis, and on February 1, 1867, he published the first post-war issue of The Baptist. He suffered a stroke in 1884, took a debilitating fall in 1890 (after which he never walked), and died June 26, 1893.

The Tenets of the Landmark Theory

Several unique doctrinal traits characterize the Landmark movement.

“Baptist churches are the only true churches in the world.”

Those who hold the Landmark position argue that only Baptist churches exhibit all the marks of a true church as taught in the New Testament; therefore, they are the only true churches. “It follows that they have the only true ministers, ordinances, and preaching.”

“The true church is a local, visible institution.”

Landmark Baptists vehemently deny the existence of a church of which all regenerated people in this age are a part. This is an issue that is debated among Baptist theologians. It is rightly a discussion for Ecclesiology in Systematic Theology or Baptist Polity. Not all who hold this view espouse the Landmark position, but all Landmarkers today hold it.

Pendleton, however, did not hold to a “local church only” position. Citing Ephesians 5:25–27 he states: “In these places and in several others it would be absurd to define the term ‘church’ as meaning a particular congregation of Christians meeting in one place for the worship of God.”

Those who hold the Landmark position labor mightily against this idea of a church made up of all believers, yet in the end they must admit that the New Testament reveals truth concerning such a church. In treating passages like Hebrews 12:22–24 and Ephesians 5:25–27, most of these brethren acknowledge that a church made up of all the redeemed from this age is in prospect.

B.H. Carroll, who decried the use of the term “universal church,” states:

But while nearly all of the 113 instances of the use of ecclesia belong to the particular class, there are some instances, as Heb. 12:23 and Eph. 5:25–27, where the reference seems to be to the general assembly of Christ. But in every such case the ecclesia is prospective, not actual. That is to say, there is not now but there will be a general assembly of Christ’s people. That general assembly will be composed of all the redeemed of all time. [Emphasis mine]

Even though Carroll stoutly denies the use of the term “universal,” and though he holds that the church made up of all believers is prospective, he cannot deny that at least two passages in the New Testament speak of a church which is composed of all believers. Please notice also that Carroll, revealing the influence of Covenant Theology, believes that the universal church, the general assembly, will be composed “of all the redeemed of all time” rather than all the redeemed from this age.

S.E. Anderson is another Baptist who has been vociferous in his protestations against the idea of a “universal” church. He comes to the same conclusion as Carroll. Commenting on Hebrews 12:23, he says:

Since we are not yet made perfect, these verses are evidently a prophecy of that future time when all the saved on earth shall be gathered together in heaven. Then we shall be one great universal church, all together, local and visible and general. This passage, plus Ephesians 5:27, tells of the “church in prospect” when we shall all be “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” Glorious prospect! [Emphasis Mine]

These two quotations show that even the strongest Landmark Baptists state that there is New Testament teaching about a church made up of all believers from this age. Carroll states that it is prospective in the sense that it does not now exist but will come into existence in heaven. We agree with him at least in recognizing that it will not be complete until all believers from this age meet in Heaven with Christ. We must acknowledge that Ephesians 2:16, 21 indicate that it is now being built and will be completed when all believers from this age are gathered with Christ in Heaven. By illustration (which Paul uses), a building under construction, yet to be completed, is still a building.

“The churches and the kingdom of God are coterminous.”

“This is one of the most distinctive doctrines of Landmarkism.” It may be the most overlooked distinguishing mark of the movement.

Graves held that “[t]he kingdom embraced the first church, and it now embraces all the churches.” This left him open to the charge that only Baptists could be saved, which he denied. He viewed Matthew 16:18 as a fulfillment of Daniel 2:44. “The kingdom of Christ, of God, of heaven, is constituted of the sum total of all his true visible churches as constituents, which churches are the sole judges and executives of the laws and ordinances of the kingdom.” This certainly reflects a faulty view of the kingdom. The previously cited statements from Graves and Carroll reflect the influence of Covenant Theology that places the church in the Old Testament.

G.H. Orchard also reveals the influence of Covenant Theology on his thinking. He says:

Predictions held forth, that the Jews should be without their privileges many days, Hos. iii.4. And that God would break the covenant with all the people, Zech. xi.10. John the Baptist told the Jews that the axe was laid to their national privileges, and consequently, refused to admit them to gospel privileges, from relative considerations. These features of God’s intentions were repeated by Christ, John xv.2. The synod at Jerusalem had declared the covenant with Abram void, and circumcision nothing. But while the Jews could assemble in the temple, a rivalship on their part was maintained, and a disposition constantly evinced to persecute the followers of the Lamb. The violent conduct of the Jews, engaged the emperor’s attention, and required all Nero’s cruel policy to manage. [Emphasis mine.]

It is important to note the flaws in Orchard’s reasoning. The Jerusalem council gathered to consider the false teaching of the Judaizers that circumcision was necessary to salvation (Acts 15:1). That was a challenge to the gospel of God’s grace (v. 11). In that context the apostolic decision was that circumcision and the works of the law were not required for salvation (v. 19, 20). Nowhere in this passage is there any indication that the Jerusalem council “declared the covenant with Abraham void.” How can man void a covenant which God made? Moreover, James’ statements at Jerusalem affirm the ongoing and eternal nature of the Davidic Covenant (v. 16) and the legitimacy of Moses’ biblical writings (v. 21). Orchard is an example of most faulty reasoning.

“There must be no ‘pulpit affiliation’ with non-Baptists.”

This included participation with these churches in union revival meetings, ordinations, pastoral installation services, or exchanging pulpits with ministers of other denominations on special occasions.

“Only a church can do churchly acts.”

Scripture clearly teaches that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances committed to the local church. Baptism is the “initiatory rite” into church fellowship (Acts 2:41). The local church was to observe the Lord’s Supper in a corporate assembly (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33).

It seems that Graves took this biblical truth to a biblically unwarranted conclusion. “Out of this doctrine grew the Landmark advocacy of closed communion and opposition to ‘alien immersion’ and mission boards.”

Landmarkism involves the authenticity of a church as an organization, the administration and administrator of baptism, and the ordination of ministers. It is asserted that a church is unscriptural, baptism is invalid, and ministers are not duly ordained unless there is proper church authority for them. This is Landmarkism’s “chief cornerstone.”

“Baptist churches have always existed in every age

by an unbroken historical succession.”

“Since it is unthinkable that the kingdom of God could ever go out of existence, even for a short time, and that kingdom is composed of Baptist churches, then it follows that there must always have been Baptist churches. Landmarkers acknowledge that these churches may not always have been called by the name Baptist but insist they had all the essential marks of a gospel (i.e., Baptist) church.”

Landmarkism “further involves the perpetuity, succession, or continuity of Baptist churches through which authority has descended through the ages and will continue.”

Therefore, the true and scriptural organization of a church, the valid administration of baptism, and the proper ordination of a gospel minister must all be enacted upon the authority of a sound and true, scriptural church—namely, a church that was born through the authority of a “mother” church continuing in like manner back to the original apostolic church of Matthew 28 where church authority first began.

Graves stated his position:

After some years’ reading, and making extracts from authors, on the subject of my investigation, I resolved on throwing my materials into chronological order, to exhibit the feature of a connected history. This done, I became fully satisfied; and established the proof of what Robinson conjectured, that the English Baptists, contending for the sufficiency of Scripture, and for Christian liberty to judge of its meaning, can be traced back, in authentic documents, to the first Nonconformists and to the Apostles.

An Evaluation of the Landmark Theory

Marks of the New Testament Church

Scripture clearly describes marks of a true New Testament church, and we do well to begin our analysis of the Landmark movement by briefly reviewing them.

In Acts 2 Luke described the events surrounding the formation of the first local church in the New Testament. Peter preached the gospel (Acts 2:14–40). Those who professed faith in Christ were baptized (v. 41). From the very beginning Scripture establishes the principle of believer’s baptism. Those who professed faith in Christ and were immersed were added to the body of believers (v. 41). On that very first day and in that very first local church, the Bible establishes the principle of regenerate church membership. The first church established a routine of its corporate life (v. 42)—this included “breaking of bread,” which is synonymous with the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:20–24). Two ordinances are thus established. Apostolic sign gifts were exercised (v. 43), and the early church established a routine of corporate care for its members (Acts 2:44–46). It was characterized by a God-given unity (v. 46), and evangelism was a daily activity (v. 47). The rest of Acts and the epistles flesh out other details concerning local church officers, discipline, government, worship, and doctrine.

We must build our doctrine, including our ecclesiology, on the Word of God. That will distinguish us at some critical points from true Christian brothers and sisters who are part of other communions. Insisting on building our church doctrine and practice solely on Scripture is really the feature that distinguishes us as Baptists.

In the last century Chester Tulga clearly stated this point: “The basic tenet of the historic Baptist faith is that the Bible is the Word of God and the sole authority of faith and practice.”[1] British Baptist pastor Jack Hoad similarly stated: “It is the Biblical doctrine of the church, with an unqualified submission to scripture as the Word of God, which becomes the test of what is a Baptist church.” David Saxon reinforces the point: “What we really mean is the NT is the sole authority for our ecclesiology. That is, Baptists insist that the NT alone reveals what the church is and how it should be administered.”

A Faulty Theology

Landmarkism subtly combines true marks of a New Testament church with the faulty assumption that the churches and the kingdom of God are synonymous terms. Thus, it builds on a faulty biblical and theological base.

We have noted Graves’ statements and his use of Daniel 2:44. Orchard also builds his ecclesiological theory on Old Testament passages, alluding to Psalm 73:19 and to Hosea 3:4. As was previously noted, he argued that in Acts 15 the council at Jerusalem “by divine direction, put an end to the covenant which God had made with Abraham and his posterity; annulling federal holiness, national distinctions and privileges; securing a glorious liberty to believers of all nations. This decision cancelled the seal, circumcision, and left the Jewish people without a covenant or a promise.”

Orchard draws conclusions from the Acts 15 passage that the passage simply does not justify. His conclusion contradicts two of James’ statements in the passage, and it flies in the face of other New Testament Scripture (Rom 11:2). Contrary to Orchard, man could not annul the Abrahamic Covenant, and God has never terminated it.

“The Landmark view of Baptist history is based upon an assumption, not upon the evidence of historical research.”

Beyond that, we must understand that these presuppositions (or assumptions as McBeth calls them) cannot be established from Scripture. There is no biblical promise of an unbroken, traceable line of succession between New Testament churches.

Neither can the succession premise be proven from history. We can identify groups of “back-to-the-Bible” people throughout church history. We can identify several of the beliefs and practices that we call “Baptist” distinctives among them. But to prove the “unbroken, historical succession” is impossible.

In point of fact, history seems to demonstrate the opposite. We cannot divert this discussion into a study of Baptist history, but it is noteworthy that around the world many Baptists have come into existence as believers read the Word of God and came to Baptist convictions apart from other influences.

We can briefly point to the testimony of the Separate Baptists in the United States. Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall were converts under Whitefield’s ministry during the Great Awakening. Though they were brothers-in-law, they came to Baptist convictions independent of each other, through reading the Scriptures. They had a good ministry in Virginia and later removed to North Carolina where a great revival ensued.

Johann Gerhard Oncken was a German who was saved in England. Later, in Hamburg he became convicted of the truth of believer’s baptism. After waiting for someone to immerse him, he, his wife, and five others were baptized by Barnas Sears under cover of darkness. God used him to establish a Baptist testimony in Germany, and he was the driving force of missionary outreach into Russia, Hungary, and several of the Scandinavian countries.

Gustavas Schroeder was a Swedish sea captain who was saved in a Methodist revival meeting in New Orleans. He came to Baptist convictions by reading the Bible and was used of God to plant churches in the United States (including Hamilton Square Baptist Church, San Francisco) and in Scandinavia.

These stories can be repeated countless times. The Landmark Baptists face the horns of a dilemma when deciding if these godly leaders, and others like them, are true Baptists. How does their coming to biblical convictions apart from any influence but Scripture “square” with the Landmark theory of historical succession?

Scripture does not require an unbroken line of

succession for ecclesiastical validity.

Scripture nowhere teaches such a succession. New Testament churches depend upon the authority of Scripture for their authority and validity. The early churches depended upon the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:41). The New Testament churches received the written words of the apostles, which now comprise our New Testament (2 Thes 2:15; 3:14, 15; 2 Pet 3:1, 2; Jude 3). The validity of a church and its authority is determined by its conformity to Scripture.

The strongest, and indeed the only valid argument for the Baptist position, is the following. If suddenly today all religious traditions were somehow to vanish from the earth and all that were left was a New Testament, tomorrow there would be Baptists. Succession of New Testament doctrine is the only true apostolic succession.

The claim of succession is similar to Roman Catholic teaching. Rome depends upon apostolic succession; Landmarkism depends upon a historical succession. Both are in error.

This issue is important because it affects our approach to Baptist history and because the Landmark theory has not disappeared. It is prevalent in some Southern Baptist circles and in several independent Baptist frames of reference.

We must understand that these presuppositions cannot be established from Scripture. Neither can the succession premise be proven from history.

We specifically reject the Landmark Baptist position that holds that there is a visible, unbroken, historical line of succession between the New Testament believers of previous centuries and Bible-believing Baptists today. People who held Baptist convictions have lived in every period of church history, but to prove a line of succession between them is impossible. Our validity rests not in a Rome-like succession, but in the authority of the Word of God that gave our Baptist forebears their convictions. That Word is also the source of our Baptist convictions.

Lessons for Today

We have examined the origins of the Landmark controversy. It is important to note its ramifications for ecclesiology, local church polity, and ministry today. Several lessons become apparent.

First, a word about immersion is in order. A reading of Baptist history and current Baptist literature seems to indicate that Baptists are united in refusing an unbiblical baptism, whether it is a mode other than immersion, or even immersion from religious bodies that preach an aberrant gospel such as cults or Churches of Christ. But Baptists have historically been divided about whether they would receive a member who was immersed in a gospel-preaching, but non-Baptist communion.

The question revolves around the propriety of receiving members into a local church who have been saved and immersed in a church of another denomination—a Bible church or in a Baptist church that is viewed as not properly constituted. Some hold that because these churches are out of order with the New Testament pattern, they are not true churches and their baptism should be rejected even though it is immersion. They would require a person to be baptized again, though he had been immersed after his confession of faith in Christ. Others, the great Baptist author Hiscox included, hold that believers in pedobaptist churches may be “truly converted and properly baptized.” Ross offers his opinion, stating: “The truth about an ‘alien immersion,’ if the term is justifiable—‘unscriptural’ would be better, in my opinion—is that it is only alien when it is the symbol of an alien gospel, is for an alien purpose, or is administered to an alien subject (unbeliever).”[11] This is an issue that will never be finally settled with uniformity among Baptists. It can only be left to the deliberation and decision of each autonomous church. Without doubt there are true believers in pedobaptist and non-Baptist churches.

A second lesson to learn concerns a challenge to Christian character. It is sad to note the divisiveness of Graves’ personality. No doubt he was grieved at the devas­tating effects of the Campbellite movement on Baptist life. In fact, he raised some legitimate issues. But vituperative language and unsubstantiated charges against his pastor brought discord to a local church. He was responsible for attacks upon a good pastor and for a split in a good church. His contentious spirit seemed to permeate his writing, and it caused unnecessary disruption in Baptist life throughout the South for several decades. Scripture often admonishes us concerning our use of words. We are commanded to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) and to speak what will not be destructive, but rather what will build up believers (Eph 4:29). Preachers are instructed to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2). We will differ with other believers on matters of faith and practice, but even those differences must be stated in a godly way. Graves’ life is a sad commentary and warning to us concerning destructive divisiveness.

Third, the relationship between faith and practice is clear here. Bad theology breeds bad polity. The Landmark position rests on a faulty understanding of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. Whether one sees the Church in the Old Testament (as Carroll did) or commits the egregious error of Orchard in wiping out the Abrahamic Covenant, making the church and the kingdom coterminous laid the foundation for the faulty successionism that Graves and others embraced. This position stands in defiance of repeated biblical statements that God has an eternal purpose for Israel (e.g. Isa 54:8-10; 66:22; Jer 31:35-37; Rom 11:1, 2).

Fourth, there is no biblical promise of an unbroken line of historical successionism. We are given the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, but there is no promise of the type of historical successionism the Landmark proponents claim.

Fifth, the visible, unbroken line of succession between New Testament churches cannot be proven from history. The evidence simply does not exist. Richard Weeks taught Bible, theology, Baptist history, and Baptist polity at Maranatha for the school’s first twenty years. He described the succession theory as “the impossible task of trying to maintain an unnecessary chain-link approach to Baptist history.” Dr. Weeks did affirm the “continuity of Baptist principles throughout all ages in fulfillment of Matthew xvi, 18 and Ephesians iii, 21.”

Finally, this proposed succession is unnecessary. The New Testament is the authority for New Testament polity. Baptists who are committed to Scripture seek to pattern their ecclesiology and church polity after the New Testament. This has been the historic Baptist pattern.

[churchpack_divider style=”solid” margin_top=”20px” margin_bottom=”20px”]A.H. Newman, A History of the Baptist Churches in the United States (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1898), 487.

Thomas Armitage, The History of the Baptists (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 1976 reprint of 1890 edition), 2:735.

H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 377.

McBeth, 378.

Newman, 488.

James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology—A Four-Century Study (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 249.

Newman, 489.

Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907), 342.

In this section I am following the analysis of McBeth, 378–380. Newman (488–490), Garrett (249–251), and Armitage (2:735–736) give similar analyses.

McBeth, 378.


McBeth, 378.

Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptist (1827), 5:416, cited in McBeth, 379.

McBeth, 379.

McBeth, 377.

Personal interview with Gene Lasley, Pastor Emeritus of Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church, 21 February, 2012.

Ken Camp, “Historians Debate Reasons for Rise of Landmarkism in 19th Century,” Associated Baptist Press (9 January 2009), /53/.

Keith E. Eitel, “James Madison Pendleton” in Baptist Theologians, eds. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 193.

Harold S. Smith, “J. R. Graves” in Baptist Theologians, eds. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 229.

McBeth, 453–54.

Smith, 226.

Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 18592009 (Oxford: University Press, 2009), 98.

McBeth, 456. By all accounts Howell was a godly pastor and respected Southern Baptist leader. He served First Baptist Nashville as its pastor at two different times and was elected president of the convention. He authored two classic books: The Terms of Communion at the Lord’s Table (1846) and The Evils of Infant Baptism (1852).

Wills, 98.

McBeth, 457.

McBeth, 457.

Wills, 98. Wills (98–107) gives a detailed account of Graves’ attacks on Southern Seminary.

Smith, 227.

McBeth, 450.

Baptists have held varying views concerning this issue. This author holds, on the basis of Ephesians 5:25–27 and Hebrews 12:22–24, that the New Testament teaches that there is a prospective church, comprised of all regenerate people from this age, that will meet in heaven. Since some of these believers are in Heaven, others of us are on earth now, and yet others are unborn, that church cannot now meet. It will meet in a festive gathering with Christ in Glory (Heb 12:23). I use the term “prospective church” to describe this entity. The terms “universal church” and “invisible church” carry theological implications that are not biblical.

James M. Pendleton, Christian Doctrines—A Compendium of Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1997), 329.

B.H. Carroll, Ecclesia, The Church (Ashland, KY: The Baptist Examiner, n.d.), 6.

S.E. Anderson, Real Churches or A Fog (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1975), 97, 98.

McBeth, 450.

J.R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What is It? 38, quoted in McBeth, 451.

McBeth, 451.

Smith, 239. Graves describes his position in some detail in his “Introductory Essay,” in G.H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists From the Time of Christ Their Founder to the 18th Century (Lexington, KY: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1956 reprint), iv. This book was first published in the United States in 1855.

J.R. Graves, Intercommunion Inconsistent, Unscriptural, and Productive of Evil (Memphis: Baptist Books, 1881), 134 cited in Smith, 239.

G.H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists From The Time of Christ Their Founder to the 18th Century (Lexington, KY: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1956 republication of 1855 edition), 11.

McBeth, 451.

McBeth, 452.

Bob L. Ross, Old Landmarkism and the Baptists (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1979), 9.

McBeth, 453.

Ross, 10.

Graves, “Introductory Essay,” xiii. Graves is citing an extended quotation from Orchard.

Chester E. Tulga, “What Baptists Believe About Soul Liberty,” The Baptist Challenge (October 1997), 21.

Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London: Grace Publications Trust, 1986), 7.

David Saxon, “Why Being Baptist is Biblical” (Unpublished notes, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, n.d.), 1.

Hoad, 7, 11.

Orchard, 11.

McBeth, 459.

McBeth, 453.

Gustavus W. Schroeder, History of the Swedish Baptists in Sweden and America, Being an Account of the Origin, Progress and Results of That Missionary Work During the Last Half of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Published by the author, 1898), 92.

David Potter, “Baptist History Course Notes,” unpublished course notes.

Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, n.d.), 453.

Ross, 76.

[12] Richard C. Weeks, “Foreword” in Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1886; 2003).