What is ‘Landmarkism?’ A Quick Look at a Strange Baptist Polity

Graves_older_web Introduction

If you’re a Baptist in America, you’ve probably heard of a peculiar brand of Baptist polity called “Landmarkism.” This kind of philosophy is also called the “Baptist Bride” mentality. It is an incorrect and Biblically-indefensible idea that says that the only “true churches” are local Baptist churches. This point of view holds that all other churches are false churches and illegitimate. This brief paper will show that the “Landmarkism” point of view is wrong, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking. A fiery, intelligent and formidable preacher from the late 19th century named J. R. Graves is largely responsible for the development of Landmarkism. He wrote in 1880:

 “I think it is no act of presumption in me to assume to know what I meant by the Old Landmarks, since I was the first man in Tennessee, and the first editor on this continent, who publicly advocated the policy of strictly and consistently carrying out in our practice those principles which all true Baptists, in all ages, have professed to believe.”[1]

It is always a warning sign when a man boasts that he alone has re-discovered a great truth, and that we all must listen to him. On a continent swarming with staunch Baptists, Graves claimed to other Baptists that he alone was following the New Testament model of “how to do church.” This paper is not a history of this movement. It is a quick look at what Graves has to say about the distinguishing features of the movement.

A whole bunch of pious Baptists will proudly say that they believe there have always been churches which have followed Baptist polity, to greater or lesser extent, since the church was founded. This is not Landmarkism; it is a perfectly legitimate view about Baptist origins known as “Spiritual-Kinship.” No, the distinguishing mark of Landmarkism is that the local, Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth. They are terribly wrong on this point, and because their entire doctrine of the church is built on this house of sand, their entire doctrine of the church is simply and terribly wrong.

Basic Teachings of Landmarkism

#1 – The Churches and the Kingdom are the Same

Graves stated:

“The locality of Christ’s church, and therefore kingdom, is this earth; all the subjects of His kingdom are here; all the work of His church is here. This earth was given to Him by His Father to be the sole seat of His throne and His kingdom.”[2]

Old-Landmarkism-J.R.-Graves

This is the linchpin of Graves’ entire system. It is a deluded piece of reasoning, a polemic without any Biblical support. The closest Graves comes to Biblically justifying his position is this: “I understand that Christ’s declaration (Matthew 16:18), and Paul’s statement (Heb. 12:28), are emphatic commentaries upon the prophecy of Daniel (2: 44).”[3] Other Landmarkers, like historian John T. Christian, agree but mute their view: “[t]he churches so organized are to continue in the world until the kingdoms of this earth shall become the kingdom of our Lord, even Christ. Prophecy was full of the enduring character of the kingdom of Christ (Daniel 2:44, 45).”[4]

There is no space here for a critique of this statement. However, suffice it so say that the context of Daniel and the writings of the prophets on New Covenant (not to mention the kingdom itself) are enough to dismiss Graves’ view out of hand.

Graves goes on:

“I understand these Scriptures to teach that this organization, called here ‘kingdom’ and ‘church’ is the conception of the divine mind, the expression of the divine thought, and the embodiment of the divine authority on earth.”[5]

If Graves considers the kingdom to be the local churches, then this very easily explains why the doctrine of the church is so important to Landmarkers:

“And for man to set up any form of church as equal, or in opposition, to it, and influence men to join themselves to it, under the impression that they are uniting with Christ’s church, is an act of open rebellion to Christ as the only King of Zion . . .”[6]

Again, this is perfectly understandable if one thinks the local, Baptist churches are the Kingdom of God. Graves essentially says other denominations are in rebellion against God Himself. The church is God’s Kingdom, and “[t]o despise and reject its teachings is to despise the Author of those teachings.”[7]

Here is where it gets interesting:

“The churches of Christ constitute the kingdom of Christ, as the twelve tribes, each separate and independent of itself, constituted the kingdom of Israel; as the provinces of a kingdom constitute the kingdom; as all the separate sovereign States of these United States constitute the Republic of America. Now, as no foreigner can become a citizen of this Republic without being naturalized as a citizen of some one of the States, so no one can enter the kingdom of Christ without becoming a member of some one of His visible churches.”[8]

Do you see his reasoning so far?

  • Baptist Churches = Jesus’ Promised Kingdom
  • Not a Baptist = In Rebellion Against God
  • In Rebellion Against God = Not in His Kingdom
  • Not in His Kingdom = Not a Believer

Therefore:

  •  Not a True Baptist = Not a Believer

Graves might not push the implications quite this far, but they’re obvious enough for any intelligent person to realize.

#2 – Baptist Churches are the Only True Churches in the World

According to Graves, Baptist churches are the only true representation of Christ’s kingdom on this earth. It logically follows, therefore, that only Baptist churches are true churches:

It must be true that those who originate such false churches, and those who support them by their means and influence, occupy the positions of rebels against the rightful and supreme authority of Christ. Designed as the ‘house and church of the living God’ was by an architect possessing infinite wisdom, who saw the end from the beginning, every conceivable exigency that could effect it to the end of time, must have been foreseen and provided for; and the very intimation that changes have become necessary, the better to adapt it to fulfill its mission, is impiously to impugn the divine wisdom that devised and set it up.”[9]

“Christ enjoined it upon His apostles and ministers for all time to come, to construct all organizations that should bear His name according to the pattern and model He “built” before their eyes; and those who add to or diminish aught, do it at their peril. (Rev. 22: 18,19). Organizations bearing the name of Christ devised and set up by men are manifestly counterfeits, and certainly impositions upon the ignorance and credulity of the people.”[10]

Graves had two axioms for Baptist life that are particularly relevant to this topic:

“1. That un-immersed bodies of Christians are not churches, nor are any privileged companies of them the church, hence all Pedo-Baptists denominations are only religious societies.

2. That Baptism and an official relation to a church are prerequisites to a regular gospel minister – hence all ordinances administered by an unbaptized and unordained although immersed minister, are null and void.”[11]

Graves is wrong. Insofar as Baptist churches adhere the closest to New Testament ecclesiology, they are the most obedient churches. They are certainly not the only “true churches.” Some Baptists might object. “Wait a minute!” they may say. “Baptist churches follow the New Testament model. There is a little bit of truth here, isn’t there?”

Those who suggest that Graves had a “kernel of truth” in this assertion are terribly mistaken. Graves believed Baptist churches were the only true churches because of his views on the Kingdom. He believes the Kingdom of God is the local Baptist church! Unless a man is willing to side with Graves on the Kingdom of God, then a man must also repudiate this false view of a Baptist church being the only “true church.” You cannot have it both ways. If a man is right for the wrong reason, he is still wrong.

#3 – The True Church is a Local, Visible Institution

Once again, Graves’ overriding presupposition is that the local church is God’s kingdom on earth. A kingdom is nothing if not literal and physical. Thus, on Graves’ view, the church is always a local, visible institution. “He has no invisible kingdom or church, and such a thing has no real existence in heaven or earth. It is only an invention employed to bolster up erroneous theories of ecclesiology.”[12] Graves lists three possible views on the church:

  • The universal, catholic church. “According to this, there can be but one church, of the denomination adopting it, throughout the world. No single congregation is a church in any sense, but an infinitesimal part of the universal idea.”[13]
  • The state church.
  • The Baptist model. The church is a local organization. “This church acknowledges no body of men on earth, council, conference or assembly as its head, but Christ alone, who is invisible, as ‘head over all things’ to it.”[14]

Graves’ presuppositions cloud his thinking. His view on salvation is a prisoner of his doctrine of the church. Unless Graves is willing to claim that only Baptists are saved, then he must admit that believers of every denominational stripe exist all over the entire world. There is certainly a universal church in prospect; Paul tells us all about the great reunion we’ll all have together with Christ in the air (1 Thess 4:13-18)! In several places in Scripture, “the church” is spoken of as a corporate, collective body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:18; Eph 5:25). Again, Graves’ view here must be repudiated because his wrong-headed views on the kingdom are driving this assertion. The reason why he is so pro-local church is because he believes only Baptist churches are God’s Kingdom.

#4 – There Must Be No “Pulpit Affiliation” With Non-Baptists

Graves writes, “[i]If Baptist preachers are scriptural ministers, Pedobaptists certainly are not, and vice versa, since two things unlike each other cannot be like the same thing— scriptural.”[15] He wrote:

“There are no authorized ministers, but immersed preachers, acting under the authority of a regular church – and who have been ordained by a presbytery of immersed believers.”[16]

“Nothing could be more inconsistent than to admit those preachers into our pulpit who hold and teach doctrines, on account of which we would exclude both from our pulpits and our churches, any minister of our own denomination.”[17]

Therefore, a non-Baptist minister is a false minister. Moreover, as we have seen, a non-Baptist church is not a true church, but merely a “religious society.” Not to beat a dead horse, but presuppositions matter a great deal. Having said that, Graves is wrong. As a Baptist, my own general rule is that I will not have a non-Baptist preach in my church. If I will be out of town, I’ll have a trusted Baptist cover for me. If I am going to have a special speaker on a special topic, the speaker’s ecclesiology is the last thing on my mind. Here is my grid, in order of importance:

  • Orthodoxy – is the person actually a Christian (e.g. the fundamentals)?
  • Fundamentalist – is the person willing to defend orthodoxy?
  • Separatist – does the person put their money where their mouth is? If they aren’t willing, I’m not so sure they’re actually a fundamentalist!
  • Baptist

Ecclesiology doesn’t sum up one’s entire theological outlook. There are other factors to be considered, and there are plenty of Baptists (like Graves) who are schismatic and advance un-Biblical views. Pulpit affiliation is about more than being a Baptist; ecclesiology is simply one narrow slice of the theological pie. To make it the defining characteristic for pulpit affiliation is naïve and simplistic. Being “a Baptist” is not an umbrella term for Biblical orthodoxy, and it shouldn’t be viewed that way.

#5 – Only a Church Can Do Churchly Acts

If only Baptist churches are true “kingdom churches,” as Graves held, then it logically follows that only Baptist churches can do churchly acts. Graves believed Christ set up his kingdom a certain way – the Baptist way. There is no other form of this kingdom other than true Baptist churches. Therefore, only true Baptist churches may do any acts related to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Graves focused particularly on the Lord’s Supper. He advocated what Leon McBeth called a “double closed communion.” Zealous to protect the kingdom of God, Graves was concerned about inadvertently allowing a heretic to partake of the Lord’s Supper:

“If the supper is a repast for the members of each particular church only, it is because the Divine law governing the feast has made it so, and, therefore, it would be in violation of that law for a church to invite, or allow others than her own members, to partake of it; and equally so for members of another church to accept such an unlawful invitation. This is so plain to my mind that discussion is useless.”[18]

“Such churches can exclude heretics, drunkards, revelers, and “every one that walketh disorderly” from their membership, that they may not defile the feast; but they cannot protect the table from such so long as they do not limit it to their membership.”[19]

The logical extension of this view is that no “kingdom work” may be done apart from the local church. It must also be firmly kept in mind that Graves position is not simply that only local churches can do churchly acts. His position is that only local Baptist churches can do churchly acts; he regards other denominations as false.

#6 – Baptist Churches Have Always Existed in Every Age by an Unbroken Historical Succession

It is a common charge to say that Landmarkers believe in a chain-link, almost apostolic-like succession of local churches. What saith Graves?

“Landmark Baptists very generally believe that for the Word of the Living God to stand, and for the veracity of Jesus Christ to vindicate itself, the kingdom which He set up ‘in the days of John the Baptist,’ has had an unbroken continuity until now.”[20]

This makes good sense, from Graves’ point of view. However, he takes great pains to emphasize he is not speaking of an apostolic succession of churches (Ibid, Kindle Location 1690). So, what one earth does he mean?

“Nor have I, or any Landmarker known to me, ever advocated the succession of any particular church or churches; but my position is that Christ, in the very ‘days of John the Baptist,’ did establish a visible kingdom on earth, and that this kingdom has never yet been ‘broken in pieces,’ [notice the allusion to Dan 2:44-45!] nor given to another class of subjects— has never for a day ‘been moved,’ nor ceased from the earth, and never will until Christ returns personally to reign over it; that the organization He first set up , which John called ‘the Bride,’ and which Christ called His church, constituted that visible kingdom, and today all His true churches on earth constitute it; and, therefore, if His kingdom has stood unchanged, and will to the end, He must always have had true and uncorrupted churches, since His kingdom cannot exist without true churches.”[21]

Graves seems to suggest that, while he eschews the idea of an apostolic succession of local churches, he insists that true “kingdom” churches (i.e. Baptists) have always existed. He likens local churches to branch offices of a large organization; local offices may close or even move, but the company itself is obviously in business. Dunkin Donuts may close in your town, but America still runs on Dunkin:

“From the day that organization was started, it has stood; and, though it may have decayed in some places, it has flourished in others, and never has had but one beginning. Thus it has been with that institution called the Kingdom of Christ; it has had a continuous existence , or the words of Christ have failed . . .”[22]

Therefore, Graves does not claim this succession is apostolic; for example, there is no First Baptist Church of Judea. He does claim there have been Baptist churches in existence upon this earth, somewhere, since the church began. Graves must have been pressed on this issue in his day, and he retreated behind the bulwarks of piety when his attackers closed in:

“We do not admit that it devolves upon us more than upon every other lover of Jesus to prove, by uncontestable historical facts, that this kingdom of the Messiah has stood from the day it was set up by Him, unbroken and unmoved; to question it, is to doubt His sure word of promise. To deny it, is to impeach His veracity, and leave the world without a Bible or a Christ. We dare not do this. We believe that His kingdom has stood unchanged as firmly as we believe in the divinity of the Son of God, and, when we are forced to surrender the one faith, we can easily give up the other. If Christ has not kept His promise concerning His church to keep it, how can I trust Him concerning my salvation? If He has not the power to save His church, He certainly has not the power to save me. For Christians to admit that Christ has not preserved His kingdom unbroken, unmoved, unchanged, and uncorrupted, is to surrender the whole ground to infidelity. I deny that a man is a believer in the Bible who denies this.”[23]

This is all well and good, but elsewhere, Graves is less careful with his choice of words and gives his opponents ammunition:

“Baptists claim that they are successors to the ‘Witnesses of Jesus,’ who preserved the faith once delivered to the saints, and kept the ordinances as they were originally committed to the primitive Churches. They claim to be the lineal descendants of the martyrs who, for so many ages, sealed their testimony with their blood. They claim that they can trace the history of communities, essentially like themselves, back through the “wilderness,” into which they were driven by the dragon, and the beast that succeeded to him, and the image of the beast, by a trail of blood, lighted up by a thousand stake-fires, until that blood mingles with the blood of the apostles, and the Son of God, and John the Baptist. They believe that they never did, ecclesiastically, symbolize with the Papacy, but ever repudiated it as Antichrist, and withdrew from it, and refused to recognize its baptisms or ordinances, or its priests as the ministers of Christ.”[24]

“On this account the Baptists may be considered the only Christian community which has stood since the apostles, and as a Christian society which has preserved pure the doctrine of the gospel through all ages.”[25]

 Implications of the Landmark Position

Graves may object all he likes, but the clear implications of his position are that local Baptist churches have been the sole repository of Biblical faith and practice since the time of Jesus Christ. On his view, as we have seen:

  • All other churches are false.
  • All other ministers are false.
  • All other Gospel work is false.
  • Only like-minded (e.g. Landmark) Baptists ought to partake of Lord’s Supper in their churches (double-closed communion).
  • Only like-minded (e.g. Landmark) Baptists may preach in a Baptist church.

This is exclusivist and flawed reasoning, and it is all due to Graves’ wrong-headed idea that the local Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth; the Kingdom promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the prophets. The kingdom spoken of by our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Graves denies an apostolic succession of Baptist churches, but his denials are meaningless. The logical conclusion of his position suggests otherwise:

“It ought to be clear from these statements just how much importance is attached to church succession by Landmarkism. You can have no churches, no ministers, no baptism, and no Christian societies without proper authority, and you can only have that from a church in the line of succession. Thus all the churches, ministers, and baptisms outside the supposed Landmark Baptist succession are without authority, regardless of their being blessed and used by the Holy Spirit. All the great revivals of religion outside of Landmarkers, all the great evangelistic efforts by those other than Landmarkers, many of the greatest preachers of the ages, and many other movings of the Holy Spirit are without authority because some Landmark Baptist church did not meet and give its voice of approval.”[26]

Indeed, as Bob Ross has observed, if Christ’s Kingdom is the local Baptist church, then why has the Spirit done such marvelous work in and among men who were not Landmarkists?

“The great evangelists and revivalists were not Landmarkers; the great revivals of history were not within Landmarkism; the great preachers such as Bunyan, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Roland Hill, and others were not advocates of Landmarkism. Yet these men were Spirit-filled men who were blessed in great revivals, with souls saved, lives changed, and churches blessed. What is a Landmark valid baptism compared with such powerful blessings of the Holy Spirit of God? A succession of men of God, used by the Holy Spirit, would be a far superior succession to any visible, physical succession of baptism or church organizations.”[27]

Conclusion

Graves’ ecclesiology is rotten to the core. Even Leon McBeth couldn’t help himself; he abandoned all pretense of scholarly detachment when he wrote, “. . . the Landmark movement is best understood as a Baptist equivalent of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism.”[28]  Graves must believe what he believes about Baptist churches because his salvation is tied to his doctrine of the church. He has no historical proof to offer, only righteous indignation. I reject his position because it is so clearly influenced by his fundamental presupposition – that Baptist churches are Christ’s Kingdom.


 

Bibliography

Graves, James R. Old Landmarkism: What Is It? Memphis: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.

———————. The Trilemma; Or, Death By Three Horns. Memphis: J. R. Graves and Son, 1890; reprint, Roger Williams Archive, Watertown, WI, n.d.

Christian, John T. A History of the Baptists, 2 vols. Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013.

McBeth, H. Leon. A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage. Nashville: B&H, 1990.

———————. The Baptist Heritage. Nashville: B&H, 1987.

Ross, Bob. “Landmarkism: Unscriptural and Historically Untenable.” Central Bible Quarterly CNEQ 11:1 (Spring 1968), 2-19.


 

Notes

[1] James R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Memphis, TN: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.), Kindle Locations 384-387.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 629-631.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1713-1714.

[4] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 247-249.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Locations 577-579.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Locations 582-583. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid, Kindle Locations 592-593.

[8] Ibid, Kindle Locations 622-626.

[9] Ibid, Kindle Locations 585-589.

[10] Ibid, Kindle Locations 595-598.

[11] J.R. Graves, “A Statement of Landmark Principles, 1857,” in A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, ed. H. Leon McBeth (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1990), 319.

[12] Graves, Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 617-618.

[13] Ibid, Kindle Locations 656-658.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Locations 691-692.

[15] Ibid, Kindle Locations 2883-2884.

[16] Graves, “Landmark Principles,” 319.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Graves, Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 1449-1452.

[19] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1596-1598.

[20] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1688-1690.

[21] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1700-1706.

[22] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1709-1711.

[23] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1714-1721.

[24] J. R. Graves, The Trilemma; Or, Death By Three Horns (Memphis, TN: J. R. Graves and Son, 1890; reprint, Roger Williams Archive, Watertown, WI, n.d.), 119–120.

[25] Ibid, 136.

[26] Bob Ross, “Landmarkism: Unscriptural and Historically Untenable,” Central Bible Quarterly CNEQ 11:1 (Spring 1968), 5.

[27] Ibid, 11.

[28] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 459.

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