Initiation of the Baptist Landmarker Movement
James Robinson Graves
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On June 24, 1851, minister and newspaper editor James Robinson Graves organized a meeting of like-minded Baptists in Cotton Grove, Tennessee. The group challenged the practice of inviting non-Baptist ministers to preach in Baptist churches and went so far as to question whether they could even "consistently address as brethren" members of other denominations. Landmarkers, as they soon began calling themselves in reference to Proverbs 22:28, rejected the idea of the universal church and rooted their theology in Baptist successionism, the belief that an unbroken trail of Baptists could be traced all the way back to the biblical John the Baptist. Landmarkers sparked a series of controversies in the Southern Baptist Convention during the second half of the 19th century, until many of them left the Convention in 1905 to join the Baptist General Association.
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Baptist Religious Events and People in American History
The Landmarker movement in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) began during a time of intense denominational competition on the American frontier. During the Second Great Awakening, evangelical denominations like the Methodists and Baptists competed for souls alongside newer groups, including Alexander Campbell's Restorationists. The Restorationists claimed that they represented a authentic, primitive Christianity that did away with the detritus of denominationalism and manmade creeds. Baptist Landmarkers, although intractably opposed to Campbell's teaching, shared that restorationist sentiment. They were intensely local in their understanding of the church and suspicious of centralized denominational authorities and mission boards.On June 24, 1851, minister James Robinson Graves organized a meeting of like-minded Baptists in Cotton Grove, Tennessee. The group challenged the practice of inviting non-Baptist ministers to preach in Baptist churches and went so far as to question whether they could even "consistently address as brethren" members of other denominations. Graves himself worried about Baptist ministers who had been baptized as children in other denominations before becoming Baptists; should they be allowed to baptize believers themselves when their own baptisms were illegitimate?Graves's ideas carried weight because he was the editor of a paper, The Tennessee Baptist, and a publisher, outlets that he used to attack Campbellites, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists with equal vim and vigor. In 1854, he published a pamphlet entitled An Old Landmark Reset, setting forth the basic principles of the Landmark movement. The title referenced Proverbs 22:28, which condemned those who removed "the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set," which were boundary markers delineating which tribe owned what land in Israel. Tradition was literally set in stone, a principle that Baptist Landmarkers meant to preserve. But Landmarker theology encompassed more than just the vital importance of adult baptism by immersion. It also denied the existence of the universal church. They believed that Christ left behind only one church, the local church. This meant that denominational mission boards, which were not directly accountable to delegates from local churches were an abomination, proof that the Southern Baptist Convention was treading the road to Rome. Critics of Landmarkism noted that the Southern Baptist Convention was a fairly new denomination and that modern Baptists could only be traced back to the anabaptists of the European Reformation. Not so, replied the Landmarkers. In 1855, Graves republished a church history by a British Baptist titled a History of Foreign Baptists, which claimed that Baptists could trace their ancestry back through a litany of pre-Reformational dissenters all the way to John the Baptist. It was a hodgepodge of groups with widely varying doctrines united only by a belief in adult baptism. In 1931, Baptist successionism received an update in the popular booklet The Trail of Blood by Landmarker minister James Milton Carroll. Periodically during the second half of the 19th century, the Landmarkers sparked controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. In one notable instance in 1899, a seminary professor named William Heth Whitsitt challenged the Landmarker view of church history. Landmarkers rallied and forced his resignation from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Despite this controversy and others, most Landmarkers remained within the Convention until 1905, when Benjamin Marquis Bogard formed the Baptist General Association and led several hundred churches in Texas and Arkansas out of the SBC. The Baptist General Association would change its name in 1924 to the American Baptist Association (ABA) and, in keeping with its Landmarker roots, declare that "in kingdom activities, the church is the only unit." Today, the ABA and several splinter denominations claim several hundred thousand adherents between them, mostly in Arkansas and other south central states.
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The Second Great Awakening
James Robinson Graves portrait- Hathi Trust
The Trail of Blood
Garrett, James Leo, 2009. Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
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Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History