Landmarkism and “Apostolic Succession”: a Common Misconception
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.1
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.2 So, what on 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.3
Graves’ position, then, was merely 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 organization itself is obviously still 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 4
Therefore, Graves did not claim this succession is apostolic; for example, there is no First Baptist Church of Judea. He did claim there have been Baptist churches in existence upon this earth, somewhere, since the church began. In his view, it doesn’t matter that there are no historical records of these churches—they aren’t even necessary.
Christ promised to preserve his churches, but he did not promise to preserve the record of these churches among men. The fact that I have no “reliable unbroken record” back to Adam is not sufficient ground to deny the fact that I am a descendant of Adam.5
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.6
This is all well and good, but elsewhere, Graves was less careful with his choice of words and gave 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.7
To Graves, then, “true churches” have always existed somewhere on this earth, at some time. It is an article of faith. To deny it is to deny the Bible itself. For the modern reader, then, Graves would tell you that if you do not at least believe in the spiritual-kinship theory of Baptist origins you are denying the Scriptures. You are a compromiser. One Landmarker, writing in the early 20th century, triumphantly declared that “the history of New Testament Christianity does not flow in the fetid channel of Romish priestcraft.”8
1 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 1688-1690). Emphasis mine.
2 Ibid, Kindle Location 1696-1698. “We repudiate the doctrine of apostolic succession; we do not believe they ever had a successor, and, therefore, no one today is preaching under the apostolic commission any more than under that which Christ first gave to John the Baptist.”
3 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1700-1706.
4 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1709-1711.
5 William Dudley Nowlin, Fundamentals of the Faith (Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board—Southern Baptist Convention, 1922; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), 245.
6 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 1714-1721).
7 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. Emphasis mine.
8 C. A. Jenkens, What Made Me a Baptist (Goldsboro, NC: Nash Bros., 1901; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), 11.