If you’re a Baptist in America, you’ve probably heard of a peculiar brand of Baptist polity called “Landmarkism.” D.A. Carson recently quipped that hyper-Calvinism is a term usually reserved for somebody you don’t like!1 In Baptist circles, this is usually the intent when one uses the term “Landmarker.” That is not the way the term is used here! It is a genuine historical term, and its American founder was proud to call himself a “Landmarker.”
This series is a survey of what the father of American Landmarksim believed about the local church, and why he believed it. It is not a refutation of that position, although I will make some brief remarks along that line. This is an important topic, because I suspect many Baptists who hold to Landmark distinctives don’t actually understand what original Landmarkism actually taught.
A fiery, intelligent and formidable preacher from the mid to late 19th century named J. R. Graves is largely responsible for the development of Landmarkism. He admitted as much 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.2
Graves certainly did not invent the concept of Baptist exclusivity, but he popularized it in 19th Century America and gave it his own unique imprint. This paper is not a history of the Landmark movement in general. It is a look what Graves himself had to say about Landmarkism.
Many pious Baptists 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 view about Baptist origins known as “spiritual kinship.” Graves went much further than this and introduced six “marks” of a Church of Christ, which nicely sum up his ecclesiology:
- The Church and kingdom of Christ is a divine institution
- The Church and kingdom are a visible institution
- The Church is located upon this earth
- The Church is a local organization and a single congregation
- All members are regenerate before baptism
- Baptism is a Profession, by the Subject, of the Gospel
We’ll examine the first of these so-called “marks” and its implications, because this single principle formed the core of Graves’ entire system. The distinguishing mark of Graves’ Landmarkism is that the local, Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth. His entire doctrine of the church was built upon this principle. Like the fruit from a bad tree, this faulty assumption corrupts everything else in the Landmarker ecclesiology.
The Foundational Assumption of Landmarkism
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.3
Graves went on to state, “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).”4 Other Landmarkers, like historian John T. Christian, agreed: “The 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).”5
To Graves, then, the Kingdom promised to Israel in the Old Testament is the local church.6 This is the linchpin of Graves’ entire polity—the local church is Christ’s promised kingdom. He used the terms “church” and “kingdom” synonymously and called “the Church and Kingdom of Christ” a “divine institution.”7 This position had wide-ranging implications for Graves’ theology and was the foundational assumption which undergirded his entire ecclesiology.
Notice something interesting about Graves’ version of the Kingdom of Christ:
- Amillennialists usually interpret “the kingdom” to be the spiritual reign of Christ in the hearts of the elect. In this scheme, the church has replaced or superseded Israel as the intermediary through which Christ is revealed.
- Premillennialists emphasize that Christ will have a literal kingdom, upon the literal earth, and reign from a literal throne in a literal Jerusalem with a literally-restored Israel. In this arrangement, the church has not replaced Israel but is a separate program of God in His plan to redeem His creation.
What Graves did was borrow from both systems and create his own hybrid. This is why he wrote that “the kingdom of Israel was a type of the kingdom of Christ.”8 Notice this:
- In accordance with premillennialism, Christ’s Kingdom is quite literal and earthly.
- In accordance with amillennialism, the local Baptist Church(es) have completely replaced Israel as the intermediary of God’s grace!
Graves went 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.9
Now, if Graves really did consider the Kingdom of God to be the local Baptist church, then this very easily explains why the doctrine of the church was so important to his system:
For man or angel to presume to modify it in the least, by additions, changes, or repeals, is to profane it and offer an insult to its divine Founder.10
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.11
Thus, Graves believed that disobedient (i.e. non-Baptist) churches were in open and willful 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.”12 All so-called “churches” that do not follow the Baptist pattern are counterfeit organizations and “impositions upon the ignorance and credulity of the people.”13
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.14
Do you see his reasoning so far?
- Baptist churches = Jesus’ promised kingdom
- Not a Baptist = in willful, open rebellion against God
- In rebellion against God = not in His kingdom
- Not in His kingdom = not a believer
Because of this reasoning, some believed Graves taught that only Baptists could be saved.15 However, Graves never believed this and never pushed the implications of his system that far. In fact, he explicitly denied the allegation. “In denying that a Society is a Church, I do not therefore deny that its members are Christians.”16
However, Graves did make several ill-advised statements which made people wonder. For instance, he solemnly warned, “it is rejecting Christ as king, and choosing men for our masters when we unite with human societies instead of a church of Christ set up as the home of His children.”17 Notice that Graves refused to acknowledge non-Baptist churches as churches, but instead labeled them as “human societies.” This will become important later on.
1 From a lecture at a recent Evangelical Free Church of America theology conference on the subject of “Soteriological Essentials and the ‘Significance of Silence’: Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism and the EFCA.” Carson took the Calvinism/Reformed position.
2 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.
3 Ibid, Kindle Locations 629-631.
4 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1713-1714.
5 John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, 2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 247-249.
6 For more on Graves’ rationale, see J.R. Graves & Jacob Ditzler, Church of Christ, in The Great Carrollton Debate, vol. 6 (Memphis, TN: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1876), 932-934. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/iKRvua.
7 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 575-576).
8 Ibid, Kindle Location 860.
9 Ibid, Kindle Locations 577-579.
10 Ibid, Kindle Locations 580-581.
11 Ibid, Kindle Locations 582-583. Emphasis mine.
12 Ibid, Kindle Locations 592-593.
13 Ibid, Kindle Location 598.
14 Ibid, Kindle Locations 622-626.
15 Graves complained about false charges against so-called “old Landmarkism.” One of those false charges was “that we hold that baptism is essential to salvation, but its efficacy ineffectual unless we can prove the unbroken connection of the administrator with some apostle,” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 380-381).
17 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 600-601).