Graves, Landmarkism and the Kingdom of God (Part 5)

(Read the entire series.)

The clear implications of J.R. Graves’ ecclesiology was that local Baptist churches have been the sole repository of biblical faith and practice since the time of Jesus Christ.

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.1

Moreover, Graves believed that he could not, in good conscience, even recognize non-Baptists as Christian brethren. In July of 1851, one of the adopted “Cotton Grove Resolutions” asked, “Can we consistently address as brethren those professing Christianity, who not only have not the doctrine of Christ and walk not according to his commandments, but are arrayed in direct and bitter opposition to them?”2 Graves was pleased to record that the answer to this question, as well as the other four under consideration, was a resounding, “No!”

On Graves’ view, as we have seen:

  • The local Baptist church is Christ’s promised Kingdom on earth
  • This Kingdom is always local and visible—a called out assembly of believers
  • All non-Baptist churches are false, counterfeit “religious organizations,” and deliberate traitors to Christ
  • All non-Baptist ministers are false, illegitimate ministers.
  • Only Baptist churches may legitimately observe the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  • For quality control of the Kingdom ordinances, a Christian may only partake of the Supper at his own local church

These positions sprang from Graves’ foundational assumption 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 denied an apostolic succession of Baptist churches, but the practical implications of his position suggest precisely that:

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.3


Graves’ entire system of ecclesiology stems from an erroneous foundational assumption. Even Leon McBeth couldn’t help himself; he abandoned all pretense of scholarly detachment when he observed  that “the Landmark movement is best understood as a Baptist equivalent of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism.”4 Graves may have agreed with at least part of that sentiment; he sounded like a Roman Catholic apologist when he lamented that not following the pattern Christ established for His Kingdom had led directly to denominationalism. “It is this horrible God-dishonoring and Christ-rejecting doctrine that has already given birth to the 640 sects that have arisen.”5

J.R. Graves’ ecclesiology is built upon the mistaken premise that the local Baptist church is God’s Kingdom on earth. The Landmarker distinctives outlined in this paper are the direct result of this erroneous assumption:

  • Graves denied the existence of a universal church primarily because he believed God’s Kingdom was the local Baptist church, and that Kingdom had to be a physical, earthly entity.
  • Graves believed that all non-Baptist “churches” were counterfeit and Antichristian, because they were not obedient to the blueprint for Christ’s Kingdom.
  • Graves believed all non-Baptist ministers were illegitimate, because they believed and practiced contrary to Christ’s Kingdom.
  • Graves believed that only local Baptist churches could legitimately observe the ordinances, because only they were legitimate Kingdom churches.
  • Graves did not believe in an apostolic succession, chain-link succession of churches, but the practical ramifications of their stance on the Kingdom of God practically demands such an interpretation of Baptist origins.

Given the gross errors of Graves’ movement, a Baptist who calls himself a Landmarker ought to consider why he believes in some of the Landmarker distinctives. Has he inherited a diluted, watered-down form of Landmarkism without even knowing its history? Or, does he hold to these distinctives on the basis of Scripture alone? Any Baptist is perfectly to free to believe what he wishes about the primacy of the local church, the grave errors of infant baptism, and the disobedient structure of non-Baptist churches. Unless he agrees with J.R. Graves about what the promised Kingdom of God is, however, he ought never to call himself a Landmarker.


1 Graves (Trilemma, 136). 

2 Graves (Old Landmarkism, Kindle Locations 363-365). 

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

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

5 Graves (Great Iron Wheel, 38).  


Carson, D.A. “Calvinism/Reformed.” Soteriological Essentials and the ‘Significance of Silence’: Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism and the EFCA. Retrieved from

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.

––––––— & Jacob Ditzler. Church of Christ. The Great Carrollton Debate, vol. 6. Memphis: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1876.

––––––—. The Great Iron Wheel, or Republicanism Backwards and Christianity Reversed. Nashville: South Western Publishing House, 1860.

––––––––-, ed. The Tennessee Baptist. 05 Jan 1884. Vol. 16. No. 30. Memphis. Retrieved from

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.

4110 reads

There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm not really seeing the link between landmarkism and Romanism, other than the exclusivity, and to some extent authoritarianism. Not sure what McBeth was thinking.

But it's pretty clear that Kingdom confusion led to lots of other problems in Graves' views.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron,  the way I interpret it is that if Graves' theory about the faith being preserved in Baptist churches is true, then (despite protestations to the contrary) we have almost a mandate for an "ecclesiastical succession" that resembles nothing so much to me as the "apostolic succession" of Rome.  Granted, huge differences--I don't think Graves was claiming infallability, no celibate priests, and the like--but it does set up something that looks a lot like an episcopacy.  I think we can also argue that Graves' work also walls off some self-correcting that the church can do regarding the nature of the church--that is Graves' work effectively becomes the writing of a new apostle, which resembles church tradition and the episcopacy as well.  

Yet another similarity is that one might consider is that if the only Christians are those who are members of Baptist churches (and Landmark ones as well?), then we might consider Baptist church membership a "work" whereby Landmarkers might be considered a wee bit soft on Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus.  

Airtight case?  No, but something to contemplate, maybe.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Yes, the successionism is also a similarity... and the biggest. Not sure how I missed that.

On the membership requirement for salvation... I think that, and a few other things in Graves are probably cases of assuming too much logical consistency. Quite often we affirm premises that others notice lead to certain conclusions... but we would not affirm the conclusions. So we have inconsistencies in what we're teaching. We all do it to some extent. Looks to me like Graves is a bit contradictory on some of the worst implications, so probably didn't quite want to 'go there' even though much of what he said elsewhere seems to point that way.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.