Original article by Fred Moritz, May 2012
Edits and corrections by Kevin Pirnie, January 2019
In the nineteenth century a series of controversies rocked Baptist life and threatened the peace and survival of Baptist churches in the United States. The three controversies were sequentially related. The Campbellite controversy, with its linkage of regeneration to baptism, was the first great disruptive battle. James R. Graves developed his Landmark theory of Baptist succession, and that controversy became the middle battle of those three conflicts. William Heth Whitsitt originally identified himself with Graves, but later reacted against that position. He adopted what was then the new theory that Baptists “rediscovered” immersion in the middle of the seventeenth century. This third controversy eventually cost him his position as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The purpose of this article is to trace the origins of the Landmark controversy and to see its ramifications for ecclesiology and local church polity. It will be necessary to briefly examine the preceding Campbellite controversy in order to set the stage for it. The later Whitsitt controversy will not be discussed in this article, for that is worthy of a study all its own.
The Campbellite Movement
The Campbellite heresy brought great disruption to churches. “By far the most important schism suffered by the Baptist body in the United States was that of which Alexander Campbell was the occasion and one of the chief agents.”Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), father of Alexander (1788–1866), was a Presbyterian pastor in Scotland who came to Pennsylvania in 1807.He pastored a Presbyterian church, but stressed unity among Christians of various denominations. In 1809 the Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania) was formed in an effort to bring unity across denominational lines.In 1811 they “transformed this gathering into the Brush Run Church so they could observe the Lord’s Supper.”
Alexander was ordained in 1812. Having become persuaded of the truth of baptism by immersion, he was baptized on June 12, 1812, by Matthew Luce, a neighboring Baptist pastor. The following year the Brush Run Church united with the Redstone Baptist Association.Campbell preached in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee and was identified with the Baptists until 1830. In that year he and his followers formed a new denomination known as the Disciples of Christ.
Alexander Campbell seems to have been driven by a passion to reform Christendom. He held that the “ancient gospel” had been obscured by “human traditions,” and thus he sought to return the churches to the practices of the New Testament.He stood against a paid clergy, all human institutions for propagating the gospel, and the use of creeds or doctrinal statements. “The professed object was to return to the simplicity of the New Testament faith and practice.”
Campbell adopted several aberrant doctrinal views. His first error, and one of the most critical, dealt with the nature of saving faith. Campbell had studied at the University of Glasgow before coming to the United States. There he had absorbed the teaching of Robert Sandeman, which effectively reduced saving faith to “head belief” or “mental assent.”
Sandemanianism refers primarily to an aspect of theology regarding the nature of faith promoted by Robert Sandeman (1718–1781), from which it derives its name, and his father-in-law John Glas (1695–1773) in Scotland and England during the mid-eighteenth century.
To the Sandemanians, the nature of saving faith reduces to mere intellectual assent to a fact or proposition. This is illustrated rather clearly in the following quote. “In a series of letters to James Hervey, the author of Theron and Aspasia, he [Sandeman] maintained that justifying faith is a simple assent to the divine testimony concerning Jesus Christ, differing in no way in its character from belief in any ordinary testimony.”
Following this, “Campbell taught that baptism by immersion completes the process of salvation.” Campbell is quoted as saying:
We have the most explicit proof that God forgives sins for the name’s sake of his Son, or when the name of Jesus Christ is named upon us in immersion:—that in, and by, the act of immersion, so soon as our bodies are put under water, at that very instant our former, or “old sins,” are washed away, provided only that we are true believers.
The effect of Campbellism also greatly minimized the work of the Holy Spirit. McBeth cites minutes of the Franklin Association in Kentucky affirming that the Campbellites held “that there is no direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind prior to baptism—that baptism procures the remission of sins.”
“Campbell’s view of Scripture differed from that of most Baptists. The essence of Campbell’s controversial ‘Sermon on the Law’ in 1816 was a rejection of the binding authority of the Old Testament upon Christians.” While dispensationalists would agree with his view of the authority of the Old Testament on a New Testament believer, Campbell used this position as an argument to “restore” church order to only those practices that have New Testament precedent. “Campbell embraced a stark literalism which required that all church practices have precept or precedent in Scripture. By that hermeneutic, he rejected missionary societies, instrumental music in worship, the use of written confessions, regular salaries for ministers, the use of ministerial titles, and many other practices.”
Campbell’s doctrine devastated Baptist churches across the South. “Historians estimate, for example, that fully half the Baptist churches of Kentucky switched to the new Disciples movement.” The historical records tell of local Baptist associations being split, some churches dividing, and other churches defecting to the new doctrine.
The story of the Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church in Gray, Tennessee, is an example of the havoc Campbellism wreaked on local churches. This church was founded in 1779 and is the oldest Baptist church in Tennessee. Today it is a thriving church with more than five hundred attending on Sunday mornings. In the 1820s its attendance averaged 250–300, which was large for that day. When the Campbellite heresy invaded, however, the assembly was left nearly extinct, with only twenty-five to thirty attending.
The Stage Set for the Landmark Movement
It was in this context and against this backdrop that James R. Graves developed his movement known as Landmarkism. In combating the Campbellite heresies of their supposed “reformation,” Graves sought to establish an authenticity for church succession.
Alan Lefever, the director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, argues that the Landmark movement was:
a direct response to Alexander Campbell, who taught baptismal regeneration and trumpeted the desire to restore the New Testament church. Campbell, a former Baptist, founded the movement out of which the modern-day Disciples of Christ denomination and the Churches of Christ—a loose grouping of conservative, independent congregations—developed.
“Landmarkism was a reaction to the Campbellite movement. It was like a vaccine to inoculate Baptists against Campbellite influence,” [Lefever] said.
“If Alexander Campbell had never come along, we’d never have had Landmarkism. There never would have been a need,” Lefever insisted.
In contrast to Campbell, who claimed to be restoring biblical Christianity, Graves argued that Baptists have always represented biblical Christianity. Lefever explained: “A so-called Campbellite might say, ‘We have restored the New Testament church.’ But a Landmark Baptist could respond, ‘We are the New Testament church.’”
The Birth of the Landmark Movement
James R. Graves (1820–1893) is one of the most controversial personalities in the history of Baptists in America. Graves was a dynamic preacher and popular editor and enjoyed a wide following. He was editor of The Baptist (later The Tennessee Baptist) from 1848–1889.
Preacher, publisher, author, and editor. He influenced Southern Baptist life of the 19th century in more ways, and probably to a greater degree, than any other person. As an agitator and controversialist of the first magnitude, he kept his denomination in almost continual and often bitter controversy for about 30 years. He also engaged in frequent and prolonged debates and controversies with outstanding representatives of other denominations. Being magnetic and dynamic, he won the enthusiastic and loyal support of thousands; but being acrimonious in his disputations and attacks, he made many determined enemies.
Graves led in the Landmark movement from its beginning in 1851 and sought to make its ideology dominant in Southern Baptist life. During 1854-58, when Amos Cooper Dayton [a second Landmark leader] was corresponding secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention Bible Board (Nashville, 1851-62), Landmarkers were in control. Dayton resigned under pressure in Apr., 1858. Growing out of the conflict that developed, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1859 appointed no Landmarkers from Nashville to serve on the Bible Board.
James Madison Pendleton was a third leader in the movement. “His opinions were less extreme than those of Graves and Dayton and constituted a moderating influence.” Pendleton is perhaps best known for his book Christian Doctrines, first published in 1878. The book remains in print.
In February 1852 Pendleton invited Graves to preach a revival meeting for him in Bowling Green, Kentucky.The two men discussed issues of ecclesiology during this time. Pendleton never completely agreed with Graves, but his ecclesiology formed a basis for Graves’ position.
The Rebirth of Landmarkism
Graves’ primary concerns had to do with practices he observed in Baptist churches and how those churches related to other denominations. He was concerned that the Baptist testimony had been greatly wounded by the Campbellite controversy some years earlier. He was also concerned by the growth and strength of the Methodists across the South.
He was troubled by the fact that Baptist churches received alien immersion, exchanged pulpits with non-Baptist churches, and cooperated in union Sunday schools and union church meetings. He held that these practices “departed from primitive Baptist principles and undermined Baptist distinctives. . . . He sought to underscore an individuality that belonged uniquely to Baptists.” These distinctives have been held by the Lord’s churches throughout the centuries, even if they were identified by another name beside baptist.
“Alien immersion” is the practice of a Baptist church receiving members who have been immersed upon their profession of faith in Christ, but that immersion would have been administered by a Presbyterian, Methodist, or clergy from some other non-Baptist denomination.
The reasoning for rejecting “alien immersion” is that a pedobaptist church is not, by New Testament standards, a true church. His questions dated to 1832.
He had seen a pedobaptist minister who at one service immersed several converts (including Graves’s mother and sister), poured upon another who knelt in the stream, and sprinkled others who stood on the bank. How could these different acts constitute the “one baptism” of the New Testament? Can an unbaptized person perform valid baptism? Troubled by these questions, Graves concluded that only Baptist immersion constitutes valid baptism [emphasis mine].
This understanding is consistant with the beliefs and practices of scriptural new testament churches from the time of Jesus ministry.
Controversy in Nashville
Some claim that Graves was a controversialist by nature. He engaged in a bitter dispute with Robert Boyte Crawford Howell, who was his pastor at First Baptist Church of Nashville. This controversy occurred when Graves published an accusation that Howell had slandered him. The controversy extended over two years, 1858–1859, and resulted in Graves leaving the church. The church investigated the matter and began a procedure of discipline against Graves. He apparently raised a parliamentary objection, and with that procedural move he led a group to leave and form a new church. Forty-six of his followers were excluded from the church over the next year. Wills reports that this division “polarized the denomination in the South.”
Controversy in the Convention
Gravesl also engaged in controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, and that agitation centered on the Foreign Mission Board. At the 1859 SBC meeting in Richmond, he moved “to take from the Foreign Mission Board its power to examine, choose, support, and direct its missionaries, on the ground that these were the rights of churches and associations, or groups of churches that might wish to work together.” The messengers refused to “dismantle” the FMB.
“The gospel mission movement that developed among a few Southern Baptist missionaries in China (1886-93), and the Landmark Baptist conventions in Arkansas and Texas, organized about 1905, were logical developments of the views Graves sought to implement at Richmond in 1859.”
T.P. Crawford was a missionary in China and led the “the gospel mission movement,” which advocated that missionaries should be appointed by churches, not boards. Crawford attacked the SBC and its mission boards and was dismissed from the SBC in 1892.
Controversy with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Graves not only led in opposition to the Foreign Mission Board, but also against Southern Seminary in Louisville and several other Southern Baptist organizations. His contentions with the seminary centered on a personal animosity against president and founder James Petigru Boyce and differences over the terms of communion and alien immersion.
The Civil War (1861–1865) disrupted Graves’ printing ministry, which took heavy losses as a result of the Union occupation of Nashville after 1862. He did not publish his paper again until 1867. After the war, Graves relocated to Memphis, and on February 1, 1867, he published the first post-war issue of The Baptist. He suffered a stroke in 1884, took a debilitating fall in 1890 (after which he never walked), and died June 26, 1893.
The Landmarks of Landmarkism
- Several unique doctrinal traits characterize the Landmark movement.
- These are the identifying marks of true New Testament Churches down through the ages of Darkness and confusion
- It must have begun at the right time. It must have the correct origin. During the ministry of Jesus Christ. Matt. 4:18-25, Matt. 16:18-20, Matt. 28:18-20 It must have the right founder – Jesus Christ. Judges 16:16 (Samson the pillar), 1Peter 2:4-8
- This church must have the right rules of faith and practice, the Bible. … 2Timithy 3-16-17, 2Peter 1:20-21
- Assembly – Ekklessia – Ones called out Matt. 16:18, Eph. 3:21 It is the assembly not a church building, cathedral ,moed synagogue, or the place of worship. It is the congregation.
- It must have the right government (polity). All members are equal. Matt. 24:20, Matt. 23:5-12 Must have a congregational government.
- It must have the right members – saved people. Eph. 2:21, 1Peter 2:5
- It must have the right ordinances, Baptism and the Lords Supper. Baptism is to be emerged in water, i.e. Johns Baptism, not sprinkled or poured on. Matt 28:18-20, Matt. 11:12-13
- It must have the right officers – Pastors and Deacons. 1Tim. 3:1-16
- It must have the right work objectives – Making disciples, baptizing, and teaching the rules of the kingdom. Matt. 28:16-20
- It must have the right financial plan – Tithes and offerings. 1Cor. 9:14
- It must have the right means of propagation and defense. 2 Cor. 10:4, Eph. 6:10-20 Spiritual weapons, not carnal or not by the power of the state.
- It must have independence from all earthly powers. It must be sovereign and have absolute separation of church and state. Matt. 22:21
The true church is a local, visible institution.
Landmark Baptists vehemently deny the existence of a church of which all regenerated people in this age are a part. This is an issue that is debated among Baptist theologians. It is rightly a discussion for Ecclesiology in Systematic Theology or Baptist Polity. Not all who hold this view espouse the Landmark position, but all Landmarkers today hold it.
B.H. Carroll, who decried the use of the term “universal church,” states:
But while nearly all of the 113 instances of the use of ecclesia belong to the particular class, there are some instances, as Heb. 12:23 and Eph. 5:25–27, where the reference seems to be to the general assembly of Christ. But in every such case the ecclesia is prospective, not actual. That is to say, there is not now but there will be a general assembly of Christ’s people. That general assembly will be composed of all the redeemed of all time. [Emphasis mine]
S.E. Anderson is another Baptist who has been vociferous in his protestations against the idea of a “universal” church. He comes to the same conclusion as Carroll. Commenting on Hebrews 12:23, he says:
Since we are not yet made perfect, these verses are evidently a prophecy of that future time when all the saved on earth shall be gathered together in heaven. Then we shall be one great universal church, all together, local and visible and general. This passage, plus Ephesians 5:27, tells of the “church in prospect” when we shall all be “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” Glorious prospect! [Emphasis Mine]
“The churches and the kingdom of God are coterminous.”
“This is one of the most distinctive doctrines of Landmarkism.” It may be the most overlooked distinguishing mark of the movement.
Graves held that “[t]he kingdom embraced the first church, and it now embraces all the churches.” This left him open to the charge that only Baptists could be saved, which he denied. He viewed Matthew 16:18 as a fulfillment of Daniel 2:44. “The kingdom of Christ, of God, of heaven, is constituted of the sum total of all his true visible churches as constituents, which churches are the sole judges and executives of the laws and ordinances of the kingdom.” This certainly reflects a likely true view of the kingdom.
There is No Pullpit Affiliation with Unscriptural Churches
This included participation with these churches in union revival meetings, ordinations, pastoral installation services, or exchanging pulpits with ministers of other denominations on special occasions.
“Only a church can do churchly acts.”
Scripture clearly teaches that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances committed to the local church. Baptism is the “initiatory rite” into church fellowship (Acts 2:41). The local church was to observe the Lord’s Supper in a corporate assembly (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33).
Landmarkism involves the authenticity of a church as an organization, the administration and administrator of baptism, and the ordination of ministers. It is asserted that a church is unscriptural, baptism is invalid, and ministers are not duly ordained unless there is proper church authority for them. This is Landmarkism’s “chief cornerstone.”
“Baptist churches have always existed in every age
by an unbroken historical succession.”
“Since it is unthinkable that the kingdom of God could ever go out of existence, even for a short time, and that kingdom is composed of Baptist churches, then it follows that there must always have been Baptist churches. Landmarkers acknowledge that these churches may not always have been called by the name Baptist but insist they had all the essential marks of a gospel (i.e., Baptist) church.”
Landmarkism “further involves the perpetuity, succession, or continuity of Baptist churches through which authority has descended through the ages and will continue.”
Therefore, the true and scriptural organization of a church, the valid administration of baptism, and the proper ordination of a gospel minister must all be enacted upon the authority of a sound and true, scriptural church—namely, a church that was born through the authority of a “mother” church continuing in like manner back to the original apostolic church of Matthew 28 where church authority first began.
Graves stated his position:
After some years’ reading, and making extracts from authors, on the subject of my investigation, I resolved on throwing my materials into chronological order, to exhibit the feature of a connected history. This done, I became fully satisfied; and established the proof of what Robinson conjectured, that the English Baptists, contending for the sufficiency of Scripture, and for Christian liberty to judge of its meaning, can be traced back, in authentic documents, to the first Nonconformists and to the Apostles.
An Evaluation of the Landmark Theory
Marks of the New Testament Church
Scripture clearly describes marks of a true New Testament church, and we do well to begin our analysis of the Landmark movement by briefly reviewing them.
In Acts 2 Luke described the events of the local church in the New Testament. Peter preached the gospel (Acts 2:14–40). Those who professed faith in Christ were baptized (v. 41). From the very beginning Scripture establishes the principle of believer’s baptism. Those who professed faith in Christ and were immersed were added to the body of believers (v. 41). On that very first day and in that very first local church, the Bible establishes the principle of regenerate church membership. The first church established a routine of its corporate life (v. 42)—this included “breaking of bread,” which is synonymous with the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:20–24). Two ordinances are thus established. Apostolic sign gifts were exercised (v. 43), and the early church established a routine of corporate care for its members (Acts 2:44–46). It was characterized by a God-given unity (v. 46), and evangelism was a daily activity (v. 47). The rest of Acts and the epistles flesh out other details concerning local church officers, discipline, government, worship, and doctrine.
We must build our doctrine, including our ecclesiology, on the Word of God. That will distinguish us at some critical points from true Christian brothers and sisters who are part of other communions. Insisting on building our church doctrine and practice solely on Scripture is really the feature that distinguishes us as Baptists.
In the last century Chester Tulga clearly stated this point: “The basic tenet of the historic Baptist faith is that the Bible is the Word of God and the sole authority of faith and practice.” British Baptist pastor Jack Hoad similarly stated: “It is the Biblical doctrine of the church, with an unqualified submission to scripture as the Word of God, which becomes the test of what is a Baptist church.” David Saxon reinforces the point: “What we really mean is the NT is the sole authority for our ecclesiology. That is, Baptists insist that the NT alone reveals what the church is and how it should be administered.”
Thomas Armitage, The History of the Baptists (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 1976 reprint of 1890 edition), 2:735.
H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 377.
James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology—A Four-Century Study (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 249.
Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907), 342.
In this section I am following the analysis of McBeth, 378–380. Newman (488–490), Garrett (249–251), and Armitage (2:735–736) give similar analyses.
Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptist (1827), 5:416, cited in McBeth, 379.
Personal interview with Gene Lasley, Pastor Emeritus of Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church, 21 February, 2012.
Ken Camp, “Historians Debate Reasons for Rise of Landmarkism in 19th Century,” Associated Baptist Press (9 January 2009), http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/3765 /53/.
Keith E. Eitel, “James Madison Pendleton” in Baptist Theologians, eds. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 193.
Harold S. Smith, “J. R. Graves” in Baptist Theologians, eds. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 229.
Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859–2009 (Oxford: University Press, 2009), 98.
McBeth, 456. By all accounts Howell was a godly pastor and respected Southern Baptist leader. He served First Baptist Nashville as its pastor at two different times and was elected president of the convention. He authored two classic books: The Terms of Communion at the Lord’s Table (1846) and The Evils of Infant Baptism (1852).
Wills, 98. Wills (98–107) gives a detailed account of Graves’ attacks on Southern Seminary.
James M. Pendleton, Christian Doctrines—A Compendium of Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1997), 329.
B.H. Carroll, Ecclesia, The Church (Ashland, KY: The Baptist Examiner, n.d.), 6.
S.E. Anderson, Real Churches or A Fog (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1975), 97, 98.
J.R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What is It? 38, quoted in McBeth, 451.
Smith, 239. Graves describes his position in some detail in his “Introductory Essay,” in G.H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists From the Time of Christ Their Founder to the 18th Century (Lexington, KY: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1956 reprint), iv. This book was first published in the United States in 1855.
G.H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists From The Time of Christ Their Founder to the 18th Century (Lexington, KY: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1956 republication of 1855 edition), 11.
Bob L. Ross, Old Landmarkism and the Baptists (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1979), 9.
Graves, “Introductory Essay,” xiii. Graves is citing an extended quotation from Orchard.
Chester E. Tulga, “What Baptists Believe About Soul Liberty,” The Baptist Challenge (October 1997), 21.
Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London: Grace Publications Trust, 1986), 7.
David Saxon, “Why Being Baptist is Biblical” (Unpublished notes, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, n.d.), 1.
Hoad, 7, 11.
Gustavus W. Schroeder, History of the Swedish Baptists in Sweden and America, Being an Account of the Origin, Progress and Results of That Missionary Work During the Last Half of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Published by the author, 1898), 92.
David Potter, “Baptist History Course Notes,” unpublished course notes.
Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, n.d.), 453.
 Richard C. Weeks, “Foreword” in Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1886; 2003).