Book Review: James Robinson Graves—Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity, by James A. Patterson
When I was in seminary, on my way to visit family in Tennessee and Kentucky, I often drove past country churches labelled “Landmark Baptist.” I never knew what those churches were like, or where they came from. They seemed like they were probably theologically and socially conservative, but they never showed up in any denominational discussions or seminary classes. So while I was curious, I assumed that whatever the Landmarkists’ story, it wasn’t that important.
I now stand corrected. James A. Patterson has done me a great personal service through his biography of J.R. Graves, the father of Landmarkism.
At the same time, this book often made me feel quite uncomfortable. Why? Because Graves was a Baptist who took his ecclesiology seriously, just like I do. Learning about his extreme views was like looking at myself in a carnival mirror. Our unsettling similarities pressed me to evaluate my own convictions with care. The story of his life became a cautionary tale for me, and I trust it will be similarly useful for other ecclesiologically serious brethren.
Patterson covers Graves’ life succinctly and carefully. He thoughtfully presents his thought and its development alongside biographical details such that we’re able to understand the significance of both. In short, Patterson’s biography is both erudite and accessible, critical and pastoral.
Graves was born in Vermont in 1820, though most of his life and career were based in Tennessee—Nashville before the Civil War, and Memphis after it. The editor of a Baptist newspaper, he regularly advanced his concerns and agendas regarding denominational life.
Graves’ Landmarkist agenda centered on clearly marking out the boundaries of a legitimate Baptist identity. He “sensed a divine mission—standing firm for historic Baptist truths” (43). Graves was convinced of successionism, which argues for an unbroken line of faithful Baptist churches from the time of the apostles to the modern day. He strongly promoted local church autonomy (at least at first), political religious freedom, and closed communion (28).
His strict view of fidelity to biblical polity led him to conclude that only consistent Baptist churches were true churches. All other churches were at best mere “religious societies.” As such, even if those individuals believed the gospel, they couldn’t rightly be called “brethren” because they’d failed to commit to a church. Furthermore, their preachers couldn’t rightly be called “gospel” ministers, since they’d failed to submit to the authority of a local church as Christ commanded (97).
Initially concerned over Baptist churches that accepted “alien immersions” by other denominations and allowed non-Baptists in the pulpit, Graves incited a broad range of polemical opponents—from Alexander Campbell to Methodists, from Presbyterians to his own pastor, R.B.C. Howell.
It’s tempting to read about a man like Graves and simply ridicule him for his naive historiography, or denounce him for his harsh rejection of fellow Christians and gospel ministers. But like most people, he resists being cast as a two-dimensional villain. He defended the rights of minority groups—to the extent that it was often not-so-subtly suggested that he was secretly an abolitionist. This is no small suggestion in the pre-Civil War South (100, 140).
Many of the things Graves stood for I also stand for as a committed Baptist and congregationalist. He defended local church autonomy and the authority of the congregation. He was concerned over Baptists giving up their ecclesiological heritage. And he took the ordinances seriously.
Simply put, Graves’ life provides a cautionary tale for everyone committed to teaching and promoting sound Baptist polity as the polity most faithful to Scripture.
While his concern for the local church and his desire to defend against unhelpful teachings are commendable, his lack of charity distorted even the good things in his theology.
For example, Graves exemplifies how easy it is to distort history in order to shore up your own views. He embraced the “trail of blood”—the version of history that says you can find Baptists throughout by finding Christians who were persecuted by the established church (15, 18). This idea is historically irresponsible, but in order to justify his positions he embraced and utilized it. In seeking to persuade people of what he understood to be truth, he distorted historical facts.
Graves is also a chilling example of how easy it is, in a well-intentioned effort to make denominational distinctives clear, to mistreat brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominations. Not only did this apply to other denominations—it eventually even applied to his own church (after they disciplined him for divisiveness and false doctrine).
The way Graves utilized American Republican sensibilities to justify Baptist polity (chapter 4) offers a stern warning to beware allowing your cultural sensibilities to determine what you think God must have commanded.
Finally, Graves is a clear example of theology done in order to be right, with little concern for the effects of conflict and controversy and the harm they cause to the church. Nothing demonstrates this more tragically than the public debates Graves carried out with his own pastor, R.B.C Howell at First Baptist Nashville. Graves published and publicized their sparring articles in his own newspaper. The conflict even made it to the floor of the Triennial Convention (134–143, 153), and eventually led to the split of First Baptist Nashville and the fracturing of cooperation among Tennessee Baptists.
Pursuit of doctrine without love will always distort correct beliefs into something less than faithful doctrine. Graves’ legacy sadly confirms this. Christians cannot pursue doctrinal purity without loving their brothers and sisters in Christ. Otherwise, whatever we’re doing in our theology, it isn’t actually Christian (cf. 1 John 4:20).
We shouldn’t apologize for our theological convictions. We must unabashedly hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I believe we should even be willing to raise and discuss our denominational distinctives. But that should never be pitted against love and charity toward others. After all, it’s by our love for one another that the world will know we follow Jesus.