That Old Landmark Spirit…

Posted on 12/28/2006


There has been a great deal of discussion about the presence or lack thereof of a Landmark influence in the SBC.  I for one do not think that there is an active Landmark movement today.  But there are many in SB life that have beliefs that are either knowingly or unknowingly shaped by a Landmark influence.


James Robinson Graves made Landmarkism popular through his writings in the Tennessee Baptist newspaper.  In 1851, Graves called a meeting of everybody who held to the positions that he had made popular.  They met at the Cotton Grove Baptist Church near Jackson, Tennessee.  At this “Cotton Grove” meeting JR Graves submitted these questions: 

1. Can Baptists, consistently with their principles on the Scriptures, recognize those societies not organized according to the pattern of the Jerusalem Church, but possessing different governments, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines and practices, as churches of Christ?

2. Ought they to be called gospel churches, or churches in a religious sense?

3. Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers?

4. Is it not virtually recognizing them as official ministers to invite them into our pulpits, or by any other act that would or could be construed into such a recognition?

5. 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? 

When I read these questions, I cannot help but to feel the spirit that is behind them.  JR Graves and those first Landmakers were men that would only cooperate with those who agreed with them.   They even went so far as to teach that we should not call Christians in Methodist or Presbyterian churches brothers and sisters in Christ.   They brought a great amount of grief and division to Baptist Churches because of their sectarian spirit and their divisive attitudes. 

Amazingly at the height of its power, the Landmark movement was able to force the resignation of the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, William Heth Whitsett, in 1899.   Whitsett published a history of Baptists that did not coincide with the Landmark’s concept that Baptists can be traced all the way back to New Testament times.


Again, I want to make it clear that I do not see a Landmark movement in the SBC, but there are still many who hold to positions that are derived from Landmark influence and teaching. The recent Baptismal policy instituted by the IMB definitely coincides with Landmark doctrine.  What concerns me now, are aspects of the Landmark position and the spirit that Landmarkers had, that is creeping back into our convention. 

Look at the questions that Graves posed and see the arrogance that is behind them. Examine our history as Baptists and you will see that Landmarkers would split a church, association, state convention and even the SBC, in the name of their “Landmark” positions.  These men did not know a “hill that they were not willing to die on.”  They are like the men described in Jude, “These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit” vs. 19.

Leon McBeth, in The Baptist Heritage, observed, “Landmarkism became the main method by which Baptists convinced themselves that theirs were the only true churches and all others mere human societies without valid ministers or ordinances,” (447).   He also stated that, “Though Landmarkers failed in their efforts to take over the SBC, they injected their viewpoints deep into the bloodstream of Southern Baptists.  It would be impossible to understand Southern Baptists apart from Landmarkism,” (447).

Landmark Ecclesiology Still Around Today

Along with JR Graves, J.M.Pendleton was very influential in helping to establish Landmarkism in the SBC.  His major contribution is the popular Pendleton’s Church Manual.  I have not seen a Baptist preacher’s library that has not had this book on the shelf.  It is still available at LifeWay to this day.  Leon McBeth says of this Church Manual that it,“advances Landmark views of Baptist life on closed communion, alien immersion, and Baptist successionism.  Through this manual, generations of Southern Baptist pastors have absorbed Landmarkism, often without knowing it,”(449). 

Sadly I observe the same attitude and spirit of the Landmarkers today when:

1. There is “concern” over the fact that IMB missionaries might cooperate with other evangelicals on the field.  It is sad when some are more concerned about propagating their denominational nuances rather than joining hands with others to win souls for Jesus.  

2. When people would tell a person that was baptized by immersion as a testimony to their previous salvation and to identify with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, that their immersion was not valid because the church that baptized them did not believe in eternal security; are because they were baptized by an evangelist outside of the authority of a local church or because they were not baptized in a church service. 

3. When the IMB tells a candidate that was baptized by a SBC pastor in order to meet their criteria, that even that baptism is rejected because although he may be an agent of the church, he did not baptize in a church service.

4. When Southern Baptists tell other Southern Baptists that they are not valid Southern Baptists because they may have different views concerning issues of Biblical interpretation that are not addressed in the BFM. 

5. When there are attempts to discredit trustees and call for the removal of trustees because of their public dissent concerning issues that are not addressed in the BFM.  Landmarkers have always been about refusing to cooperate with anybody that is not in agreement with them concerning all doctrinal issues. 

6. When we are told that people should be baptized as a testimony to their acceptance of the “system of belief” that is held by SB.  This denominational elitism brings to remembrance the arrogance of the Landmarkers of old who did not want to call fellow Christians “brother” or “sister” because they were not  immersed.   

CONCLUSION ( I have edited my previous conclusion because of the info that Ben Stratton provided in the comment stream)

Certainly there are tenets of historical Landmarkism that are not present in SB life today.  Their total rejection of the growth of denominational mission organizations is one of them.  But I certainly have observed in my personal ministry and from interactions with pastors, that aspects of Landmark ecclesiology are alive and well today.  The IMB policy below, I believe, is evidence of this fact. 


The “NEW” Policy Regarding Baptism for Missionary Consultants
1.The Individual
a.Believer’s baptism by immersion
          Baptism by immersion follows salvation
b.Baptism is symbolic, picturing the experience of the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ.
          Baptism does not regenerate.
2. The Church
a.Baptism is a church ordinance.
         Baptism must take place in a church that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone, does not view baptism as sacramental or regenerative, and a church that embraces the doctrine of the security of the believer.
A candidate who has not been baptized in a Southern Baptist church or in a church which meets the standards listed above is expected to request baptism in his/her Southern Baptist church as a testimony of identification with the system of belief held by Southern Baptist churches.
3.The Candidate
         The candidate is responsible for meeting this doctrinal commitment to the above points
4.The Consultant
        While the candidate consultant should have a working knowledge of many
denominational groups, he is not expected to investigate every church.
1.This guideline is not retroactive.
2.Any exception to the above guideline must be reviewed by the staff and the Process Review Committee.

Posted in: Ordinances