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On “Landmark” Doctrines and Historical Ignorance

I spent a good bit of time today reading Baptist periodicals from the nineteenth century. One of the papers I read was The Baptist, based in Memphis, which was published by that most colorful of Landmarkers, J. R. Graves. I did find a couple of articles related to the perpetuity of Baptist churches, which constitutes a core conviction of all Landmarkers. But I also read other papers where I found articles about other doctrines that are often associated with Landmarkism, some quite erroneously. These allegedly Landmark doctrines were the topic of literally dozens of articles in at least seven periodicals covering a seventy year period of time. More than a couple of the articles predate Graves's birth, let alone the height of his ministry from the 1850s to the 1880s.

These articles got me to thinking: it is ridiculous how many contemporary Baptists have no clue what Landmarkism is but fashion themselves as experts on the subject. All one needs to do is perform a Google Blogs search of the word "Landmarkism" to be staggered by the ignorance of a great many Baptists who are otherwise quite intelligent.

To be fair, many Southern Baptists were handicapped on this issue from the beginning, especially those who graduated from an SBC seminary prior to the mid-1990s. Progressives carried out a systematic plan to redefine Baptist identity beginning in the early 20th century; by 1950 or so, most of the doctrines associated with traditional Baptist theology (save immersion, sometimes) were castigated as "Landmarkism," all in an effort to move the SBC in a more hierarchical direction. Interestingly, these were the same progressives who accused conservatives of rewriting Baptist history and redefining Baptist distinctives in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that's another post for another day.

The point is, much of this ignorance can be chalked up to a poor theological education. This is just another reminder that it's incumbent upon every seminary graduate to educate himself or herself after walking across the stage; even seminary professors with doctoral degrees can get things wrong. Sometimes remarkably so.

Before I go any further, let me lay my own cards on the table. I am not a Landmarker. I do not agree with Graves or even a more "moderate" Landmarker like James Pendleton. I do not believe there have always been Baptist churches. I do not even believe (gasp!) that there is a biblical-theological necessity that there has to have always been Baptist churches. So while I am a convinced Baptist, I am not a Landmarker. Ask any self-confessed Landmarker.

Cards out, I want to dispel several myths about doctrines often associated with Landmarkism:

Myth 1: Closed communion is a Landmark doctrine. This is perhaps the most common myth, particularly in our present context where open communion is all the rage among many Southern Baptists. But the fact is closed communion (also called strict, close, and restricted communion) has been the consenus, though not unanimous, conviction of most Baptists since at least the mid-17th century. So while it is likely true that all Landmarkers affirm closed communion, it is not true that closed communion is a Landmark doctrine.

Myth 2: A rejection of so-called "alien immersion" is a Landmark practice. Wrong again! As with closed communion, a majority of Baptists (at least in America) have always been troubled by immersions that did not reflect the apostolic pattern. Pick up the minutes of virtually any association between 1707 and 1950 and you will be astounded at how often Baptists have debated what constitutes a valid immersion. Please note that J. R. Graves was not born until several years after 1707. 

Myth 3: Landmarkers deny the universal church. This is not true of all Landmarkers. As near as I can tell, Graves did not affirm the church universal. Pendleton did. B. H. Carroll affirmed the universal church in at least the eschatological sense (similar to the "all the redeemed of all the ages" phrase found in the BF&M). There is no uniform Landmark position on the universal church. That's right–Landmarkers can be diverse too!

Myth 4: Landmarkers invented the doctrine of the perpetuity of Baptist churches. Nope. There have always been Baptists who believed that there have always been Baptists (pun very much intended). Baptist stalwarts from Andrew Fuller to David Benedict believed that there had always been Baptist churches, which they understood to be New Testament churches. Primitive Baptists in the 1820s affirmed the perpetuity of their types of Baptist churches. Even perpetuity, the theological heart of Landmarkism, was not invented by the movement–it was adopted and propogated by Landmarkers.

Myth 5: Landmarkers do not believe in allowing non-Baptists to preach from their pulpits. Like the universal church issue, Landmarkers differ among themselves on this one. I know at least one Landmarker who would not object to a Presbyterian preaching to his church, though he would obviously ask his pedobaptist brother not to preach on his view of the ordinances. I also know of Landmarkers who would only allow Baptists–sometimes only Baptists in their particular group–to ascend the sacred desk.

Myth 6: Landmarkers believe only Baptists are genuine Christians. Try to find one Landmarker who believes this. Seriously. I bet you could round up all the Landmarkers who have ever claimed this and fit them in my living room. Maybe my coat closet.

The point of all this myth-busting is to clear up some popular misconceptions about Landmark doctrines. None of the doctrines associated with Landmarkism, whether accurately or inaccurately, were invented by Landmarkers. Rather, these doctrines converged in the Landmark movement. And with the possible exception of perpetuity, since the Landmark movement began there have been millions of Baptists who have held to so-called Landmark tenets who were decidedly not Landmarkers, and in some cases vocal anti-Landmarkers.

As Southern Baptists continue to debate important issues like alien immersion, closed communion, and the validity of planting self-consciously Baptist churches abroad, let's do our best to play nicely. Those who are uncomfortable with the above doctrines are welcome to their opinion, and they will surely find many Baptists from history who shared their convictions. But these critics should not disengenuously malign doctrines they do not like as "Landmark." That tactic failed progressives two decades ago. And it will fail again today.