The old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it shows up in ever unexpected places. Perhaps you are like me and lament the ugly bickering and outright attacks so prevalent in the Independent Baptist world today. I still find people expecting me to spew out current names in this series where I have decided to only write about issues because that is simply what is always done. What names I do want to mention here are Baptists who lived in the 1800s whom I have just discovered blazed a trail we regretfully have followed.
Reading a book to review as I often do, I stumbled upon the life of James Robinson Graves who had a pronounced influence in the early days of the Southern Baptist movement. I assure you his impact upon Independent Baptists today is equal to that upon Southern Baptists.
He is known for being the founder of Landmarkism. That teaching involves a belief in Baptist succession and a corresponding strong denominational identity. Though there are several points of his teaching that I would strongly disagree with, that is not the trail he blazed that I want to address except in one specific way.
It was his deciding what was Baptist and his relentless criticism of those who disagreed with him. Though he had a few short pastorates and did some evangelistic work, his career was defined by his publishing of Baptist periodicals where he strongly sought to sway Baptists to his way of thinking. While some good things have come out of Baptist periodicals, can you imagine the character assassinations and rank sin that has also been propagated by that method?
Perhaps his greatest contribution was championing the Baptist foundational thought of the autonomy of the local church and soul liberty that, though it sounded at times like a Jeffersonian republicanism or even a Jacksonian populism, still resonated truth springing from the priesthood of the believer. Strangely enough, his overboard attacks on those who disagreed with him was a direct denial of that soul liberty he at times articulated so well.
His battles consumed his ministry. He was engulfed in a battle with his pastor at the First Baptist Church of Nashville, who strongly disagreed with his Landmark teaching, and it turned rather ugly. Neither he nor the pastor looked very Christian by the time it was over. Finally, he was churched and left and started a church with a few others that he said was the true First Baptist (so much for church succession!). It is always surprising what we can throw out the window in an ugly battle and be so blinded to our own contradictions.
He sank into criticism. He tried to uphold truth with the unworthy tool of scorn. He attacked everybody who disagreed in any way. He attacked the Catholics. Then he attacked the Protestants as if they were no better. (Really?) Finally, and inevitably, he attacked other Baptists derisively calling them Pedobaptists. Catholics, Protestants, and other Baptists all equally corrupt because they did not agree with him on every point!
So, see what I mean? I won’t mention any current names, but Mr. Graves appears channeled in the breast of several others today. Just because we claim an issue is life and death and requires unquestioned acceptance does not make it so. I couldn’t help but notice how Mr. Graves proclaimed that he was being true to God’s Word without actually showing us. It certainly does not legitimize our pathetic unchristian behavior toward one another either.
Carry this historical tale to its end. History still loves to repeat itself. The Civil War came and his publishing business crashed. It could never get back to where it was before the war after hostilities ended. Ever notice how so many of these men or cliques crash before their ministries actually end? They seem to fragment, if not disintegrate completely. Check the periodicals, etc. of the 1970s, 80s, or 90s. See a difference? What do you suppose will happen in 10 or 15 years? Probably some new Independent Baptist will pick up the mantle of Graves while some others fade stage left.
Will we ever learn? If not, history stands ready to remind us.
Find all articles in the series here.