July 21, 2017

Review: James Robinson Graves – Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity

Patterson, James A. James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity. Studies in Baptist Life and Thought. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2012.

Reviewed by Don Johnson

J. R. Graves is noteworthy in Baptist history as the champion of what are called “Landmarkist” beliefs. Graves lived from 1820 to 1893 and is described by the author of this biography as “one of the most dominant, energetic, and polemical personalities in nineteenth-century Baptist life.” (Preface, xiv) He refers to another writer who suggested that Graves had perhaps “more lasting influence on Southern Baptists than any other single individual in our 125 year history.” (Ibid.) Although his views were never the majority views in the Southern Baptist Convention, they nonetheless influenced a significant minority in and out of the SBC movement. Indeed, many independent Baptists hold similar views, which makes his biography of interest to us.

Graves was primarily a writer and publisher, although he at times served in the pastorate as well. The personal details of his life remain somewhat obscure as little data remains about his private life. His publications, however, provide much information concerning his views and his battles with Baptists and non-Baptists alike.

Landmarkism can be described by a paragraph summarizing Graves’ 1880 volume, Old Landmarkism: What Is It?

As he reflected on a campaign that began early in his time in Nashville, he claimed a resounding vindication in the Baptist newspapers and associations throughout the South for his opposition to the practices of alien immersion and pulpit affiliation. [By the latter, he means sharing pulpits with non-Baptists.] He likewise reiterated his longstanding hostility towards Pedobaptists and Campbellites, as well as his rejection of any notion of a universal church. Furthermore, he voiced fervent support for Baptist successionism, believers’ baptism by immersion, the inalienable rights of autonomous local churches, and other cardinal features of a rigorous congregational church polity. (171)

In championing these views, Graves engaged in often heated conflict with Methodists, Campbellites (Church of Christ) and with other Baptists, including his own pastor who also happened to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time. The controversy with his pastor led to his expulsion from First Baptist of Nashville and the formation of a splinter congregation which called him as their pastor for a time. There are some ironies in this episode, as Graves, the champion of local church autonomy, refused to accept the judgement of his local church and led associations of churches to condemn the action of his former local church.

Graves was raised in New England, was converted at the age of fourteen, subsequently baptized into the North Springfield Baptist Church, in Springfield, Vermont. The church was a Separate Baptist congregation with ties to older Baptist luminaries such as John Leland, and, a bit further back, Isaac Backus. The views of these two men heavily influenced the churches of New England. Graves took their views and developed them further, incorporating into his thinking a thoroughgoing philosophy of individualism and republicanism as a nineteenth century American. “Grave’s ecclesiology cannot be fully understood apart from the radical individualism that undergirded it.” (88) He was influenced by the early teachers of Baptist successionism (the idea that there have always been Baptists in existence since the time of the apostles). Successionism influenced his ecclesiology as a major factor in his understanding of what the church is and how it should operate. B. H. Carroll drew on his work for his “Trail of Blood” work.

As a young man, Graves moved to the south, first to Kentucky, later to Nashville. In Nashville, he was encouraged by his pastor, R. B. C. Howell, to get involved in writing for the Baptist, the paper that Howell edited. Graves would eventually become the editor himself. A decade later he and Howell would enter into the conflict mentioned earlier.

His ministry was divided by the Civil War. As a Northerner in the South, he championed Southern causes, including slavery. His ministry after the war was centered in Memphis, rather than Nashville. He seemed to mellow somewhat in his later ministry, the most contentious years were during his Nashville career.

There is much to consider in looking at Graves’ life. He had a militant spirit, but his militancy wasn’t for the fundamentals, it was for denominational distinctives. He was inconsistent and uncharitable. He was a premillennialist and dispensationalist, albeit believing only in a partial rapture. He valued education, was on the board of several colleges, but was not himself a well-educated man. He was a complicated man, which certainly makes him interesting.

The book itself is well researched, has copious footnotes, and gives a fairly objective (but somewhat critical) view of Graves. The style is a bit heavy which makes it somewhat challenging to read. Two chapters in the middle of the book were originally published as separate essays, they have been reworked and expanded somewhat for this book. I thought that the pace of the book slowed in the middle, then picked up steam again in the later chapters. I suspect the cause was the presence of these chapters which occasionally repeated information found in other parts of the book.

This book is for anyone interested in Baptist polity and distinctives or Baptist history, especially if you would like a better understanding of what Landmark Baptists are and how they got to be what they are. Graves’ forceful ministry is the genius behind the movement. The book includes an appendix in point format outlining “Baptist Doctrines, Principles and Facts,” a piece published by Graves in the Baptist on July 20, 1867. It gives a good summary of Landmark distinctives. Most independent Baptists would find a lot to agree with, but of course there are sticking points as well.

I’ll close with Patterson’s final summation of Graves on the last page of his book:

In a post-denominational age marked by the steady blurring of boundary lines between various Christian groups, it is not shocking that discussions among Baptists during the last several years point to a fresh interest in the subject of denominational identity. As J. R. Graves understood, Baptist identity requires the drawing of boundaries informed by a knowledge of the past. What he failed to comprehend was that both Baptist identity and history were far more complicated than he suspected. Indeed, he never conceded that there was more than one genuine denominational identity. As a result, his understandable sense of pride as a Baptist crossed over into a distasteful arrogance and triumphalism. As the grand patriarch of the “Tennessee Tradition,” he staked out meticulous boundaries as a way to preserve the besieged “Old Landmarks.” The problem was not that he set borders for Baptist faith and practice, for that legitimate enterprise has been an ongoing one since the early seventeenth century. Graves’s shortcoming was that he ultimately skewed some of those boundaries because he relied on flawed historical markers. That proved a major weakness in the story of one of the most pivotal and influential voices from the Baptist past. (203)

I recommend this book, but have to give it 3.8 stars out of 5, mostly for style. The content is very informative.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for purposes of this review.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

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