Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Old Landmarkers

Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

The nineteenth century South saw the rise of Old Landmarkism, a controversial group of Baptists who asked the right questions at the wrong time and influenced Southern Baptist life up to today in many churches. The term Landmarkism is derived from their battle cry, Proverbs 28:22; 23:10, “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.”

The forced organization and centralization of the missionary movement in the South into two Boards along with Baptists’ flexible polity of local church autonomy led to questions from well-meaning Baptist leaders about the doctrine of the church.

Biblically, they asked, what is a true church? If we take the Reformation marks of a true church, i.e., that a true church exists wherever  there is the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments, then what is right? If a church is not teaching correct doctrine, then it is not rightly preaching the Word, and therefore, they reasoned, it is not a true church. If the Bible teaches believers’ baptism, then every church that practices infant baptism is not rightly administering the sacraments, they said, and therefore is not a true church. So the Old Landmarkers rather bluntly counted them either false churches or religious societies.

In the Cotton Grove Resolutions, citing Proverbs 22:28; 23:10, “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set,” Landmarkers laid out several controversial positions. First, Baptist churches are the only true churches in the world. All others are either false churches or religious societies. One can be a saved Methodist or Presbyterian, but not in a legitimate church. Second, the church is local and visible. Forget this foolishness about denominations and boards and the invisible church and the church universal. It’s not in the Bible. Third, therefore there should be no pulpit affiliation with these illegitimate groups, and no trading pulpits with other non-Baptist so-called churches. And fourth, only churches can do churchly acts like baptism or the Lord’s Supper. It is illegitimate and possibly sin to participate in these ordinances outside your local church in which you are a member.

Famous Landmarkers included native Vermonter J.R. Graves, who was the controversial editor of the Tennessee Baptist. He emphasized the local church because, he said, Jesus did. He could not find mission boards mentioned in Matthew 28:18-20 no matter how hard he tried.

J.M. Pendleton
James Madison Pendleton (pictured), the “forgotten Landmarker,” and author of An Old Landmark, is the least appreciated of nineteenth century Baptists because of his Landmark position. He was a pastor-scholar, pastor of First Baptist Church, Bowling Green, KY, and president of Union University in Tennessee, writing over 700 editorials in Baptist papers across the South and numerous books including the 300-page Compendium of Christian Theology, for black Baptist preachers in the post-War era.

Pendleton also wrote the Baptist Church Manual which trained deacons to operate like a corporate board of directors and pastors the CEOs who worked at the pleasure of the board, with the congregation functioning as the corporate shareholders. With that one book, Pendleton turned many Baptist churches for a century away from the biblical servant role of deacons. The elevation of deacons' roles to a ruling status created many a little Napoleon who lorded over local churches and made life difficult for many a pastor and congregation in some rural communities even up to today.

Inevitably, Landmark questions turned to missions, missionaries, local churches and mission boards. With all this authority going to these new mission boards, they asked, where are they found in the Bible? Landmarkers couldn't find them, and if they are not in the Bible, can churches form Foreign and Home Mission Boards? Why are we doing this? Where does mission boards' authority reside? With the churches? With the Board members? And is it even Biblical, they questioned.

Enter the case of missionary to China, I.J. Roberts. He had been appointed by the old Triennial Convention mission board back in the early 1830s, but he was not well supported by them, and consequently he had been living for years as an independent missionary. In 1846, like other missionaries who had been part of the American Board, Roberts asked the new Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board to appoint and support him.

A problem arose, though. Roberts had grown too independent in China. He did what he wanted to do, and the Foreign Board was powerless to control him. Roberts wrote the Board to please send him a wife. Included were love letters he had written to whomever the Board chose for him. In the meantime, he furloughed, came home, married a woman in Kentucky, then returned to China with her to find, to everyone's embarrassment, a single woman waiting for him sent by the Board. In 1851, the Board fired him. Old Landmarkers were watching, and they had their questions and opinions ready.

J.R. Graves
J.R. Graves (pictured) wrote in the Tennessee Baptist, “Can a Board fire a missionary sent out by local churches in Kentucky?” He suggested the local Kentucky churches supporting him should be the ones to decide. Biblically, Graves suggested, since local churches should be sending missionaries anyway and not unbiblical mission boards, the Foreign Mission Board should have no authority to fire a missionary sent out by local churches in Kentucky with funding from local Kentucky churches.

With that question, Graves threatened to destroy the Southern Baptist Convention before it was up and running. In the end, the Board stuck by its guns, maintained its authority to hire and fire missionaries, and the issue quieted, but the controversial questions Landmarkers raised remained.

While they raised legitimate issues of power and authority in the Baptist churches, Landmarkers cast themselves as God’s insiders who were more informed than what they considered their more 'liberal' Baptist brethren. They were often viewed as mean spirited. While they helped keep the budding power of convention bureaucracy in check, they also had a cantankerous, contentious spirit. Landmarkers often appeared to observers as simply a self-appointed set of trouble-makers with a hateful attitude toward anything or anyone with whom they disagreed.