In my last post I said that the church of Jesus Christ includes anyone who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.”
Not everyone would agree.
In the middle of the Nineteenth Century J. R. Graves, a Baptist minister from Memphis and editor of the Tennessee Baptist, popularized a movement which claimed that only Baptist churches were legitimate churches. Congregations of other denominations (eg: Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian) were understood to be mere “religious societies,” with no claim to the title “church.” Ordinations and baptisms performed in those churches were considered invalid and thus their ministers were not regarded as “real” ministers nor their members as “real” Christians. In 1851 Graves posed a series of five rhetorical questions, intended to prove his point:
- Can Baptists, consistently with their principles of 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?
- Ought they to be called gospel churches, or churches in a religious sense?
- Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers?
- 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?
- Can we consistently address as brethren those professing Christianity who not only have not the doctrines of Christ and walk not according to his commandments, but are arrayed in direct and bitter opposition to them?
—the Cotton Grove Resolutions, June 24, 1851.
The Landmark Movement gained popularity in much of the South, and you can see its appeal: if you were Baptist in those days it might be comforting to think that you were part of the only true church and that your neighbors of other denominations had it completely wrong. Graves continued to publish editorials that strengthened that impression, claiming that there was no such thing as the universal church, that the only valid church was a local Baptist church, and that anyone who was not a member of such a church was “outside the Kingdom of Christ.” Although Landmarkism has been denounced as a heresy, its roots went down deep in the fertile soil of the Mississippi River Valley and its influence continues to be felt among Baptists today. It’s comforting to think that you’ve got it right and everybody else has got it wrong.
But not all Baptists feel that way.
At the time Graves began his Landmark campaign most Baptist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed in the universal church. One of those was Jeremiah Bell Jeter, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Jeter seemed to understand that you couldn’t confine or control the grace of God, that the Good Shepherd had other sheep who were not of the Baptist flock, and that the true church is comprised of all those people who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.”
As the current pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I’m proud to follow in his footsteps.