In his article “Landmarkism: Doctrinaire Ecclesiology among Baptists”,[i] Hugh Wamble concludes that the essence of Landmarkism is belief in the “sole validity of Baptist churches.” Others state it this way – “Baptist churches are the only true churches.”[ii] It has been (and still is) popular to date the rise of this ecclesiological belief among Baptists with J. R. Graves, J. M. Pendleton, and A. C. Dayton. Yet the following excerpts from The Autobiography of Elder Wilson Thompson will show the concept well established before Graves was born and while Dayton & Pendleton were “still in diapers.”
This incident following, according to Wilson Thompson, took place at “‘Caldwell’s Settlement’, on the river St. Francis, not far from a village called St. Michael, about sixty miles from the Bethel Church” (of which he was a member). The time frame was “during the war of 1812,” and “There never had been a Baptist preacher in all that part of the country.” He was invited to preach there by a couple living there who were members of the Bethel Church. “A considerable congregation had gathered, and I delivered as plain and pointed a discourse, and as definite as I could. I then explained the circumstances which had led to that appointment, and that I was authorized by the Bethel Church, of which I was a member, and which was located in the district of Cape Girardeau, to give an invitation to any persons wishing to be baptized and become members of the Bethel Regular Baptist Church. I added that if they could give full and satisfactory evidence of the hope that was in them, I was ready and willing to baptize. But I would wish all to understand, that the Baptists alone were by us considered a gospel church, and therefore they received none into their fellowship or communion, except on public profession of their faith in Christ, according to the doctrine of His grace. No probationers of six months, no infants who were sprinkled on the profession of their parents, nor any others but believers in Jesus Christ were received. Therefore, all who joined this church must renounce alliance with all other denominations. They should treat all men friendly as men, but have no communion or fellowship with any but the Baptist Church of Christ; for they should look upon all others as the daughters of mystic Babylon. ‘I have been thus particular, as I wish to deceive no one,’ said I. ‘We wish to be understood to say, as did the Lord in reference to this ‘Mystery, Babylon’ (if any of God's people be ensnared by her), Come out of her my people, and be ye separated from her.’”[iii]
The next account relates Thompson’s comments to a young Lutheran. The young man related his experience and desired to join the church, but had been told by his mother “‘Cursed is he that is baptized over again.’…‘Sprinkling is not baptism,’ said I, ‘and even the immersion of an unconscious infant is no gospel baptism; nor can any man administer gospel baptism without the legal authority of Christ. This authority He has vested in the true church, as the executive authority of His kingdom, to see to the proper execution of all His laws and ordinances. The proper authority, therefore, is indispensable to gospel baptism, and this no Lutheran has. So you need have no more trouble on that account.’”[iv]
The date of this second incident is not as clear, but probably occurred circa 1816. It happened before Thompson first met missionary to the Indians, Isaac McCoy (cf. p. 196). Both incidents referenced above took place 35 years and more before many historians date the inauguration of the Landmark movement (ca. 1851). Both incidents demonstrate that at least some of the Regular Baptists in the Midwest believed only the Baptists were valid churches.[v]
1788, Philadelphia Baptist Association, Pennsylvania, et al.[vi]
Prior to Thompson’s record of “Landmarkism,” a query to the Philadelphia Association in 1788 reveals a similar concern and position.
“15. In answer to the query from the first church in New York, of last year, held over to this time, respecting the validity of baptism, administered by a person who had never been baptized himself, nor yet ordained, that we deem such baptism was null and void:
“Fourth. Because such administrator has no commission to baptize, for the words of the commission were addressed to the apostles, and their successors in the ministry, to the end of the world, and these are such, whom the church of Christ appoint to the whole work of the ministry.”
The fourth part of their answer is consistent with the Landmark position of the validity of only Baptist or scriptural churches. The answer also referenced previous queries to “our Association in times past; who put a negative on such baptisms in 1729, 1732, 1744, 1749 and 1768.”[vii]
1802, Elkhorn Baptist Association, Kentucky[viii]
A query to the Elkhorn Association in 1802 reflects the matter was a continuing concern.
“In 1802, the question as to what constitutes valid Baptism, which had been evaded in 1793, was brought before the Association in a different form, and answered as follows:
“‘Query from South Elkhorn. - What constitutes Baptism? Answer.–The administrator ought to have [been] baptized himself by immersion, legally called to preach gospel, [and] ordained as the Scriptures dictate; and the candidate for baptism should make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and be baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, by dipping the whole body in water.’”[ix]
1811, Georgia Baptist Association, Georgia
The 16th article (item of business) in the minutes of the 1810 session of the Georgia Baptist Association stated, “Resolved, that the subject of the next circular letter, be our reasons for rejecting Methodist, or Pædobaptist baptism by immersion, as invalid; and that brother Mercer write the same.” In the year 1811 Jesse Mercer wrote this circular letter, which was adopted by the Georgia Association. In summary, the circular says:
“Our reasons, therefore for rejecting baptism by immersion when administered by Pedobaptist ministers, are,
“I. That they are connected with churches clearly out of the apostolic succession, and therefore clearly out of the apostolic commission.
“II. That they have derived their authority, by ordination, from the bishops of Rome, or from individuals, who have taken it on themselves to give it.
“III. That they hold a higher rank in the churches than the apostles did, are not accountable to, and of consequence not triable by the church; but are amenable only to, or among themselves.
“IV. That they all, as we think, administer contrary to the pattern of the Gospel, and some, when occasion requires, will act contrary to their own professed faith. Now as we know of none implicated in this case, but are in some or all of the above defects, either of which we deem sufficient to disqualify for meet gospel administrations invalid.”[x]
1824, Portsmouth Baptist Association, Virginia
In his autobiography, Jeremiah Jeter mentions an incident that took place at the 1824 session of the Portsmouth Association in Virginia. Jeremiah Jeter (at least at the time)[xi] was a proponent of receiving Pædobaptist immersion, but his testimony stands as evidence of landmark principles displayed prominently in the Portsmouth Virginia Association. 1824 was well before the rise of any movement now dubbed Landmarkism.
“In May, 1824, the Portsmouth Baptist Association held its anniversary in the town of Portsmouth, where it was organized in 1791…Of the proceedings of the  Association I recollect nothing, except a discussion on the validity of Pedobaptist immersions. In this conflict I fleshed my youthful sword, and was ingloriously defeated. I had associated with Semple, A. Broaddus, and others among the fathers who maintained the validity of such baptisms, and had adopted their views. As this side of the subject seemed to be feebly supported, I ventured, with probably more courage than discretion, for the first time in my life, to engage in religious controversy. My rashness evoked the chastening rod of Richard Poindexter. He was about fifty years old, of medium size, of swarthy complexion, possessed of a mind remarkable for astuteness and great self-possession and readiness for extempore debate. Dr. [A. M.] Poindexter, with greater culture and breadth of mind, bore a strong intellectual resemblance to his sire. It may be reasonably supposed that I was overmatched in the debate. I remember but a single illustration in the speech of Elder Poindexter. ‘Roundness,’ he said, ‘is essential to a bullet; beat it flat, and it will cease to be a bullet. So certain things—an authorized administrator being among them—are essential to baptism, and without these things it cannot be baptism.’ I made, so far as I can recollect, no attempt to reply. The association decided by an overwhelming vote that Pedobaptist immersions are not valid baptisms. I was defeated, but not convinced.”[xii]
1839, Sandy Creek Baptist Association, North Carolina[xiii]
“Query from the church at Pleasant Grove: ‘Is it consistent with the spirit of the gospel and according to the Scriptures for any regular Baptist church to receive into her fellowship any member or members of another denomination, who have been baptized by immersion, without baptizing them again?’
“Answer: ‘We think it is not.’
“The vote on this query, was unanimous. The Baptist is the only denomination that is not guilty of schism, of making a division when it came into existence. They existed prior to any Pedobaptist denomination now in existence...We cannot admit the validity of their baptism without admitting that they are tare and scriptural, gospel churches...”[xiv]
1839, Mississippi Baptist Association, Mississippi
The Mississippi Baptist Association is the oldest Baptist association in the state of Mississippi, which began in 1806 at Salem Baptist Church in Natchez. In 1839, the Mississippi association gave its opinion on valid baptism (especially in relation to the Campbellites): “That a regularly authorized administrator, a believer in Christ, and an immersion in the name of the Trinity, are the three things necessary. Therefore, immersion administered by Campbellite preachers, or ‘reforming teachers,’ as they styled themselves, was not valid baptism.”[xv]
In his doctoral thesis James H. Maples writes:
“Landmarkism . . . arose in the mid-eighteenth century and was a dominant force in the first half-century of the life of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. J. R. Graves was its chief architect, promoter, and apologist.”[xvi]
Maples’s statement, written in 2014, represents the ongoing failure of Baptist academia to recognize the validity of so-called “Landmark” ecclesiology before the rise of J. R. Graves. History is clear that Graves (as well as Dayton and Pendleton) offered substantial contributions to the promotion and growth of the Baptist ecclesiological idea that “Baptist churches are the only true churches.” This cannot and should not be denied or discredited. Nevertheless, a candid and careful examination of the historical facts must recognize that “Landmarkism” among Baptists existed long before the Landmarkism of Graves, Dayton, and Pendleton![xvii]
[i] “Landmarkism: Doctrinaire Ecclesiology among Baptists,” by Hugh Wamble, Church History, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1964, pp. 429–447. JSTOR: www.jstor.org/stable/3162835.
[ii] For example, Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States: A-L (Second Edition), Bill J. Leonard, Jill Y. Crainshaw, editors, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013, p. 438; The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, H. Leon McBeth, Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 1987; The 1851in Cotton Grove, Tennessee, Resolutions clearly assert only Baptist churches are true churches.
[iii] The Autobiography of Elder Wilson Thompson, His Life, Travels, and Ministerial Labors, Wilson Thompson, Greenfield, IN: D. H. Goble, 1867 [reprint, Old School Hymnal Co. Conley GA 1978], pp. 152-154 (pp. 213-215 in Archive.org edition)
[iv] Ibid, p. 194 (pp. 213-215 in Archive.org edition)
[v] Perhaps the fact that Thompson identified with the Primitive Baptists after the missions controversy (circa 1830) has caused missionary Baptist historians to miss this source.
[vi] The Philadelphia Association was organized in 1707, and is the oldest Baptist association in America.
[vii] Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, from A.D. 1707 to A.D. 1807, A. D. Gillette, Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851, p. 238; in fairness, the 1765 answer to the query of Smith’s Creek appears to contradict this and the other answers cited.
[viii] The Elkhorn Association was organized October 1, 1785, at Clear Creek in Woodford County, Kentucky.
[ix] A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1769 to 1885, Volume II, John Henderson Spencer, Mrs. Burilla B. Spencer, Cincinnati, OH: J. R. Baumes, 1886, p. 16
[x] A History of the Georgia Baptist Association, Jesse Mercer, Washington, GA: 1838, pp. 49, 199-200
[xi] I have read that Jeter changed his views on alien immersion. This certainly was not the case when he answered a question on the subject in 1849 (Life of J.B. Jeter, D. D., William Eldridge Hatcher, Baltimore, MD: H. M. Wharton & Co., 1887, pp. 337-338).
[xii] The Recollections of a Long Life, Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Richmond, VA: The Religious Herald Company, 1891, pp. 123-124
[xiii] Sandy Creek Association was constituted in 1758, and is one of the older in associations in the United States.
[xiv] The latter paragraph included above appears to be Purefoy’s comments on the answer of the association, which was direct and succinct. A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association: From Its Organization in A.D. 1758, to A.D. 1858, George W. Purefoy, New York, NY: Sheldon & Co., 1859, p. 179
[xv] Abstract History of the Mississippi Baptist Association, T. C Schilling, New Orleans, LA: J. G. Hauser, 1908, p. 56
[xvi] “The Origin, Theology, Transmission, and Recurrent Impact of Landmarkism in the Southern Baptist Convention (1850-2012)”, James Hoyle Maples, Doctor of Theology in Church History thesis, University of South Africa, 2014, p. ii
[xvii] J. M. Pendleton was born in 1811, A. C. Dayton in 1813, and J. R. Graves in 1820. The Philadelphia Association suggested “sole validity of Baptist churches” (Landmarkism) in 1788, if not earlier.
[From R. L. Vaughn, @ http://baptistsearch.blogspot.com - Ministry and Music, October 9, 2018. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.
More on Landmark Baptists
Baptist History Homepage