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The Trail of Blood
By R. L Vaughn

Just recently I read a recommendation of J. M. Carroll’s The Trail of Blood. It reminded of some thoughts I have had on the booklet, which I see I have never included at “Seeking the Old Paths.”

James Milton Carroll (January 8, 1852 – January 10, 1931) was born in Monticello, Arkansas, the son of Benajah and Mary Eliza Carroll. His father was a Baptist preacher. So was his better-known older brother, Benajah Harvey (B. H.) Carroll.

J. M. Carroll was a Baptist pastor, author, and educator. He was an amateur ornithologist, and reputedly owned one of the largest collections of bird eggs in the state of Texas. Carroll founded the Education Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He was a founder and the first president of San Marcos Baptist Academy. He served as president of both Oklahoma Baptist University and Howard Payne University.

In addition to his well-known book The Trail of Blood,[i] he compiled several other books, including Texas Baptist Statistics (1896), A History of Texas Baptists, B. H. Carroll, The Colossus of Baptist History, The Eternal Safety and Security of all Blood Bought Believers, and Just Such a Time: Recollections of Childhood on the Texas Frontier, 1858-1867. Carroll died in Fort Worth, Texas, and is buried at the San Jose Burial Park in San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas.

The Trail of Blood is neither adademic nor comprehensive. It is a book for the Baptist people; a booklet to put iron in Baptist blood. The booklet is a compilation of notes of five lectures that J. M. Carroll gave on church history. J. W. Porter encouraged Carroll to prepare a manuscript for publication. He died before the book was produced, and Porter brought it out after his death. (However, letters between Carroll and the Baptist Sunday School Committee indicate he sought to have them print it several years prior to this. See, “The Dead End Trail,” Harrison, pp. 58-62.)

The thesis of The Trail of Blood is that there has been a continuation of biblical teachings and a succession of biblical churches from the time of Christ to the present. J. M. Carroll believes this succession was always Baptist in principle, if not in name.[ii] These churches stood outside of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, refused to accept their legitimacy in either faith or practice, rejected infant baptism, and practiced believers’ baptism by immersion.[iii]

In modern times, The Trail of Blood has become something of a “whipping boy” for those who deny the premise that Baptists (or baptistic churches) existed in all ages from the time of the New Testament. James Edward McGoldrick produced a book titled Baptist Successionism, somewhat of a response to Carroll’s work. He writes:

Since The Trail of Blood appears to remain the most widely circulated expression of the successionist interpretation, this study will, with the exception of the Bogomils and the intriguing question about St. Patrick, be confined to those sects cited by Carroll. (pp. 3-4)

To date [1994] no one has produced a point-by-point reply to The Trail of Blood... (p. 149)

Since the time of McGoldrick’s work, there are a number of internet refutations of The Trail of Blood.[iv]

It is much easier to critique a little booklet of 50 or so pages than to take on critiquing Joseph Ivimey’s 4-volume A History of the English Baptists; the almost 600-page Baptist History: From the Foundations of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, by John Mockett Cramp, President of Acadia College, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; the two-volume A History of the Baptists, by John Tyler Christian, Professor of Church History at the Baptist Bible Institute, New Orleans, Louisiana (later renamed the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary); or any of the large new works on Baptist perpetuity.

The Trail of Blood is a little booklet with which I have been familiar for as long as I can remember. At times in the past, I have included it in packets given to new church members. On the one hand, I believe Carroll errs in identifying some groups as Baptists or baptistic when they cannot be positively demonstrated as such. Some of this history is shrouded in too much mystery to determine at this late date whether all of these anabaptist anti-paedobaptist groups were most assuredly Baptist in faith and practice.[v] Curiously, however, those quickest to condemn Carroll for identifying heretical groups as Baptists are often those who will reject almost no modern Baptists as heretics (and therefore not Baptist), whatever freakish things they believe. I guess it is only heretics of the past who can’t be Baptists, and not those we know to be heretics in the present!

On the other hand, even if Carroll may have misidentified some, he got others right. While some may suffer in our eyes because of insufficient evidence, there is sufficient evidence to identify them as persecuted and despised. I believe there is merit in remembering that Christians who simply tried to follow the principles of the Bible (whether Baptist or not) often left a “trail of (a lot of) blood” let by their persecutors who held the power of state.[vi]

One final point and I close. J. M. Carroll was an ecclesiological “Landmarker.” Nevertheless, the position of Carroll on Baptist succession is not solely a Landmark view, as some modern anti-Landmarkers would attempt to pigeonhole it. It has been held by many Baptists, including non-Landmarker Charles Spurgeon and anti-Landmarker R. B. C. Howell. It was once the dominant Baptist historical view before the modern critical views of the late times. That in itself does not make it right, no more than the current dominant English Separtist view’s majority status makes it right. It does indicate, however, it is not merely a “Landmark” view of Baptist history.


[i] The full title is The Trail of Blood, Following the Christians Down through the Centuries. The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day. Note this especially in reference to those who claim that Landmarkers believe John the Baptist started the church. Carroll calls Jesus Christ Their Founder.

[ii] I agree with the doctrine of church perpetuity, church successionism, or “Baptists in all ages.” I believe Jesus promised to build and be with his church and has kept that promise through the ages of time to the present. I love history, and I love the Lord’s churches. However, I think the “trail of faith,” often identified by the “trail of blood” those of that faith left, is not historically demonstrable at all times from the first century to today. Sometimes the stream flows underground, so to speak, moving forward and onward, while not visible to the human historians’ eyes. As a doctrine, church perpetuity stands or falls on the infallible word of God rather than the fallible record of human historians.

[iii] In his introduction to The Trail of Blood, Clarence Walker noted that Carroll’s research for the truth “led him into many places and enabled him to gather one of the greatest libraries on church history. This library was given at his death to the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas.”

[iv] A Primer on Baptist History: The True Baptist Trail, by Chris Traffanstedt is apparently considered one of the primary online answers to The Trail of Blood. The Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius Baptist succession quote has been regularly dismissed as illegitimate. However, pastor historian Thomas Ross has discovered the source of this quote. He has written about it HERE and HERE. Even though The Trail of Blood is just a popular work, because of its great popularity as well as its voluminous critiques, there is need for an annotated edition; it could correct citations, add citations, and acknowledge where there are citations that cannot be substantiated.

[v] I just read a “refutation” of Carroll in which a Greek Orthodox “proves” that most of Carroll’s succession groups were Gnostics. Intriguingly, though, in doing so he admits the existence of one group (the Waldensians) that held views “like those of baptists today” and then acknowledges them back to the 4th century and up to the 16th century, when he mentions the rise of the Anabaptists, whose views are “similar to the baptist views now.” While he falls short of admitting these are direct predecessors of the Baptists, he nevertheless shows that a Baptist succession would not necessarily even need, at least after the 4th century forward, any of the groups that he identifies as Gnostics! (In mentioning that this writer views Montanists, Donatists, Paulicians, etc., as Gnostics, I am not admitting he is right. I have found this history too mixed up to sort it out, and do not agree that this writer has done so either.)

[vi] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and van Braght’s Martyr’s Mirror demonstrate this point in great detail.


[From R. L. Vaughn, “Seeking the Old Paths.” @; used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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