When the Southern Baptist Convention opened its annual meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday, attention was focused on the election of its first African-American president, Rev. Fred Luter, and the proposed addition of the descriptor “Great Commission Baptists” to its storied name.
Both of these developments point to yet another transition in the history of America’s largest Protestant denomination. Once again, the SBC’s collective identity appears to be both complex and unpredictable.
Southern Baptists have engaged identity issues since 1845, when they officially organized as a denomination in Augusta, Ga. That same year, a 25-year-old preacher and budding journalist named J. R. Graves and his new bride moved to Nashville, where he would soon develop a reputation as a feisty and outspoken advocate for Baptist distinctives.
During the Nashville years, Graves edited the Tennessee Baptist and shaped a new movement in SBC life known as Landmarkism, which emerged from a mass meeting in 1851 near Jackson.
Graves and his fellow Landmarkers set tight boundaries between Baptists and competing Protestant movements like the Methodists, Presbyterians and Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples.” Landmarkism upheld strict standards for the Lord’s Supper and baptism, rejected the concept of the universal church, and claimed that Baptists originated in 1st century Jerusalem.
For the last 26 years of his life, Graves lived in Memphis, where he continued to promote his Landmark agenda as a journalist, publisher and itinerant speaker. He actively participated in the Tennessee Baptist Convention and served as board chairman at Southwestern Baptist University (now Union) in Jackson.
The Landmark patriarch also preached occasionally at the city’s First Baptist Church; in fact, in 1884 he suffered a debilitating stroke in that church’s pulpit. He is buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
While the Landmarkist ranks have thinned considerably in the past several decades, regional pockets of influence can still be found. Even so, the Graves legacy in the SBC raises troubling questions that relate to the business of this past week’s gathering in the Crescent City.
First, the controversial editor joined with most Southern Baptists of his day in a rigorous defense of slavery. Although his Vermont roots led some of his opponents to link him with abolitionism, Graves enthusiastically supported the Confederacy and even persisted in his apologetic for the peculiar institution many years after emancipation.
Second, Graves’ strict Baptist boundaries and hostile attitudes toward other denominations helped to generate a noticeable reluctance among Southern Baptists to minister cooperatively with non-SBC groups and agencies. Those in the current SBC who are strongly Baptist-centered earlier raised questions about the Great Commission Resurgence initiative that was approved in 2010, in part because of their skepticism about partnering with non-SBC evangelicals in mission contexts.
They likewise have expressed qualms about endorsing “Great Commission Baptists” as a descriptive tag for the denomination. In other words, a subtle neo-Landmarkism rang a few chimes in New Orleans.
On a more positive note, there is one aspect of the Graves legacy that deserves reconsideration, especially in what some are calling a post-denominational age where institutional structures and identities are generally in flux. Even though the Landmark founder irritated 19th century SBC leaders with his relentless challenges to centralized boards and agencies, his chief priority was for local congregations to be mobilized for both home and international mission endeavors.
He obviously undervalued the benefits of cooperative denominational ventures, but his deep appreciation for the local church as a catalyst for and facilitator of direct mission efforts fits well with recent trends in Southern Baptist life.
Most messengers to the New Orleans convention probably regard J. R. Graves and his “Old Landmarkism” as curious relics from an earlier era of history when the SBC was in its organizational infancy and adolescence. Nevertheless, they should at least acknowledge his significant role in the debates over denominational identity and purpose.
Furthermore, they can thank him for his constant reminder that the task of fulfilling the Great Commission essentially begins with the local church.
James A. Patterson is professor and associate dean in the School of Theology & Missions at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. His new book, “James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity,” was recently published by B&H Academic in Nashville.