The publisher describes the book as the “first biography of Graves in more than eighty years” but in reality the book suffers from an identity crisis, halting between two genres. It is both a book about Baptist doctrine and a biography, but fails at becoming either. From the outset Patterson says his book “… should not be read as a traditional biography; instead, it is weighted more towards Grave’s thought than his life.” Though billed as a biography, the book is an editorial piece about the influence of J.R. Graves. I’m thankful for his honesty up front, but disappointed that I bought a biography and read an editorial. The book is how J.R. Grave and Landmarkism put its mark on the Southern Baptist Convention from the perspective of someone who is not very happy with that. The book is also not a scholarly treatment of Landmarkism, but rather a diatribe against it. A biography would tell the unbiased story of the man. A critical treatment of Landmarkism would explain the doctrines and deal with the scriptural nature of the subject. This book doesn’t do very much of either one. The first half of the book is dedicated to trying to figure out why JR Graves was motivated to “establish” Landmarkism, even though Patterson admits himself that Graves “stood as a fairly typical representative of Baptist belief and practices that he had encountered in Vermont, Ohio and Kentucky; his thinking, particularly about the church, was not unusual or exceptional” and later he quoted Alan Cureton as saying “neither Graves nor any other Landmarker, invented [church] successionism; they simply adopted what most Baptist historians of the 19th century espoused.” While Patterson attempts to make Graves the creator of Landmarkism, he admits and even chronicles Landmark belief prior to Graves.
I didn’t have to go very far into the book (the introduction) before I realized what I had gotten myself into by reading this book. How would this book about Baptist history in the late 1800’s begin? Why, drawing implications that Landmarkers are pseudo-pagans of course! “The practice of boundary beating actually traces back to pagan Britain more than 2,000 years ago. First the Celts and later the Romans often incorporated the inspection of boundaries with superstitious ceremonies of blessing for crops or animals. For instance the Roman god Terminus was the deity assigned to boundaries and landmarks…” Patterson goes on to describe rituals of the Celts in setting boundaries and landmarks (see, get the connection?) in their pagan rituals, describing a Catholic landmark ritual. He then says “Ritual, whether pagan or Christian, consequently functioned to help maintain the integrity of historic boundary lines. While these time-honored rites may seem quaint or even bizarre to the average American living in a bustling city or suburb, they point to the basic human need for a sense of place that is delineated by well-defined borders.” He goes on to quote Dean Hodge, former professor of Catholic University of America and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman to tell us that there is something in human beings that need to have boundaries and landmarks, an “us vs. them” mentality about things. So, in Patterson’s mind, anyone that holds to Landmark teaching is fulfilling a sociological need to know who we are bordering on paganism. Patterson says “Indeed, both boundary-beating rituals and boundary-maintenance theories suggest some intriguing applications for interpreting the life and legacy of J.R. Graves.” As Mr. Patterson searches for the reason why JR Graves ‘came up with’ Landmarkism, he lists sociological reasons, family history and the stories of his family fighting in the Revolution. He lists political reasons and even Andrew Jackson gets some credit in shaping Landmarkism through his Republicanism. The only time that biblical references are used in explaining the church, they are used in a disparaging offhanded way. In Patterson’s mind “…Graves’ ecclesiology cannot be fully understood apart from the radical individualism that undergirded it”. So, naturally, I’m ready to dig into the first chapter of this “unbiased” biography.
On more than one occasion, Patterson sets the tone for Graves using conspiratorial language and claims of outright dishonesty in his life and ministry of JR Graves. “In two articles in 1855, Graves approvingly cited Brown to justify the need for rewriting of church history and to propose that a revisionist tack demanded a special focus on faithful believers through the ages who had suffered at the hands of ecclesiastical tyrants.” This is the first of many great ironies in the book. Patterson portrays Graves as a dishonest, mean spirited intolerant man – while showing none to the subject of his book. He decries the tone of Graves’ writings, but he himself implores a more sophisticated way of insulting someone he disagrees with. He decries his son in law O.L.Haily for not being a reliable historian because of his close ties to his subject because he is unable to be objective – but it is equally true that someone who has a disliking for his subject will be equally as biased against him. Another irony is within the same book he decries Graves for holding to Baptist distinctive and his battles against those who disagreed with him, Patterson portrays him as a villainous deceiver and a disrupter of Baptist unity.
Mr. Patterson’s editorial has much to say about the book The Trail of Blood. The arguments against Baptist “secessionism” as he calls it, puts historical writings of men above scripture. Patterson fails to realize that Landmarkism takes God’s Word as true and interprets everything through the eye of scripture. Whether he agrees with that or not, makes no difference to me, but it shows a lack of respect for those he disagrees with to completely ignore the foundation for Landmark belief, the Bible. He said “Ultimately, Grave’s subordination of history to ecclesiology dealt a troublesome setback to the Baptist historical enterprise. After carefully assessing the successionist legacy, Baptists who are serious about history might well wonder whether they have been victims of identity theft.” In other words, secular history trumps Biblical authority. Secular history also tells us that the world is a billion years old and that man evolved from monkeys and any Christians who is “serious about history” may wonder what Christians are doing preaching that the world is 6,000 years old and was created in six 24 hour days. Patterson looks for every reason (except the one Landmarkers actually give) for the succession of the church, the Biblical promises of perpetuity. He mentions this once in the book in passing, but in a disparaging way. “In the face of [a challenge of church succession] Graves primarily repeated his oft-utilized argument from Scripture (Matt 16:18): ‘If Christ’s words be true, His church has had a continuous existence from His day until our own, and if His words are not true He is not the Christ of God, and we have no Saviour.’ Since history could not always prove what was needed to validate successionist dogma, Graves turned to his trusted biblical hermeneutic to defend his cause.” It seems a biblical scholar would at least appreciate the high view of Holy Scripture that would hold that God is true and every man (including historians) a liar.
The book attempts to prove Graves was always looking for links to Jerusalem that did not exist to hold his thesis; Patterson does the same with Graves’ life and belief. Patterson attempts with innuendo and assumption that J.R. Graves’ political thoughts are what influenced him. Because Graves held the view that the scripture taught church perpetuity, he looked for it in history. Patterson believed that Graves was wrong about the church, so he looked for reasons for his ecclesiology. Maybe he could have named his book the “Trail of Thought” since much of the book is Patterson telling us what Graves may have thought, why he may have thought it and what his intentions were when he thought them. Ultimately, the book was written by a man who doesn’t understand the position or the motives of the man he is writing about, or didn’t care to portray his subject in a fair light by allowing Graves to speak for himself.
If you are looking for a biography of J.R. Graves, this is not for you. If you are looking for an honest critique of Landmarkism, this book is also not for you. If you are looking for a book from an author who, neither likes J.R. Graves, nor Landmarkism, and would like a denunciation against both, you have found it in James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of the Baptist Identity.