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A Famous Landmark Revisited

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Sometimes life can be a field trip. I learned this lesson living in the Northeastern United States where every road seemed to lead to yet another place labeled “Washington slept here.” Being more of a history “opportunist” than an intentional explorer, I love it when I chance upon some place of historic note, however obscure.

After preaching recently near Jackson, Tennessee my pastor friend mentioned that I was near the old Cotton Grove Baptist Church site. As a teacher of Baptist history, I knew the reputation of the place well but I had never been there. Of course, my mission was clear–after first concluding the business of the Dinner on the Grounds (after all, we must observe the proprieties). I must go to this place and take a selfie. Take that history!

Thanks to my keen nose for history (and my iPhone X Siri enabled GPS Google Maps app) I was soon walking on a remarkable site of Baptist heritage. Walk with me for a moment as we travel to a sultry June night in the year 1851. A mass rally of Baptists has been convened to hear a preacher call God’s people to stand up for biblical truth. This preacher’s concern was that Baptists often refrained from defending biblical doctrines to avoid public controversy and to keep peace in their communities. The preacher’s message that night revolved around five questions for the congregation to ponder. The preacher issued the challenge and a movement was born.

June 24, 1851

Question #1: Can Baptists consistently with their principles or the Scriptures, recognize those societies, not organized according to the pattern of the Jerusalem Church, but possessing a government, different officers, a different class of membership, different ordinances, doctrines and practices, as the Church of Christ? [to the Preacher the phrase “Church of Christ” meant “New Testament churches”]

Question #2: Ought they to be called Gospel churches or Churches in a religious sense?

Question #3: Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies, as gospel ministers in their official capacity?

Question #4: 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?

Question #5: 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?

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The preacher’s name that night was James Robinson Graves, considered one of the founder’s of the Landmark Movement. This movement would go on to emphasize the local nature of a New Testament church and insist that a church must follow all of the scriptural principles spelled out in the Bible. Though the movement is largely forgotten today its legacy remains. The Cotton Grove Baptist Church still exists and, deep down, kept hidden from the Christian world at large, Baptists still hold to our unspoken but beloved secret…

we know we are right. (insert smiley face here to make you think we are joking, which we may or may not be).

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Amazing Trivial Note: J. R. Grave’s mother and second wife died of Yellow Fever while living in Memphis, Tennessee.

Want to know more?

Where did I get all this info?

Albert W. Wardin, Jr. Tennessee Baptists: A Comprehensive History 1779-1999. Brentwood, TN: Executive Board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, 1999. pp. 180-182.

Anything else?:

S.v. “Graves, James Robinson,” by Homer Grice. Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1958.

James A. Patterson. James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity. In Studies in Baptist Life and Thought, Michael A. G. Haykin, Series Editor. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2012, pp. 49-52.

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