The Cotton Grove Resolutions

Joe Early, Jr.,

One of the more important meetings in Southern Baptist history took place at the Cotton Grove Baptist Church in the west Tennessee town of Cotton Grove on June 24, 1851. The meeting was called by James Robinson Graves who was serving as the editor of the Tennessee Baptist. As a result of this meeting, he became the founder and champion of a Baptist faction who called themselves Landmarkers. At this meeting, the tenets of Landmarkism were first defined, the organization of the Landmark movement began, and J. R. Graves was elevated from Baptist editor to denominational spokesman and champion.

In antebellum Tennessee, Cotton Grove was a town with a little more than a post office, tannery, and small Masonic Lodge. Jackson was the nearest town of any size, located almost ten miles away. Organized in 1837, the Cotton Grove Baptist Church was a small stone building on a beautiful tract of land surrounded by cotton fields. As the church’s membership increased, the congregation realized that its current building was too small and that a larger sanctuary was needed if the church was to continue to grow. The new building was completed on September 26, 1849.[1] Though no records exist discussing its size, the building must have been somewhat large since the “mass meeting” that approved the Cotton Grove Resolutions was held there.

It is doubtful that Graves could have found a more inauspicious location for what turned out to be such a significant event. There must have been some reason that Graves decided to hold this meeting at this particular time and at this particular location. What were these events that set the need for this meeting into motion? Moreover, why was this meeting held at Cotton Grove Baptist Church in an area that was sparsely populated and far removed from the major Baptist centers of Tennessee?

To comprehend the events surrounding the Cotton Grove Resolutions and the resulting consequences, one must understand the background and life of J. R. Graves. The story of the Cotton Grove Resolutions, therefore, is the story of J. R. Graves. The ecclesiological resolutions accepted by the participants were Grave’s ecclesiological convictions.

Born in Chester, Vermont, on April 10, 1820, James Robinson Graves was raised by his mother who instilled in her three children a strong will and a love for the Bible. Though his father, who had died when J. R. was two weeks old, was of Congregationalist descent, he joined the nearby Baptist Church in North Springfield, Vermont, when he was fifteen years old.

During Graves’s youth, Vermont was a cauldron of religious fervor. Early nineteenth-century Vermont was similar to the “Burned-Over District”[2] in New York which gave birth to the Oneida Community, psychic Whitney Cross, and Revivalist Charles G. Finney. Vermont was the home of John Humphrey Noyes, America’s most famous Utopian visionary, Joseph Smith, the father of Mormonism, and William Miller, the millennialist whose predictions gave rise to the Seventh Day Adventist denomination. As in the Burned-Over District, Vermont appeared to be a region that was susceptible and open to any religious movement. For the more established denominations, these new movements were perceived as a treat to their stature and, in some cases, their very existence.

While Graves was a member of the North Springfield Baptist Church, many Baptist churches were beginning to split over the restoration movement started by Alexander Campbell. Graves’s pastor, elder Hodges, perceived the restorationists, or Campbellites, as they were more commonly called, as a challenge to the Baptist denomination and instilled in his congregation a fear and almost hatred of this new denomination.[3] Hodges’s fear became a reality in several states such as Kentucky and Tennessee where a number of Baptist churches accepted the restoration movement and became Campbellites.

Because Graves’s family had lost its farm to several of his father’s unscrupulous business partners, they were forced to relocate to Kingsville, Ohio, in 1840. Though he had little formal education, Graves became the principal of the Clear Creek Academy. Each night, he taught himself what he would teach his students the next day. In 1842, after two years at the academy, Graves left home and moved to Nicholasville, Kentucky, where he was placed in charge of the local school. Studying as many as eight hours a day, he taught himself a different language each year and studied the Bible. After several years of study, one of his biographers, Harold S. Smith, believed that Graves’s education was equivalent to a college degree of that period.[4]

While in Nicholasville, Graves was licensed and ordained to the gospel ministry by the Mount Freedom Baptist Church in 1844. Graves rarely mentioned his call to the ministry and little extant information is available concerning this event. Evidently, his call occurred while he was still a member of the North Springfield Baptist Church in Vermont. As noted by Elder Hodges in the church records:

Another member of the church, Robinson Graves, started to school this morning, with a view of finally preparing for the ministry-–He is a youth of fair talents and of boyant [sic] spirits-–May the Lord keep him from falling.[5]

Graves returned to Kingsville, Ohio, in 1843 to continue studying for the ministry. While at Kingsville, he met John Lightfoot Waller who was the editor of the Western Baptist Review. Their relationship was initially amiable with Waller giving Graves’s solid advice concerning antislavery views; Waller encouraged Graves to minister where those opinions would be more acceptable.[6] The relationship between Graves and Waller, however, turned sour in years to come when they disagreed about pedobaptism.

After deciding to open his own school, Graves chose Nashville, Tennessee, as the location. He arrived in Nashville in July of 1845. Located in the western expanses of Tennessee, Nashville had been affected by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening. The Methodist denomination had accepted the revivalism of the Awakening and their numbers had grown in the western, frontier regions of the United States. As a result, Nashville was dominated by the Methodists. In fact, the Methodist presence in Nashville was so strong that its only denominational press in the western United States was located in Nashville.[7] The Methodists outnumbered the Baptists five to one[8] and viewed Baptists as unwelcome interlopers. According to historian William Warren Sweet, even though Nashville was dominated by Methodists, the city was still a “welter of confusion and emotionalism.”[9]

Graves’s opinions on the Campbellite movement found a receptive audience in Nashville. Baptist churches in Nashville were losing members to the Campbellite churches. Baptists did not have a strong theological leader who could confront and defend traditional Baptist doctrine against Campbellite teachings.

Despite Graves’s knowledge of the religious diversities and rivalries in Nashville, he did not hesitate to move to a location where confrontation with another denomination would almost be certain. R. A. Baker concluded that Graves could not turn down the opportunity to live in an environment where he could “strike a blow as a champion for Baptist principles.”[10]

On his arrival in Nashville, Graves joined First Baptist Church where R. B. C. Howell, the most influential minister in Tennessee and editor of the Tennessee Baptist, was pastor. With Howell as his advocate, Graves’s ministerial skills and knowledge of the Bible were quickly recognized, and he was called as pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Nashville. The church had recently split with half of the congregation turning Campbellite. The Second Baptist remnant welcomed Graves as their pastor, and the “church provided fertile soil for his strong anti-Campbellite concepts.”[11] He remained pastor of this embattled church until 1846, when he became a full-time newspaper man.

Realizing that Howell needed help with the state newspaper, the Baptist General Association of Tennessee named Graves co-editor of the Tennessee Baptist in 1846. Two years later, Howell accepted a call to be the pastor of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia. Believing Graves was more than capable, Howell asked him to be interim pastor of First Baptist, Nashville. Howell resigned as co-editor of the Tennessee Baptist, and Graves was named sole editor on June 29, 1848. Graves found the Tennessee Baptist in debt, but it did not take him long to turn the newspaper’s fortunes around. By 1860, Graves claimed to have a readership of more than twelve thousand and to be the most widely read Baptist periodical in the United States.

With the full mantle of the editorial responsibility and privilege on him alone, Graves changed the course of the Tennessee Baptist. While under Howell’s direction, the newspaper reported Baptist news and rarely participated in denominational differences. The only exception was Howell’s occasional editorial debates with his counterpart and Nashville neighbor, J. B. McFerrin, editor of the Methodist newspaper, the South Western Christian Advocate. McFerrin stated that all the Baptists were five point Calvinists and cared little for evangelism or the truths of the Bible.[12] He even claimed that Baptists taught that infants were lost if not baptized by a Baptist minister.[13] McFerrin even charged that Howell was “the inflated bird of Nashville, bigoted, presumptuous enough for anything; lacking only the power to become power; in a state of putridity, i.e., that in morals we understand that Brother Howell is in a state of putridity.”[14]

Howell countered by claiming that Baptists were modified Calvinists and that evangelism was at the heart of their very being.[15] He also stated that Baptists did not believe in baptismal regeneration and that they only baptized believers, so McFerrin’s statements could not be true.[16] Howell claimed,

What we have said is enough to prove beyond question all that we propose, and that is that Mr. McFerrin will and does adopt an expedient, however repugnant to moral principles, if he thinks he can by such means do any injury to the Baptist denomination.[17]

After taking over as editor of the Tennessee Baptist, Graves did not hesitate to step forward and take on the Campbellites when the situation presented itself. In fact, his attacks became so harsh and detrimental to the Campbellite cause that Alexander Campbell himself was forced to deal with Graves in his own periodical, the Millennial Harbinger. Attempting to stave off the Baptist editor, Campbell claimed that Graves was “either the most stupid, or the most reckless of truth, of any sectarian editor in the country.”[18] Despite Graves’s animosity toward the Campbellites, they were never more than a secondary adversary standing well behind the pedobaptists, including the Methodists.

Unlike Howell, Graves looked forward to dealing with controversial topics. In fact, he often sought out conflicts. He believed that the Tennessee Baptist should fight a “ceaseless war with error whether advocated by Papists, Protestants, or Campbellites.”[19] Making his point clear, Graves stated,

In 1846 I took charge of ‘The Tennessee Baptist,’ and soon commenced agitating the question of validity of alien immersions, and the propriety of Baptists recognizing, by any act, ecclesiastical or ministerial, Pedobaptist societies or preachers as churches and ministers of Christ. The agitation gave rise to the convention, which met at Cotton Grove, W. T., June 24, 1851.[20]

He directed his readership to vitriolic articles as he added regular columns entitled “Controversy” and “New Issues.” Due largely to this more competitive format, Graves increased his readership as Baptists throughout the South looked to his comments to defend their beliefs against the attacks of other denominations.

Graves’s first major editorial harangue was with neither the Methodists nor the Campbellites but was directed toward his fellow Baptists. Before doing battle with other denominations, he may have realized the need to rally his own denomination to his perception of the Baptist cause. This challenge meant solidifying his Baptist base and defeating those in his own denomination who disagree with his ecclesiological assumptions before he would be able to take on an outside foe.

In the March 1848, edition of the Western Baptist Review his friend, John Lightfoot Waller, penned an editorial that incensed Graves and drew the two into a pitched ecclesiological battle that dominated both of their newspapers for several years. A native of Alabama named Richard Burleson asked Waller, “Is the immersion of a person in water in the name of the Trinity, upon a credible profession of faith in Christ, by a pedobaptist minister who had not been immersed, a valid baptism?”[21] Richard Burleson was the brother of Baylor University president Rufus Columbus Burleson who later became a strong advocate of Graves and the Landmark movement in Texas.

Waller espoused the position that a baptism administered by a pedobaptist minister, who himself had not been immersed, was a valid baptism if preceded by a confession of faith.[22] He stated that successionism from the time of the apostles was ridiculous and could not be proven. In this regard, Waller claimed that” every administrator from now to the apostles must be proved to be a proper administrator, or else all baptisms coming from him will be null and void. If any link in the succession be broken, the most skillful spiritual smith under the whole heavens cannot mend the chain.[23]

Waller concluded his reply by telling all those who disagreed with him that they would need to:

Let all those who can furnish clear and indubitable evidence of the validity of their baptism, according to the terms of the affirmative of this question, vote non-fellowship for those churches and ministers who believe it right to receive a member who has been immersed on profession of faith by Pedo-Baptist minister, and let all the rest keep silent. . . . What can be more fair? Surely no brother in all Alabama would wish to condemn in another what he allows in himself.[24]

Despite Waller’s logical attack on successionism, Graves continued to promote its importance and validity in Baptist ecclesiology. Graves fired back at Waller stating that only baptisms performed by a Baptist minister constituted an authentic baptism. He based this theory on his belief that Baptist churches, though often called by other names, had been continued by means of an unbroken succession since the New Testament era. An organic continuity existed between baptism and Baptist ministers as old as Christianity itself. For Graves, this espousal made all pedobaptist ministers mere functionaries and not true gospel ministers.[25] While continuing his debate with Baptists who disagreed with him, he turned his attention to the other denominations in Tennessee.

B. C. Howell’s old Methodist nemesis, J. B. McFerrin, decided that it was time to strike a decisive blow against the Baptist. He believed he could easily defeat the young editor Graves and solidify the Methodist presence in Tennessee against any further incursions by the Baptists. He may have believed that with Howell out of Nashville, no other Baptist could stand up to his theological acumen and the Baptists would fade away to nothingness. O. L. Hailey, Graves’s son-in-law, believed McFerrin was overconfident with Howell out of the picture. Hailey stated that the Southwestern Christian Advocate was “the only Methodist paper in the South, at that time, with the talented and virulent Dr. McFerrin, whose chief aim seemed to be to break down the Baptist paper, and damage or exterminate that people through the South.”[26]

During Graves’s first year as editor, McFerrin ran several editorials attacking the Baptists making the same charges as he had earlier against Howell. Graves, however, reveled in the polemical debate and proved to be a more worthy adversary than Howell. In a March 1849 editorial entitled “The Methodist Advocate Again,” Graves maintained:

The leading article in the Methodist Advocate is again devoted to our benefit. It seems that the editor had not quite discharged all the venom of his spleen upon us. . . . We now forewarn all Baptists against credence to anything that appears in the columns of The Advocate . . . [because] this same editor . . . put forth all his energies and summoned all his lying wonders . . . It seems that this editor . . . has a certain ‘round’ of choicely assorted epithets to bestow on anyone who may edit The Baptist.[27]

To stir up his readership, Graves attacked the Methodist denomination. He belittled them because of the lack of power in their local churches, the Arminian doctrine, and biblical ignorance. He also depicted the Methodists and other pedobaptist denominations as the perpetual enemy of all Baptists. Graves asserted:

Pedobaptists have never, since their existence, shown themselves friendly to Baptists. . . . We charge upon the rulers of those societies—upon their Scribes and Pharisees—that they have, and are now, knowingly and willfully publishing from pulpit and press, misrepresentation, falsehood and slander upon all Baptists in order to deceive their followers and cause the world to distrust, hate and despise us and it is high time for Baptists, in the name of Christ and truth, to rise up as one man and seal the defamation upon the foreheads of their accusers.[28]

The irritation between Graves and the West Tennessee Methodists reached a fever pitch in June of 1851. Reverend Elisha Collins of the First Baptist Church of Lexington, Tennessee, and Graves had gotten into an intense theological argument with Methodist pastor R. B. Jones of West Tennessee over the validity of pedobaptism. Reverend Jones did not care for an article written by Collins and published in the February 21, 1852, edition of the Tennessee Baptist. Collins had written the article, but as he had promised to no longer participate in the affair, Graves had given his colleague permission to sign his name to the article. Jones believed that Graves was also behind the article so he sued both Collins and Graves for libel.

Since the Methodists outnumbered the Baptists in Madison county four to one, the jury was stacked in Jones’s favor and he easily won the case. Since he was in Bowling Green at the time, and did not even know what Collins had written, Graves did not learn that he had been sued until he received the fine.[29]

Collins and Graves decided to meet halfway between Jackson where Graves was visiting and Lexington, Tennessee, in a small community named Cotton Grove. Graves may have picked the location because his brother, J. L. Phillips, was a prominent businessman in the community and a member of the Cotton Grove Baptist Church.[30] While in Cotton Grove, Collins and several Baptist ministers asked Graves to comment on the ecclesiological errors that appeared to be triumphing in west Tennessee. When Baptists in the community heard that Graves would be speaking, a small meeting quickly turned into a large rally. The rally was held at the Cotton Grove Baptist Church on June 24, 1851.

Though no definitive numbers were recorded, the meeting was apparently well-attended and was quite an enthusiastic event. When Graves rose to address the crowd, he opened by speaking on John 17 and the unity of the body. After lashing out against the pedobaptists, Methodists, and the Campbellites, he turned his attention to the proper mode of baptism. At the end of his speech, Graves asked those present to examine five questions:

1st. Can Baptists with their principles on the Scriptures, consistently recognize those societies not organized according to the Jerusalem church, but possessing different government, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines and practices as churches of Christ?

2d. Ought they to be called gospel churches or churches in a religious sense?

3d. Can we consistently recognize the ministers of such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers?

4th. 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 as such recognition?

5th. Can we consistently address as brethren those professing Christianity who not only have the doctrine of Christ and walk not according to his commandments but are arrayed in direct and bitter opposition to them?[31]

Those present voted an enthusiastic no on each of the questions except the fourth. For all intents and purposes the affirmation of the Cotton Grove Resolutions launched the Landmark movement in the Southern Baptist Convention. Walter Shurden in his book Not a Silent People, did not fail to notice the importance of what was implied by the Cotton Grove Resolutions:

In essence, these resolutions disavowed the authority of non-Baptist churches, ministers, and ordinances. The conclusions of the Cotton Grove Resolutions were clear to all: only Baptist churches are gospel churches! All other churches and denominations Graves labeled “religious societies.[32]

Though the term Landmarkism did not become the catchword of the movement until J. M. Pendleton used it in his 1854 tract An Old Landmark Re-set,[33] the movement gained its first adherents and initial support at the Cotton Grove Baptist Church on June 24, 1851. Collins died before he could pay the fine in the libel case, and Graves paid the full $7,500 without argument.[34]

As the Landmark movement continued to develop and to grow throughout the nineteenth century, the Cotton Grove Resolutions served as the basis on which all future Landmark statements were founded. On July 26, 1854, these resolutions were adopted at the annual meeting of the Big Hatchie Association in Bolivar, Tennessee. After its first endorsement, the Cotton Grove Resolutions were quickly adopted in other Baptist associations in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas. Endorsements such as these allowed the adherents of the Cotton Grove Resolutions to coalesce and to identify with each other throughout the Southwest and to create a strong grassroots movement.

Baptists today still worship in the 175-year-old Baptist church at Cotton Grove. The building where the Cotton Grove Resolutions were passed was destroyed by Federal forces during the Civil War.[35] Even though the church rebuilt on the same location, nothing remains of the original Cotton Grove Baptist Church. The church, which has rebuilt its main building several times, is still surrounded by cotton fields and the cemetery, which has graves more than 150 years old that calls its member to remember their past. However, if someone happened by the church on Sunday morning and decided to stop for worship, it is doubtful that he or she would be aware of the historical significance of this church. There are no physical references to the meeting that launched a movement that dominated the ecclesiastical life of the Southern Baptist Convention in the nineteenth century.


[1] Wayne A. Foropoulos, A History of the Cotton Grove Baptist Church (unpublished manuscript, 2000), 4, 5.

[2] This region was called the Burned-Over District because a new religion would appear and spread over the countryside like a fire destroying the more traditional religions. When a newer movement took shape, it would burn out the previous movement.

[3] Harry Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press,1987), 448

[4] Harold S. Smith, “James Robinson Graves,” in Baptist Theologians, eds. Timothy George and David Dockery, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1990), 224

[5] Letter from Helen Clark, clerk of North Springfield Baptist Church, January 30, 1965.

[6] Linwood Tyler Horne, “A Study of the Life and Work of R. B. C. Howell” Th. D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1958, 201.

[7] Barry W. Jones, “James R. Graves, Baptist Newspaper Editor: Catalyst for Religious Controversy, 1846-1893” Ph. D. diss Ohio University, 1994, 83.

[8] O. L. Hailey, J. R. Graves: Life, Times, and Teachings (Nashville: n. p., 1925),24.

[9] Wiliam Warren Sweet, Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), 185.

[10] Robert A. Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974), 209

[11] Smith, 226.

[12] Horne, 201.

[13] Christian Advocate, cited in Hailey, 28.

[14] McFerrin, cited in Hailey, 24.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Tennessee Baptist, cited in Hailey, 28.

[17] Howell, cited in Hailey, 25.

[18] Alexander Campbell cited in Walter B. Posey, Religious Strife on the Southern Frontier (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), 56-57.

[19] Tennessee Baptist, September 15,1855.

[20] James Robinson Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Texarkana: Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1928 ed.), xi.

[21] Western Baptist Review (March 1848): 267.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Tennessee Baptist (March 28, 1850).

[26] Hailey, 53

[27] Tennessee Baptist (March 15, 1849): 2.

[28] Ibid., February 15,1851, 2.

[29] Hailey, 40-41.

[30] Foropoulos, 4-5.

[31] Graves, xi-xii

[32] Walter B. Shurden, Not a Silent People (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 72.

[33] James Madison Pendleton, An Old Landmark Re-Set (Walker: Truth Publications, 1854).

[34] Hailey, 40-41

[35] Foropoulos, 5.

Joe Early, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Theology for Campbellsville University where he teaches church history, philosophy, and theology. He is the author of many academic journal articles and nine books with his tenth, An Introduction to Christian History, due for release in March 2015. He holds a Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.