A professor and pastor identified with a view that Baptist churches date in unbroken succession to Jesus’ time is running for president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
The Western Recorder reports this week that Hershael York, a preaching professor and associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will be nominated at this year’s KBC annual meeting, scheduled Nov. 16-17 at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville.
Opposing York will be Rusty Ellison, pastor of Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville and former president of the Kentucky Baptist Assemblies.
York is also senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Georgetown, Ky., taking the job last year.
Before joining Southern Seminary’s faculty in 1997, York served 14 years as associate pastor and pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., a long-independent church that in 1997 rejoined the Southern Baptist Convention, 27 years after cutting all denominational ties over perceived liberalism.
The church is best known, however, as publisher of a booklet called “The Trail of Blood,” which it has sold since 1931.
Texas preacher J.M. Carroll, born in 1858, visited the Ashland Avenue church and delivered a series of lectures on characteristics and origins of what he called “the New Testament church.” A pastor hearing the lectures was so impressed that he told Carroll if he would write the messages he would put them in a book.
Carroll died before the book came off the presses. Ashland Avenue holds the copyright and has sold more than 2 million copies. The church still sells the book, which is subtitled “The History of Baptist Churches From the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day.”
Carroll’s book helped popularize a view that arose in the 1800s called Landmarkism. The movement taught that Baptist churches are the only true churches in the world and denied the existence of any “invisible” or universal church apart from the local congregation. Landmarkers shunned fellowship with non-Baptists and believed only churches were authorized to perform acts like baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Some, like Carroll, went further to contend that dissenters like Donatists in the fourth century, Waldenses in the 12th century and Anabaptists in the 16th centuries were Baptists in everything but name. They viewed these groups has having existed in continuous succession, apart from the Roman Catholic Church, from the first-century church established by Jesus and the apostles until modern times.
Carroll’s book is distinguished by an accompanying chart marking 20 centuries of church history dotted with red circles representing a “trail of blood,” indicating martyr’s blood resulting from persecution by established churches. Black circles on the chart represent “erring churches,” which also date back to before the deaths of Peter, Paul and John.
Most historians today discredit the theory, tracing the first Baptist churches either to the early 17th century or the Anabaptist movement of the Reformation.
York said in a newspaper interview in 1997 that he subscribes to the successionist view but believes it has been misunderstood.
“I don’t believe the ‘Trail of Blood’ teaches chain-link successionism,” York said in the April 15, 1997, edition of the Western Recorder. “I do believe there has always been a true church on the earth at all times, and that is outside of Catholicism.”
York declined to be interviewed by e-mail, saying content on EthicsDaily.com caused him to doubt he would be treated fairly. “I am happy to answer your questions, but you are going to have to call or come see me,” he said in his e-mail response.
Association with the theory of Baptist successionism could be a plus for York in some areas of Kentucky. The movement, spurred largely by a Landmark editor of the Tennessee Baptist newspaper, took strongest hold in the mid-19th century on America’s frontier, including Arkansas, parts of Texas, southern Illinois and western Kentucky and Tennessee.
Ironically, one of the main controversies sparked by the Landmark movement centered on the seminary where York now teaches. William Whitsitt, Southern Seminary’s third president, was forced to resign in 1899 after writing that Baptists as a denomination had their beginnings in the early 1600s.
While Baptist historians view Landmarkism as an important precursor to the current fundamentalist movement that is now predominant in the Southern Baptist Convention, few current SBC leaders describe themselves as Landmarkers.
Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, reacted strongly to a 1999 newspaper column by the BCE’s Robert Parham attributing Baptist triumphalism to “trail of blood” theology, leading Southern Baptist leaders to believe they are the only true Christians.
Chapman called Parham’s suggestion “laughable” in a follow-up column, noting that no Southern Baptist seminary promotes successionist theology.
York is the author of two books on preaching published by Broadman & Holman, a subsidiary of the SBC publishing house LifeWay Christian Resources. He has been active in efforts to allow schools in Kentucky to post the Ten Commandments and to amend the state’s Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
In a 1998 address in the seminary chapel York advocated church discipline of wayward members as “compassion to confront.”
In 1997 he attended the organizational meeting of a group called Southern Baptists of Kentucky aimed at promoting Southern Baptist Convention interest in the state, including support of Southern Seminary.
York’s past church is one of a number of formerly independent fundamentalist churches to come into the SBC fold in recent years in support of the convention’s “conservative resurgence,” including Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
Not all Fundamentalists are fond of the trend. A Web site in 1997 criticized Ashland Avenue’s SBC affiliation as departing from “a strong historic Baptist position on the doctrine of the church,” namely that Baptists are not Protestants and were never a part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.