Got Perpetuity?
The Linked-Chain Theory of Baptist Succession

By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue • Chicago, Illinois 60608



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Recently the pastor of an independent Baptist church in Minnesota disbanded his congregation, because he had come to the conclusion that his church was not a true New Testament church.

He had checked out the history of his mother church in Ohio, and came to the conclusion that the mother church did not have "perpetuity" - that is, they could not trace their lineage back to the time of the Apostles in the First Century AD, through a documented, unbroken chain of churches holding to Landmark Missionary Baptist faith and practices.

The Ohio church could not pass this test: "All churches must be authorized by a mother church that was authorized by a mother church that was authorized by a mother church, etc. all the way back to the original church of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Not only that, but all of the churches in this chain of title must, at all times, have rejected all non-Baptist baptism, rejected the universal church theory, practiced closed communion (members only), and must have remained unaffiliated at all times with any and all conventions, associations or fellowships.

The gentleman in Minnesota, having determined that his sending church in Ohio could not demonstrate compliance with these historical requirements, came to the alarming conclusion that his own church was a false church with no authority to administer baptism or plant churches.

After diligent search, this pastor found a church in North Dakota, 300 miles away, that supposedly did have perpetuity and could serve as a true mother church. He had himself re-baptized and re-ordained by the North Dakota pastor, then went back to Minnesota to re-baptize his own former members and re-organize them into a new, scriptural church with perpetuity.

Problem solved? Maybe, or maybe not. Do we really know if all the churches in the chain of title of the North Dakota church, for the last 20 centuries, were "Simon pure" in doctrine, with not a stinker in the bunch? Do sufficient records exist to prove such a proposition? Is it possible that the North Dakota church and her Minnesota daughter are still not true churches, after all this effort?

The Minnesota pastor, in a lengthy article defending the principle of perpetuity, stated, "One must have the ability to determine the mother and grandmother church." What about the great-great-great-grandmother church, and all the other churches that went before? As long as there is any doubt about what all those churches believed and practiced through the Dark Ages, for which no written records exist, then do we really know if any church existing today is a true church?

Good men have wrestled with this question over the centuries. In 17th Century Rhode Island, Roger Williams disbanded the Baptist church he had organized only a few months previously, because he doubted that there was any true church left in the world that could administer scriptural baptism needed to start his church.

Henry Vedder says of Williams, "He withdrew himself from the church, and for the rest of his life was unconnected with any religious body, calling himself a ‘seeker.’ He seems to have been misled by an idea that, if logically carried out, would unchurch every church, by making all administration of ordinances invalid."

Other denominations have debated this issue, also. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopalian churches do claim to have perpetuity, a chain of title of churches and bishops stretching back to the Apostles - and they have the records to prove it. The Anglican churches refer to their proven perpetuity as the "Historic Episcopate" and they are magnanimously willing to share that mystical quality of perpetuity with any other churches that may want to partake of it. All you have to do is come under the authority of an Episcopalian bishop (who just might be a sodomite, like the new bishop of New Hampshire).

It is believed that the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia have perpetuity, since they can trace their bishops back to apostolic times, but Lutheran churches elsewhere, including the United States, do not have that perpetuity or apostolic succession. In an effort to fix that problem, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America recently agreed to place its churches under the authority of the Episcopal bishops of America, so as to latch onto their vaunted perpetuity.

Is there is any way for us, as Baptists, to get perpetuity without having to toady to our local Episcopal bishop? Can we fix the problem by setting up a registry of Baptist churches with proven, demonstrated perpetuity, with the power to bestow that mystical blessing on any churches that may lack it?

The first step is to realize that there are some churches that claim perpetuity under false pretenses - they offer their church "mothering" services, without being able to demonstrate that they have any kind of perpetuity.

Over the years the pastor of First Baptist Church of Cicero, Illinois (now disbanded) would approach other churches in the Chicago area and tell them that his church had perpetuity and the other churches didn’t. He offered to remedy that fault by re-ordaining the pastors of the other churches and re-baptizing all of their members, and bringing those churches under the authority of FBC-Cicero which would then claim them as "mission churches."

One pastor accepted this generous offer - he was re-ordained by FBC-Cicero, and he and his people re-baptized. Meanwhile, I asked the assistant pastor of FBC-Cicero for the name of the mother church FBC-Cicero, and he told me, "I don’t know." Hmmm, that was strange - they were claiming perpetuity but could not even supply the name of their own mother church!

The newly re-ordained and re-baptized pastor did some investigation of his own, and was enraged to find out that FBC-Cicero was planted in 1896 without any local church authority, by the Chicago Baptist Association. By its own standards, FBC-Cicero was not even a true church and its pastor had lied about having perpetuity. This pastor broke with FBC-Cicero and had to go get himself re-ordained and re-baptized by yet another Baptist church which claimed to have perpetuity.

All too often, when certain Baptist churches make the claim to be the only true church in their area, they have no documentation for that claim. What they are really saying is, "The only true churches in this area are the ones whose preachers are part of our exclusive clique. The only way for your church to become a true church and part of the ‘Bride’ is for your church to come under our authority and do whatever we tell you to do, just like the Pope and Jim Jones. Until we take a vote to authorize you to have a true church, you and your benighted members will remain in outer darkness."

Thus we see that the demand for Baptist perpetuity can, in the wrong hands, become a pretext for mischief-making on the part of domineering, busy-body preachers who are not content to rule as dictatorial bullies over their own hapless congregations, and who are always on the prowl for other churches and preachers that they can take over.

Not all those who have sought to promote Baptist perpetuity have done so with impure motives. There are good, honest men who have a genuine desire to make sure that their church is scripturally established, and who would like to stand in a position of linked-chain succession to the Apostles. Can this be done, without stretching the truth or telling those little white lies about our heritage?

The problem is that prior to the 17th Century, we simply do not have sufficient historical records and documentation to trace a chain of title of true Landmark Missionary Baptist churches. We have evidence to show that Baptistic churches did exist in the Dark Ages (see my book "The Waldenses Were Independent Baptists)" but there are no original source documents that we can use to link ourselves to them in a linked-chain succession.

When original source documents do exist, they sometimes tell us things that we would rather not know. For instance, the "Key of Truth", written by the Paulicians in the 9th Century and translated into English by Fred Conybeare in 1898, reveals that the Paulicians denied the deity of Christ. In spite of this inconvenient fact, some Baptists still trace their succession through the Paulicians.

When asked to provide a chain-link of churches from the First Century until now, many Baptists will name churches and strange groups that they would not touch with a 10-foot pole if they were still around today.

For instance, there are Calvinistic Baptists, who, if asked, will trace their perpetuity through the churches of the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina (1765). But the Sandy Creek Baptists had woman preachers, and they were refused fellowship by the Calvinistic Regular Baptists of their day, who regarded them as disorderly and doctrinally weak.

Meanwhile, there are anti-Calvinist Landmark Baptists who trace their perpetuity through the Philadelphia Baptist Association of the early 18th Century. But these churches were strongly Calvinistic and they affirmed belief in the Universal Church. Some of these churches accepted alien baptism, with the approval of the Association.

The Welsh Tract church, which some modern churches claim as an ancestor, was affiliated with the Philadelphia Association. The Welsh Tract and Sandy Creek churches were self-constituted, organized without authority of a mother church.

Not only that, but those who insist that only unaffiliated churches are true churches would not be able to trace their perpetuity through any association - not Philadelphia, not the Sandy Creek Association, nor the English or Welsh Baptists or even the Waldenses of the Middle Ages, all of whom were associational Baptists.

Some Baptists trace their perpetuity through the Baptist church at Hill Cliffe, Wales. But we don’t know what church was the mother church of Hill Cliffe, or even if it was definitely a Baptist church from the beginning. J.J. Goadby in "Bye-Paths in Baptist History" says, "We have reliable evidence that a Separatist, and, probably, a Baptist Church, has existed for several centuries in a secluded part of Cheshire . . . Owing to the many changes inseparable from the eventful history of the church at Hill Cliffe, the earliest records have been lost."

James Kenworthy, in his book "History of the Baptist Church at Hill Cliffe," says, "We cannot go back to the foundation of the Hill Cliffe Church, but at the time that the earliest reference is made to it, it is then in a flourishing condition. . . ." In other words, we do not know which Landmark Missionary Baptist Church took a vote to authorize the church at Hill Cliffe; therefore we cannot trace our perpetuity through the Hill Cliffe Church.

It is simply not possible to construct a chain link of churches from our time back to the Apostles, documenting each vote of a properly constituted Landmark Missionary Baptist Church to authorize each new church, while dodging all those groups who may have disagreed with us on such matters as Calvinism, local church only, no woman preachers, no alien immersion, no open communion, etc. It cannot be done.


What Baptist Historians Say About Linked-Chain Church Succession

E.T. Hiscox stated in his "New Directory for Baptist Churches," "It matters not whether a Church can trace its lineage back one century or 20. The great question is, Does it inherit the spirit of Him who founded the Church and does it hold the doctrines and imitate the examples of Christ and His Apostles?"

J.R. Graves, in "Old Landmarkism - What Is It?" says, "We repudiate the doctrine of apostolic succession . . . Nor have I, or any Landmarker known to me, ever advocated the succession of any particular church or churches."

Roy Mason in "The Church That Jesus Built" says, "Baptists do not claim perpetuity upon the basis of a chain of churches succeeding each other in the sense that kings and popes succeed each other."

S.H. Ford said, "Succession among Baptists is not a linked chain of churches or ministers, uninterrupted and traceable at this distant day."

Thomas Armitage, in his "History of the Baptists," says, "Visible descent and the unbroken succession of churches are not and cannot be a proper test in the matter. . . . The pretense that any one communion now on earth can trace its way down from the Apostles, in one line of fidelity and purity to New Testament teachings, is to contradict all reliable history." Charles Haddon Spurgeon, reviewing Armitage’s "History of the Baptists," said, "No claim is set up for a continuous church of Baptists after the manner of the Roman and Anglican communities; but yet it is shown that the true and only baptism in water has always had some to practice it. When a church has nothing left in which to rejoice it falls back on its pedigree, and cracks itself up as ‘the one and only;’ but our friend Dr. Armitage sees nothing desirable in such romancing."

D.B. Ray in "Baptist Succession" says, "They believe that the Baptist succession exists; that there has been no period of time since the death of Christ when Baptists have not existed. But Baptists do not claim ‘apostolic succession,’ because they admit that the apostolic office expired with the death of John the beloved. . . . Neither do we claim Popish succession, for this is only the succession of Antichrist."

I.K. Cross, in "The Battle for Baptist History," says, "No reputable historian claims that a church has to trace its history all the way back to the first church to prove it is a New Testament church. In fact, sufficient history does not exist to make this possible."

Buell Kazee, in "The Church and the Ordinances," says, "Whether or not our baptism is successive all the way back, no one can prove."

Jarrel Huffman says, "Chain-link succession on paper cannot be proved, but this fact does not discount scriptural succession."

John T. Christian, in his "History of the Baptists," says, "No attempt is made in these pages to trace a succession of bishops, as the Roman Catholics attempt to do, back to the apostles. Such an attempt is ‘laboring in the fire for mere vanity,’ and proceeds upon a mistaken view of the nature of the kingdom of Christ, and of the sovereignty of God, in His operations on the earth. . . . No emphasis is put on a succession of baptism, or the historical order of churches."

J.W. Porter said, "it would be impossible to establish the uninterrupted succession of any given church through the years, even should such a church have a continuous succession."

Henry Vedder said, "In the present state of knowledge no such continuity can be shown by evidence that will bear the usual historic tests."

J. Davis, in "History of the Welsh Baptists," says, "A Baptist has not the least trouble about what is called a lineal or apostolical succession. His line of succession is in faithful men, and it is a matter of indifference with them, when or where they lived, by what name they were called, or by whom they were baptized or ordained."

W.A. Jarrel in "Baptist Church Perpetuity" said, "Such a thing as one church succeeding another, as the second link of a chain is added to, and succeeds the first . . . is utterly foreign to and incompatible with Baptist church polity. Therefore, the talk about every link ‘jingling in the succession chain from the banks of the Jordan to the present’ is ignorance or dust-throwing."

David Benedict, in "A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America," said, "I shall not attempt to trace a continuous line of churches, as we can for a few centuries past in Europe and America. This is a kind of succession to which we have never laid claim; and, of course, we make no effort to prove it. We place no kind of reliance on this sort of testimony to establish the soundness of our faith or the validity of our administrations."

Kenneth Good, author of "God’s Blueprint for a Church," says, "Competent historians do not support the view of an unbroken, chain-link succession of Baptist churches as demonstrable from the available records. . . .The authenticity of a Baptist church depends, not upon its ability to trace an unbroken line of connection to the apostles, but rather upon its ability to demonstrate that it presently possesses the doctrines, principles, and practices which the apostles had and which are evident on the pages of the New Testament. If a church were forced to demonstrate its ‘kosher’ pedigree in order to be recognized, this would require that organized assembly to rely upon the word of man rather than the Word of God."

Wayne Camp, pastor of Pilgrim’s Hope Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, says, "The Bible assures perpetuity of the Lord’s churches and history proves the perpetuity of the Lord’s churches but the Bible does not promise a linked-chain succession of churches and history does not prove it."

If it was important for each church to be able to demonstrate a chain-link succession of churches going back 2000 years, why is there no mention of this principle in the New Testament? Why are we not told which Landmark Missionary Baptist congregation took a vote to authorize the churches at Rome, Corinth, Colosse, Ephesus, etc. if this information is so all-important?

In Acts 14:23 we see that Paul had organized churches in various cities of Galatia, without first going back to his sending church in Antioch to obtain a congregational vote authorizing the organization of those Galatian churches. Clearly there is no Scriptural teaching to the effect that "Your church is not a true New Testament church unless it was authorized by vote of a Landmark Missionary Baptist Church which has a proven linked-chain succession of churches of like faith and practice back to the First Century." This is a traditional belief which has no basis in the Word of God.

Nothing in this article is intended to relax our vigilance in discerning between true and false churches. Not all churches today, even those bearing the Baptist name, are true New Testament churches.

However, we cannot use the demand that each church demonstrate a linked-chain succession from the Apostles, as a standard for determining which churches are true and which are not true. Under such a standard, every Baptist church in the world today would be disqualified as a true church, and we would all have to go join the Catholics or Episcopalians.

Let’s not try to unchurch each other by adding to the Word of God with burdens that neither we nor our fathers were able to bear.

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