The “trail of blood” is a concept popularized by James Milton Carroll in 1931 that sought to trace independent baptist succession to the early apostles. From the outset I would like to note that I don’t believe most of the reformed positions hold to this doctrine but I have personally seen it being used more frequently as a “proof” of a type of “baptist successionism.” There are numerous fatal flaws within this theory. I seek to explain this concept, and how much of the evidence claimed to be offered by baptists in this theory is actually entirely incoherent, and more dreadfully, the evidence claimed is completely gnostic. I pray this article is read with an open mind, guided by the Holy Spirit in truth, to awaken and teach others in love and truth. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Outlining ‘The Trail of Blood’
The full title of Mr. Carroll’s book is The Trail of Blood: Following the Christians Down through the Centuries: or, The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day. Carroll presents modern Baptists as the direct successors of a strain of Christianity dating to apostolic times, reflecting a Landmarkist view first promoted in the mid-nineteenth century by James Robinson Graves (1820-1893). (1). In his lectures which you can find in pdf online, Carroll states serious errors began occurring in the church almost immediately, “the loyal churches declared non-fellowship for those churches which accepted and practiced these errors.” (2). The errors he claims are baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, iconography, etc. If you’d like to stop and read my article on infant baptism that dispels any of this notion of error, click here.
Right away we find the first problem, this idea did not exist until the 19th century. If this doctrine was true, why is it not told or expounded upon for 1,900 years from Christ? Furthermore, Paul tells us to be of one faith (Ephesians 4:5-6), and I will show how the succession claimed does not correspond of ‘one faith,’ in fact quite the opposite. The trail of blood timeline is full of errors as well, it claims indulgences started in the church in 600’s however this didn’t occur until after the Great Schism by Roman Catholics in 1095 A.D. (3). He also puts “saint and image worship 787,” referring to the 7th Ecumenical Council that defended the use of iconography from the iconoclasts. He falls into common baptist mistake on this, we are not worshiping the saint or image, but God alone. (If you want more on this topic read my article on iconography here). Additionally, iconography is dated to many centuries before 787, from Eusebius’s writings in the 4th century (4) to the catacombs which are dated to the 2nd century.
Carroll claims modern baptists descend from such groups as (with *his* own timeline):
Montanists (3rd-5th Century)
Novationists/Cathari (3rd-5th Century)
Donatists (4th-6th Century)
Paulicians (7th-11th Century)
Petro-Brussians (12th Century)
Henricians (12th Century)
Arnoldists (12th Century)
Waldensians (12th-16th Century)
Albigensians/Cathars (13th Century)
Anabaptists (16th Century)
From his timeline he puts Montanists at 3rd century, they actually start in the 2nd century and last much further than the 5th century, remnants exist into the 9th century (5). He puts the Paulicians at 7th-11th centuries, although we find remnants of Paulicians even up to the 19th century in Armenia. I’ll expand more on this timeline issue, here is the full quote from Carroll for context as well as the timeline. “During the period that we are now passing through the persecuted were called by many and varied names. Among them were Donatists, Paterines, Cathari, Paulicians, and Ana Baptists; and a little later, Petro-Brussians, Arnoldists, Henricians, Albigenses, and Waldenses. Sometimes one group of these was the most prominent and sometimes another. But some of them were almost always prominent because of the persistence and terribleness of their persecution.” James Carroll – Trail of Blood (2).
Refuting The ‘Trail of Blood’
“Let it be remembered that the Catholics do not regard the Bible as the sole rule and guide of faith and life. The claim that it is indeed unerring, but that there are two other things just as much so, the “Writings of the Fathers” and the decrees of the Church (Catholic Church) or the declarations of the Infallible Pope. Hence, there could never be a satisfactory debate between Catholic and Protestant or between Catholic and Baptist, as there could never possibly be a basis of final agreement. The Bible alone can never settle anything so far as the Catholics are concerned.” – James Carroll, Trail of Blood (2).
Carroll states the Bible is the sole rule and guide of faith, and that the Church has erred in teachings since the beginning. However, this assertion invalidates itself as Carroll is relying on the Bible, that was compiled and agreed upon in canon by the Church, as his only authority while claiming the Church is in error. To simplify, the Church gave us the Bible, Carroll says the Church is in error, therefore Carroll now leaves the Bible up to error self-destructing his own authority he relies upon.
Trail of Blood Relies
On Gnostic Succession
I’ve already unpacked various issues with the timeline, but circling back to it we discover most of the different groups overlapping one another throughout the centuries, where does this theory draw the line on when and where each group passed on the truth to the other? This doctrine leads straight to relative truth as you have multiple groups with different doctrines all being the “truth.” And if we were to entertain the notion that somehow it was passed on successively through these groups, it won’t matter when all of the groups are of different doctrines, and some even proclaim outright heresy that even baptists today wouldn’t agree with. So how does the faith get passed down through groups who reject the central tenet of Christianity for all denominations that Christ is divine and came in the flesh? Or that we have one God? How does the faith get passed down and preserved through these groups when they don’t sufficiently match your own faith now nor even basic Christianity? It doesn’t.
This is a dangerous doctrine, I plead out of love that anyone reading that believes this that you turn away from this. Jesus Christ is God. Let’s look at the beliefs of each of these groups to reveal how this concept falls apart under examination:
Here’s what St. Ireneaus says about Montanists, “Others, again (the Montanists), that they may set at nought the gift of the Spirit, which in the latter times has been, by the good pleasure of the Father, poured out upon the human race, do not admit that aspect presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that He would send the Paraclete; but set aside at once both the Gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Wretched men indeed! who wish to be pseudo-prophets, forsooth, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church.” (9). The movement is named after a man named Montanus who claimed the gift of prophecy (along with two other women), prophesying in ecstatic states. It was not the idea of prophecy that caused unrest, but the manner in which they did so.
Montanus and his followers frequently made bold predictions that bore no fruit. They had foretold ‘wars and tumults’, but she had been dead thirteen years and ‘there has been neither a partial nor a universal war in the world’ writes Eusebius (10). Montanus while prophesying spoke in the first person as God, “I am the father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (12) which disgruntled many although some view Montanus acting as a passive mouthpiece in this instance. Many opponents accuse Montanists of believing their own prophetic revelations supersede that of Jesus Christ (13), and to even being anti-trinitarian. St. Jerome describes them as Sabellians observing three Lents “as though three Saviours had suffered.” The movement persisted in some regions until the 6th-8th centuries.
Donatism was a controversy regarding on how those who lapsed during persecutions should be accepted back into the Church. Usually a strong course of penance and forgiveness would be done to slowly allow those who turned their back on the faith (when faced with death/persecution) back into the Church. However, Donatists were vehemently against allowing any back in, calling them traditors, Christians who had betrayed other Christians, and declared lapsed clergy unfit to administer the sacraments even after a penance. They remained a strong sect until St. Augustine in the 5th century challenged many donatist bishops positions and openly debated them on their narrow view of sin. They maintained that clergy must be faultless for their ministry, orders, and sacraments to be valid. Eventually they disappeared under Muslim conquest. The Novationists were almost identical in belief as the Donatists, they refused to give absolution and forgiveness for those who left the Church trying to return to it. They extended it further, those who committed adultery, idolatry, murder, fornication, etc were also refused absolute forgiveness (8).
The Paulicians were a heretical sect that emerged in the 7th century. This group was highly influenced by gnosticism, marcionism, and manichaeism. They emphasized teachings on Paul’s letters (hence their name) while encouraging direct communication with God through prayer, they frequently met in houses and did not believe in the concept of a church building. They also merged dualism and docetism, following Marcionism belief in two gods, they view the true god creating the good (spiritual realm) and the evil god creating the bad (material, earthly realm). This is unavoidably gnosticism, and contrary to scripture that says there is one God (Isaiah 44:6). Because they believed the material world is evil, so they came to the conclusion that Christ did not actually come in the flesh, which is obviously false and derives from docetism. They also believed Jesus’s purpose was to free us from the material realm, not from our sin. They also threw out all of the Old Testament scriptures, as they regarded this to be a separate god, a “demiurge,” while the New Testament portrayed their true god. Their leader, Constantine-Silvanus, was stoned to death and many of his followers were burned at the stake.
Peter of Bruys was a French religious teacher this sect originated from, of whom who considered the New Testament writings to be “valueless” as he doubted their apostolic origin (14). They opposed church buildings altogether, infant baptism, and any veneration of crosses. They commanded all crosses be destroyed which has underlying iconoclasm tones, as they state, “because that form or instrument by which Christ was so dreadfully tortured, so cruelly slain, is not worthy of any adoration, or veneration or supplication.” The Petrobrusians are quoted as saying, “It is unnecessary to build temples, since the church of God does not consist in a multitude of stones joined together, but in the unity of the believers assembled.” It is a fair assessment to see this sect as one of the first to truly purport an “invisible church” doctrine, instead of a visible one.
It’s origin traced to Henry of Lausanne, this group was kindred to Donatists and Novationists, holding that the sacraments are valid only when administered by a priest who lives up to his monastic vows. They refused any church authority, infant baptism, the Eucharist, intercession of the saints, etc.
The Waldensians were founded by Peter Waldo, of Lyons, France. They denied the validity of the sacraments, intercession of saints and the Theotokos. Here we actually begin to see views that are like those of baptists today. Waldensians were convinced that the church would lose its spiritual life if it became wealthy, privileged, and powerful in the world. Therefore, when Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the state religion in the 4th century, the Waldensians saw it as a compromise with the world and the start of the church’s downfall. Eventually, through the influence of Swiss reformer William Farel (1489–1565), the Waldensians joined the Protestant Reformation and aligned with the reformed views of Calvinism. (6). 18th century historians (Robinson) claim a denial of the Trinity was found in some of the Waldensians (15), however I could not find sufficient evidence this was a prominent sentiment with this specific group.
The Cathars were a sect in France, in Greek it means “pure ones,” they are also known as Albigensians from the town of Albi. The Cathars were also dualistic and gnostic, believing much of the same things as I explicated about with the Paulicians. They denied that Christ came in the flesh as a human, refused to use any symbol of the cross, and belived John the Baptist was an evil being sent to undermine Jesus Christ’s message through the ‘false sacrament’ of baptism. (7). Cathars aligned with the views of Arianism, which states Christ is not co-eternal and therefore created by the Father. This explicitly denies the Trinity.
The anabaptists would of course be similar to the baptist views now, with some slight differences (faith alone, salvation, communal living, etc). They started in the 16th century and are known for their doctrine that a baptism is only valid when the person freely confesses their faith. Various anabaptists including those primarily based in the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland rejected the doctrine of the Trinity altogether. This caused controversy between anabaptist groups.
Regardless, the point being we have the succession hinging upon heretics and most disparagingly, gnostics. Outright gnosticism and partial Anti-Trinitarians are half of the basis of this succession theory. Saying your succession and tradition survives in the sects of gnostics who deny the very savior of the world is utterly foolish. “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” – 1 John 2:22-23. Either you must concede that your succession doesn’t have footing or you must concede that your succession has no coherence in truth. The former and latter as evidence of these groups denying central tenets of the Christian faith. Woefully, the trail of blood is more accurately represented as the trail of heresy.
To maintain this doctrine in the face of this proof leads straight to relative truth. As we all know, truth is absolute not relative. To say “truth is relative” is an absolute statement that debunks itself. Claiming that only the parts you agreed with in these groups is proof of your succession is frankly irrational, for succession means the fullness of your faith is found traced throughout history, not just random fragments of it. If I can’t find exactly what baptists believe fully now without countless contradictions throughout history it simply means it’s not there. It leads to relative truth because now everything is up for grabs, if you say gnostic Paulicians are correct and the succession of your faith because they encouraged direct communication with God (not with intercessions) then your position must attest everything they believed was true, including heresy (that Christ didn’t come in the flesh) to maintain absolute truth. Otherwise truth becomes relative, however, Christ says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6. Paulicians who deny the one true God cannot have the truth for Christ is the truth. So the ‘Trail of Blood’ cannot have the truth if it depends upon those not within said truth.
1. William Hull, “William Heth Whitsitt: Martyrdom of a Moderate,” Distinctively Baptist: Essays on Baptist History, ed. Marc A. Jolley, John D. Pierce, pp. 237-78, p. 255, note 70.
2. James Milton Carroll, The Trail of Blood: Following the Christians Down through the Centuries: or, The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day.
3. Lawrence G. Duggan Professor of History, University of Delaware, Newark. Author of Bishop and Chapter: The Governance of the Bishopric of Speyer to 1552.
4. Eusebius, Church History (Book VII), 324-325 A.D. (Chapters 7 and 18) and once in his Commentary on Luke (see Note 6, p. 189).
5. Kanchan Gupta, Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 20, 1998.
6. Schaff, P. & Schaff, D. S. History of the Christian Church (Vol. 5).
7. Peters, Edward, ed. (1980). “The Cathars”. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 108.
8. Chapman, John. “Novatian and Novatianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 24 February 2016
9. St. Ireneaus, (Against Heresies, 3:11:9)
10. Eusebius, HE 5:16:18.
11. The Orthodox Study Bible
12. Tabbernee, William (2009), Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson
13. Placher, William C. A History of Christian Theology: Introduction. Westminster John Knox Press, 1983, p. 50.
14. F. L. Cross; E. A. Livingstone, eds. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 1264.
15. The Waldenses Were Independent Baptists – An Examination of the Doctrines of this Medieval Sect By Thomas Williamson 3131 S. Archer Avenue. Chicago, Illinois 60608.