J.M. Carroll: The Trail of Blood (Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, Lexington, KY)
This booklet of 55 pages is famous. It has practically given its name to the whole Baptist Successionist dogma, and is referred to by just about everyone in that context. But how good is this booklet? Frankly, I was disappointed. There is no detail at all given of the supposed 'ancient Baptist groups', they are assumed, not proven - and yet no reputable historian today would agree with this. In fact, outside of a very small group of fundamentalist Baptists, no-one today would agree with the Successionists - and that includes many, many Evangelical Christians, even the Baptist writer N.R. Needham. Successionists like Carroll rely on a highly speculative historiography that is based in particular on works written before the 1890s.
Carroll's work contains no original research - and avowedly so, it is after all a record of a course of popular lectures, not an historical work. Yet even so, the work is lacking in details of the 'ancient Baptist groups'. In fact he has assumed that practically every heretical group from the early Church through the Middle Ages rejected infant Baptist, and that these groups were connected. So on P. 19 we read of "'Montanist,' 'Tertullianists', 'Novationists', 'Paterines,' etc." Now these are three different groups (no-one today thinks that a group called 'Tertullianists' ever existed). The Montanists were a charismatic group that taught the continuance of prophetic gifts, all centred on Montanus, their founder, who was regarded as a prophet. The Novatian Schism, on the other hand, was over the question of church discipline - Novation refused to re-admit those guilty of 'Mortal Sin' to the Church on profession of repentance. Both of these groups may have re-baptized, but that would have been because they did not recognise 'Catholic' baptism as valid! 'Paterines' is another name for the Medieval Bogomil movement. They were dualists of a sort, who believed that Jesus was the brother of Satan, and whose'baptism' was being patted on the head with a copy of John's Gospel! Thus each of the three groups mentioned here that actually existed were very different theologically.
More seriously, Carroll's understanding of the history of the Church is rather sketchy at times. He writes: "The fourth [ecumenical council] met at Chalcedon, AD 451, and was called by Emperor Marian; 500 or 600 bishops or Metropolitans... were present. During this council the doctrine of what is now known as Mariolatry was promulgated. This means the worship of Mary, the mother of Christ" (P. 21). In fact Chalcedon was called to correct mistaken view of the person of Christ, and the title 'Theotokos' applied to Mary was Christological in intent - to emphasise that the one born of Mary was indeed God. Only later was the Chalcedonian declaration used to glorify Mary herself (see K.S. Latourette, A History of Christianity [London, Eyre and Spottiswoode Ltd., 1964] 171-2 and Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies [Peabody, Mass., Hendrickson, 2003] 172-3). Harold O.J. Brown writes: "The term theotokos originally was intended to affirm the deity of Christ, but it gradually came to be a title of honour for Mary." Mariolatry was not imposed at Chalcedon - it arose as a corruption in popular piety.
On P. 23 we have another catalgue of names by which 'True Baptist Churches' were called: "Donatists, Paterines, Cathari, Paulicians... Petro-Brussians, Arnoldists, Henricians, Albigenses, and Waldenses." Who were these groups? The last was indeed an orthodox evangelical group - but today is rather inconveniently paedobaptist! The Donatists, like the Novatians, rejected all Catholic Baptism, but were not necessarily anti-paedobaptist! They could also be quite violent against Catholics. Paterines, Paulicians, Cathari and Albigenses are all names given to Medieval dualist groups. The Petrobrussians were the followers of Peter of Bruys, an ascetic who burned crosses and opposed the Catholic Church. He was, however, the originator of his party, not a member of an existing group. The Petrobrussians did not last long after Peter's death - unsurprisingly, really. The Arnoldists and Henricians were similar groups, also about the same time. All of these thrived in the 12th century, but they all have the same problem - they do not emerge from existing groups, but begin with a charismatic, ascetic leader. They were reactions against the corruptions of the Catholic hierarchy, and certainly de Bruys and his followers rejected infant baptism. It seems, however, that Henry of Lausanne, founder of the Henricians, and Arnold of Bresica, did not. Henry did however reject all sacraments administered by corrupt priests as invalid - so that he would re-baptize his followers if he had any doubt about their baptisms!
Waldensianism seems to have begun a little later, as a lay-renewal movement in the Catholic Church. Originally it was accepted, but in 1179 the 3rd Lateran Council refused to authorise them, and they were excommunicated in 1184, after which they merged with an Italian group called the Humiliati, who had broadly similar aims. Unlike the Petrobrussians they were not violent, and unlike the Arnoldists they did not ally themselves with political dissidents. As a result they remain in existence to this day. They sought to follow the New Testament. Although at first they tried to remain within the Medieval Catholic Church, they were finally forced into a separate existence. Persecution finally restricted them to the valleys of the Italian Alps, where they remained until the Reformation. Since at least some of them held, with the Henricians, that sacraments administered by corrupt priests were invalid, many joining the movement were re-baptized. The Waldensians themselves did not oppose infant baptism if performed by godly clergy.
Baptist successionism relies on the idea of an unbroken 'trail of blood' through the centuries. The book The Trail of Blood fails to establish such a trail - and indeed Carroll admits that he is assuming, against the evidence, that these groups were all orthodox!
On Pp. 32-33 we read, "During all these hard struggles for Reformation, continuous and valuable aid was given to the reformers, by many Ana-Baptists, or whatever other name they bore. Hoping for some relief from their own bitter lot, they came out of their hiding places and fought bravely with the reformers." This makes for good rhetoric, but is unfortunately untrue - I have been unable to discover references to any pre-existing baptistic groups who joined with the Reformers. All of the Reformation-era Anabaptist leaders, Balthasar Hubmaier, Conrad Grebel, Hans Denck, Menno Simons, were former Catholics. Hubmaier and Simons were both former priests, and they were by no means alone among Anabaptist leaders in being so. Grebel and Denck were both humanist reformers who rejected infant baptism. It is a fact that not one Reformation-era Anabaptist leader was from a pre-existing group, or gained his views from one.
In short, Baptist successionism is a speculative dogma, not a proveable historical fact. It is therefore something that should not be stated as such, and certainly cannot be the basis of any doctrine of the Church, any more than the dogma of Apostolic succession.