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The Life and Times of J. R. Graves
By Milburn Cockrell
The Berea Baptist Banner, 1995

      In the 1800s, when Charles Spurgeon was stirring English Baptists with the sledgehammer blow of his mighty words, J. R. Graves was thundering his massive sermons among American Baptists. Without doubt, Graves was one of the greatest Baptists of all times. Many contemporary Baptists know little of the man who could inflict strong blows upon error and yet was one of the kindest of men. Graves today is misunderstood and misquoted. It is a favorite pastime for many professors in Baptist schools and colleges to ridicule and denounce J. R. Graves.


      James Robinson Graves was born in the early years of the nineteenth century in Chester, Vermont. On his father's side he descended from a French Huguenot family who fled to America. His mother was the granddaughter of a distinguished German physician and scholar named Schnell.

      To Zuinglius Calvin Graves and his wife was born three children. The oldest was Z. C. Graves, afterward the distinguished president of Mary Sharp College in Winchester, Tennessee. The next was a daughter, Louisa Maria, who afterward became the wife of Prof. W. P. Marks, at one time mayor of Edgefield, Tennessee. Last was James Robinson Graves who was born April 10, 1820.

      When J. R. was but three-weeks-old his father died suddenly. Although his father was a partner in a prosperous mercantile house, his unworthy partner manipulated matters so the widow and her three children were left little but a small farm of unproductive land. So we might say he grew up the hard way.

      Young Graves was converted at fifteen and baptized into the fellowship of the Baptist church of North Springfield, Vermont.

      When eighteen-years-old he began teaching. At nineteen, through the influence of his brother, he was elected principal of the Kingsville Academy, Ohio, where he remained for two years. His nightly studies after his day of teaching to stay ahead of his class impaired his health. He abandoned the school after two years to go to Kentucky, seeking a milder climate. Graves located near Nicholasville in Jessamine County and took charge of a country school called Clear Creek Academy.

      About this time he united with the Mount Freedom Baptist Church where Dr. Ryland D. [sic - T.] Dillard was pastor. Graves began to take part in the prayer meeting of the church and its Sunday school activities. The church licensed him to preach without his knowledge, but he would not enter the ministry, feeling himself wholly disqualified for so great a work.

      For four years he gave six hours to the schoolroom and eight hours to study, mastering a modern language yearly, making the Bible the man of his counsel, and Paul his instructor in theology. These years of private study and self-reliant investigation gave the peculiar character which belongs to his preaching and reasoning. Graves was a self-taught man.

      Ultimately Graves admitted he was called to the ministry, and he was ordained to the gospel ministry with Dr. Dillard as chairman of the presbytery in 1844. Pastor Dillard also preached the ordination sermon and gave counsel and caution which young Graves never forgot.

      J. R. came to Nashville, Tennessee, July 3, 1845. In a few days he rented a building and opened the Vine Street Classical and Mathematical Academy. Before long he united with the First Baptist Church. In the fall of 1845 he became pastor of the Second Baptist Church, which afterward became the Central Baptist Church, of Nashville. The following year he was elected editor of The Tennessee Baptist upon the resignation of R. B. C. Howell. This was the real beginning of his public career.

      When Graves took charge of The Tennessee Baptist it had a circulation of only 1,000. By the breaking out of the Civil War it had attained the largest circulation of any Baptist paper in the world. Perhaps no Baptist paper ever exerted a wider denominational influence than did this paper. Graves used this paper to defend Baptist principles against the Methodists whose stronghold was in Nashville where was found their great book concern. Later he used it to deal death-dealing blows to the teaching of Campbellism which was flourishing in Tennessee at that time. Alexander Campbell sought to ignore Graves as a man non-representative of the Baptist people only to discover he could not.

      About the time Graves became editor of The Tennessee Baptist formerly The Baptist, he began to advocate the position that Baptists could not consistently recognize Pedobaptist preachers as gospel ministers. At first his views were not well received, but the Big Hatchie Association, Tennessee, affirmed these truths in 1851 at Cotton Grove. Among those who agreed with him was James Madison Pendleton who lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky. At the request of Graves in 1854, Pendleton wrote an essay on the question: "Ought Baptists to recognize Pedobaotist preachers as gospel ministers?" The essay was published in The Tennessee Baptist and later in tract form. Editor Graves gave it the title: An Old Landmark Reset. The title was appropriate because there had been a time when ministerial recognition and exchange of pulpits among Baptists and Pedobaptists were unknown. This old landmark in the course of the years had fallen and needed to be reset.

      A third man who helped Graves in the Landmark movement was Amos Cooper Dayton, who became corresponding secretary of the Southern Baptist Bible Board, Nashville, Tennessee, in 1854. Through Dayton and others from 1851 to 1862 the Landmarkers were in control of the board. Dayton often contributed articles to The Tennessee Baptist. His book, Theodosia Earnest, was a Landmark classic. It sold 14,000 copies in the first six months and 18,000 in the first year. This book was published by Graves, Marks & Co., Nashville, Tennessee.

      Early in his ministerial years Graves saw the worth of the printed page to get out the truth. His company published many books for a Sunday school library. He and Dayton saw the need of Sunday school lesson materials for Southern Baptists. They hoped by such means to spread Landmarkism among the convention.

      In 1857-62 there occurred what was called "the Grave-Howell controversy." The dispute was between J. R. Graves and Robert Boyte Crawford Howell, and it was personal, doctrinal and denominational. This dispute almost split the Southern Baptist Convention.

      Howell had left Nashville in July of 1850, but he returned in July, 1857, for his second pastorate in the city. Two weeks after Howell had returned to Nashville, he introduced a resolution in the Concord Association, calling for a Southern Baptist Sunday school convention in Nashville, October 23, 1875 [sic - 1857], just prior to the Baptist General Association of Tennessee and North Alabama. When it met Dayton presented a constitution for a new organization, the Southern Baptist Sunday School Union to provide and recommend suitable Sunday school books and periodicals. After a heated discussion the organization was approved and the constitution adopted. The officers were: Dayton, president; Graves, recording secretary; and J. E. Sharpe, corresponding secretary - all Landmarkers. Of the seven managers elected two were part owners of Graves, Marks & Co., and some of the others were Landmarkers.

      Howell opposed this new union because he was against Landmarkism and a supporter of the Southern Baptist Publication Society, Charleston, South Carolina. He also believed that the union had been started to advance the private interest of Graves's publishing firm.

      The Christian Index, Georgia, January 6, 1858, printed a letter from Howell explaining his opposition to the union and its board of managers. In February Graves assailed Howell for this article. Considerable debate followed which resulted in Dayton's resignation from the Bible Board under pressure by anti-Landmarkers headed by Howell. Graves attacked the board and sought to have it abolished without success in 1859.

      It was the firm opinion of J. R. Graves that Howell was persecuting him and was determined to ruin him. On September 8, 1858, the church preferred charges against Graves, but they gave him time to think over the matter involved. The trial began October 12, and ended October 18. Graves was charged with gross immorality and unchristian conduct. He spoke at length to the motion that the charges be dropped. About midnight the church voted, 91 to 48, to proceed with the trial, whereupon Graves and twenty-three other members withdrew and declared they were the First Baptist Church, and the majority were no church but a faction. They elected Graves as pastor.

      Being warned of legal action if they continued to call themselves the First Baptist Church, they then called themselves the Spring Street Baptist Church.

      The First Baptist Church tried J. R. Graves in absentia, found him guilty and excluded him October 18, 1858. It then published its proceedings in a booklet, The Trial of J. R. Graves.

      Graves was very popular with the common Baptist people as well as some of the Baptist leaders. The General Association of Tennessee Baptists and North Alabama met at Lebanon on October 23, 1858, and by an overwhelming vote received Graves and the minority as the messengers of the First Baptist Church. The association refused to recognize Howell and his church, declaring that the church had ceased to be a church after wrongly excluding J. R. Graves.

      At the request of the Spring Street Church, forty men from twenty churches of the Concord Association, sitting as a council heard Graves's side of the matter March 1-3, 1859, with no one present from the First Church. The council voted that Graves was innocent on all counts and that the minority did right in withdrawing from the First Church who they believed had ceased to be a true church. The Spring Street Baptist Church approved the findings and had them printed in a book, Both Sides (1859). The Concord Association approved the council's findings at its July, 1859 session.

      The battle went on in the Southern Baptist Convention in local churches, in Baptist papers, and in associations with Landmarkers at the center of the dispute. By 1860 the tide went against Graves as many of his followers had no desire to help split associations, state convetions, or the Southern Baptist Convention, for they knew what the Campbellite and Hardshell movements had done to the Baptists.

      Nashville fell to the Union army February, 1862, and Graves and his family fled Nashville for Alabama, hearing that his name had been marked for a northern prison. His printing plant was destroyed by Union troops, and The Tennessee Baptist was not published again until November, 1867.

      During the war he served as a chaplain. He was present at the battle of Shiloh and with his own hands brought General Albert Sidney Johnston from the place where he fell on the field into a safe refuge.

      The First Baptist Church building in Nashville was used by Union troops for two years, and Howell was imprisoned by the military governor for two months because he would not take the oath of allegiance to the federal government. Howell retired as pastor in July, 1867, and died April 5, 1868. The Spring Street Church became the Central Baptist Church and took over the building and most of the members of the Cherry Street Church. In July, 1868, the Concord Association rescinded its actions against the First Baptist Church ten years earlier and invited it back into the association.

      Graves returned to Nashville after the war to look on the sad wreck of his home and business. Scarcely nothing was left of the publishing house or his stock of books. He sold the plant at a great loss and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he joined the First Baptist Church. In February, 1867, Graves republished The Tennessee Baptist, whose name was changed to The Baptist. Originally the paper had been called The Baptist when Howell was its editor for thirteen years. Howell had given the paper to the Baptist General Association of Tennessee in 1846. When Graves became its editor in May, 1847, he changed its name to The Tennessee Baptist. Once again the paper had its old name.

      In 1870 spiritism like wild fire swept Memphis. Graves arose to the challenge and took on Dr. Charles Foster in 1873, and Graves drove Foster from the city never to show his face again.

      In August, 1855 [sic-1884], Graves fell from a stroke of paralysis while preaching in the First Baptist Church of Memphis. He recovered from this so as to be able to hobble with a stick. Three years later he fell in his front yard and crushed his left side. This put him in an invalid's chair for the rest of his life, an experience which changed his whole disposition. The man of thunder developed a kind and sweet spirit seldom seem among men. He continued to teach the truth in what he called "chair talks." These were well attended and inspirational.

      His departure from this life came on June 26, 1893. Almost his last words were addressed to his son, W. C. Graves, when he greeted him, "O, Willie Boy, what a change, what a change!" And so ended the life of one of the greatest American Baptist preachers born of women!


      J. R. Graves was about five feet and ten inches high and weighed about 160 pounds. He always had a well-trimmed beard. He had a fine face with a well-balanced head. His black eyes penetrated his hearers. His movements in the pulpit were graceful. He was an orator of the first rank. He rarely spoke a shorter time than two to three hours, yet his hearers never seemed to mind.

      He preached to thousands all over Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, and other states. Like Spurgeon and Whitefield, he had what some call a personal magnetism. He disarmed all criticism and bent all before him to his burning thoughts and piercing voice. He could close his sentence with a gesture more expressive than words.

      J. R. Graves's greatest sermon was entitled: "The Rent Veil." It was delivered for the first time in East Baptist Church, Louisville, KY in May, 1857. S. H. Ford was the pastor, and it was during a session of the Southern Baptist Convention. Graves's voice was clear and could be heard, even when he spoke in a whisper, all over the crowded house. Among those present to hear the sermon were J. P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, and Justin Smith. J. B. Gambrell called it "The greatest sermon I ever heard." Others like S. H. Ford, Basil Manly, J. B. Jeter, R. B. C. Howell and J. L. Burrows said it was the greatest sermon ever preached in Louisville.

      Again he preached during the session of the Southern Baptist Convention which met in Waco, Texas, in 1883. It was in a Methodist church building, and Elder Graves was sick. He preached on Justification by Faith from Ephesians 2:8 for almost two hours. All over the house people wept. The atmosphere was charged with spiritual energy. All prounounced it one of the greatest sermons ever preached.

      Once in southeast Texas a young Methodist preacher heard that J. R. Graves was coming to town to speak for the Baptists. He warned his people not to go to the meeting. As the hour drew near for service, the young Methodist preacher slipped over to get a look at Graves. He entered the brush arbor and found himself right up front. The sermon of Graves was so interesting he forgot his own service for the next two hours. When the service was over he discovered most of his members were at the Baptist meeting!


      Today it is generally rumored among "Fundamental" Baptists that J. R. Graves was not a "soul winner." If they mean that he was not a Jack Hyles soul winner, then I fully agree with them. But if they mean no one was saved under his preaching, then they are wrong.

      Before Graves was thirty years of age, over 1,300 persons had made a profession of faith in his special meetings. When he came to Memphis he held a meeting which resulted in some 200 conversions and nearly all of these were added to the First Baptist Church. While his preaching was pre-eminently doctrinal he never failed to preach Christ crucified as the sinner's only hope of salvation.

      William Cathcart, editor of The Baptist Encyclopedia, was with Graves in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1849, where more than 70 persons, including the best men and women of the place, received Christ.

      At Sardis, Mississippi, where J. T. Christian was pastor, he came to preach on Saturday morning. A Methodist lady of wealth and culture came to hear him say something hateful about the Methodists so she could walk out. Graves did not get far before she thought he had said it. She started out by him, her clicking heels indicating her displeasure. Graves waved his hands toward her in a most courteous gesture and said "Please sit down lady and hear the gospel. It may be your last chance." She sat down to hear the sermon. That morning she professed faith in Christ while her eyes overflowed with tears, sayirig, "I never heard it that way before. I thank you for making me stay 'to hear the gospel.'"

      B. H. Carroll told Graves's daughter, Mrs. O. L Hailey, at the Southern Baptist Convention at Hot Springs, Arkansas: "Mrs. Hailey, you father was a great preacher and at one time the greatest Baptist evangelist known."

      Graves was a promoter of missions. He was especially interested in the evangelization of the Indians. He urged Baptists to give the gospel to the Aborigines and others.


      J. R. Graves wrote what he wanted to write forcible and readable. His paper was the most influential paper in the South mostly because of his writings in it. He wrote books, editorials, and tracts. He organized and set to work the Southern Baptist Publication Society and in 1874 turned over to that Society $130,000 in cash and bonds and good subscriptions. The house published many books, the largest single volunme ever put out was the full report of The Graves-Ditzler Debate

      He wrote the following books: The Desire of All Nations, The Watchman's Reply, The Trilemma, The First Baptist Church in America, The Little Iron Wheel, The Great Iron Wheel, The Bible Doctrine of the Middle Life, Exposition of Modern Spiritism, Old Landmarkism, What is it? and The Work of Christ in Seven Dispensations. With the assistance of J. M. Pendleton, he published The Southern Psalmist (1858). He compiled and published The New Baptist Psalmist for Churches and Sunday Schools (1873).

      He also edited and brought to the public the following books: Robinson's History of Baptism, Wall's History of Infant Baptism, Orchard's History of Foreign and English Baptists, Stewart on Baptism, and other minor works.


      As a theologian J. R. Graves seems to be a man that few care to claim. Most Southern Baptists don't care for him because of his Landmarkism. Protestants don't like him because he would not recognize them as gospel ministers. Mormons, Catholics, Campbellites and Spiritists properly consider him as their bitter enemy. Many sovereign gracers play him down because he was a Fullerite on the atonement of Christ. Strong premillennialists look unfavorably upon his church and kingdom idea. Amillennialists dislike his contention for premillennialism and dispensationalism. Others criticize him for his denial of the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ.

      I, for one, greatly revere him as a theologian. While there are some things I would not agree with him on, generally he was a great Baptist American theologian worth reading and quoting. As a defender of church truth, he had no equal or superior in his generation. His analytical mind set forth some arguments and axioms regarding the church of Jesus Christ which have stood the test of time. His church truth based upon holy Scripture has never been properly refuted by past or present generations. Graves strongly insisted upon the forms, rights, and duties of the true church, and yet he always put Christ before the church.

      J. R. Graves's views on communion changed during the course of his life. In his early ministry it was not uncommon in associational gatherings to observe communion. In 1837 a general convention in Louisville was brought to a close by a united observance of the Lord's Supper. This practice was common in Tennessee. At a meeting of the Concord Association held at Murfreesboro in 1867 it was unanimously resolved that at each session on the Lord's Day the Supper would be administered. Graves preached that year and was moderator. The succeeding year the moderator (J. R. Graves) appointed a brother to conduct the communion service, and he himself aided in its administration.

      About this time a circular letter was published in the minutes of the Illinois Association which took the position that the Lord's Supper should not in its administration extend beyond discipline (that is, beyond the membership of the local church). Much debate followed on this subject. Dr. S. P. Williams, one of the ablest men in the West, wrote a circular letter which appeared in various Baptist papers. It took the position that none but members of a church had a right to the Lord's table, as it was a church ordinance. But through courtesy members of other churches of the same faith and order might be properly invited to participate.

      Graves embraced almost entirely the views of Williams and stated them in The Tennessee Baptist. With some modifications, he affirmed this idea when he republished his paper in Memphis in 1865, saying, "The members of one church (though of the same faith and order) can come to the communion of another church only by an act of courtesy and not by right." Later he denounced the practice of intercommunion among Baptist churches, but a good many of his brethren never accepted his views.


[From Milburn Cockrell, editor, The Berea Baptist Banner, August 5, 1995. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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