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The Preaching of J. R. Graves
By O. L. Hailey, 1929

James Robinson Graves

     IT WAS IN HIS SPOKEN addresses and especially in his sermons that Dr. Graves was at his best and his power most felt.

     There is a something in some men which is called personal magnetism. Perhaps it is some unexplained force or hypnotic power not to be explained. It has been felt in the presence and under the voice of all great orators. Burke with all his splendor of diction and clearness of thought had none of it. He almost emptied the House of Commons when he addressed it; while Fox with far less ability held his audience spell-bound. Whitefield possessed it to a high degree, so did Charles Spurgeon, while the great Robert Hall, and especially John Foster, with all their magnificent imagery, possessed it in a very limited degree.

     What is this? In what does it lie? It must be in the fact that the man's thought or theme possesses him, fires him; that its recognized importance, the speaker's faith in it together with his strong desire and determination to convince others and to carry his point, rallies every mental and bodily faculty. He throws his soul into his subject, as we say - yes, and his body also. His looks are language. His eyes speak. The glow of his face and the play of his features shed light and give emphasis. Every movement, every gesture conveys meaning. He is in "dead earnest" and he acts as well as speaks what is in him.

      Dr. Graves had this power to a high degree. He was usually brim full of his subject. It kindled every latent fire within him. It suppressed or banished for the time being all fear of men and everything else, and concentrated, as a burning glass does the sun's rays, all his powers of thought, memory and imagination, on that one subject. When, as sometimes happened in conventions and even in the pulpit

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ministrations, he was not fully aroused, he failed - as he was often known to do - to the astonishment and disappointment of his expectant audience. But usually he was fully aroused, and there was an untold power that attracted, moved, convinced and carried, as on a sweeping current, all minds, all hearts, disarming criticism, removing prejudice, or bending all before him, under the witchery of that fervid flow of burning thought and piercing voice. Often at the height of some climax he would pause, seemingly for want of language, and close his sentence or paragraph with a gesture more expressive than words.

      Dr. Graves preached, by special invitation, to the theological students at the Seminary at Greenville, South Carolina, in 1874. Meeting John A. Broadus soon after, a friend asked his opinion of it. He replied: "Well, it may be termed a great sermon. Graves has what many of us lack, that which has marked all distinguished orators. It is called personal magnetism. The old rhetoricans called it ACTION. It is the intense concentration and mastery of all one's power in an extempore delivery."

      This oratorical power remained with him to the last, and in his "chair talks," for several years after he was paralyzed, he displayed it with great power."

His Greatest Sermon
      An article appeared years ago in the Texas Baptist Standard from the pen of Dr. J. B. Gambrell, entitled "The greatest sermon I ever heard." It was on the Rent Veil. That sermon, preached scores of times, was delivered for the first time in the East Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, in May, 1857. S. H. Ford was pastor. It was during the session of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville. It was on Sunday morning. There were but two Baptist churches in the city at that time. Dr. Basil Manly, Sr., preached at the Walnut Street Church and J. R. Graves at the East Church. The house was full to overflowing. Graves was in fine health. A blonde with regular features, of medium size, and graceful in form and in every movement. His voice was a clear tenor and his articulation distinct. He could be heard, even when he
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spoke in a whisper, all over that crowded house. There were many present who were familiar with his writings but had never heard him preach or seen him. Amongst them were J. P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Pharcellus Church of the New York Chronicle, and Justin A. Smith of the Chicago Standard.

      His text was "The veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom." After describing the 'Holiest of all,' the mercy seat, the high priest's yearly entry, the veil, etc., he directed the thought to the ascent of Calvary, seen from the Temple, and watched by the priests - the darkened sky, the rending rocks, the earthquake causing the Temple and veil to tremble - and then the sudden rending of the spacious veil. It was brief, graphic and touching. He went on to show that the riven veil was a visible, ocular declaration that all priestly forms and all ceremonial impediments or interventions - sacrifices and purifications - were swept away by the death of Christ. The mercy seat was laid bare. Not a church, not a saint or angel, person or preacher, priest or ordinance - absolutely no one, and nothing intervened between the contrite soul and the throne of grace - the blood-sprinkled mercy seat.

     Its effect was thrilling, lasting. One listener said, "The only time in my recollection that my hair seemed to actually rise on my head was when hearing that discourse. It was postively powerful."

      He closed with a burst of stirring eloquence. Pausing, seemingly overpowered with his emotions, or wanting words to express them, with uplifted hands and eyes exclaimed:

     "O, thou blessed mercy seat, hidden through the ages by the cloud of sin, the veil of wrath, the way to thy holy place is opened, the glory that crowns thee may be approached, and thy blessing obtained. I hear the voice of the eternal issuing from the mysterious recesses saying, 'Come unto me - not to angel or saint, or priest or preacher or church or ordinance - come unto me and be ye saved all ye ends of the earth, and, O Lamb of God, I come, I come."

     After the sermon, and while singing the closing hymn, a general movement was made towards the pulpit and nearly the whole congregation grasped the preacher's hand.

      "What do you think of that sermon?" Dr. Ford asked

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J. P. Boyce: "Oh, it was grand, I enjoyed and approved of it all. I wish he was not so extreme on some minor points."

      The following day there were gathered at Dr. Ford's home, Basil Manly, Sr., J. B. Jeter, R. B. C. Howell, Pharcellus Church, of the New York Chronicle, William Crowell, of the Western Watchman, J. L. Burrows, of Richmond, Virginia, with several others, at a special dinner, J. R. Graves was amongst them. His sermon was spoken of aloud, one of these at the table saying: "It is said to have been the greatest sermon ever preached in this city."

     That pulpit power of which we have spoken remained with him through life and his discourses are remembered and we may say felt today by hundreds if not thousands all through the Southwest.

His Sermon at the Waco Convention
     In 1883, the Southern Baptist Convention met at Waco, Texas. It was very largely attended. The introductory sermon was by Dr. J. A. Broadus, said to have been the best he ever preached. Its aim was to answer three questions in regard to the Bible. It was by special request published in The Christian Repository, from a full shorthand report. Graves, sat fronting the pulpit. It could be seen by his expression that he was delighted with it. During the Convention the house was crowded, while scores had to remain in the basement or outdoors. There was preaching morning and afternoon at the neighboring Methodist house of worship. But it only partly relieved the pressure.

      On Saturday afternoon a marked change occurred. Of it we let R. K. Maiden, at present one of the editors of The Word and Way - a man of sound judgment and not given to fulsome eulogy, speak. It appeared in his journal:

      "Reading the article from Dr. Gambrell on 'the greatest sermon I ever heard,' reminds us of the greatest we ever heard and encourages us to speak of it. It was preached by the same man - Dr. J. R. Graves. It was in the Methodist Church in Waco, Texas, in 1883, during the session of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Graves was sick - not able to leave his hotel and bed much of the time. There was a

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large attendance of delegates and visitors. The First Baptist Church where the Convention was held would not hold the people. Overflow meetings were held. It was the second day of the Convention; the people were pushing and crowding for even standing room. No more could get in and the room was too crowded for comfort or business. Some one announced that Dr. Graves would preach at the Methodist church in fifteen minutes. A complete stampede ensued. The writer made an effort to gain the front door and street. It seemed to him that everybody in the house was trying to do the same thing at the same time. Once in the street we found ourselves a part of swiftly moving throngs of men and women. No regard was had for sidewalks. Men and women threw themselves into the middle of the street and rushed forward. Some literally ran. We were among the first, being young and swift-footed, to get in and get a seat. In an amazingly short time the house was filled. Dr. Graves came in from his sick bed looking the sick man he was. He read from Romans, and made 'Justification by Faith' his theme. He preached almost two hours. The like of that sermon we have never heard. For awhile the style was deliberate and didactic. Gradually he took fire. There was majestic logic, fervid eloquence, spiritual unction, and pathos that was sublime and overwhelming. The congregation was swayed like the ripening wheat before the wind. All over the house the people wept. Hot tears chased each other down the wrinkled and bronzed faces of old men. Such a surging, intense, seraphic feeling, we have never before or since seen, possess a multitude of people. The atmosphere was charged with a spiritual energy that could be as easily felt as a shock from an electric battery."

     The sermon was on the text, "By grace are ye saved through faith."

      But here is another interesting account of that discourse. It is from the pen of Dr. J. B. Searcy, and brings out in a single graphic way the theology, as well as the preaching power of Graves:

      "I have for years intended to write something about the sermon to which Brother Maiden refers that ought not to perish; and the editor of The Arkansas Evangel is the only

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Baptist in the world that knows these things. So we will explain. We were present at the meeting at Waco in 1883, and were at the desk reporting the proceedings of the Convention for our paper, The Arkansas Evangel. We were the guest of Dr. Mackey, the pastor of the Methodist Church. Our room was in his study in the basement of his church, but we went to his residence, only a few steps away, for our meals. We remember well how thronged Dr. Carrol's church was, and how he announced that there would be preaching in a few minutes at the Methodist church by a distinguished brother. Somebody asked who he was. Dr. Carroll replied, "Go and see." Somebody said, "It's Dr. Graves."

      There was a stampede and business had to suspend for some minutes. The president said he hoped the delegates would remain and attend to the business. After order was restored the business was resumed, and we stayed at our post and took notes.

      When the Convention adjourned for dinner, we went to our room in the basement of the Methodist church and Dr. Graves had not concluded his sermon. Soon he closed, and the singing and expression that we could hear impressed us that they were having a great meeting. We tarried till the audience dispersed, then we went to Dr. Mackey's residence. When we stepped on the porch we heard low talking in the parlor. We were introduced to two or three Methodist preachers by our host. We were seated and everything seemed solemn and quiet. The faces of the preachers showed that they had been weeping. Dr. Mackey broke the silence by saying: "Dr. Searcy, I have had a very strange experience today. When I went to church today and found Dr. Graves in my pulpit I thought of all the hard things he had said of Methodists in The Iron Wheel and in his paper. I felt outraged. I felt like remonstrating then and there against his using my pulpit, or occupying my church." He paused for a moment, and then said: "I am so glad I did not act so foolish." Then we said, "What of the sermon?" He said: "That was what we were talking about when you came in. It was one of the best gospel sermons I ever heard. We all agreed" - referring to himself and the preachers in his parlor - "that we never before saw the grace of God put in such

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clear light as he put it." Then he proceeded to say: "Dr. Graves has been one of the worst misunderstood men of our day. Thousands have believed that he is nothing but a religious pugilist, and that he knows nothing about spiritual religion, but I am sure he is one of the most Godly men, and I believe in one hundred years from today J. R. Graves will be quoted by the different denominations as the champion of salvation by grace and spiritual religion." The other preachers gave their assent to what Dr. Mackey said. We felt then, and have felt since, that this was the greatest sermon we ever failed to hear."

      Dr. Ford says: "The champion of salvation by grace and spiritual religion!" Yes; and the editor of this magazine, after seven years' religious intercourse with him in the city of Memphis - with him in health and prosperity, and in the hours of his deepest affliction, can bear testimony to the truth of that Methodist preacher's estimate of him and thousands still living can do the same." on."

      Mrs. O. L. Hailey, daughter of J. R. Graves, says: "While attending the Southern Baptist Convention at Hot Springs, Arkansas, I met and was introduced to Dr. B. H. Carroll in the lobby of the hotel. He looked at me most earnestly and said: 'Mrs. Hailey, your father was a great preacher and at one time the greatest Baptist evangelist known. He not only made his audiences understand what he said but he could make them see it. Let me tell you what I witnessed one time. He was preaching to a great audience on one occasion and he spoke of the blood of the martyrs. He began by picturing the blood that dripped from the thorn-crowned brow of Christ as he hung there on the cross; of the blood that flowed upon the ground from his pierced side. It trickled on till met by the blood of James, of Stephen, of Paul, ever widening as it flowed on through the ages - mentioned the names of the great men who had given their life and blood for their faith in Christ. He made it so vivid that the audience craned their necks and looked over to the aisle where it seemed to flow and I actually saw a lady draw aside her skirts as though it was real.' Then he bowed and passed on."

      Once at Sardis, Mississippi, when Dr. John T. Christian

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was pastor, Dr. Graves was to be with him. He arrived for the Saturday morning service. The house had a door on each side of the pulpit, but no other door. Among those to be attracted to the meeting by Dr. Graves' reputation was a fine Methodist lady of wealth and culture. She had great pride in her church and expected Dr. Graves to say "something hateful about the Methodists," and when he did, she was going to walk out.

     Dr. Graves did not get far before she thought "he had said it." So, she lifted her proud chin and started out by him, her clicking heels indicating her just displeasure.

     As she drew near, Dr. Graves waving his hand towards her in a most courteous gesture, said, "Please sit down lady and hear the gospel. It may be your last chance." Being thus made more conspicuous than she had expected, she dropped upon a seat near him. He had his challenge. Here was a soul to rescue. He was God's Ambassador. Dr. Christian said he never heard such a sermon even from Dr. Graves.

     The lady melted under the spell of that appeal and at the close of the sermon gave the preacher her hand, while her eyes overflowed with tears, saying, "I never heard it that way before. I thank you for making me stay 'to hear the gospel.'"

      Dr. Graves was a peculiarly sensitive man. His delicate sensibilities almost writhed under the sharp criticisms of his brethren. He would often exclaim with every mark and tone of pain, where his brethren misunderstood him and severely criticised him:

     "Oh, I could hear it from the others whose systems I oppose, but to have my own brethren misjudge me and say hard things about me is almost more than I can bear."

     He had such high regard for other men, as immortal souls whom God had made in his own image, that he instinctively stood before them in deep reverence which approached almost awe. Hence he felt, in their presence almost a sense of fear. Perhaps all truly great orators have felt, and do feel that reverence for the human soul, the majestic personality of immortal beings.

      So Dr. Graves shrank before the multitude until his soul came under the conscious domination of the divine

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personality. Then he mounted in his flight till like an eagle breasting the storm, he rose above the clouds and lost all semblance of fear. He exulted in the command of all his powers and by his sustained ability he became the admiration of all who beheld or heard.

     He was equally at home in the city or before the rural throngs that hung upon his words. Time lost its measure. Men "took no note of time," not even from its loss. For two and three hours they would hang upon his words. And his reserve powers were apparently exhaustless. In the mighty sweep of his eloquence, he would mention with candor so many relevant things that his hearers felt there was no limit to the great things he could tell. And his exhiliration was so great that he seemed tireless. So when he would assay to close, clamors rang out from many parts of his audience, "Go on! Go on!" The writer has seen that and heard it on many occasions.

      Some remarkable things have been reported. One man started to leave the house because he did not agree with what Dr. Graves said. As he started to pass out of the door he laid his hand on the door facing, as Dr. Graves said "There is one more thing I wish to say." The man, with his hand on the door, turned his head to hear that "one more thing," and when Dr. Graves closed his sermon two hours later, the man was still standing at the door, with his hand on the door facing.

      In the country, when the church could admit no more, a man standing on the sill, and placing his fingers in a crack of the house looked through a small opening "just to see how the man looked." Two hours later, he was standing so, having held his position, oblivious to all else, except that marvelous speaker and his message. A great many such examples have been reported. The hearers who have furnished such examples were from all ranks of men.

     Another incident of Dr. Graves' remarkable power is related in the following by his grandson, Robert W. Hailey.

      "While I was assisting in an evangelistic meeting at Grapeland, Texas, some few years ago, at the close of the service, an old grey-haired man came up and after introducing himself to me, related this story from his early life:

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"'When I was a young man and just beginning my ministry as a Methodist preacher here in Southeast Texas, your grandfather, Dr. J. R. Graves, made one of his Southern tours. It was announced that he was coming to our little town, where I was then pastor, and would speak the following Sunday for the Baptists. As a Methodist, I was naturally bitterly opposed to him, and gave out the announcement that our church would not let out for this occasion, but would have our regular services and for none of our people to go to hear him. I especially steeled myself from having anything to do with him or the service. On the Sunday he was to speak, I gave our sexton special orders to ring the bell earlier and longer than usual, so as to notify our people of our intended service. As the hour drew near for the service, my curiosity got the best of me, and J told the sexton and I was going to step over and get a look at this Dr. Graves as I wished to see what he looked like. Giving him final orders to "ring the bell at the time for our service." I went over. The service was held under a brush arbor. I wedged my way through the throng that had already gathered, and the next thing I knew I found myself right up in front with one foot propped up on the steps leading to the platform, face lifted to that of the speaker and so intensely interested in him and his message that I had forgotten all about my own service and sense of time. There I had been for almost two hours. The sexton told me that he had rung the bell as I had ordered and a few of my members had come to the service, and after waiting a little while, had, like myself, gone over to see what Dr. J. R. Graves looked like.'"

How Dr. J. R. Graves Impressed S. E. Jones
      "I was once prejudiced against Dr. J. R. Graves, but when I saw and heard him addressing graduates of Carson College, at its last commencement, I could but admire and love the man in my very heart. He impressed me as a man of gigantic intellect, abounding culture, as a logician and theologian of the first magnitude. As he learnedly and eloquently descanted upon determining loyalty to eternal truth an principle, crowned the subject with the glories of the eternities to
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come, I could but say in my heart, God bless Dr. Graves.

      "More was I impressed with the high soul of the man when, with significant gestures, opening the portals of Paradise, with vision raptured of Messiah's dominions, he exclaimed, 'As soon as I cease to be useful I wish that very moment to go to my reward!' I said to myself: So imbued with the Spirit the grandeur and sublimity of lofty principle emanating from God, and enfolding and expanding the energies of the men for the enjoyment of the blissful revelations beyond the skies. I have never so much before appreciated the dignity of human life, the sublimity of dying, and the unutterable blessedness of heavenly immortality. I love Brother Graves because of his loyalty to Baptists and the truth through these many years. 'He has never yet lowered his arm in battle' for God and holy principle. He fearlessly, boldly, grandly, triumphantly, has borne our standard - the New Testament - to the very walls of the enemy of truth and righteousness; nay, more, planted it victoriously on the walls and battlements, while the cry of people has risen in the voice of thousands, and the King recognized on his holy hill in Zion. East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, West Tennessee, United States, the world under God, owes J. R. Graves, of Memphis, a debt of gratitude. Baptists ought to despise that low, mean and unpardonable spirit which, in common with the flesh and devil, casts out as evil and traduces the name of our recognized denominational champions and leaders. God has raised up these master spirits in the earth to give knowledge to his people a glory to his holy name. They are worthy of double honor. We thank God for their good sense commanding dignity and Christian propriety.

      "Like birds of lofty soaring they disdain even to glance at the meaner tribe (except it be with mingled pity and contempt) which are not venturing on wings so bold, but continually CAW, CAW, a miserable monotonous grating of calumny and vituperation. How foolish for a minnow to spout around pettishly and madly in a stream, because he can't be a whale swimming in the hugeness of his strength in the mighty ocean.

      "The names of Carey and Judson, Milton and Bunyan,

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Hall and Fuller, Hackett and Conant, Searcy and Wayland, Williams and Wilmarth, Jeter and Broadus, and Boyce, Graves and Spurgeon, will live imperishable in the hearts of all Baptists, generations to come. Posterity will rise up and call them blessed for their sacred heritage of thought and quill. On the blessed shore we hope to hail them wreathed and mantled with the amaranthine immortality - the ambassador jewels of their Savior's crown."      (Signed) S. E. Jones

[From O. L. Hailey, J. R. Graves - Life, Times and Teachings, 1929, Chapter V. The title is changed; the original is "His Preaching." - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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