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Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves
By Samuel H. Ford, 1900
Chapter 5
     It was in his spoken addresses and especially in his sermons that Graves was at his best and his power most felt.

     There is 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 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 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 power? In what does it lie? It must be in the fact that the man's thought or theme possesses him, fires him; that its felt importance, his faith in it together with his strong desire and determination to convince 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 voices what is in him.

     Graves had this power to a high degree. He was usually brim full of subject. It kindled every latent fire within him. It suppressed for the time being everything else, and concentrated, as a burning-glass 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, he was not fully aroused, he failed -- as we have often known him to do -- to the astonishment and disappointment of his excellent audience. But usually he was full aroused, 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 to that fevered flow of burning thought and piercing voice. Often at the height of some climax he would pause, seemingly for language, and close his sentence or paragraph with a gesture more expressive than words.

     Graves preached, by special invitation, to the theological students at the Seminary at Greenville, S. C. in 1874. Meeting John A. Broadus soon after, I 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 rhetoricians called it ACTION. It is the intense concentration and mastery of all one's powers 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 effect.


     An article appeared some months since 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 church of which the writer was pastor, in May, 1857. It was It was during the session of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville, Ky. It was on Sunday morning. There were but two Baptist churches in the city at the time. Dr. Bazel [sic] Manly, Sen., preached at the Walnut street and J. R. Graves at the East church. The house was full to overflowing. Graves was in fine health. A blond, with regular features, of medium size, and graceful form in every movement. His voice was a clear tenor and his articulation distinct. He could be heard, even when he 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, Phancellus 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 ascent [the] 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. No notes were taken by the writer; but its effect was lasting. The only time in his recollection that his hair seemed to actually rise on his head was when hearing that discourse. It was positively powerful.

     He closed with a burst of stirring eloquence. Pausing, seemingly overpowered with his emotions, or wanting words to express them, with uplifted hand and eyes he 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 thy 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," I asked 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." I remember those words distinctly.

     The following day, there were gathered at the home of the writer Bazil Manly, Sen., 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, Va., with several others, at a special dinner, J. R, Graves was amongst them. His sermon was spoken of aloud, one of those at the table saying: "It is said to have been the greatest sermon ever preached in this city."


     But the conversation was mainly in regard to the establishment of a school for young ministers. It was, for the first time, introduced and discussed at the meeting of the convention. J. P. Boyce was its enthusiastic champion. He was there in the vigor of his young manhood. His zeal and his liberality were backed by his wealth. There was one outspoken objector to the establishment of the Seminary -- W. C. Buck, formerly editor of the Banner and Pioneer of Louisville, but at the time of that meeting pastor at Columbus, Miss. He opposed the whole plan, with arguments and sarcasm. Jeter and Manly and Graves too, advocated its establishment. He was its life-long friend, as his liberal contributions to its endowment show. But to return to his sermons. That pulpit power of which we have spoken remained with him through life and his discourses are remembered and we may say felt to-day by hundreds if not thousands all through the Southwest.


     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 this magazine 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. L. Maiden, at present one of the editors of the Word and Way -- a man of sound judgment and not given to eulogy, speak. It appeared last July 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 -- 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 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 men ands women. No regard was had for sidewalks. Men and women threw themselves in 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 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 a while the style was deliberate and didactic. Gradually he took fire. There was majestic logic, fervid eloquence, spiritual unction, and a 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 by faith." We did not hear it, though we accompanied a young physician, our own son, to the door, who had some prejudice to the preacher, and who told us he was greatly blessed, under the sermon.

     But here is an interesting account of that discourse. It is from the pen of Dr. Searcy, of Mississippi, and brings out in a simple 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 Bro. Brown refers that ought not to perish; and the editor of The Baptist is the only 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. Carroll'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 be 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 staid [sic] 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 expressions 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. Dr. Mackey heard us, and invited us to come 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 to-day. When I went to-day, 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?" Then 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 clear light as he put it." Then he proceeded to say, "Dr. Graves has been one of the worst understood 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 one hundred years from to-day 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.

     "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.


[From Ford's Christian Repository and Home Circle, February, 1900, pages 100-105. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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