Baptist History Homepage

Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves
By Samuel H. Ford, 1900
Chapter 6
      That this remarkable man, who exerted an influence upon the religious public mind all over these States -- an influence still felt -- was a perfect character, or that he even approximated the faultless man -- those who knew him, and those who cherish his memory, have never intimated. He had his weaknesses, many of them, some of these were known and felt by him, and with manly effort he tried strengthen them, as a commander would the vulnerable places in the fortifications of a constantly besieged city. Life is rarely, or in few men, if in any, an harmonious whole. The diapason of heavenly melody in thought, or words and acts, is found in no fallen man. In Jesus alone that music was attuned to perfect harmony.

      Paul, aroused to resentment, exclaimed to the high priest who ordered him to be buffeted: "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall," and then apologized for the scathing words. Peter weakened before a flippant girl who charged him with being a follower of Christ. He denied it and afterwards dissembled in withdrawing from the Gentile brethren in the presence of the Judaizing disciples. It is the bold, impetuous man, of fearlessness and of prompt action, who loses the power of self-government and trespasses against others.


      In 1857 Dr. Howell, who had spent several years in Richmond, Va., returned to his old pastorate in Nashville, but the situation was very much changed since he left. At that time he was THE leader of the Baptists of Tennessee and the surrounding States. Graves was then a young man and was guided considerably by Howell. Now Graves was the acknowledged champion of the churches throughout the Southwest and his influence and power were felt through the whole country.

      In addition to this he championed the view, and the practice, advocated by J. M. Pendleton -- non-intercourse with "alien ministers." Pulpit affiliation or "pulpit communion" as he called it, was assailed with tongue and type, with powerful, logical, and often reckless blows. He indulged in fierce personal attacks on those who stood prominent, and who invited bitters foes of Baptists principles into their pulpits.

      The first of those whom he personally attacked with the secretary of "The Southern Baptist Publication Society," Charleston, S. C. Mr. Tustin was very liberal if not loose in his views, and very ready to express them. Graves exposed and attacked him in the Tennessee Baptist. The effect was that Tustin had to give up his position. He went North, and finally became an Episcopalian.

      Graves was charged with pecuniary motives in this. He had established an independent publication house in Nashville under the name of Graves, Marks & Co. The Southern Baptist Publication Society was a rival. Was this the reason of his attacks upon it? But the final course of Tustin and the wreck of the Society went far to prove that it was Graves love for Baptist principles that prompted his course.

      Other persons of prominence came under his censure, including Dr. Fuller, of Baltimore, whose pulpit manner he severely criticised[sic]; Duncan of New Orleans, on whose translation of a German author, he made animadversions, very personal; Everts, of Louisville, whom he intimated was trying to unite the Baptist and Campbellites by a compromise of principles; and several others, not excepting Howell himself, were attacked. Howell, on his return to Nashville, evidently determined to check the spread of "Landmarkism." He opposed Graves. He boldly invited men who had attacked himself and Graves, and with them, also Baptists and their principles, into his pulpit. Graves demurred, coldness, antagonism, serious difficulties followed.


      After careful consideration and counsel amongst the prominent members of the First Church, Nashville, it was decided to arraign Graves before the church on charges of slander. The names already mentioned were the expected witnesses, and their statements were sought and forwarded. Instead of accusing Graves of slander, Fuller acknowledged that he was right in his criticisms, and that he fully deserved them. The others were used as witnesses against him, and it was supposed that a case was made out.

      Graves had many strong friends in the church. Among these was A. C. Dayton, the author, and Shackelford. Twenty of these on the advice of Dayton, seeing that the disposition of the case was already decided, and that Graves would be excluded, entered a demurrer; declared that the majority were acting contrary to scriptural precept as laid down in Matthew; announced themselves, that is, the minority, to be the church,, and virtually excluded the majority. This action was at once published, with the reasons for it. The majority was denominated "Howell's Society." But the church proper went on with the trial and Graves first and then all the minority were expelled. Thunder and lightning! How the news flashed along the wires, was published in all papers, was denounced by Graves' friends, was dwelt upon with glow of joy by the Methodist journals. "Graves had come to his deserved end -- expelled, disgraced, his power broken, his influence gone.

      But wait! While the course of the minority, and especially of Graves, in not squarely standing the trial to the end, was blamed by nearly all well-informed Baptists, and Graves and Dayton were soon made to see their mistake in this and a different, scriptural and rational course was taken. The minority formed themselves into a new church. They called a very large independent council which after several days of investigation acknowledged them as an independent scriptural church of the Baptist faith and order. The association and the general associates [association?] to which both churches belonged, ratified this action. The First Church withdrew from these bodies, and the new church remains to this day.

      And then came a general discussion in the papers, in pamphlets, in books, of the finality of the act of a church in expelling a member. Must not every church, in fellowship with the one which expels, respect and abide by its action; or is every church so distinct and independent that it can receive into fellowship any one deemed fit, without regard to the action of any other church? In other words, shall one church decide for, or control the action of every other church? Public opinion among Baptists, generally settled down on the principle, expressed in a circular of the Long Run Association at Louisville, Ky., that though proper regard should be paid to the action of a church excluding a member, yet if on a fair investigation, it had concluded that the expelled member can be fellowshipped by the church to which he applies, the church has the right to receive him. The right of one independent church to expel without appeal, proves the right of another church to receive without appeal. The circular was quoted in nearly all the denominational journals with approval, and adopted by several associations. It may be said that this is now the doctrine of Baptist churches generally.1


      Dr. Howell had been for six years the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His influence was great and now that his course was condemned by the friends of Graves, would not that course be indorsed by a re-election to the presidency of the convention?

      In addition to this, it was supposed that the Foreign Mission Board at Richmond pursued a course in the examination of missionaries, which amounted to a reordination -- that in fact the Board assumed ecclesiastical authority. Graves published these rumors and condemned the supposed assumption of the Board. He and those who thought with him seemed ready to secede from the convention and form a new one.

      Well, the convention did elect, by a small majority, Howell. But he rose with dignity and pathos and declined the honor for the sake of peace. Richard Fuller was then unanimously elected. And then came the question of the Board's objectionable methods. Poindexter, that prince of platform speakers, explained, defended, and to some extent apologized for the Board's course and methods. He spoke an hour with telling effect. Graves rose, not to reply, but to thank him for his lucid and frank statement. All fear of division was removed, and from that day to his death, he remained the ardent, outspoken friend of the convention. He displayed another weak place in his strong character by accepting exaggerated rumors without investigation. He repaired it by his warm advocacy and aid ever after.


      Soon followed a painful and disastrous experience. State after State throughout the South had seceded. Hopes, unclouded, of success, and of an established Southern Confederacy, were indulged by nearly all Southerners. Graves took no part in the political and sectional excitement. He at once published a cheap edition of New Testaments and formed a society to distribute them among the Southern soldiers. But the steady advance of the Federal army made Nashville untenable, and from his quiet and beautiful home in Edgefield on the north side of the Cumberland river, in which the writer had spent many a pleasant hour with him and his lovely family, he felt it his duty to depart, leaving it in the care of his sister, Mrs. Marks, and his venerable mother. Of this sad occasion, which seemed to have wrecked all his toils of years, all his plans, all his earthly hopes and prospects, his own words will convey some idea. His bitter enemies might accuse him and have him arrested. As the Union army was approaching Nashville he received, as he said, "the last staggering blow."

"I packed up, as was necessary, obedient to orders, and hastened to cross the river before the bridge should be destroyed. Reaching the city side in safety, with a hearty thanksgiving to God, I turned to take a last look of a pleasant home, and without visiting my office, bade farewell forever, as I then supposed, to all I possessed on earth, the hard labors of a fourth of a century. And cheerfully did I lay the sacrifice upon the altar of principle. As there was no passage allowed for citizens upon the cars I turned my course towards Huntsville in the face of a driving rain, over roads cut up by military wagons, and in places almost impassable -- a long and dreary journey; arriving there, I secured seats in the cars, and rested not until I found asylum for my homeless babes under the roof of my wife's father, within one hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico. This is the brief history of my evacuation of Nashville, hasty because I had been forewarned that my name had been marked for a Northern prison.

"Five years have passed, years of painful solicitude, hardships, privations, and labor, years that have stamped age deep on heart and form, and almost effected the treasures of memory, and I returned to look upon the sad wreck of property and business. Scarce anything was left of the entire stock of books and type of the publishing-house. What had not been carried off was destroyed, and the house itself and the residence of one of the partners had been sold for a paltry sum due a Northern creditor. No alternative was left, but to sell property at heavy sacrifice and pay off indebtedness, and give up all thoughts of business until Providence should provide means for its re-establishment."

      He declared that he had not favored succession but "a steadfast vindication of their constitutional right by the Southern States in the Union. Had that course been pursued there would have been no bloodshed."

      Continuing, he wrote:

"And now the bond of the union of all the followers of Christ in heart, in sympathy, and in act, the union of alienated brethren, the union of disrupted families, the union of disorganized and distracted churches. If any look to me to foster and fan the full spirit of hate and revenge that rankles in the breasts and burns upon the tongues of some of our brethren, they will be disappointed. It is easy to hate our enemies and speak evil and bitter things of those who have injured us, but it is not the spirit of the meek Jesus; it is not an evidence of a renewed or sanctified heart. It is the spirit of the children of this world, and we expect it of them. Think of it. The Christian Jew in the days of the apostles could sit down at the communion table with the converted Roman soldier whose sword had drunk the blood of his kindred and aided in the destruction of his city and nation, and even with the converted Jew, who fought during the whole war under the eagles of Titus! Yet as Christians they were one at the foot of the cross; in their Christian fellowship they recognized no political tests. Shall we not seek to imitate their heavenly example? I know that I have a right to my political opinions, so they do not conflict with the teachings of Christ; and has not my brother and my neighbor an equal right to his? What can we effect by fomenting feelings of hatred and malignity, but to sow the noxious seeds in the breasts of our offspring, that will and must inevitably fruit in another harvest of blood and desolation? As Christians, do we desire to repeat the scenes of the past four years in each succeeding generation? Are we so earthly as to desire that our sons may find graves upon future battlefields, and devote our daughters to widowhood and sorrow? Forbid it, gracious God!

"The terrible shock of arms is past, and the desolating impress of war is upon all our fair fields and once pleasant homes. The Union in name only has been preserved, but alas! 10,000 brotherhoods are dissevered, 10,000 ties of friendship dissolved, neighbors and brethren who once loved, alienated, and churches of Christ in many places distracted and divided. I return to my old position at the urgent request of my brethren, to aid in the recovery of what has been lost, and in the promotion of that unity which is of the Spirit, and that binds in the sweet bonds of peace.

"I return not to discuss or agitate questions of political concernment. I would have the spirit of a pure Christianity breathe through every column of this paper. From worldly politics I am convinced we as Christians have nothing to hope, their progress has been and will continue to be from bad to worse.

"But let us foster the heavenly spirit of forbearance and forgiveness, that the generations to come may unite as one people, whose aim shall be, unlike the men of this, to do each other good. Nor will old personalities be revived by me. I say to every brother from whom I have differed or whom I may have wronged, let us bury all the past at the foot of the Cross, and let past animosities be changed to love by the wondrous alchemy, that blood which cleanseth all sins, and henceforth let our ambition be to do most for Christ.

"There is a great work to be done, error has not been asleep or idle the past five years, but has gathered strength immensely. The enemies of our churches and of Christianity were never so strong or so bold. Catholicism, Roman and Episcopal, the old and the new, are coming in upon our land like a flood; and shall we not, in the spirit of our Lord, 'lift up a banner against it?' Does not God call upon His people to do this? What means the prophetic word, 'And they shall serve God from the West, and when the enemy cometh on like a flood, the lord shall lift up a standard against him,' unless it be that God will preserve to Himself a people in the West to antagonize the opposers of the truth by His divine word?"

      The Foregoing extracts are from the first issue of his paper, called the Baptist (leaving off the Tennessee) on his return and location in Memphis. They show his spirit -- matured, chastened, humbled, conciliatory, but steadfast as the compass ever pointing to the pole star -- steadfast to Christ and His teachings.

      Those years of exile and isolation, of anxiety and inactivity, were not spent in vain. There was a church there of which J. F. Cook, former president of New Liberty College, Kentucky, and for so many years the successful and honored president of LaGrange College, Missouri, was the pastor. These two men formed a friendship, harmonious and confidential, which last through life. And there, away from the scenes of contending enemies, with little or no facilities to get news, in the calm quiet of the farm of his wife's father, Dr. Snyder, Graves thought out and wrote his greatest work, the Seven Dispensations, with other works which he rewrote and afterwards published.

      And now, in 1866, he was settled for life in Memphis. A new scene or act in life's drama opened before him. Visions of usefulness and successful enterprises opened before his sanguine mind -- visions he never realized, and Herculean efforts on which was written sad failure.



1 The circular was written by the editor of the Repository, but with no reference whatever to the Nashville church difficulty. A query sent up from one of the Louisville churches, two years after, was decided by the association unanimously on the grounds taken in the circular, quoting freely from it. It was this that was so generally published in the denominational papers and adopted by many district associations in several States.


[From Ford's Christian Repository and Home Circle, March, 1900, pages 162-169. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

Go to Chapter 7
More on J. R. Graves
Baptist History Homepage