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Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves
By Samuel H. Ford, 1900
Chapter 7


"Grim-visaged war" as the great dramatist called that dire curse of humanity "had smothered his wrinkled front." But his footprints were marked by wide-spread desolations and very generally with almost hopeless despair. A people's sanguine and dearest earthly hopes had been crushed, their pride humbled, their system of industries shattered, their loved ones sleeping n unknown graves; the high-spirited Anglo-Saxon, to a great extent at least, made subject to a servile and inferior race; for immediately after the war black man was in the ascendant. Churches had been scattered and associational and conventional intercourse and co-operation suspended. In many cases houses of worship were closed or destroyed or occupied by the military. There ws not a religious paper from Ohio to the Gulf and no organized except an impoverished Sunday School board at Greenville, S. C., and scarce a district association had met during those fearful years, at least in the Southwestern States.

But upon the wide waste, and beneath the dark cloud of political disabilities, military domination, and threatened famine, shrouding in grave-like gloom that sunny land, they stood erect in silent, bold. and unbowed manhood, and almost everywhere the Baptist people throughout the Southwest reunited, strengthened the things that remained, and sought with humbled, stricken yet trustful hearts the blessings of awakening grace.

Revivals followed in almost all the churches. Colleges reorganized and reopened, the young paroled soldiers returned to the plow or entered the school. Without promise of remuneration, preachers took fresh charge of churches, and two years after the war had closed, and while the heavy pressure of the reconstruction acts remained, the Baptists were reconstructed, reorganized, active and aggressive in the cause of their cherished principles.

Witnessing all this, participating in much of this, beholding with grateful astonishment the realization of the words of Solomon: "Rise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear upon the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come; the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; the fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a sweet smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away," my own oft-doubting heart was gladdened and confirmed. It was like the fabled spirit of beauty arising from the storm-swept sea, and treading the crested waves with triumphant song, reaching the sunlit rock. It ws a veritable ocular proof of the Divine wisdom of Him who established the church-institution, and pledged its continuance, that not in some so-called "Universal" or "Catholic Church," which might be shattered, scattered and crushed out by one blow, but on and by the little independent ecclesias [sic] or assemblies, meeting in His name and with His presence in the midst, should His own church-institution be continued "till He come." The Baptist churches displayed this inherent principle and recuperative energy. They sprang into new life -- self-organizing, and ready for work.

None contributed more to this blessed and almost immediate result than J. R. Graves. Throughout Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, he preached, lectured, held meetings, rallied the churches, gave unity to their aims, and expounded and illustrated, as few like him could do, the doctrines of Grace through faith in the Redeemer, against salvation through ordinances, or the church, or aught under the heavens but JESUS ONLY. The Lord seemed to endow him with extraordinary power, and showers of blessings followed his fervid ministrations.

He commenced at Memphis. A. B. Miller, now of Little Rock, was then pastor of the First Church in that city. The other church (Beal Street) had been broken up. Its house was destroyed and its membership scattered. It was rallied. Seventy-five prominent members of the First Church joined the remnant, and a new church was formed1 -- the Central Church, whose magnificent building adorns the "Bluff City."

Graves was invited by Pastor Miller to hold a meeting with the First Church. He came and preached the old gospel with great power. Some two hundred conversions resulted -- all, or nearly all, united with the church.

We might follow him in various unceasing labors during '66-7. All was energy, toil and frequent physical breakdowns. In the meantime he republished the long-suspended Tennessee Baptist, whose name was changed to the Baptist. Subscriptions rolled in from almost every quarter -- North as well as South. He was again, after four years of comparative inactivity, in his element -- fearless, cheerful, full of adventure, with visions he never realized, and plans doomed to mortifying failure.


There had been organized in 1858 a Southern Baptist Sunday School Union. of this Graves was president, and Dayton secretary. It flourished for some two years, but all its operations were suspended during the war. He at once set about the reorganization, and accomplished it. But during those dark years a Sunday School Board had been formed at Greenville, S. C., in connection with the Southern Baptist Convention. It was proposed (by the writer) to unite these two enterprises. He at first seriously objected, but yielded, and advocated such union.

Well, the Southern Baptist Convention held its first annual session in Memphis in May, 1867. The subject of this union was discussed, laid over, and again taken up. Many leading brethren opposed it, and such was the interest, and the opposition to it, that on Monday night of the session it was kept up till midnight, when it was by general consent postponed to the next annual meeting at Baltimore. But it had good friends, and the union of the two Sunday School Boards was assured.


At this convention Richard Fuller (as was usual) was the appointed preacher in the morning at the church-house, where the session was held. The house ws crowded. There was a fine new organ in the back part of the building, and a very large choir had been organized and trained for the occasion. Fuller was singular, and somewhat inconsistent in regard to the singing at these great gatherings. He had a choir and organ in his own meeting-house in Baltimore, but he held that at a general convention, where many might meet who did not approve of instrumental music, and who might be hurt by the choir monopolizing the song-service, congregational singing only should be permitted. He was very consistent in this.

Well, the time for preaching arrived. There was a profound silence. The audience was composed largely of ministers, evidently thankful for peace, and the unity and affection which was general, seemed to affect every one present, and a deep devotional spirit was manifest. The older brethren occupied the front seats. Among them, T. W. C. Creath, of Texas, and more generally known and loved, near him sat J. R. Graves.

Dr. Fuller, accompanied by Dr. Mell, the President, and Dr. J. B. Taylor, entered the pulpit, and the choir prepared to sing a voluntary. Just at that moment Bro. Creath, of Texas, started in his own way (in the congregation):

		        "How firm a foundation,"

in very slow time. The singers at the back of the house frowned. The pastor came up in the pulpit, and said -- "Doctor, as soon as that miserable singing ends, the choir will sing a voluntary.

"No they won't," said Dr. Fuller.

The pastor approached Dr. Mell to know what should be done. "Carry out your programme [sic]," said the presiding officer.

The long-drawn-out hymn was nearing to a close, when Fuller rose, and as it ended, said, "Dr. Mell, lead in prayer." The President, knowing that confusion was likely to follow, begged to be excused.

"Lead us in prayer, Brother Taylor," said Fuller. The dear old man rose, and raised his hands in prayer. At that moment the organ pealed out the key-note of the voluntary. Taylor stopped; so did the organ. Three men had risen in the crowded house to join with Brother Taylor in prayer. When the organ stopped, he again lifted his hand and began to pray. The three men sat down and the organ commenced again with a thunder sound. Dr. Mell came to his relief.

"There is some misunderstanding, Brother Taylor -- the choir is going to sing." "Thank you my brother, and Dr. Taylor sat down. The choir displayed its art in some grand anthem and Dr. Fuller was discomfited. But he was determined. As soon as the voluntary closed, he rose and found a hymn, different to the one he had previously given to the choir, and said, "We will now praise God in the use of a good old hymn,

		"Am I a soldier of the cross."

"I will line the hymn and I want all to sing; Brother Graves, you raise the tune." Bro. J. R. Graves, with all his diversity of abilities, was not much of a chorister, but he never was a man to shrink duty or responsibility, so he started Ortonville some three notes too high.

The congregation tried to join. They lifted their eyebrows and almost stood on tip-toe in the endeavor to reach the high notes. But the old song was sung, and Bro. Taylor engaged in a simple, earnest, almost heavenly prayer, in which all seemed to join in tender devotion. Dr. Fuller had conquered the choir this time.


Soon after the meeting of the Southern Baptist convention, Graves started what had for long years been his great ideal ambition -- a Baptist Publication Society for the South. The great book concern of the Methodists located in Nashville, whose efforts were directed, mainly, against Baptists and their principles, awakened in him the desire and supreme resolve to have a "book concern" for Baptists south which would counteract the Methodist one. To accomplish it he devoted his great powers, his time, his health, we may say his life. He clang to this ideal with persistent grasp, until it crumbled like a withered leaf.

A joint-stock company was formed and chartered of which he was the president and also general agent. The shares were one hundred dollars each. A deacon of the First Baptist Church of Memphis took shares amounting to ten thousand dollars and the enterprise was launched with sanguine hopes.

Graves canvassed the country and met with astonishing success,, considering the impoverished conditions. All his powers were directed and concentrated upon this, the achievement of his great purpose. He was fairly ablaze with burning enthusiasm. He knew not halt, permitted not doubt to cross his mind, and the great audiences he addressed caught his spirit. "We will flood this country with books and tracts -- expose Romanism, dispel the clouding errors of Christianity and prepare the way by demonstrating the truth of God's gracious plan of salvation for the coming of the Lord."

The money rolled in, all was flourishing; absolute and glorious success was in sight and assured. No man was have ever met could have produced such results as followed his masterly plan for the great Southern Baptist Publication Society.

With this assurance, a real estate investment was most unwisely made. A large building was purchased at a very high price.2

Books from old plates, not very salable (such as Orchard's Histories) were purchased and large editions published. Still the evidences of success seemed clear. Graves still traveled. He neglected his paper. Its circulation declines. There was comparatively little sale for the new publications.The tide begaan to turn; and Graves here began to fail.

Just about this time the Baptist Church at Carrollton, Mo., was challenged to an oral debate by the "local" Methodist Church there. It was occasioned by a visit from Jacob Ditzler, a noted Methodist controversialist. With the challenge the Methodists named the man whom Ditzler wished to meet in debate. The Baptists accepted, but the man thus jointly selected declined for various reasons, which need not be named. Then A. J. Miller and l. B. Ely chose J. R. Graves as the representative of the Carrollton Baptist Church. Ditzler demurred, but it was insisted upon, and the arrangements for the discourse were made. There was a great gathering at Carrollton of Baptists and also of Methodist preachers. The debate lasted over a week, and though Graves was in poor health, he manifested the spirit and power of former days, and really won a triumph for the truth.3

But the debate, which from the start it was intended to publish, entailed heavy expenses. An expert shorthand writer was employed, who, after he had written out his notes, had to go over the whole ten days' discussion again, under the immediate dictation of Dr. Ditzler, who was boarded, and paid his own price for "correcting the sheets," which was really a reproduction. Graves claimed the same right and was paid by the society for his work. Then came the expensive publication of a very large edition. It made a very large book and had to be put at a price beyond the reach of those most interested in such reading. The whole thing proved a financial loss, and hastened the failure of the "concern."

But Dr. Graves was really not responsible for this. A man whose name has been mentioned and with whom he and the society ought to have had nothing to do, was the business manager. It look in the light of all, that he had purposed the wreck of the "concern" for his own personal profit.

A farther detail is unnecessary and would be painful. Disaster followed disaster in the panic of 1872-73; the depreciation of property in the city making the real estate of the company depreciate one-half or more. Suffice it to sya, the failure was complete. An assignment was made. The assets could not meet the debts. The whole concern was sold and the place moved to Nashville. Here the Publication Society, under the new owners, Mayfield, Rogers & Co., struggled for a year or two. It was then sold to the American Flag, and moved to St. Louis. We say, with somewhat of sadness, this whole concern -- paper, plates, books, etc., which had claimed to be worth $75 to $100,000 and into which some thousands of dollars had been taken in stock since its removal to St. Louis, sold under the hammer by the sheriff for $4,000, to meet a mortgage of $12,000 owing to the heirs of Judge Phillips. And thus the towering fabric of a great publishing house for the Baptists of the South passed away in something like smoke.

To J. R. Graves, who had set his heart upon it, ad to establish which he had devoted his great powers with unresting force and activities. It was a mortification coming down like a dark cloud and permanently settling on his life-path. But he made no pause; and uttered no note of despair. He had undertaken it, with sincere desire to advance the cause of truth, and as he said, "with a consciousness of having done right, and done my best, I shall foot my way and do the right."

There are lessons learned in failure as well as success; in defeat as in victory, and the iron crown which seemed pressing on his clouded brow was turned to shining gold by his pure unceasing faith in Him who makes "all things work together for good to them that love God."


We have now to turn to a still sadder, greater calamity than financial failure of disappointed ambition -- the loss under the most painful circumstances of those dear to his heart.

Graves' mother had from his first settlement in life lived in his family. His devotion to her was constant and tender, beautiful as ever was manifested between mother and son. She was a woman of strong intellect and lovely gentleness -- loved by all who knew her. In the Parlor Visitor published in Nashville and edited by Dr. W. P. Jones (July, 1854) there is a reference to the mothers of J. M. Pendleton and J. R. Graves. It is as follows: --

"THE MOTHER A TEACHER. -- During the progress of a protracted meeting, to which we made reference some months ago, a number of ministers, and other persons, alluded to the early religious influences exerted upon their minds by parents, and especially dwelt upon the influence of their pious mothers.

"One of the ministers (Pendleton) said he was impressed when a small boy, with the dignity and importance of the religion of the Savior, from witnessing its peculiarly soothing, and tranquilizing influence, so uniformly and visibly depicted upon the face of his mother, who, in those hours of sorrow and affliction, so common to us all, invariably sought her place of private devotion, and always returned with a happier expression. This example, seen in early life, taught the boy to love the God that comforted his mother.

"Another minister (Graves), who according to his own showing, was, in his youth, a 'bad boy,' and delighted in resisting every religious influence, was awakened about the hour of midnight by the prayers and earnest entreaties of his mother, that God would convert her son, and bless him as an instrument to the promotion of His kingdom.

"To the Christian influence of one of these mothers upon her sons alone, the people of Kentucky and other States are probably indebted for hundreds of the best sermons they ever heard: for 'Three Reasons why I am a Baptist;' for tracts, for reviews, and other religious publications almost innumerable.

"To the influence of the other, for much missionary service; many valuable books, and doctrinal tracts, together with the present, as well as the last eight years' widely extended, healthful, and unprecedented influence of the Tennessee Baptist.

"Who can estimate the silent, home-influence of these two Christian mothers? And nothing prior to the developments of the eternal world can adequately reveal the circling and ever permeating influence of their children, both of whom are even yet, comparatively in their youth."

She was living with him now, in her ripe old age, in Memphis. It was fall. The summer had been exceedingly hot and dry. Mrs. Graves, with the burden of years, sank beneath the wear of the very long summer. And then that terrible plague, so long the scourge of the South, suddenly appeared in the city. There was one death, a pronounced case. People left the city or removed their families from it, as did the writer. Graves would have done so, too, but the condition of his mother made this impossible. She was taken suddenly worse. The appearance was that of yellow fever. She passed away calmly, painlessly (from my arms, I must say) to the arms of the blessed Redeemer.

Before the funeral was attended to a quarantine was raised against the city. To live there was altogether impractical. The streets were deserted. The disease ws epidemic. Business stopped, and the darkest clouds that can come down upon any heart or home began to settle on that 'bleak house' which had known nothing but sunshine. It all comes upon me now -- the silent street -- the unvisited mansion, the man of strength bowed and broken with watching the death of the wife of his youth, and his submissive trust and strength in the deep, deep waters. We cannot think of it, or write of it, after these long years, without sorrow and tears.


1 Organized by the writer, but previous to Graves coming to the city.

2 I think it was thirty thousand dollars.

3 In that discussion Graves, after a fiery expose and denunciation of Methodist Church policy, declared that none must understand him as unchristianizing, or in any way denying the salvation of those who belong to that society, and Ditzler never charged him with it.


[From Ford's Christian Repository and Home Circle, April, 1900, pages 225-233. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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