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James Robinson Graves

[Editor's note: This is a selection of comments by different persons who heard J. R. Graves preach. - Jim Duvall]

J. R. Graves' Greatest Sermon, 1857
By Samuel H. Ford

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 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 [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. 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."

Graves' Sermon at the Waco SBC, 1883
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 suspended 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 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.


J. R. Graves at Russellville, Kentucky

In 1854 the Bethel Association met at Russellville, Ky. The writer, then editor of the Western Recorder, was present. It was in those days the largest and the wealthiest association in that great Baptist State. The gathering was grand. It was known that J. R. Graves was to be there. When the association met and his absence was known, a general inquiry passed from messenger to messenger as to the cause. The second day he made his appearance. He was received with a hearty welcome, and smiles lit up all faces. He was the guest of George W. Norton, whose name is identified with Baptist history.

Dr. B. T. Blewett was president of Bethel College, and the messengers were invited to be present at its opening morning services. The large hall was crowded and Graves, by special invitation addressed the students. He had a blackboard placed near him. He asked with searching emphasis. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul." He drew an equation on the blackboard in algebraic form; explained it; worked it out, we might say. Then in fervent words urged upon the young to seek the salvation of their soul. "Their impression," said Dr. Blewett recently, "of that address is fresh to me and abiding after forty-six years."

He preached on Sunday morning to an immense audience. His text was, "Lifting up their eyes they saw no man save Jesus only." It was a grand exhibition of Christ as the only refuge of the sinner. The writer preached to the same great audience at night on "Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out," the main point being to show that remission and salvation preceded all outward act or ordinance. The sermons harmonized - both showing that salvation was not based on church or baptism. Such accusation at that time no man of self-respect would have intimated. It would have been an audacious falsehood. It is so still.

Graves' "Chair-Talks"

From the Ohio to the Gulf, from upper Missouri to southern Texas, in green village and busy city, in log houses and steepled temples, to the high and cultured, to the lowly and unlearned, to great crowds drawn together by his fame and to some extent by mere curiosity to hear "chair talk" from a paralyzed, aged minister - he would speak sometimes for hours to satisfy interested and tearful audiences. "Well, I heard one of Graves' series of chair-talks," said Rev. James P. Boyce, to the writer. "It was really a feast. He is doing more real good now than at any time of his life." (Chapter 12)

[From "Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves," Ford's Christian Repository and Home Circle, February, September, 1900. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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