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J. R. Graves, LL.D.
The Baptist Encyclopedia

James Robinson Graves

J. R. Graves, LL.D., was born in Chester, Vt., April 10, 1820. On his father's side he descends from a French Huguenot, who fled to America; most of whose family perished at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, who settled in the village of Chester, Vt. His mother was the granddanghter of a distinguished German physician and scbolar named Schnell. Dr. Graves is the youngest of three children. His father died suddenly when he was but three weeks old, and although a partner in a prosperons mercantile house, the business was so managed that but little was left to the stricken widow. Young Graves was converted at fifteen, and was baptized into the fellowship of the Baptist church of North Springfield, Vt. In his nineteenth year he was elected principal of the Kingsville Academy, O. [Ohio], where be remained two years, when with impaired health be went for the winter to Kentucky. There he took charge of the Clear Creek Academy, near Nicholasville, Jessamine Co. About that time he united with the Mount Freedom church, and was soon licensed to preach without his knowledge, but be would not enter the ministry, feeling himself wholly disqualified for so great a work. For four years he gave six hours to the school-room and eight to study, going over a college course without a teacher, mastering a modern language yearly, making the Bible the man of his counsel, and Paul his instructor in theology. These years of hard study and self-reliant investigation gave the peculiar character which belongs to his preaching and reasoning. From the time of his conversion he was impressed with the duty or proclaiming the gospel, and always shaped his studies with a view to the ministry as his life-work, but breathed this secret to no one. He was called to ordination by his church against his desire. The venerable Dr. Dillard, of Lexington, Ky., was the chairman of the examining Presbytery, and preached the sermon on the occasion. He came to Nashville, Tenn., July 3, 1845. In a few days he rented a building and opened the Vine Street Classical and Mathematical Academy, and shortly afterwards united with the First Baptist church. In the fall of 1845 he took charge of the Second church, on Cherry Street, now the Central Baptist church, and the following year be was elected editor of the Tennessee Baptist, when his public religious career, with which all are more or less familiar, commenced. It is difficult to give even a brief summary of the work accomplished and the influence exerted by a mind so active, an intellect so great, and a genius so uncommon.

When in the autumn of 1846 he took charge of the Tennessee Baptist, it had a circulation of only 1,000, and before the breaking out of the war it had attained the largest circulation of any Baptist paper in the world, and it is doubtful if any paper ever exerted a wider denominational influence. At the same time he edited a monthly, a quarterly, and an annual, besides editing all the books that were issued from the presses of the Southwestern Publishing House. In addition he has written and published the following works: "The Desire of All Nations," "The Watchman's Reply," The Trilemma," "The First Baptist Church in America," "The Little Iron Wheel," "The Great Iron Wheel," "The Bible Doctrine of the Middle Life," "Exposition of Modern Spiritism," which, for originality and thoroughness, has received the commendation of the first scholars of the age, "The New Hymn and Tune Book," "The Little Seraph," and last, "Old Landmarkism, What It Is?". He has edited and brought before the public, American editions of very valuable works, -- Robinson's "History of Baptistm," Wall's "History of Infant Baptism," Orchard's "History of Foreign and English Baptists," "Stewart on Baptism," and otlter minor works. But be considers that the great theological work of his life is now passing through the press, entitled "The Work of Christ in Seven Dispensations."

He originated the first Ministers' Institute. He raised without compensation the endowment of the theological chair in Union Universiity, and without charge he established the Mary Sharpe College, Winchester, Tenn., securing the necessary funds, and he drafted its admirable curriculum.

In 1848 he originated the Southwestern Publishing House, Nashville, Tenn., for the dissemination of sound Baptist literature, and subsequently the Southern Baptist Sunday-School Union, both of which achieved great success, but were destroyed by the war. In 1870 he presented the plan of the Southern Baptist Publication Society to the Big Hatchie Association of Tennessee, by which it was approved; and in the summer of 1874 he turned over to the society $130,000, which he had raised in cash and bonds, as an endowment; but owing to the financial crisis which succeeded, and other causes, the society has suspended.

He is a great preacher, following unusual lines of thought. He is pre-eminently doctrinal, yet Christ crucified is the soul of every sermon. He is lengthy, yet he holds the attention of his audience to the last. He insists strongly upon the form, rights, and duties of the true church, and yet he always places Christ before the church, and upon water baptism, and baptism properly administered, yet he places the blood of Christ before water. In power of illustration, in earnestness of denunciation, in force of logic, in boldness of thought, and, at times, in tenderness of soul, he has few peers. His eloquence is sometimes overwhelming. A judge in the city of Memphis, on "brief day," in lecturing the bar upon the importance of a clear statement of propositions, once remarked, "The gift is as rare as genius, but is still susceptible of cultivation. Of living ministers I know of no one who possesses it in a higher degree than Dr. Graves, of the First Baptist church, in this city. He lays down his propositions so clearly that they come with the force of axioms that need no demonstration." It is not remarkable that a man of such force of intellect has taken bold and advanced positions, coming in conflict with the opinions of many even in his own denomination. He is the acknowledged head of the great movement among Baptists known as "Old Landmarkism." With all the strong blows he has inflicted upon error he is one of the kindest of living men.

In his early ministry, Dr. Graves had many converts under his preaching. The writer was with him on one occasion in Brownsville, Tenn., in 1849, where more than seventy persons, including the best men and women of the place, found the Saviour. His arguments, illustrations, and appeals were the most powerful he ever heard. Before he was thirty years of age over 1300 persons had professed religion in special meetings which he held.

In 1853 the Domestic Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention were exceedingly anxious to establish a strong Baptist church in New Orleans. To secure this object they invited Dr. Fuller, of Baltimore, to go to that city as a missionary. He was the most eloquent preacher in the South, and he had no superior in the North, but he declined the request. Then they formally appointed Dr. Graves to the position with a salary of $3000 per annum. The work to be done, the place where it was to he performed, and the extraordinary salary for that day which they offered, showed their great appreciation of his pulpit gifts. Dr. Graves has a wonderful command over his audience, holding them spell-bound for hours at a time. He is deeply in earnest, utters the strong convictions of his own mind, and carries his hearers with him as by the force of a tornado. And this is true of all classes, -- teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, statesmen. At a session of the Georgia Baptist Convention before the late war, Joseph E. Brown, then governor of Georgia, in a speech before the Convention upon the obligations of Baptists to give to the world a pure Bible literature, said, "There is one man who has done more than any flfty men now living to enable the Baptists of America to know their own history and their own principles, and to make the world know them, and that man is the brother on my right," bowing to the editor of the Tennessee Baptist, Dr. Graves, who was present.

As a presiding officer over deliberative bodies, Dr. Graves has often been honored, and no man more richly deserves it. Dr. Graves has had some eight or ten public discussions, to each of which he was challenged, and in every one of which his opponent felt sorry for inviting the conflict.

Dr. Graves in his peculiarities represents a section of the Baptist denomination, a conscientious and devoted portion of our great apostolic community, but in his earnest and generous zeal for our heaven-inspired principles he represents all thorough Baptists tbroughout the ages and the nations. In his literary efforts he has rendered immense service to the Baptist churches of America. The republication of Robinson's "History of Baptism" and Wall's "History of Infant Baptism," with his able introductions, and the other historical works which have been issued through his instrumentality, have exerted a vast influence in favor of the oldest denomination in Christendom. The fearless boldness of Dr. Graves in advocating the practices of Christ and his Apostles, his manly denunciations of that ungodly charity that would tread under foot a divine ordinance to please untaught professing Christians of Pedobaptist denominations, have aided mightily in suppressing lukewarmness, and in fostering zeal for the truth among us. The Alabama Baptist, Dr. E. T. Winkler editor, truly says, "Extreme as the yiews of Dr. Graves have by many been regarded as being, there is no question that they have powerfully contributed to the correction of a false liberalism that was current in many quarters thirty years ago." Dr. S. H. Ford, in his Christian Repository, gives his approval to this statement, saying, "We fully indorse this just commendation of the efforts of Dr. Graves. We differ with him in some things, but we honor his heroic life-work in meeting and exposing error wherever uttered."

[From William Cathcart, editor, The Baptist Encyclopedia, 1881; rpt. 1988, pp. 466-468. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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