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J. R. GRAVES, LL. D. *
By Joseph Borum

James Robinson Graves

     This distinguished minister of the gospel was born in Chester, Vt., April 10, A., D., 1820.

     Z. C. Graves, the son of a French Huguenot, who fled to America, and whose ancestors mostly perished, at the edict of Nantz, settled in the village of Chester, Vt, where the future champion of Baptist views was born. His mother was the grand-daughter of a distinguished German physician and scholar, named Schnell. Dr. Graves is the youngest of three children; Z. C. Graves, LL. D., president of Mary Sharpe college, Winchester, Tenn., is his brother, and Mrs. L. M. Marks is his sister. His father died suddenly when he was but three weeks old, and although partner in a large mercantile house, the business was so managed by the surviving partner, that but little was left to the stricken widow. He was converted at fifteen years old, and was baptized into the fellowship of the Baptist church, North Springfield, Vt. In his nineteenth year, J. R. Graves was elected principal of the Kingsville academy, O., where he remained two years, when with broken health he left to spend a winter in Kentucky, in order to rest and travel. There he was offered, and accepted, the charge of the Clear Creek academy, near Nicholasville, Jessamine county. About that time he united with the Mount Freedom church, and was soon licensed to preach without his solicitation or knowledge, but he would not consent to 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 hours to study, going over a college course, without a master, translating and writing out the entire course, mastering a modern language yearly, making the Bible the man of his counsel, and Paul his professor 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 of preaching, and always shaped his studies with a view to the ministry as his life-mission, but breathed to none that he was so impressed. Though licensed at twenty-one and ordained at twenty-four, he persistently refused to preach, during all these years, his soul was overshadowed with gloom -- observing the form of prayer, but unable to pray in reality religious, but desperately miserable; and this gloom wretchedness never left him until he took up the cross, so long, declined, some years after. He was called to ordination by his church against his desire. The venerable Dr. Dillard, Lexington, Ky., was the chairman of the examining presbytery, and preached the sermon on the occasion.

     In 1845 he married the first time, and selecting Tennessee as his future home, on account of its central geographical position, he entered Nashville July 3, 1845, unheralded, unknowing and unknown, fleeing still from the pulpit. In a few days he had rented a building and opened the "Vine Street Classical and Mathematical academy," and had united with the First Baptist church. In the fall of 1845 he consented to take charge of the Second church, on Cherry street, now the Central Baptist church, and the following year, was elected editor of the Tennessee Baptist, when his public religious life, 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 an intellect so active, by powers so great, and by genius so towering as his.

     EDITOR AND AUTHOR.-- In the autumn of 1846, he took charge of the Tennessee Baptist, which had a circulation of only one thousand, and before the breaking out of the war, 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 in such numbers 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;" and, what is regarded as the great work of his life, "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, though not least, "O1d Landmarkism; What it is?" He has edited and brought before the public American editions of more valuable histories: "Robinson's History of Baptism," 825 pp., 8 vols.; "Walls' History of Infant Baptism"; "Orchards' History of Foreign and English Baptists," 2 vols.; "Stewart on Baptism," and other minor works. But he considers that the great theological work of his life is now passing through the press, entitled, "The Work of Christ in Seven Dispensations."

     HIS EXECUTIVE ABILITY. -- He originated the first Ministers' Institute, a mode of educating pastors and young ministers unable to attend theological schools, and which has become so popular, both north and south. He raised, without salary, the endowment of the theological chair in Union University, and without fee or reward he found and raised the means to start the Mary Sharpe college, Winchester, Tenn., and drafted its admirable curriculum.

     PUBLISHING HOUSES. -- In 1848 he originated and planned the "Southwestern Publishing House," Nashville, Tenn., for the publication and dissemination of a sound Baptist literature, and subsequently, the "Southern Baptist Sunday-school Union," both of which achieved large success, but were destroyed by the war. In 1870 he presented the plan and constitution of the Southern Baptist Publication Society to the Big Hatchie association of Tennessee, by which the plan was approved. The same year he undertook to raise an endowment of one hundred thousand dollars, and in the summer of 1874, turned over to the society one hundred and thirty thousand dollars, in cash and bonds; but owing to the financial crisis which succeeded, and other causes, the society has suspended.

     AS A PREACHER. -- He is one of those overpowering preachers, so different from all others, and following such unusual lines of thought that it is difficult to compare him with others. He is pre-eminently a doctrinal preacher, yet Christ crucified is the center and soul of every sermon. He is a lengthy preacher, yet he holds the attention of his audience to the last. He is a preacher who insists strongly upon the form, rights and duties of the true church of Christ, and yet he always places Christ before the church. He is a preacher who insists strongly upon water -- that is upon baptism and baptism properly administered -- yet he places the blood of Christ before water. In play of fancy, in power of illustration, in earnestness of denunciation, in force of logic, in clearness of presentation, in naturalness of delivery, in boldness of thought, and, at times, tenderness of spirit, he hardly has a peer. When in good form his eloquence is overwhelming. His divisions stand out like pillars, and may each be seen separately and distinct. 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 -- you can see all through and all around them."
     It is not remarkable that a man of such genius, force of intellect, and distinguishing characteristics has taken bold and advanced positions, coming in conflict with the opinions of many, and making a noise in the world. He is accepted as the head of the great movement known as "old landmarkism," claiming it as an old characteristic of Baptists, and the grounds occupied by them, in the days of the Reformers, towards the Protestants, and, in the days of the Apostacy, towards the Greek and Latin Catholic communions, and as the only ground on which Baptists can stand in successful resistance to the .liberal open-communion influences of the day. With all his fierce antagonism in polemic warfare, Dr. J. R. Graves is one of the most amiable and friendly of men in social life, and in the privacy of his domestic circle, is the center of a happy and loving family.


     As A REVIVALIST. -- In his early ministry, Doctor Graves held a number of protracted meetings, resulting in large additions to the churches where held. It was the writer's good fortune to be with him upon one of those occasions, at Brownsville, Tenn., 1849, when some seventy or eighty professions of religion were made by the best men and women of the place. His arguments, illustrations and appeals were of the highest order and the most pungent, he thought he ever heard, and had he have cultivated the revival talent, he could not have been excelled. One night during the revival referred to above, after a solemn appeal, he gave an opportunity for inquirers to come forward, and such a rush to the seats designated, he has never seen. Before he was thirty years old, over one thousand three hundred persons had professed religion in special meetings he held alone. This should be mentioned to balance his controversial character. And in regard to his controversial penchant, he was always challenged, never the challenging party.

     In regard to his effectiveness as a preacher, and the estimation in which he was held, nothing, perhaps, could go further to show, than the following communication:


October 4, 1853.

     DEAR BROTHER GRAVES: -- Doctor Fuller having declined the appointment of this Board as missionary to New Orleans, we deem it to be our duty, under the instruction of the convention to make every effort to secure the services of some minister who shall he able to build up the cause of our denomination in that great city. Our minds have been directed to you, and you have received the appointment, with a salary of three thousand dollars. I herewith send you a commission. What say you, my dear Brother? Will you go for us? An early answer is desirable. Yours affectionately,

J. H. DEVOTIE, Corr. Sec, pro. tem.

     This was a compliment of no ordinary character. Doctor Fuller standing at the head of the list for ministerial talent in the denomination; Doctor Graves next. The following is from the Nashville American:
"DR. J. R. GRAVES -- One of the most quiet and unassuming men in the convention, is the great landmark champion and upholder of the most strictly Baptist principles, J. R. Graves, LL. D., formerly, for many years a resident of our city, but now living in Memphis, editor and proprietor of The Baptist."

     From the Greenville (S. C.) Daily News:

"THE DEDICATION AT BIG CREEK CHURCH. -- It was my pleasure to be present. The handsome and elegant new brick church was dedicated by Doctor Graves, of the 'Iron Wheel.' His sermon was truly classic, eloquent and full of logic and reasoning, far surpassing our most sanguine expectations. He was invited for the occasion. I might here mention, the delivery of his sermon \vas rendered with an apostolic air, his finely rounded periods and exuberant fancy enchained and enraptured all who heard him. * * * In personal appearance, Doctor Graves is about five feet ten inches high, will weigh about one hundred and sixty pounds, and has a fine face with a well balanced head. His dark and almost black eyes show the true ring of metal, his fine brow and broad forehead give evidence of a texture of brain, the convolutions of which will measure perhaps from an inch to an inch and a half in depth. His nose is not such a one as ex-Governor Perry says all great men possess, though it is finely chiseled, and such as the late Fowler and Wells would paint as belonging to one possessed of penetrating thought, indomitable zeal and energy. His mouth is expressive of sublime sentiments, and upon the whole his physiognomy indicates a reasoner of gigantic proportions.

His sermon seemed filled with unction, convincing many that the true witness of the Spirit is ever necessary to salvation."

     The following is from a Macon, Ga., paper where he had been lecturing:
"REVEREND J. R. GRAVES, LL. D. -- As an orator he is very powerful, and as a writer he unites strength, pointedness and clearness. He is fearless where he thinks himself right, as he generally does, and boldly avows his sentiments and opinions, though they may differ much from those of others."
     Another writes, after hearing him at a convention, where many preached at the same hour on Sunday:
"Not being able to hear more than one preacher at a time, I embraced the opportunity to hear Reverend Dr. Graves. It matters not who else may preach, the crowd always follows Mr. Graves. He has a wonderful command over his audience, holding them spell-bound for hours at a time. He uses no clap-trap, no trick of oratory, no prettiness of speech, but he is deeply in earnest, utters the strung convictions of his own mind, and carries his hearers with him as by the force of a tornado. And this is true, not only of the illiterate and rude, but the educated classes. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, statesmen, all go to hear him, and bow before his power. Men who have been bitterly prejudiced, and have hated his very name, if they hear him once, become strangely fascinated, and seek his friendship. His influence in the southwest is very great, and multitudes follow his leadership. He is certainly a great preacher, in the best sense of the word. His sermons are mostly doctrinal, sometimes strongly controversial, seldom as practical as the better class of sermons at the north. It is not to be wondered at, that people often go from twenty to fifty mile, to hear him."
     At a session of the Georgia Baptist convention. before the late war, Joseph E. Brown, the 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 fifty 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, who was present. )
     PRESIDING OFFICER. -- As a presiding officer over deliberative bodies, he peers the best; which position he frequently holds. During the existence of the West Tennessee Baptist convention, he frequently presided as the president, and has been the moderator of the Big Hatchie association for a number of years. He presides with dignity and precision, knowing well parliamentary law, and how to hold a body of men in check, and to right rules of order. A writer thus speaks of him after the adjournment of Big Hatchie association, in 1870:
"Upon the rostrum sits the presiding officer, Elder J. R. Graves, on whose forehead is stamped strength, activity and vim, whose power from the press and pulpit is felt and acknowledged all over the southwest. A man on whose every lineament is strongly marked immobility and stern inflexibility, driving with ungloved hand his Damascus blade into the vitals of error -- a bold and fearless defender of the faith; yet gentle and meek as a child. May God long preserve his life."
     Such testimonials could be added to an indefinite extent, but the writer thinks enough has been quoted to show what the world thinks of him as a preacher.

     AS A POLEMIC. -- He has had some eight or ten public discussions. The writer was present upon one occasion and heard a debate between him and Reverend J. L. Chapman, of the Methodist persuasion, in Memphis, (I think) in 1850. There was no comparison. Brother Graves swept all his cob-web arguments away as with the besom of destruction. The opinion of the writer is, that he has no equal as a debator.

     IN THE FAMILY. -- As a father, he is gentle and kind, but firm. His family discipline is firm, unyielding; when he speaks, he is obeyed from a principle of affection, and not that of fear. His children are kind and loving to each other as well as to their parents. It is delightful to visit "Arcadia," the name of his home, in the suburbs of Memphis. Everything is in exact order. In the morning the children all assemble at the table before the blessing is asked, and each repeats a verse from the Bible, in which father and mother participate. Breakfast being served, a chapter is read, all sitting at the table, and then a short prayer is offered, and all retire together.

     AS A HUSBAND. -- He is kind and obliging. His wife knows no want that he is not willing to gratify. He has been thrice married, and has been exceedingly fortunate in his selections of companions. All women of taste and refinement, combined with talents of a high order. His present wife, (Mrs, Georgia Snyder Graves), daughter of Doctor George Snyder, is one of the most lovely of women. She combines all the elements of womal1ly character to make home attractive; she cannot be surpassed. Added to her accomplishments, she possesses in a high degree, all that appertains to the domestic circle; as a wife, gentle, kind and loving; as a mother, tender, firm and affectionate. Her table shows when spread, that she is a regular graduate in the culinary department. Arcadia is a little eden, where the weary may find rest to mind and body, and food richly served for each. At this hospitable mansion, the learned and unlearned are made to feel as easy as at home. His children are all professors of religion, who haved [sic] arrived at sufficient years to give attention to the soul's concerns. Their home training is such as to make them "remember their Creator in the days of their youth."


* All not editorial in this sketch is selected from the public press. A few out of the many articles which have appeared from time to time, have been culled.      JHB


[From Joseph H. Borum, Biographical Sketches of Tennessee Baptist Ministers, 1880; reprint, 1976, pp. 282-289. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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