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James R. Graves
"Mr. Baptist of the 19th Century"
By James O. Combs

      James Robinson Graves (1820-93) more than any other single Baptist leader of the 19th century merits the accurate appellation, "Mr. Baptist," for he it was whose trenchant pen, scholarly personal research and doctrinal solidarity contributed the most to expressing the great distinctives of the Baptist movement during half a century of fruitful ministry.

      His spiritual career practically paralleled the first 50 years of the Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845. During the pre-Civil War years Graves was editor of the Tennessee Baptist, which grew from 1,000 in circulation in 1846 to 13,000 in 1859, making it the largest Baptist paper in the world at the time and the most influential in Baptist circles.1

     Arriving in 1845 in Nashville, the 25-year-old Graves opened his Vine Street Classical and Mathematical Academy and shortly thereafter assumed the leadership of a local Baptist congregation, then known as Second Baptist Church. The following year he joined the staff of the Tennessee Baptist and became sole editor in the autumn of 1846. From then on the dynamic, young but maturing preacher became a major force in Southern Baptist affairs throughout the South, continuing until his passing into the presence of Christ in 1893.2

His early life

     Born in Chester, Vermont, on April 10, 1820, he was the youngest of three children. The older child was Zuinglius Calvin and his sister was Louisa Marie. Their father passed away less than three weeks after J. R.'s birth. The family, led by the mother, spent several years barely eking out an existence. It was said that on his father's side, he was descended from a family of French Hugeunots who fled to America, later settling in Vermont. His mother is said to be the granddaughter of a German physician and scholar named Schell.

     Accepting Christ as his Savior, he was baptized by elder Hodges and became an active member of the Baptist church in North Springfield, Vermont.

     He was a very intelligent and studious young man and first sought a career in teaching. At 19 he was selected as principal of Kingsville Academy in Ohio, where he served for two years before moving to Kentucky for a warmer climate and the improvement of his health. There he took the leadership of the Clear Creek Academy near Nicholasville, Jessamine County. At this time he joined the Mount Freedom Baptist Church near the present town of Wilmore during a revival meeting in May 1842. With some others he was licensed to preach by the congregation, unbeknownst to him at the time, since he was not present in that service. Later that same year he was ordained by the same congregation, but due to some confusion in the church annals, it was not properly recorded until October 19, 1858.

     In 1843 he returned to Kingsville, where he taught for six hours a day and pursued his own education by self-directed study for eight hours a day, a program he had begun earlier, continuing this regimen for four years, going through multiple college courses on his own. Each year he learned a language, including Greek. The Bible was his main theology text, which he studied intensely, memorizing, learning, absorbing God's truth in a systematic educational program, spending as much as 160 hours every week in concentrated study for four years, he gained an education far beyond the average four-year college graduate.3

J. R. Graves, the leading Baptist editor of his times

     When J. R. Graves took full charge of the Tennessee Baptist in 1846, it had a circulation of 1,000 which grew to 13,000 in 1859. During these earlier years of writing ministry, he edited a monthly, a quarterly and an annual. In 1848 he founded the Southwestern Publishing House in Nashville, and later, the Southern Baptist Sunday School Union, both of which were predecessor institutions to the Baptist Sunday School Board founded in 1891.4

     In addition, Graves edited all books proceeding from these pioneer Baptist publishing concerns in the South, which were destroyed during the Civil War.

Southern Baptist "Landmarkism"

     In 1853 the Domestic Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention sent J. R. Graves to New Orleans to build a strong Baptist work in that city. Of course he continued his editorial ministry.

     Joining with him in the Landmark movement in the pre-Civil War era were two other prominent Baptist writers and editors, James M. Pendleton and Cyrus Dayton, the three forming a triumvirate for the emerging "Landmark Movement": "Pendleton was the prophet, Graves, the warrior, and Dayton, the sword-bearer in the campaign."5

     Pendleton's Church Manual Designed for Use in Baptist Churches is still in print, as are several of his lesser-known works. He too was a great 19th century Baptist. He and Cyrus Dayton became joint editors of the Tennessee Baptist in 1857, but the Civil War and differing viewpoints between Graves and Pendleton resulted in the latter returning to the North, as he opposed the concept of the Confederacy, believing that slavery should be "gradually" abolished, not a popular opinion in Tennessee. Following the war Graves was never close to Pendleton again, though their Baptistic views were similar, but not identical.

     As for Graves, his influence probably peaked in the 1850s. Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, just before the Civil War, addressed the Georgia Baptist Convention and commended Graves with these words, "There is one man who has done more than any 50 other 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." At that point he bowed to the editor of the Tennessee Baptist.6

J. R. Graves, publisher and author

     As an editor with a wide influence, he taught and defended the doctrine of the local church and the succession of Baptist truth in local churches from apostolic times (including the ministries of John the Baptist and the Founder of the church, Jesus Christ) until modern times. His work, Old Landmarkism, What Is It? is a classic. He penned and published at least 20 books and more than 20 extended articles in the Southern Baptist Review in the 1850s, plus literally hundreds of articles and sermons over a period of five decades. More than anyone else in the 19th century, he helped to systematize and publicize historic Baptist orthodoxy.

     He edited and brought to the public such volumes as History of the Baptists by Robert Robinson (1735-1790)7, a great English historian and theologian; Wall's History of Infant Baptism and G. H. Orchard's A Concise History of Baptists (still in print). In his works he focused much on the local church, baptism, the Lord's supper and the continuity of Baptists through the centuries (but not always under the Baptist or Anabaptist name). He opposed Campbellism (baptismal regeneration), Spiritism and other trends in American religion in his books. Many of his sermons were not published in book form, but can be found in the annals of the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, the outgrowth of his earlier editorial work.

The Civil War interruption

     Graves left Nashville when it fell to the Union soldiers, but continued to try to furnish biblical literature to the Confederates. Following the war, he settled in Memphis, but while still widely influential, he never reached quite the same level of south-wide leadership as before the war. His colleague Cyrus Dayton died in 1865, and J. M. Pendleton, who was pro-Union, continued his ministry in the north. Other powerful leaders with similar views rose to prominence, such as the eminent B. H. Carroll, who shared much of Graves' views on ecclesiology. The first issue of his post-war publication, The Baptist, was dated February 1, 1867 at Memphis.8

J. R. Graves theological views

      Though he pastored several congregations, his greatest contributions to the 19th century Baptists cause came through his writings, which were both theological and practical, but always based on a literal approach to hermeneutics. His high view of biblical inspiration is foundational. He believed that the Bible "includes the sum of all of its parts," all being inspired of God:

     If the whole is God's Word, each and every portion and part of every paragraph and period, every sentiment and sentence and word is equally God's Word, to intimate that the least sentence or allusion of the Scriptures is inaccurate or false is to make God a liar.9

      He added, "There may be errors in the transcription of ancient manuscripts; there may be errors in translation, and errors in many interpretations, but the ORIGINAL SCRIPTURES ARE THE WORDS OF THE LIVING GOD. He most explicitly declares them to be."10

     We close with this additional statement: If it can be shown that God did, in one solitary instance, indicate the very words, as well as the matter; then we may know that, in this specific way, he made all his revelations to us, and therefore we implicitly rely upon all the words of the Sacred Scripture as the right words "If the writing is inspired it is because sentences and words composing it are inspired, IN-BREATHED BY GOD."11

      His method of hermeneutics is a vital element of this theology. He believed in the literal meaning as always the proper meaning of a passage unless a figure occurs in the passage and requires a figurative interpretation, but the figurative will never conflict with plain literal passages.

      With his absolute confidence in the Scriptures, he wrote, "We take the New Testament as the rule of our religious faith and practice, endeavoring to conform our belief and practice to its divine teachings." 12 He held unreservedly to all of the cardinal doctrines of the Bible, as generally expressed in previous great Baptist Confessions of Faith and doubtless could now subscribe without reservation to the Twenty Articles of Faith that unite the pastors and people of the Baptist Bible Fellowship International. That great compendium of biblical truth is the outgrowth of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1845), the Baptist Bible Union Confession of Faith (1923), and the work of J. Frank Norris, W. B. Riley and T. T. Shields. It well expresses historic Baptist orthodoxy.

His ecclesiology and eschatology

      These were two of his strong points.

      He believed that Christ founded the local New Testament church with His disciples during His ministry and not on the Day of Pentecost; that the church has but two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's supper (for the local church to administer); that the church was charged to evangelize the world, baptize converts and carry out the Great Commission; that local autonomous churches should work together for the furtherance of this grand cause "all of this and more characterized the Landmark Movement, named in reference to Proverbs 22:28: "Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set."

      Eschatology was another powerful emphasis of this great Bible preacher and expositor. He considered his "magnum opus" to be his classic and still in print volume The Work of Christ in the Covenant of Redemption; Developed in Seven Dispensations, published in 1883. This culmination of his systematic life-long study of the Scriptures and his theological views parallel in most respects 20th-21st century dispensational thought. It preceded the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) by a quarter of a century. It can be obtained from the ABA Baptist Bookstore in Texarkana, Arkansas.

The Landmark Movement and other results

      From the south-wide influence of Graves in the Southern Baptist Convention as a pastor, evangelist, editor and innovative promoter, emerged a large number of Baptist pastors and leaders who toward the end of the 19th century consolidated into the Landmark Movement, gradually tending toward separation from the Convention. Graves' friend, Samuel R. Hayden, editor of the Texas Baptist, was a strong leader in the largest state, whose friends and followers formed eventually the Baptist Missionary Association. Another Baptist leader led a similar movement in Arkansas, which eventually became the American Baptist Association (1905). The whole movement was somewhat unified in the BMA until 1950, but that is another story. Today the ABA and the BMA each consist of about 1,500 pastors and churches for a total of more than 3,000.

      During my years at the Bible Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth in the late 1940s, I understood that founder Dr. Louis Entzminger had become a premillennialist, based partially on Dr. Graves' writings. Entzminger convinced J. Frank Norris to become an ardent premillennialist back in the "teens." The rest is history.

His later years

      Suffering a stroke while preaching at the First Baptist Church of Memphis on August 17, 1884, he lived with restrictions thereafter, delivering "chair talks" instead of powerful biblical orations. He continued to write and travel however until 1889, when he sold his interests in his paper to his son-in-law O. L. Hailey, who moved the publication to Nashville. There it eventually became The Baptist and Reflector, still appearing regularly as the official organ of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

      Following a fall at home in August 1890, he was unable to walk, but continued writing. On June 26, 1893, he departed to be with Christ. Harold Smith quotes the last issue of The Baptist and Reflector to carry his name as a contributing editor: "He was an important factor in the Baptist denomination in the South for more than half a century and one of the ablest exponents of Baptist faith in the world. He was a great warrior in the cause of truth." 13


      O. L. Hailey's 1925 book, J. R. Graves, Life, Time and Teachings, is the definitive biography of the great Baptist leader.

      We independent Baptists owe an enormous debt of gratitude to James Robinson Graves, L.L.D., for his powerful influence on the fundamental Baptist movement. While not as widely known as some others from the 19th century, he merits renewed interest and study to understand from whence we have come.

     Our premillennial position, our emphasis on local New Testament Baptist churches, autonomous but working together, our spiritual heritage across 20 centuries, were derived to a great extent from his extensive writings and lasting influence.

      While all of our readers may not share all of his viewpoints, this writer affirms, echoing Dr. Graves, that it is time again to say, "Remove not the ancient landmarks, which thy fathers have set" (Proverbs 22:28).


1 "James R. Graves", The Baptist Encyclopedia, edited by William Cathcart (Philadelphia, Louis H. Everts, 1883), reprint 1988, pp. 466.
2 "J. R. Graves", Baptist Theologians, Edited by Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Article by H. S. Smith, (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1990) 223.
3 "Baptist Theologians," 226; Baptist Encyclopedia, 467.
4 Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1987), 433.
5 W. W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953 (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1954) 103.
6 The Baptist Encyclopedia, 468.
7 Robert Robinson in The Baptist Encyclopedia, 996-998.
8 Baptist Theologians, 227.
9 Ibid., 231.
10 J. R. Graves, The Work Of Christ In the Covenant Of Redemption; Developed In Seven Dispensations, (Texarkana, Baptist Sunday School Committee, 183, 1963) 34.
11 Ibid. 28.
12 Baptist Theologians, 232.
13 Ibid. 227.


* The following books by J. R. Graves can be located in SBC libraries, various resources of the ABA and BMA movements (schools, libraries, publishing houses, etc.) and at the Baptist Historical Society in Nashville.

The Act of Christian Baptism (1881)
The Bible Doctrine of the Middle Life, as Opposed to Swedenborganism and Spiritism (1873, 1928)
Campbell and Campbellism Exposed: A Series of Replies (1854)
Christian Baptism, The Profession Of Faith Of The Gospel (1881)
The Desire Of Nations (1853)
The Dispensational Expositions Of The Parables And Prophecies Of Christ (1887, 1939)
The First Baptist Church In America - 1638 (1870)
The Great Iron Wheel; or Republicanism Backwards And Christianity Reversed (1856)
Intercommunion Inconsistent, Un-scriptural, And Productive Of Evil (1881)
John's Baptism: Was It From Moses Or Christ? Jewish Or Christian? (1887, 1939)
The Lord's Supper, A Church Ordinance (1881)
The New Great Iron Wheel. An Examination Of The New M.E. Church South (1884)
Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (1880)
The Relation To Baptism To Salvation (1881)
Satan Dethroned And Other Sermons (1924)
Spiritism, A Lecture (1869)
The Trilemma (1881)
The Watchman's Reply (1853)
What Is Conscience (1883)
What Is It To Eat And Drink Unworthily (1881)
The Work Of Christ In The Covenant Of Redemption: Developed In Seven Dispensations (1883)
*Check with the Baptist Sunday School committee of Texarkana and Bogard Press.


[From Baptist Bible Tribune, October 15, 1998. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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