Vol.12, No. 5 TheBaptistVineLine.com October-December 2013
By J. J. Burnett.
Dr. Graves was born in Chester, Vermont, April 10, 1820. He was the son of Z. C. Graves, a well-to-do merchant, and a grandson of a French Huguenot who “fled to America,” after most of his ancestors “had perished” in the persecution which followed the revocation of the edict of Nantes. His mother was the granddaughter of a distinguished German physician and scholar by the name of Schnell. Dr. Graves was the youngest of three children. President Z. C. Graves, of the Mary Sharpe College, was an older brother, and Mrs. L. M. Marks was his sister.
The loss of his father by sudden death, when young Graves was only three weeks old, and the subsequent loss, to the widow and children, of an estate involved in a partnership business, were seemingly unfortunate events, but proved in the end to be “blessings in disguise”; the youngsters, of necessity, were brought up to work and save, and formed habits of self-reliance.
At the age of fifteen James was converted and baptized, uniting with a Baptist church in Vermont. In his nineteenth year he was elected principal of the Kingsville Academy, in Ohio, where he remained and taught for two years. He then went to Kentucky and took charge of Clear Creek Academy, near Nicholasville.
Uniting with Mount Freedom Church, Kentucky, he was “licensed” to preach, but without his knowledge or consent. For so great a work, he felt himself wholly unqualified. But he believed in preparedness for any calling and in hard work as an essential to success.
He was notably a self-educated, self-made man. For four years he gave six hours a day to teaching and eight hours to private study, covering a college course without a teacher, and mastering a modern language each year. Meanwhile he was digging into his Bible, with great
admiration for Paul as a model preacher, and purposing in his heart to be himself a preacher when he should be “qualified” for a calling so high and holy.
At the age of 24 he was called to ordination and set apart to the work of the ministry, Dr. Dillard, of Kentucky, being chairman of the “council” and preacher of the ordination sermon. July 3, 1845, at the age of 25, he came to Nashville and opened, in a rented building, the “Vine Street Classical and Mathematical Academy,” joining “by letter” the First Baptist Church. In the fall of the same year he took charge of the Second (now the Central) Baptist Church, served the church one year as pastor, but declined further service, in order to become associated with Dr. R. B. C. Howell as one of the editors of The Baptist.
His connection with the paper was editorially announced November 21, 1846, as follows: “We have the pleasure of announcing to our readers that the committee of publication have, at length, succeeded in procuring the services of an assistant editor for this paper, whom we here introduce in the person of our beloved Brother J. R. Graves, the indefatigable and successful pastor of the Second Baptist Church in this city. Brother Graves is already favorably known to many of you as an eloquent speaker and a very handsome writer.”
This was the beginning of an editorial career which lasted nearly half a century. As editor, Dr. Graves wielded a facile and a pungent pen, and week after week, did a prodigious amount of editorial and other work. When he took charge of The Baptist he was only locally known, and his paper had about 1,000 subscribers: at the beginning of the Civil War it had attained the largest circulation, it was claimed, of any Baptist paper in the world and no man in the South was more widely known than its editor, or had a greater influence upon the denomination.
In addition to editing and publishing his great paper he edited a monthly, a quarterly and an annual, besides editing hymnbooks for our churches and the great numbers of standard works issued from the presses of the Southwestern Publishing House; such as Robinson’s History of Baptism, Wall’s History of Infant Baptism, Orchard’s History of Foreign and English Baptists, Moses Stuart On Baptism, and other similar works – a character and volume of literature that necessarily influenced in a marked degree the thinking, the pulpit teaching and the denominational life of the Baptist people.
As author, he wrote and published, among other works, the following: 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, The Exposition of Modern Spiritism, Old Landmarkism–What Is It?, and The Work of Christ in Seven Dispensations. Most of these works, as nearly all of his writings, were of a controversial nature and exerted a distinct influence wherever read.
As an organizer and promoter of Baptist interests he originated the first ministers’ institute in the State, and perhaps in the South, to train and equip pastors and help young ministers who were unable to attend theological schools. Without salary, or other compensation, he raised funds for the endowment of a theological chair in Union University, and without “fee or reward” he solicited and collected funds and other equipment with which to start the Mary Sharpe College–and drafted its “admirable curriculum.”
In 1848 he planned and set on foot the Southwestern Publishing House, Nashville, for the publication and dissemination of a sound Baptist literature, and later was instrumental in establishing the Southern Baptist Sunday School Union. Both these institutions did great good, and promised large success, but were destined to be destroyed by the Civil War.
In 1870 he submitted to the Big Hatchie Association the plan and constitution of a Southern Baptist Publication Society, and, in 1874, turned over to the society $130,000 in cash and bonds; but the financial crisis which followed, and other adverse conditions, wrecked the society’s plans
and caused its suspension.
As a logician and thinker, he was masterful and lucid, possessing in a high degree the gift which enabled him to so state his propositions that they came from his lips or pen with the force of axiomatic principles or self-evident truths. A judge in the city of Memphis, lecturing the bar on the importance of a clear statement of propositions, said: “The gift is as rare as genius, but may be cultivated. 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.” (Borum)
As a polemic, controversialist, debater, Dr. Graves was a master. He was quite certain that he, and every other divinely called Baptist preacher was set for the defense as well as the propagation of the truth, that he was directly commissioned by the great Head of the Church to contend earnestly for the faith delivered “once for all” to the saints; and this he did amidst shot and shell from every quarter throughout a stormy life. His conviction in regard to truth and duty forced him to unsheath the sword-”the sword of the Lord and of Gideon,” against the Lord’s enemies, against error and the sword was never sheathed; he fell fighting.
Dr. Graves had something like a dozen public oral discussions with representatives of other denominations, the last one, “The Graves-Ditzler Debate,” being a two weeks’ discussion with Dr. Jacob Ditzler, a professional debater of the Methodist persuasion. The debate was published, making a volume of several hundred pages, and was widely read. This contest has been called the “battle of the giants;” in it Dr. Graves fully sustained his reputation for fairness and scholarship, for ability and skill as a debater, and again proved himself to be a fearless, peerless and successful champion of Baptist and New Testament orthodoxy. He did not lend himself and his great powers to sarcasm and invective, vices all too common in polemical discussion. His one serious purpose was the refutation of error by correct interpretation of the Scriptures and sound reasoning. He would be courteous toward his opponent, but not at the expense of loyalty to Christ. He esteemed loyalty to Christ and his truth, above everything else, a cardinal virtue in a Christian minister.
He found no Scripture which commanded him to love error, or tolerate false doctrine; and if in his zeal for the truth and in the heat of debate he failed to exemplify perfectly the apostolic injunction to speak the truth “in love” (which is ideal), and if in his effort to cut off the head of error with the sword of truth he decapitated the errorist at the same time– that only proves that he was “human.”
The truth is, that while Dr. Graves could not make much allowance for the teachers of error he very greatly sympathized with the common people who, blindfolded, were led into the ditch by their “blind guides.”
The spirit and bearing of Dr. Graves, among his brethren and elsewhere, also his appearance and marked personality, are justly represented in the following newspaper reports of The Nashville American: “On the rostrum sits Dr. Graves; upon 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.” One of the most quiet and unassuming men in the convention is the great Landmark champion and upholder of the most strictly Baptist principles, Dr. J. R. Graves, formerly of this city but now of Memphis, editor and proprietor of The Baptist.”
In personal appearance Dr. Graves is about five feet ten inches high, will weigh about 160 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 (from the phrenologist’s point
of view) of a more than ordinary brain, his finely chiseled nose marks him as a man possessed of penetrating thought, indomitable zeal and energy, his mouth is expressive of sublime sentiments, and upon the whole his physiognomy indicates great reasoning ability.
His discourse, full of unction, full of logic, was eloquent and convincing.” “ As an orator, he is very powerful, and as a writer he unites strength, pointedness and clearness. He is fearless and boldly avows his sentiments and opinions, though they may differ much from those of others. “He has a wonderful command over his audiences, holding them spellbound 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 strong convictions of his own mind and carries his hearers with him as by the force of a tornado.
Teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, statesmen, as well as the illiterate, all go to hear him, and bow before his power. Men bitterly prejudiced and hating him, hear him and are fascinated, go away resolved never to hear him again, but break their vows and hear him as often as they have opportunity.
His sermons are mostly doctrinal and as a rule strongly controversial. He is a great preacher, in the best sense of the word.” Controversial as he was and with all his fierce antagonism to error, he was nevertheless a gospel preacher in the fullest sense of the term. He never failed to emphasize the vital doctrines of grace and the necessity of the new birth. As in ancient times, “all roads led to Rome.” So in Dr. Graves’ preaching, “all roads,” led to Christ and the plan of salvation.
Great crowds went great distances to hear him, not altogether or mainly through curiosity, not because he was personally magnetic, which he was, but because they wanted to hear a man who was master of great subjects as well as of assemblies, discuss the great doctrines of the Word of God. The writer, [or J. J. Burnett, HLW] when a boy, went thirty miles to see and hear J. R. Graves, of The Tennessee Baptist and the Great Iron Wheel, and listened closely to a two hours’ sermon, a part of the time standing.
It is not generally known, I believe, that Dr. Graves was a specially gifted revivalist; and it is of record, however, that in his earlier ministry and before he was thirty years old, he had witnessed, in special meetings and under his immediate ministry, more than thirteen hundred conversions.
We have spoken of Dr. Graves as the author and recognized champion of a system of teaching known as “Old Landmarkism.” The system, the author claims, is contained, expressly or by necessary inference, in the New Testament Scriptures, and consists of ten distinct points of doctrine, constituting, like the ten commandments, an organic whole, so that, in the author’s view, to “break one” is to “break all.”
The title of the little book [i.e., Old Landmarkism, HLW] was suggested by two Old Testament Scriptures, “Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set” (Solomon), and “Some remove the old landmarks” (Job.). I let Dr. Graves state the points himself, since his book is before me. At the close of chapter XI he asks the question,
What is the mission of Landmark Baptists? and his Tenfold Answer constitutes the substance of Old Landmarkism:
(1) As Baptists we are to stand for the supreme authority of the New Testament as our only and sufficient rule of faith and practice. This is the distinguishing doctrine of our denomination.
(2) As Baptists we are to stand for the ordinances of Christ as he enjoined them upon his followers, unchanged and unchangeable till he come.
(3) As Baptists we are to stand for a spiritual and regenerated church, the motto on our banner being, Christ before the church, blood before water.
(4) To protest, and to use all our influence, against the recognition on the part of Baptists of human societies as scriptural churches, by affiliation, ministerial or ecclesiastical, or by any alliance, etc., that could be interpreted as putting such societies on an equality with Baptist churches.
(5) To preserve and perpetuate the doctrine of the divine origin and sanctity of the churches of Christ, their unbroken continuity, etc.
(6) To preserve and perpetuate the divine, inalienable and sole prerogatives of a Christian church,
(a) to preach the gospel,
(b) To select and ordain her own officers,
(c) to control, absolutely her own ordinances.
(7) To preserve and perpetuate the scriptural design of baptism, and its validity and recognition only when scripturally administered by a gospel, church.
(8) To preserve and perpetuate the true design and symbolism (of the Lord’s Supper, as a local church ordinance, and for but one purpose–the commemoration of the sacrificial death of Christ, and not as a denominational ordinance, etc.
(9) To preserve and perpetuate the doctrine of a divinely called and scripturally qualified and ordained ministry, holding office and acting for and under the direction of local churches alone.
(10) To preserve the primitive fealty and faithfulness to the truth, that shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God, and to teach men to observe all things whatsoever Christ commanded to be believed and obeyed.
This is the author’s own synopsis of his system, to which he adds these words: “Not the belief and advocacy of one or two of these principles constitutes a full Old Landmark Baptist, but the cordial reception and advocacy of all of them.” Of course these are not intended to be the landmarks bounding the whole Biblical system of truth or of Christianity, but only the landmarks of a New Testament church. He contended most earnestly for the preservation of all the great landmarks of the world’s spiritual heritage in the truth of God; not only for the local church and church ordinances, but for
(1) the inerrancy, the all-sufficiency and supreme authority of the Scriptures;
(2) the proper deity and atoning work of Christ:
(3) justification by faith; and
(4) the personality, power and work of the Holy Spirit landmarks, and more than landmarks, the very essence of Christianity, to be preserved at any cost by the churches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As to the acceptance by the denomination of Dr. Graves’ view of a New Testament church and its ordinances, it may he said:
(1) Many brethren (pastors and churches) gave him their endorsement and adherence, avowing their full belief in the landmark system, going the full figure and refusing to “commune” except in the local church where they held their membership, and only with fellow-members of the same
(2) Other churches and pastors, making a difference between membership rights and non-membership privileges and recognizing the doctrinal unity and solidarity of the Baptist family, continued the practice, as aforetime, of so-called “inter-communion,” the members of one Baptist church communing, upon invitation, with members of another Baptist church.
(3) Still other churches (but very few in the South or Southwest), holding that the ordinances belong to the “kingdom” and not to the local churches and considering that the validity of baptism depends upon only two necessary things, no more and no less, that is, the right faith and the right act (immersion in water), continued the practice of recognizing so-called “Alien Immersion,” or the immersion of a professed believer by a denomination other than Baptist, or by no denomination, and at the same time practiced, accordingly, a communion more or less unrestricted.
As to the question of “church succession” the denomination has ever been divided. Everyone who believes the Bible [Matthew 16:18; 28:20, HLW] believes, of course, in some sort of succession, perpetuity or continuity for the church built by the Christ; and certainly every true Baptist is interested in discovering and verifying the succession promised by the great Head of the Church, and would be glad to see any visible foot-prints, to catch any possible glimpse, of a genuine Baptist or New Testament church along the track of history through the “Dark Ages” of Catholic apostasy and persecution, when the true church was evidently “in the wilderness,” whither she had been driven by Satanic power and where she was “nourished” and preserved by her divine Lord.
But whatever may be the truth of history and whatever our individual beliefs may be in regard to the question of succession, all must admit, I think, that “visible” succession, however well or however poorly established, is not the most vital thing about a church; the vital thing is that it succeeds directly from Christ and the New Testament.
The subject has its difficulties, involving three questions of importance:
(1) a question of correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture;
(2) a question of history;
(3) a question of emphasis.
Dr. J. B. Gambrell’s illustration of the “Lost Horse” [as I remember, this was of Robert E. Lee’s famous horse, Traveler. He was lost awhile after the Civil War. And the retired General offered a handsome reward to anyone who found him. HLW] shows the gist and relative merit of Baptist contention and differences on this point: “I do not place much stress,” he says, “on historical succession–but the New Testament reads as though things were started to go on. “Let me illustrate my idea of succession: a man lost a gray horse. He finds some horse tracks step by step for a hundred miles. Then he comes upon the horse–but it is a black horse. That is historical succession.
Tracks are not worth a cent. If, on the other hand, you find the gray horse, it does not make any difference if you do not find any tracks. The whole business lies in the identity; we have the horse hunted for. So, the man who takes the New Testament and finds a church in his neighborhood or elsewhere like the one in the Book, has succession.”
This puts the main emphasis in the right place, while it may be thought to depreciate in a measure, at least inferentially, the value of a history of an ancient and “peculiar people” with whose fortunes have been bound up in an age-long conflict the fortunes of the kingdom of God. In
this connection I may be permitted to say that while Dr. Graves was a successionist there is no evidence, I think, that he put undue emphasis on the fact of succession or on any sort of “mother-church” notion; he did emphasize church authority and with apostolic zeal contended for the recognition of the same.
As to the “validity” of ordinances, the Baptists of the South and Southwest stand almost solidly for four’ necessary things:
(1) A proper subject (a believer),
(2) A proper act in baptism (immersion),
(3) A proper design (to show forth), and
(4) the proper authority (a New Testament church)–all these being held as Scriptural requirements conditioning the valid administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper alike.
The Baptists of the North and East, we think, are coming, and will come, more and more to this position–a position that would seem necessary, if Baptists are to justify their continued existence as a separate denomination and assure for themselves a denominational future.
And these results, it must be admitted, have come about, in large measure, through Dr. Graves’ strenuous contention for a “Thus saith the Lord” in all matters of religion. His slogan was “Back to the New Testament.” And whatever may be our theory or practice in regard to some of the questions involved, or supposed to be involved in Landmarkism, there can be no doubt that Dr. Graves’ manifold contention and protest, by voice and pen, has been a great service not only to the Baptists but to the whole religious world.
For well-nigh half a century he stood as a bulwark against error, as a mighty breakwater against the incoming flood of a false liberalism which is the constant menace of a pure Christianity in a “Laodicean Age.”
Dr. E. T. Winkler, editor of The Alabama Baptist, writes: “Extreme as the views 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, endorsed this statement, adding these words: “We differ with Dr. Graves in some things, but honor his heroic life-work in meeting and exposing error wherever uttered.”
Dr. Cathcart, in The Baptist Encyclopedia, speaking for Northern Baptists, says: “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 throughout the ages and the nations.”
Dr. Graves, as already indicated, took a great interest in young preachers. He was jealous of any influence that might affect their moral or doctrinal stamina, or turn them aside from apostolic ways. He was ever anxious that our theological seminaries turn out New Testament prophets after the order of Paul and John the Baptist.
The writer has a vivid recollection of his first personal acquaintance with Dr. Graves. It was during a seminary vacation and while acting as a supply pastor for a church in Memphis. In going his rounds he dropped into the office of The Baptist to have a talk with the editor. Though busy furnishing “copy” to the printer, he arose from his desk to greet his visitor, but most of the greeting, as we remember, was
a sudden and dramatic reference. to a “Jacob staff,” a “Gunters chain”, and a “compass.” For five or ten minutes he warmed to his subject, giving the young preacher “points” on theological surveying, running boundary and divisional lines, giving metes and bounds, establishing corners, setting up landmarks, etc., that in future generations no “true Israelite might ever lose his inheritance;” in it all laying special emphasis on the fact that there is and can be no true “orientation” of doctrines, creeds and systems, except as they are brought to and examined in the light of the New Testament Scriptures.
Dr. Graves was a thorough believer in the equality and spiritual democracy of all believers, and was opposed to a minister accepting any title of distinction that would put him above or apart from his brethren. For this reason he refused more than once to be made a D. D. [Doctor of Divinity] Whether or not he accepted the LL.D. conferred upon him by Union University and appearing after his name on the title page of some of his works, I cannot speak advisedly. Perhaps the publisher, following a time-honored custom, used his own discretion in the matter.
Dr. Graves was a popular presiding officer and a skilled parliamentarian, presiding with dignity and consideration for his brethren. He knew how to preserve order and dispatch business, and was ever watchful in keeping from before a Baptist deliberative and advisory body matters over which it could have no jurisdiction. He was frequently president of the West Tennessee Baptist Convention and for a number of years was moderator of the Big Hatchie Association.
Dr. Graves was married three times–all “fortunate” marriages, his companions being women of “taste and refinement.” His first marriage (1845) was without issue. His second and third wives were sisters, Miss Lou and Miss Georgie Snider, daughters of Dr. George Snider. The living children of the second marriage are Mrs. O. L. Hailey and James R. Graves, of Dallas, Texas, and Mrs. R. H. Wood, San Antonio, Texas. The living children of the third marriage are W. C. Graves and Z. Calvin Graves, of Memphis, Tenn.
Dr. Graves died at Memphis, TN. closing his earthly career, June 26; 1893.In this sketch the writer has purposely refrained from eulogy, believing that facts are more eloquent than eulogistic words.
As to Dr. Graves’ gifts as an orator many competent judges will agree in the opinion and endorse the unqualified statement of one of our ablest speakers and writers when he says: “I regard J. R. Graves as the greatest orator America ever produced in any calling.”
(From Sketches of Tennessee’s Pioneer Baptist Preachers by J. J. Burnett, originally printed in Nashville, 1919, now by The Overmountain Press, Johnson City, TN.)