J. R. Graves was born in Chester, Vt., April 10, 1820. He was left a half orphan at the age of three weeks, and his mother had but little of this world's goods to maintain her family. Being left to the sole care of his mother so young in life, and never knowing a father's care, he was forced to a greater degree of self-reliance than is usual for boys, and his whole after life has spoken volumes of what that rigid discipline did for him.
At the age of fifteen he was converted and joined the church in North Springfield, Vt.
After teaching two years in Kingsville Academy, Ohio, he went to Kentucky, where he took charge of the Clear Creek Academy, near Nicholasville. While teaching here, his church licensed him to preach without his knowledge, but he at first refused to enter the ministry, feeling his weakness and unworthiness. In fact, he stated that he felt himself wholly unqualified for his great work.
After praying over the matter, and consulting with friends, he determined to prepare himself for the great work of preaching. For four years he gave six hours a day to the school room, and eight to study, going through a college course without a teacher. Besides making the Bible his principal
text book, he mastered a modern language every year, and gave due attention to science, philosophy and literature.
In 1845 he moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he opened a school known as the Vne Street Classical and Mathematical Academy. During the same year he took charge of the Second Baptist church, in that city, as pastor. This church is now known as the Central church. While pastor of this church he became editor of the Tennessee Baptist, in which position he continued for about forty-six years.
Dates and figures cannot estimate such a character as J. R. Graves. We may be able to count his converts or tell the number of sermons preached, and the great debates he held, but no man can know this side of the eternal shores what great things were accomplished by him. His indirect influence (what he influenced other men to do) was a hundredfold, greater than all he ever did directly. One sermon, or editorial, by him would start a hundred influences to work in as many different parts of the country. Who can compute such a life as that?
As an editor, J. R. Graves set the pace for other Baptist papers, and his disciples became their editors. Great men, like Dr. Bright, of the New York Examiner, were so influenced by him that they gave up cherished opinions and doctrines and adopted the ideas of Dr. Graves. No other man has ever had so wide and powerful influence over the Baptists of America, and in that respect he still lives on.
The Tennessee Baptist at one time had the largest circulation of any Baptist paper in the world, and it held that honorable position for years. The matter it contained was of the very best, and on every page shone the spirit of the editor. To read through the files of the old Tennessee Baptist is an education in itself.
As a writer of religious books Dr. Graves stands in the forefront. In the midst of his great labors he found time to write and publish "The Desire of All Nations," "The Watchman's Reply," "The Trilermna," "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," "Old Land-markism; What Is It?" "Exposition of the Parables," "John's Baptism," "Intercommunion Unscriptural, Inconsistent and Evil Only," "Denominational Sermons," etc. Besides these he compiled two song books and brought out, reprinted and published, Robinson's "History of Baptism," Wall's "History of Infant Baptism." Orchard's "History of Baptists," " Stewart on Baptism," besides numerous tracts, pamphlets, etc.
In addition to all this he wrote "Seven Dispensations," one of the greatest works on Systematic Theology that has ever been published. While this great book is especially adapted to students, it will be read with interest by any intelligent reader.
These books have all had a wide reading and great influence. His "Great Iron Wheel" had
such a powerful influence on Methodism that it resulted in their remodeling their church government so that laymen could be admitted to the General Conference. Hundreds of Pedobaptists, overpowered by his logic and overcome by his appeals, came to the Baptists and have since made useful members. These books are still being circulated, and new editions will be brought out, and thus the great life work of Dr. Graves will go on.
As a preacher, there was but one man in his day 'who ever approached him in power, and that was Richard Fuller. He was pre-eminently doctrinal. He believed that men should be controlled by principle, and he dealt in great principles in his preaching. He placed the greatest emphasis on the greatest doctrines. The doctrine of SALVATION BY GRACE was his great theme. All else centered here. "Blood Before Water, Christ Before the Church," was his motto. His greatest sermon was on the Atonement of Christ. His greatest arguments have been those directed against the idea of church salvation. In his sermon, published in the volume of sermons entitled "Denominational Sermons," on " The Relation of Baptism to Salvation," he is most emphatic in his declarations that baptism has nothing to do with salvation except as it symbolizes the work of grace. Grace is the substance, baptism the shadow. On page 18 in this sermon he says: "A moral nature renewed by the Holy Spirit — a birth from above — is in all cases essential to baptism, and that the rite, among other things, was appointed to
symbolize this great fact; that it is the act for the profession of repentance exercised, of faith possessed and regeneration enjoyed." Baptism must, while it is important, stay in its place. Baptism with J. R. Graves was not a saviour, but it did symbolize the work of the Saviour. He placed the emphasis where it belonged. This much has been said concerning the doctrine he preached because a certain slanderer has accused him of teaching that only Baptists would be saved.
As a devotional preacher. Dr. Graves had few equals. He would have his audiences bathed in tears in the midst of one of his great doctrinal sermons. His power over an audience was wonderful. He has been known to cause an audience to burst out in uproarious laughter, and in a moment thereafter have them weeping, and that, too, with, one sentence. Many men have the power to bring laughter or tears from the audience, but they do it with a series of sentences. Dr. Graves frequently did it in one sentence. There was something about him here that cannot be put on paper. The writer has seen him exercise matchless power. Of all the great orators who have ever lived no other was ever known to be able to bring laughter and tears with one sentence at one time.
At Waco, Texas, during the sitting of the Southern Baptist Convention, a few years ago, the house where the convention was held was so uncomfortably packed that it was suggested that preaching be announced for one of the neighboring meeting
houses. It was accordingly announced that a certain prominent preacher would, within twenty minutes, preach at the Methodist church, just across the street. A few went out to hear the sermon, but not enough to make a congregation, and all who went out soon came back. It was then announced that another brother would preach, and still but few left the convention building. At last Dr. B. H. Carroll, at that time pastor of the church in Waco, announced that "Dr. J. R. Graves would preach at the Methodist church in ten minutes." Immediately there was a rush for the doors. It seemed that everybody wanted to get to that Methodist church, and in five minutes' time the large auditorium was packed to the doors and the convention building practically emptied. The president of the convention begged the members of the convention to remain, but nobody could afford to miss that sermon. It was pronounced by almost all who heard it to be the greatest sermon they ever heard. He told of the wonderful grace of God, and the people wept and rejoiced and forgot all else. When Dr. J. B. Searcy returned to his appointed home, which was with a Methodist preacher's family, he heard suppressed voices and subdued weeping in the parlor as he was about to pass by. The Methodist preacher called him in, and, with great emotion, confessed that up to that time he had misunderstood Dr. Graves, and said that he did not doubt that in the next generation Dr. Graves would be quoted as an authority on the great doctrine of Salvation by Grace.
As an evangelist he had few equals. Not only hundreds, but thousands, were converted under his preaching. Some of his notable protracted meetings were as follows: At Brownsville, Tenn., in 1849, in which meeting more than seventy persons were converted. Before he was thirty years old more than 1,300 persons had professed faith in Christ under his preaching. At Bowling Green, Ky., he conducted a meeting for J. M. Pendleton, when more than seventy-five persons were baptized as a result. Thus he went from place to place, preaching the Word.
His ability as a debater was recognized as decidedly superior to any man in his day and only one man (J. N. Hall) has equaled him since. His greatest debate was with Dr. Jacob Ditzler, Methodist, at Carrollton, Mo. This debate has been published in book form and has had a wide circulation. The defeat of Dr. Ditzler was crushing, but the fact of his debating with so great a man as J. R. Graves gave him a reputation on which he has lived ever since.
In one of his debates he wrote the "Puzzled Dutchman," which has since had such a wide circulation, and read it, giving full expression to the German brogue, at one of the hours of the debate. The confusion of his opponent and the effect on the audience was so great that it won him an easy victory.
Dr. Graves was never a ready speaker in conventions or associations, hence he seldom spoke, and
sometimes when he did he made a failure. It was when he had command of the situation for a set speech or a sermon, or in the heat of debate, that he rose to the greatness which has made him famous.
As a presiding officer he had good talents. He was frequently elected Moderator of his association and other gatherings. He originated the first Ministers' Institute. He raised, without compensation, an endowment of & theological chair in Union University. He originated the Southwestern Baptist Publishing House at Nashville, Tenn.
While engaged in the hard work of editor and that of going from pillar to post preaching, debating, holding meetings, he was offered $3,000 per year to go to New Orleans and accept permanent work as pastor. The salary was enormous for that day. At that time J. M. Pendleton was getting only $400 a year at Bowling Green, Ky., and Graves himself was not making for the support of his family a thousand dollars a year. Yet the great salary did not tempt him to leave what he believed was his God-appointed work. By continuing steadfastly in his life work he exerted a powerful influence that would have been impossible otherwise. S. H. Ford said of him in "The Christian Repository" of December, 1899: "There is no question in regard to Graves' influence over hundreds of thousands of men and women of intelligence — an influence which still remains, at least to a great extent. That there was a power in the man — a power that rallied around him such men as Pendleton, Crawford
and Dayton — men of master minds and general scholarship — is admitted by those who feared him while living and misrepresented him when dead. * * * To measure such a heroic soul with the soft-stepping delineator of 'hidden virtues' and 'human progress' and general indifference to truths of the gospel; to weigh such a man's words in the scales of a nicely-balanced logic, and draw inferences contrary to all he believed and taught, is like measuring the winds with a yardstick, or charging some star with the sorrows of one's destiny, or blaming the light of the moon for the failing of a potato crop."
Perhaps the greatest sermon he ever preached was from the text, ''The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom." Dr. S. H. Ford described this great sermon in the Repository, Feb., 1900. At the time Dr. Ford heard it, it was preached in the East Baptist church, Louisville, Ky., during the session of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1857. The description is as follows: "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 irnpediments
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 eloquence. Pausing, seemingly overpowered with his emotions, or wanting words to express them, with uplifted hands 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.'"
The sermon was heard by the greatest men in the convention, such as Boyce, Jeter, Burrows, Howell, Manly and others, and they pronounced it the best sermon ever preached in their hearing. It formed the subject for conversation for several days thereafter.
Such was J. R. Graves, the greatest preacher, the most forcible writer, the ablest debater and strongest editor of his day. His equal has not yet arisen. When God has need of another like him he will raise him up. One man of that kind each century is as much as the world deserves.
Yet, after all that has been said, together with much more that might be said, there is something felt by all who knew Dr. Graves that cannot be put in writing. This writer well remembers how the whole current of his thought was influenced by J. R. Graves. When only a boy — nineteen years old — he drove twenty miles in a road cart to hear the great man preach. He heard him for five days, he bought and read his books, and his faith in God was strengthened, his belief in Baptist doctrines solidified, and he has never wavered since that blessed day in his belief of the great doctrines held by the Baptists. This writer is proud to confess himself to be a disciple of J. R. Graves, and he strives to follow Graves as Graves followed Paul and the Christ.
The clear and able discussion of the "Effect of Baptism" at the close of this sketch is commended to the careful study of all who care to know the teaching of the Bible on that subject. The volume of "Denominational Sermons" from which it is taken should have a much vider reading than it has had.
On the 26th of June, 1893, Dr. Graves fell asleep. His spirit is no doubt now in Paradise awaiting the
resurrection of the body. He relied on God in life and fought the good fight of faith, and while the Lord let him pass through the deep waters frequently, he always enabled him to triumph in the end.
"Even down to old age, all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,.
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.
"Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
I, I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand."
The sentiment of that great hymn was the actual experience of J. R. Graves.
[Ben M. Bogard, editor, Pillars of Orthodoxy, or Defenders of the Faith, 1900. — jrd]