Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves
by Samuel H. Ford, 1899
E. T. Winkler, one of the most intellectual, scholarly, and conservative men whose names adorn the annuals of Southern Baptist ministers, and who, on several memorial occasions, had antagonized and defeated extreme propositions introduced by J. R. Graves, wrote in the Alabama Baptist, of which he was editor, and just after one of those direct conflicts had occurred in the Southern Baptist Convention held in St. Louis in 1871―"extreme as the views of Dr. Graves have by many been regarded as being, there is no question but that they have powerfully contributed to the correction of a false liberalism that was current in many quarters thirty years ago."
While living he was followed and feared, hailed and confided in as a great teacher and leader, and denounced, if not shunned, as a disturber of the peace. A half century has passed since his public career commenced and several years since he "fought his last battle," but his name, his labors, his teachings are still discussed and his influence widely felt. The echoes of his voice still linger in the valley, and responses to his battle cry are heard, while condemnations of his life work are not infrequent and often severe.
This could not have occurred with an ordinary man, with any but a heroic, persistent, intensely and earnestly sincere man―to a man of brain-power and heart-power―a true, genuine man, whose life purpose was seen with clear vision, and pursued with unfaltering step―whose inner soul responded to the appeal of old Ignatius which has been rendered:―
"Stand like an anvil while the stroke Of stalwart men fall fierce and fast; Storms but more firmly root the oak, Whose brawny arms embrace the blast."
That such a man living and dead should be misunderstood―that in the impetuosity of his life-battle, with watchful antagonists on every hand, dullness should confound his utterances, and that prejudice should misconstrue his teachings, and adverse criticism should deduce odious conclusions from his arguments, is no more than might be expected. And throughout the Baptist denomination to-day the question is asked with intensity and answered diversely: Was J. R. Graves' life a blessing or a blight―good or harm?
The answer to this question can only be given by a review of his life and teachings by one who knew him well and labored beside him for nearly a half century, and this is our purpose in this and succeeding chapters.
The true biography of a man is not the record of his birthday, his schooldays, or his death day. These but mark the boundaries of the field of his toil. How he toiled, what were his struggles, his defeats, and his victories; how he was influenced by his surroundings, and how far he influenced those around him, how vital truth, eternal verities, impressed him, and how he impressed these on those he met with,―these could they be given, are his life-picture, his inner soul voiced in actions that never die.
HIS HOME LIFE
Graves was left fatherless the youngest of several children. A mother of energy, piety, and intellect (whose dying words were whispered into the ear of the writer), gave character to the boy. At the age of fifteen light dawned upon his inmost soul and disclosed to him his guilt and helplessness. His conviction was deep, his struggle was intense, and his surrender and trust in the atoning work of Christ was full and joyful. He was baptized, and joined the North Springfield Baptist Church, Vermont.
He had to make his own way and earn his own living, and unable to take a college course, he commenced teaching. He was then but eighteen years old―an age when boys are undecided as to their future, and needing paternal direction and support. But this fatherless youth struck out for himself, and with the aid of an older brother supported his mother and gained character as a promising school teacher.
HIS START WEST
That brother, with the enterprise which marked the family, had gone West and was teaching a little school on the shore of Lake Erie, near Ashtabula, Ohio. Near by was a town named Kingsville, with an academy in it. Through the influence, and on the recommendations of his brother and some friends at home, he was elected principal of this academy, and with his mother and sister he left his Vermont home for the distant West. This was in 1839.
His nightly studies, after his day's teaching, in order to keep ahead of his classes, impaired his health. He abandoned the school and went to Kentucky and located near Nicholasville, taking charge of a county school called Clear Creek Academy. Here took place a new era in his life which changed its character and current. He went there a shy reticent youth, with little religious knowledge and scarcely any acquaintance with Baptists or their distinguishing principles; with no knowledge of the latent abilities within him. He had never taken a prominent part in social meetings, and had never had a religious periodical to read regularly. But there was a small but active Baptist church near by called Mount Freedom. There were honest, earnest men in it. He joined the little church, and took part in its prayer meetings and Sunday School.
There were those in the church who had the insight to descern [sic] his abilities. He was called on to lead the Sunday morning service in the absence of one of the monthly visits of the pastor. He preached―though he did not know it. The church licensed him to preach really without having his consent; and soon after called for his ordination.
It was a trying time to him as we have heard him say. His idea of a minister was high. His estimates of his own power as a speaker were small. Indeed, with all the heroic fearlessness which distinguished his life, he was always bashful, sometimes to awkwardness when he arose to speak. He would hesitate. He seemed to lack a vocabulary. I have likened him to some large birds, especially water fowl, who seem to rise from the earth with effort, flapping their wings and slow to rise; but once risen and the body of air beneath them, move in graceful curves, dart with unimpeded swiftness, or float without an effort. He toiled at the start; but when once entered into his subject, there was a mastery of all his powers and a command of all the elements of oratory equaled by few. He was on this account unable to make a short telling speech in a convention, and consequently rarely took part in them. It was in a two hours' address or sermon when his greatest power appeared and the latent fire within him blazed.
His bashfulness, often the sign of greatness, made him shrink from becoming a preacher, although within his soul was the belief that God had called him to the work.
However, his consent was gained and his ordination to the ministry decided upon.
CHANGE IN HIS LIFE-PURPOSE
Hitherto his life was what we may term aimless; to make a living, improve his mind, and support his mother, were the incentives to labor. But there comes a period in every man's history which affects the course and color of his life-stream. The current rushes on headlong until some obstruction, some opening, some accession meets it. It dashes over the rocks or flows round them and becomes a brilliant cascade, or quiet rivulet, perchance a stagnant pool, or with gathered accession and impetus a wildly-sweeping current. It is an epoch―a crisis in the individual's history. It may be ambition, or love, or business, or bereavement, or temptation, or the voiceless breath of God's Spirit upon the inmost soul. Thought is awakened, the mind is directed in upon itself, and life in all its stern realities is disclosed as never before―a lone sea to be navigated for himself. Carlyle has with lightning pen described this soul-crisis in his Sartor Resartus. But in it is no voiceful impression from the living word; no inspiring breath from the Holy Spirit; no smile of love from the Lord Jesus; no cloudless dawn upon the soul, wrapping the whole being in light and clothing every natural gift and power with a beauty and a radiance not of earth. God's call to the ministry of His own blessed word and Spirit is indeed a crisis whose record will endure when suns and stars have gone out. Blessed is he who has received and heard and obeyed, and fulfilled that call.
Graves did. He returned to mother's home in Ohio. He gave his time to thought, to study and prayer. For some months―the most important and happiest in his life―he studied for the ministry (in his own words) "making the Bible the man of his counsel and Paul his instructor in theology."
DR. DILLARD'S INFLUENCE
It should be mentioned that one man's influence over him while he sojourned in Kentucky was lasting through life. Ryland T. [Thompson] Dillard, a man of scholarship, of large wealth, of burning zeal and spiritual soul, as grand a man as the writer ever knew, was pastor of this Mount Freedom Church, while J. R. Graves was a member of it, and was the chairman of the examining presbytery at his ordination. He preached the ordination sermon with council and caution and encouragements. Graves never forgot. Who can estimate the influence one wise, genuine, gospel-man can exert over a young minister? Dillard relived in Graves, and Graves still lives in others.
This was especially the result of his connections with Dillard in regard to Alexander Campbell and his "current reformation." Campbell had risen into sudden fame, and acquired controlling influence among the Baptists, first in Kentucky. His debate with McCalla during which Jeremiah Vardeman, the most popular Baptist minister in the State, was one of moderators, made Campbell "a conquering hero." He passed triumphantly through the central and northern portions of Kentucky, preaching his "Ancient Gospel," and led in his train many of the leading Baptist ministers, as Creath, Vardeman, Dr. Noel, Smith, Fall and others. He became emboldened by success, and preached "the Gospel in the water," baptismal remission. A reaction followed. Nearly all those leading Baptists who had followed thus far revolted and antagonized his unscriptural views. None took amore decided stand in this than Dr. Dillard. The issue possessed his whole soul, and none more than he boldly stemmed the sweeping current of Campbellism. He impressed his thoughts and spirit on young Graves and a fearless, persistent opposition to that system marked the ministry of J. R. Graves throughout his life.
But, returned to Ohio, he had little to call forth his activities or call him to battle. Dr. S. W. Lynd was reading his well prepared sermons to his large and quiet church in Cincinnati. The Journal, the Baptist State paper, was little more than a weekly record of passing events. A voiceless peace or apathy reigned. There was no fitting field for the young minister. And partly through the agency of John Waller, Graves was invited to Nashville, Tennessee. He engaged in teaching, but was soon called to the pastorate of the Second Baptist Church―now the Central Baptist Church in that city.
NASHVILLE AND THE SECOND CHURCH
Dr. R. B. C. Howell was then in the zenith of his power and usefulness. He had, in a short time previous, written his great work on Communion, and several editions had been published. A man of culture and elegance and literary ability, at that time the most influential man amongst the Baptists of the South. He was, in addition to his pastorship, the editor of the Tennessee Baptist, and in that paper wrote:―
"The pastor [of the Second Church], who is lately from Kentucky, although quite young, is thoroughly educated, exemplary in piety, ardently devoted to his work and not without ministerial experience." (The Baptist, November 8, 1845.)
A year of indefatigable and successful labor followed, during which he was brought in conflict with the almost supreme influence of Methodism in that city. The influence of such a man as Howell on him must have been great, and, as we shall see, he imbibed much of that great man's spirit and adopted many of his ecclesiastical views.
HIS EDITORSHIP OF THE TENNESSEE BAPTIST
And now opened before him a new and untried field of labor, and his real life work began.
In 1832, R. B. C. Howell started a small quarto paper in Nashville named the Baptist. It continued a few years and was merged into the Banner and Pioneer, published in Louisville, Ky. In 1842, it was resuscitated under the ownership of the general association of Tennessee, with Dr. Howell again its editor. It did not pay expenses, and its circulation was a fraction over one thousand. J. R. Graves, while pastor of the Second church, wrote stirring articles, generally controversial, in its columns which made a most favorable impression. In the general association of 1846 Howell resigned the editorship and the executive committee of the general association elected J. R. Graves his successor. He at first declined because he must with the position assume somewhat heavy responsibilities. He at length accepted, and his real life work began.
A bird's-eye view of the religious state of things in Nashville and in Tennessee, and surrounding States, will enable us to judge of the young man's perilous position, to look into his inner life, and estimate, to some extent at least, the influence his environments had in shaping his future career.
METHODISM IN TENNESSEE
Nashville was then, as indeed it is still, the center and stronghold of Methodism in the South. There was their book concern in which every Methodist preacher had a pecuniary as well as denominational interest. The only Methodist paper in the Southwest was published there. They had a large business establishment with presses and binding machines. They outnumbered the Baptists in Nashville five to one. Above all they held as editor of their paper, The Christian Advocate, a man of varied attainments; one of surpassing ability and fierce prejudices. He was [as] unscrupulous as he was talented and a hater of all that distinguishes Baptists. He name was J. B. McFerrin. That this practical polemic should at once turn his guns on the young editor was to be expected; and the manner in which he would do so might have been foreseen by his attacks on the distinguished Howell. Here are specimens of his attacks on Dr. Howell:―
"The inflated bird of Nashville bigoted presumption enough for anything; lacking only the power to become a pope; in a state of putridity, i.e. that in morals we understand it Bro. Howell was in a state of putridity."
This was after Dr. Howell had delivered a masterly annual address to the Nashville University.
"We (Mr. McFerrin) understood him (Dr. Howell) to say that he does not consider it a matter of importance always to state the plain truth"
"To deny that Baptists have asserted that they believe that there are children in hell, is more than madness, if lying is worse."
As to Dr. Howell's estimate of McFerrin's character, may be judged from this one extract from the Baptist. We might give many:―
"What we have said is enough to prove beyond question all we purpose and that is, that Mr. McFerrin will and does adopt any expedient however, repugnant to moral principle, if he thinks he can by such means do an injury to the Baptist denomination."
Then there was in the State the notorious "Parson Brownlow," of whom we need say little―a desperado in politics and religion, who was known to preach at a great camp meeting with a revolver before him on the stand. This turbulent man, was the heart-foe of Baptists and their principles and attacked them constantly in his political "Knoxville Whig." Then through Tennessee and Mississippi were two traveling lecturers and disputers, whose main work was to attack and misrepresent Baptists. One of them named Chapman, an Irishman, was the bitterest and most unscrupulous man we have ever met with in ministerial garb.
These were the men Graves, the newly elected editor, had to meet, in defense of principles which he intensely loved, and had to meet almost alone.
For John L. Waller had retired from the Baptist Banner. There was no Baptist paper in the States directly south―Mississippi and Louisiana. The Christian Index had been transferred by Mercer to the Georgia State Convention, and was merely a medium of denominational news, while the Biblical Record of North Carolina had been suspended for want of patronage, and was struggling for an existence.
There was a general pause in the conflict with Campbellism. But in Nashville, where the old church had been swept into the "current reformation" under the leadership of P. S. Fall, the battle was still kept up. In fact, in Nashville, more than any other spot on the continent, religious discussion was constant, bitter, and personal, and with Baptists it was a battle for existence.
In the forefront of this was this man placed, in his TWENTY-SIXTH YEAR, as editor and leader. Well might he hesitate as he did and ask himself the deep, soul-searching question: Is this my work? Has God called me to it?
There are depths in many a soul, capabilities and powers, of which the man in life's quiet avocations knows little or nothing. How little did Luther know the resources and capabilities of that great soul of his when he tremblingly caught the faint rays of gospel truth as there echoed through his being: Justification is by faith, and Romanism is false. It is so with all brave spirits, not only in those whose world-battles change the course of history; but in the heart of every lover and defender of truth―who sees it with the clear eye of faith, and will not give an inch in its defense, or compromise with what is false. He is like some unstirred dweller in mountain regions who has never explored, or ever thought of the deep and far-reaching canyons at whose entrance he lives. It is when the storm rises, when the lightnings flash into thick-shaded recesses, when the thunder makes trumpets of the narrow glens, that he realizes their far-reaching depths.
It is so with the soul of the true and great man―trial, soul conflict, faith in God and love of truth, and determination to fight the battle to the end, reveal to him forces, and weapons, and powers of defense and endurance of which he little dreamed until the necessity was laid upon him.
This was the experience of Graves. He explored his own inmost soul under the conscious eye of the Lord, and said, I WILL. He never feared a foe or shrunk from a responsibility afterwards.
We have said that Howell must have had great influence over him at this crisis of his public life. We have the evidence of this.
CHARGE OF ROMANISM AGAINST METHODISM.
McFerrin affirmed, as we have seen in a foregoing extract, that Baptists believed that infants were lost, because not baptized by them. Howell indignantly denied this, averring that had nothing to do with the salvation of anyone; and that in the case of adults, the saved only were fit subjects of baptism.
Howell replied that the disciples taught baptismal regeneration, and showed his proofs by saying:―
"Are these men, when a Baptist urges upon believers the duty of baptism as the approved form of the unholy to profess religion, and as an expression of love and obedience to Christ, to exclaim at the top of their voices: 'Campbellism!' 'Campbellism!' (Baptist, July 25th, 1839)? He goes on to affirm that no Baptists believe that baptism is a saving ordinance, or that the unbaptized are unsaved."
Graves took up this charge and denial adding that Methodists taught baptismal salvation and Baptists denied it. Here are his ringing words:―
"Mr. Wesley says: 'By water as a means―the water of baptism, we are regenerated and born again.' That this teaching utterly denies that faith is the only condition or medium of justification, is self-evident, it needs no argument. If baptism is ever in any case an instrument of justification, it is always so, for there is but one medium. If it is by faith it is always by faith and never by baptism, and if by baptism it is always by baptism, and never by faith."
"According to the above teaching [in the Methodist Discipline], no adult, ordinarily, can escape original sin or attain to justification or regeneration except in or by the water of baptism as a means. Is not this the old Roman dogma to all intents and purposes? Is it not a rejection of the vital doctrine of justification by faith alone?" "Is not the Methodist Episcopal Church laboring by all its far-reaching and powerful machinery, by its itinera[n]cy, its mammoth book concern and its capital, to subvert the gospel of Christ, to abolish from the land the great and only soul-saving doctrine of justification."―Tennessee Baptist.
Little did this clear-speaking man think that nearly a half century after he had penned and published the foregoing, he should be charged, and that by a Baptist, of popery―of teaching that none but members of a Baptist church are saved! But more of this further on.
Howell saw the need of a general attack and defended all alone the Baptist lives in Tennessee. He wrote in the Baptist of December 12, 1839:―
"The baptismal controversy is again becoming exceeding rife. All the Pedo-Baptist papers in the country are in the midst of warm discussions on the subject. Well, we are glad of it. Truth is not likely to suffer by investigation. We say to all concerned―go ahead. We shall probably come in for our share, by and by. The sprinklers are getting very much afraid lest their ritualism should fall into contempt. They may be assured this result will occur." (Signed H.)
Graves took this defiant call.
He wrote, lectured, preached, all over Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, portions of Georgia and Kentucky, in attack and defense to thousands. He debated with the champions of Methodism and turned the tide, we may say, in a way and to an extent that no one is those States had previously done.
Dr. Howell must also have had much influence in the formation of Graves' views. In regard to the kingdom, too, Graves believed it was organic, indeed that the church or churches and the kingdom were identical. This question, or this view, will be resumed before we are done. We think his view was incorrect. But Dr. Howell, and also Dr. Reynolds of South Carolina, held the same. Dr. Howell wrote in the Baptist of August, 1838, an answer to a request to give his view of Born of Water or Spirit. "The Kingdom of God in the verse in question means the Church; to be born of water, means baptism without which no man can lawfully enter into the church." Graves held and advocated that same view through his life. It has recently been termed popery. It has been averred that the recent controversy has made known that a Romanist class of Baptists exist, holding this view of the kingdom. But it was held and advocated by leading scholars, including Reynolds and Howell, a half century ago, and was not peculiar to J. R. Graves.
Here we close the first milestone in this man's public, arduous, fearless life. The influences his surroundings had upon his mind, upon his character, and upon his methods of warfare, have been glanced at. But into that great burning heart of his, into that intense and fearless soul, we cannot pierce. His sorrows and his joys, his hopes and his fears, his knowledge of his defeats and mistakes, and above all the shining into that soul of the supernal light and strengthening power of God's grace; the tried and trusting spirit that never showed fear of mortal man, and never a momentary wavering in his grasp on vital truth and grapple with deadly errors―in that depth we cannot look. But to all outward seeming his was the soul of heroic, true, godly man. No wonder, as we shall see, he influenced his generation.