(b. Chester, Vt., Apr. 10, 1820; d. Memphis, Tenn., June 26, 1893). Preacher, publisher, author, and editor. He influenced Southern Baptist life of the 19th century in more ways, and probably to a greater degree, than any other person. As an agitator and controversialist of the first magnitude, he kept his denomination in almost continual and often bitter controversy for about 30 years. He also engaged in frequent and prolonged debates and controversies with outstanding representatives of other denominations. Being magnetic and dynamic, he won the enthusiastic and loyal support of thousands; but being acrimonious in his disputations and attacks, he made many determined enemies. For four decades he traveled from Maryland to Texas, enthralling great throngs who listened to him, often for hours, in amazement and rapt attention. Thomas Treadwell Eaton, in an editorial on his death, wrote: "We have seen him hold a congregation packed uncomfortably, for three hours and a half without any sign of weariness on their part. This was not done once or twice, but scores of times."
Although of Congregational heritage, he joined a Baptist church at the age of 15. At 19 he, with his mother and sister, moved to northern Ohio, and he became principal of a school which his elder brother Zuinglius Calvin Graves, who was teaching near by, had procured for him. He had had almost no schooling, because he had become fatherless when two weeks of age, and his father’s business partner had defrauded his mother of the estate which his father had left. He, therefore, had to learn each night what he was to teach the next day.
Two years later (1841) he took charge of a school near Nicholasville, Ky. There, without a teacher, he learned a language each year for four years, completed the equivalent of a college education, and made a detailed study of the Bible. The neighboring Mount Freedom Baptist Church, which he joined, soon licensed him to preach and in 1844 ordained him.
He went to Nashville, Tenn., July, 1845, to teach, and joined the First Baptist Church. Soon afterward he became pastor of the Second Baptist Church (later, Central) and served it for about a year. When Robert Boyte Crawford Howell gave his newspaper The Baptist to the Baptist General Association of Tennessee and North Alabama, Nov., 1846, the association, through its education board, elected Graves assistant editor and made him and A. B. Shankland publishers and depository agents. They then established a bookstore. When Howell resigned as editor in June, 1848, Graves succeeded him. He edited the paper either as The Baptist or as the Tennessee Baptist until Aug., 1889, when it became Baptist and Reflector. Through it he reached thousands of people all over the South, the circulation at one time having been about 12,000. For some years after 1869 it also served as the official paper for Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as for Tennessee.
Graves led in the Landmark movement from its beginning in 1851 and sought to make its ideology dominant in Southern Baptist life. During 1854-58, when Amos Cooper Dayton was corresponding secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention Bible Board (Nashville, 1851-62), Landmarkers were in control. Dayton resigned under pressure in Apr., 1858. Growing out of the conflict that developed, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1859 appointed no Landmarkers from Nashville to serve on the Bible Board.
Through his paper and through correspondence and travel, Graves, in 1858-59, led in a determined effort to take from the Foreign Mission Board its power to examine, choose, support, and direct its missionaries, on the ground that these were the rights of churches and associations, or groups of churches that might wish to work together. At Richmond, Va., in May, 1859, the Convention gave more than a day to the Graves proposals. Graves himself spoke for several hours. The atmosphere was tense, but the Convention at last voted unanimously not to make any change. It did provide that churches who sent out their own missionaries might send funds at their own expense through the Foreign Mission Board for the support of their missionaries. The gospel mission movement that developed among a few Southern Baptist missionaries in China (1886-93), and the Landmark Baptist conventions in Arkansas and Texas, organized about 1905, were logical developments of the views Graves sought to implement at Richmond in 1859.
In the 1850’s Graves became a severe and sustained critic of the Southern Baptist Publication Society, Charleston, S. C. (1847-63), largely through the Tennessee Baptist, for what he considered its doctrinal deviations and its failure to meet the needs of the people. Through his paper, a tract society which he organized, and his publishing firm of Graves, Marks and Co., he became an active competitor of the publication society. He saw clearly the importance of the Sunday school and made Sunday school libraries available to the people. In 1857 he led in an effort to establish the Southern Baptist Sunday School Union. Strong opposition delayed complete organization until Nov., 1858, when, at Memphis, Tenn., several hundred made it a 100 per cent Landmark Union and located it at Nashville. It led a precarious existence until Feb., 1862, when the Union army captured Nashville. Graves, Marks and Co. (the South Western Publishing House) and the Tennessee Baptist were heavy losers from Federal occupation, and were dormant until Feb., 1867. Then they began again in Memphis, the paper as The Baptist, and the publishing firm as Graves, Jones and Co. This private business, having insufficient funds, became in Dec., 1868, a stock company called the Southwestern Publishing Company. Several causes combined to bring about its collapse in Aug., 1871, with heavy losses to its stockholders.
Graves held numerous denominational offices. He organized three tract societies (1847, 1869, and 1883). He organized the Nashville Indian and Missionary Association in 1846, and manifested a life-long interest in the Indians. He was one of the leaders in organizing Mary Sharp College (for women) at Winchester, Tenn., in 1850. He raised the money with which to endow the chair of theology of Union University. He established and was main editor of a quarterly, The Christian Review (1855-60), published for six years by his printing company, Graves, Marks and Co.
In addition to his editorials and articles, vast in number through the years, he was the author of the following books: The Desire of All Nations, The Watchman’s Reply, The Trilemma, The First Baptist Church in America, The Great Iron Wheel, The Little Iron Wheel, The Bible Doctrine of the Middle Life, Exposition of Modern Spiritism, The Little Seraph, Old Landmarkism, What Is It? and The Work of Christ in Seven Dispensations.
With the assistance of James Madison Pendleton, Graves published The Southern Psalmist (1858). He compiled and published The New Baptist Psalmist for Churches and Sunday Schools (1873), the preface of which states, "in this collection there will be found no hymns that teach the doctrine of baptismal remission or ritual efficacy, no praises to be sung to dead relatives or friends, nor are children taught to pray to the angels, or to desire to be angels."
Graves was an invalid for nearly 10 years after Aug. 17, 1884, when he had a stroke while preaching a sermon in the First Baptist Church, Memphis. He recovered sufficiently, after some months, to walk with a stick for several years. Then a fall in his yard put him in a wheel chair the rest of his life. He traveled over wide areas and made "chair talks," as he called them. His mind was clear and strong, though his body was enfeebled. He died June 26, 1893.
George, Timothy. Baptist theologians, 1990.
Hailey, O. L. J. R. Graves, life, times and teachings, 1989.
Jones, Barry W. "James R. Graves, Baptist newspapers editor: catalyst for religious controversy, 1846-1893," 1944.
Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the rhetoric of demagogy," 1990.
Archival sources in Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
Howell, Robert Boyte Crawford. Papers, 1842-1860. AR. 595.
Compere, Ebenezer Lee. Papers, 1852-1945. AR. 2.
Graves, James Robinson. Papers, 1858-1879. AR. 9.