By A. J. Holt, D.D.
In the sixties, Dr. J. R. Graves was probably the greatest Baptist in the World. During that period and for many years previously, Charles H. Spurgeon was stirring all London and half the world besides with his marvelous messages. Richard Fuller was thundering his massive sermons from his Baltimore pulpit. George C. Lorimer was charming Boston and half the United States besides with his remarkably chaste and faultless oratory.
But J. R. Graves was not only preaching great sermons; he was preaching through a mighty agency – The Baptist – a paper of widespread circulation and popularity.
As an individual man, Dr. J. R. Graves was distinguished, Of medium stature, with a remarkably keen, penetrating eye, a classic brow, a long brown, well-trimmed beard, and a most marvelously modulated-voice. He was a most distinguished speaker. He was singularly free from pomposity. Like all other really great men, he was not at all self-centered. he was both gentle and gentlemanly in demeanor.
J. R. Graves had all the gifts and graces of the genuine orator. He could stand on his feet and think and speak convincingly. That peculiar fascination of speech called by the politicians “spellbinding,” he had in its full extent. While he was not the classic word-painter as was Dr. J. B. Hawthorne; nor the massive, tremendous, overwhelming logician as was Dr. B. H. Carroll; yet he combined in an unsurpassed degree all the excellencies of both. it seemed impossible to hear him through and then be unconvinced that he was correct in his positions. He was a deliberate speaker. He never grew red in the face, nor did he “tear a passion to tatters.” He was calm, calculating, and always kept his hearers expecting something greater than he was saying. He did not speak with scholarly precision as did Dr. John A Broadus; nor with the fiery passion of our late F.C. McConnell. His oratory was just peculiar to himself. He rarely spoke a shorter time than two to three hours, and yet his hearers seemed never to tire. I rode sixty miles horseback to hear him preach just one sermon, and was well repaid for my time and trouble.
J.R. GRAVES AS AN EDITOR
To write what he wanted to write; to write it in good, forcible English and make it readable was the peculiarity of this remarkable man. Those days were hard on Baptist papers. Millions of Baptist money went down in unsuccessful Baptist newspapers. Where ten Baptist papers now flourish, The Baptist, edited by J.R. Graves, alone flourished then. Several States had departments and departmental editors, but the master mind of all was the editor-in-chief.; He not only wrote great leading editorials, but he wrote tracts, and made The Baptist the vehicle of publication for his numerous debates.
J.R. GRAVES AS A CONTROVERSIALIST
That was an age when Baptist principles were assailed on every hand. The famous Alexander Campbell had cut a wide swath among Baptists. he was also a great orator and logician. he had never had an antagonist who fully and completely answered all his points as did the redoubtable J.R. Graves. The Wesleys had made a deep impression on the religious world and J. R. Graves was needed to correct some extravagances which the followers of the Wesleys had created. Dr. Graves’ “Great Iron Wheel,” which had a tremendous circulation and an equally wide influence, was directed primarily against the Senior Bishop of the Southern Methodist Church, Joshua Soule. The great Brigham Young had just organized his following and had carried them across the Rockies and had literally “made the desert to blossom as the rose.” it needed a J.R. Graves to counteract the influence of Mormonism. The Baptist position was under fire from every side, and this one man became the Great Defender of the Faith. Baptists were not slow to recognize the fact that a mighty debater for truth had arisen among them and this fact perhaps more than any other made him the tremendous power for good among us. it was everywhere believed that no champion could possibly withstand the orthodoxy, logic and power of J.R. Graves
The labors of this remarkable man were simply prodigious. he wrote books, tracts, and great editorials constantly, in addition to all his debates and all his great preaching tours. he organized and set to work the great “Southern Baptist Publication Society.” It had a brief and remarkable career and was swamped by other and less competent leaders.
Besides all this, Dr. Graves was a great evangelist. in no realm did he outshine his great powers as an evangelist. he always had tremendous crowds, and there was simply no counting the converts that came into the kingdom through his ministry.
he gripped his friends with “hooks of steel.” To young preachers he was fatherly and generous. Had he lived he would have most likely organized another theological seminary. he was not unfriendly to those existing, but they were inadequate to the demands. After his sad paralytical stroke, he rallied sufficiently to give
While never again the vigorous speaker or thinker he was before, yet his Chair Talks were inspirational and well attended. he said of himself that he was only half a man after his affliction, yet he continued to the time of his departure to be grandly servicable.
He loved his Lord and he loved his brethren. When the writer of these lines was a missionary to the Indians, J.R. Graves proposed to become responsible for his support, if it were necessary. He had long been deeply interested in the Indians.
Since his going, many have endeavored to imitate him in debate or otherwise, but none have ever had his power, his wisdom, his peculiar adaptability for the work he set on foot and so signally accomplished. Surely there was “one among us whom we knew not.” His like will not appear again. he filled an allotment in life that no other had ever filled before, and that no one has ever filled since. his name and his fame will live on.