James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity

James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity. By James A. Patterson. Studies in Baptist Life and Thought. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012. 238 pages. Paperback. $19.99.


In the Studies of Baptist Life and Thought series (edited by Michael A. G. Haykin), B&H Academic seeks to reintroduce great, historical Baptist figures to a new generation. The series consists of works penned on John A. Broadus, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, and James Robinson Graves. This volume, written by James A. Patterson, professor of Christian Thought and Tradition and associate dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University, “seeks to blend biographical insight with a more thematic approach that focuses principally on [Graves’] controversial beliefs about ecclesiology, Baptist history, and eschatology” (xv).

Graves’ life spanned most of the nineteenth century, in which he was an educator, a pastor, a journalist, an author, and a Confederate soldier. He was born in 1820 to Lois Schnell and Zuinglius Calvin Graves in Chester, Vermont where he grew in the shadow of Separate Baptist stalwarts such as Isaac Backus, John Leland, and J. Newton Brown—each contributing to a unique aspect of the young Graves’ ecclesiological development. He was licensed in 1842, albeit “without his knowledge,” and ordained shortly thereafter (23). The bulk of Graves’ ministry took place in Nashville, and later, Memphis, where he would leave an indelible mark upon middle Tennessee and upon Southern Baptists as a whole.

Graves’ increasing interest in Baptist life and thought developed alongside the rise of Campbellism, which, while similar to much of Baptist doctrine, held to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and “opposed any practices that could not be squared with the letter of the New Testament” (24). As such, Graves was uniquely poised to grow into the great defender of Baptist beliefs. This Baptist warrior—a term applied to him by Baptist historian, W.W. Barnes—became embattled throughout his life and ministry against the Campbellites, Methodists, Pedobaptists, and, ultimately, against other Southern Baptists who dared to challenge Graves’ historical or theological convictions.

He taught that one could trace the true church (Baptists) back to the New Testament period, however, “Graves… came close to identifying Baptists through history not so much by their doctrines but rather by the blood that they spilled because they bucked the established church” (111). In doing so, “the identity that he popularized as ‘Baptist’ intermingled Baptists with a potpourri of heretics, ecclesiastical misfits, and valiant reformers who challenged the established church but did not necessarily articulate Baptist doctrines” (121). His defense of Baptist succession provided the foundation from which he argued that Baptist churches alone were independent of ties to the Roman Catholic Church; thus, Baptists were neither Catholic, nor Protestant. Pedobaptists and Methodists, then, fail the test of ecclesiastical order, for they all stem from the same Roman Catholic source, and, “no one is amenable to church membership who has not been immersed by an administrator, who is himself an immersed believer” (45).

Patterson demonstrates several shifts in Graves’ thought, especially after the Civil War. During this time, it appears that Graves shifts from a position of close communion, “which allowed for intercommunion between Baptist churches,” to that of closed communion, which insists that “the Lord’s Supper was a local church ordinance exclusively for its members and no one else” (171). Further, Graves’ eschatology shifts from what might be classified as historic premillennialism to a form of dispensationalism. Interestingly, Patterson notes that this eschatological shift near the end of Graves’ life led him to participate with members of other denominations (or societies, as Graves averred), which demonstrated a subtle shift in the manner in which Graves interacted with non-Baptists.

Patterson’s work cannot be easily classified as biography. Despite Graves’ copious denominational, historical, and theological writings, diaries and intimate details of his life are scarce. Most of that which we know of Graves’ personal life has been collected and sifted from the diaries of others (often his opponents), church records, and a biography written by Graves’ son-in-law, which Patterson describes as “waxing to the extreme limits of hagiography” (166). Due to these constraints, Patterson emphasizes the thought and doctrinal development of Graves, rather than the actual details of Graves’ life. This thought and development, however, is that which makes Graves such a fascinating historical figure. Though the reader may differ with Graves on any number of ecclesiological, historical, or eschatological points, with the author, the reader must acknowledge that “J.R. Graves was easily one of the most dominant, energetic, and polemical personalities in nineteenth-century Baptist life” (xiv).

This review appears in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 56.2 (Spring 2014): 295-97.

James A. Patterson, James Robinson Graves

I received this book free from the publisher through B&H Academic’s book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  2 comments for “James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Baptist Identity

  1. Ben Stratton
    5 April 2014 at 7:19 am


    Thought you might enjoy reading a review of Patterson’s book from a slightly different perspective – http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/graves.jr.bio.by.patterson.a.review.html

    • 8 April 2014 at 10:09 am

      Thanks, Ben. It’s always helpful to see the response from someone not necessarily within your tribe. I didn’t read any anti-Graves sentiment in Patterson’s book, and I think his connection of Graves’ boundary-setting with the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC demonstrates the positive light in which he hold Graves. There are certainly aspects of Graves’ thought that I would disagree with, but one can still appreciate his contributions to Baptist thought and theology.

      There are several points within Landmark movement that I disagree with, and yet, I certainly find it a fascinating study. Whether I come to the same conclusions as they did, their’s was a time when Baptists took ecclessiological concerns seriously. For that reason, I hold them in high regard.

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