JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 4, 2011 – While his influence on Baptist life was profound, J.R. Graves ultimately did a disservice to Baptists by confusing them about their identity, Union University’s James Patterson said Feb. 4.
“What Graves failed to comprehend is that history is messy,” Patterson said. “He seemed to be oblivious to the immense scope and thorny intricacies of Christian history in general and Baptist history in particular.”
Patterson, university professor of Christian thought and tradition and author of a forthcoming biography of Graves, spoke in G.M. Savage Memorial Chapel as part of Union’s annual Founders’ Day chapel service.
Graves (1820-1893) was a longtime editor of the Tennessee Baptist newspaper (now the Baptist and Reflector) and used his position there to stake the boundaries of Baptist belief and practice against Methodists, Presbyterians and others, Patterson said.
While it’s important for all religious communities to have boundaries, Patterson argued, “I don’t believe he staked the right ones.”
Graves was one of the leaders of the Landmark movement, which held to the belief in an unbroken chain of Baptist churches since the time of the apostles. Graves served as a trustee of Union University in Murfreesboro, and in 1874 became a trustee of Southwestern Baptist University in Jackson (which was renamed Union University in 1907).
As a trustee, he made the motion in 1889 for the institution to admit women for the first time. Since 2000, Union has had the Graves Chair of Moral Philosophy, now held by C. Ben Mitchell.
Patterson’s book, “Staking the Boundaries: James Robinson Graves and Baptist Identity in the Nineteenth-Century South,” is being published by B&H Academic in November. The full audio from Patterson’s chapel address is available at www.uu.edu/audio/detail.cfm?ID=522.