JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 24, 2012 – A new biography of J.R. Graves by Union University professor James Patterson examines a man the author calls “a major shaper of Southern Baptist life in the 19th century.”
“James Robinson Graves: Staking the Boundaries of Southern Baptist Identity,” published by B&H Academic as part of the “Studies in Baptist Life and Thought” series, is now available for purchase.
Patterson, university professor of Christian thought and tradition and associate dean of the School of Theology and Missions, said that Graves was especially concerned with identifying the boundaries of what it means to be a Baptist.
“I think that’s a legitimate enterprise,” Patterson said. “I think Baptists should know who they are and what the boundaries are. I’m not convinced that he staked the right boundaries.
“Where he gets it wrong the most is on history,” Patterson continued. “History in many ways shapes identity. It reminds us of our origins and our past. My concern is, he gets the history wrong.”
A native of Vermont, Graves lived in Ohio and Kentucky before settling in Nashville, Tenn., in 1845 at the age of 25. He served as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Nashville briefly and was a member of First Baptist Church in Nashville before the church excommunicated him over a dispute between Graves and the pastor.
Graves moved to Memphis after the Civil War and was a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Memphis.
Known largely for his work as editor of the Tennessee Baptist, a position he held for more than 40 years, Graves was a leader in the Landmark movement – a belief that Baptists have been around since John the Baptist and that Baptist churches have existed since the time of Christ. Landmarkers deny the reality of the universal church and are strict in their observance of baptism and communion.
Landmarkism was a minority viewpoint overall, Patterson said, but it did have a substantial effect upon Baptists of Graves’ day, and even beyond.
“While I have found as much to differ with as to endorse in Graves’s theology and practices, I am inclined to affirm Baptist historian Walter Shurden’s assessment in 1972 that the venerable Landmarker ‘may well have had more lasting influence on Southern Baptists than any other single individual in our 125 year history,’” Patterson writes in the preface. “The mere quantity and scope of Graves’s words found in periodicals, books, and sermons challenge the resolve of even the most ambitious researcher who dares to read them all.
“J.R. Graves was easily one of the most dominant, energetic, and polemical personalities in nineteenth-century Baptist life.”
Union University President David S. Dockery calls the book “an impressive and important treatment of the life, thought and seemingly non-stop activities of one of the most controversial Baptist leaders of all time.”
“Not only is this first-rate volume a valuable analysis of J.R. Graves, but it is also an informative look at 19th century Baptist life,” Dockery writes in an endorsement.
Patterson talks about the book project in detail in podcast interviews at www.uu.edu/centers/faculty/faculty/researchleave.cfm and www.uu.edu/audio/detail.cfm?ID=636.