When Orphans Became Heirs: J.R. Graves and the Landmark Baptists. the Nineteenth Century Found the American Frontier Ablaze with Controversy. the Veil of Orthodoxy That United Western Christianity for Sixteen Hundred Years Had Quickly Disintegrated after the Protestant Reformation, Leaving Christianity Shaken, Splintered, and at Odds with Itself

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Denominationalism remained tied to geography in Europe during the two hundred years after Luther. However, America was a clean slate, a region where individualism and freedom of religion enabled Christians to step out from the tradition of yesteryear and find religious meaning for themselves. This boundless environment fertilized the age-old question of true religious expression.

J. R. Graves, a Baptist writer and minister, exemplified the search for ecclesiastical certainty that was a major facet of nineteenth-century religion in America. His fiery message of successionism appealed to Southern Baptists, who longed for real tradition in the midst of a religiously chaotic environment. Graves's efforts were designed to establish Baptists firmly as the true church. Yet, his results matched those produced by similar true-church prophets, as he developed and deepened both disunity and turmoil in the denomination.

Graves the Teacher

Graves entered the world on April 10, 1820, near Chester, Vermont. Born in a New England region that had experienced revival, revolution, and revival again, Graves became a child of the search for certainty among uncertain and changing circumstances. His father died when Graves was only two weeks old, and his widowed mother found herself thrust into poverty with two children besides her infant son. The exact means by which the family survived are not known, although speculation leads one to believe that support must have come from next of kin. The desperate situation denied Graves the benefit of a formal education and awarded him and his older brother, Zuinglius Calvin, the task of working to support the family. (1)

Although he lacked formal education, Graves possessed a thirst for knowledge that led to his first vocation. He sought to make up for his educational dearth through a regimented program of self-study. At the age of eighteen, he began work as a teacher in an effort to educate himself and support his mother.

His brother, who had moved to Ohio, soon helped secure him the position of principal at a nearby academy in Kingsville, Ohio. So, at the age of nineteen, Graves moved to Ohio along with his mother and his sister. As principal, he taught during the day and studied at night. During this time, he taught himself several languages, personally gained the equivalent of a college education, and made a detailed study of the Bible. Two years after his move to Ohio, he transferred to a similar position in Nicholasville, Kentucky, where he continued his educational efforts. This tireless exertion lead to a breakdown in his health that forced him back to Ohio where the rest of his family had remained. (2)

During his time in Kentucky and Ohio, Graves began to migrate toward what would prove to be his calling in life: Christian ministry, he had professed a teenage belief in Christ while still in Vermont. His son-in-law later wrote that it was "at the age of fifteen that the light dawned upon his inmost soul and disclosed to him his guilt and helplessness." Though his mother was a Congregationalist, Graves joined the North Springfield Baptist Church. There was some discussion in Vermont of merging the Baptist and Congregationalist churches during this time, so his denominational choice was not far removed from his mother's tradition. (3) The church has a record of his baptism and membership, though the exact nature of his conversion is uncertain. His religious experience between the time of his conversion and when he joined Mt. Freedom Baptist Church in Nicholasville is equally unclear. (4)

Ryland Dillard was the pastor of Mt. Freedom where Graves moved his membership in 1841. Dillard animatedly opposed the Campbellite thought that was spreading through his region and splitting Baptist congregations and associations. Dillard served as Graves's early mentor, forcing him to preach in his stead on one occasion. This coerced preaching experience at Mt. …