James Robinson Graves: History in the Service of Ecclesiology: Many Baptists in America Revere a Small, Prosaic Booklet That Bears a Captivating Title-"The Trail of Blood". Following the Christians Down through the Centuries ... or the History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day

By Patterson, James A. | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

James Robinson Graves: History in the Service of Ecclesiology: Many Baptists in America Revere a Small, Prosaic Booklet That Bears a Captivating Title-"The Trail of Blood". Following the Christians Down through the Centuries ... or the History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day


Patterson, James A., Baptist History and Heritage


This 56-page sprint through almost two thousand years of church history comes equipped with a foldout timeline that is generously peppered with red dots, dots that indicate the sufferings and martyrdoms of true Christians (i.e., Baptists) through the ages, usually at the hands of "papal" Rome. On this chart, the author boldly proclaimed his purpose: "To show according to History that Baptists have an unbroken line of churches since Christ" in fulfillment of Matthew 16:18. (1)

This diminutive book originated as a set of lectures delivered at the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, by James Milton Carroll (1852-1931), a Texas Baptist educator and brother of Southwestern Baptist Seminary founder, Benajah Harvey Carroll. J. M. Carroll actually died before his lectures came off the press, but his legacy lives on; more than 2.36 million copies of The Trail of" Blood have been printed by the Ashland Avenue church since 1931. An additional fifty thousand reprints since 1998--plus five thousand Spanish copies and two thousand in Ukrainian--by the independent Bryan Station Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, swell the numbers even more. (2)

Carroll's work essentially condensed and popularized a much longer chronicle by the British Baptist pastor G. H. Orchard, who in 1838 had published his ambitious A Concise History of the Baptists from the Time of Christ Their Founder to the 18th Century, which apparently attracted little interest in England. This volume, however, quickly became a weapon in the denominational controversies on the American frontier when it was republished by James Robinson Graves (1820-1893) in 1855. At the time editor of the Tennessee Baptist, Graves wrote a lengthy introductory essay in which he enthusiastically endorsed Orchard's successionist view of Baptist history. The Orchard text that Graves rejuvenated and then widely circulated was in turn republished in the twentieth century by Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, and thus tens of thousands of copies of Orchard's not-so-concise history have made their way into Baptist homes and church libraries. (3) Orchard would most likely not have risen from relative obscurity nor would Carroll have even penned The Trail of Blood apart from Graves's persistent labors. In the role of an amateur historian, the fiery preacher and journalist did more to advance this peculiar approach to Baptist history than any other single figure.

Biographical Background

Graves grew up in Vermont, where he was initially nurtured in a Congregational church. At the age of fifteen, he was converted and then immersed in a Baptist church. His conversion occurred about two years after the debut of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833), a document that was conspicuously silent on the doctrine of the universal church. In addition, Graves seemingly imbibed a healthy dose of Yankee individualism and abhorrence of tyranny, because these values ultimately helped to shape his idiosyncratic ecclesiology. Unfortunately, little information about his years in New England exists. (4)

Young Graves, despite his lack of formal education, moved west, where he served as a principal for academies in Ohio and Kentucky. Eventually, a Baptist congregation near Nicholasville, Kentucky, recognized his gifts and licensed him to preach; he subsequently was ordained at the age of twenty-four, following a rigorous, self-taught program of study that included modern languages and the Bible.

In 1845, Graves arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to teach. After a short pastorate at Second Baptist Church, he accepted R. B. C. Howell's invitation to join the staff of the Tennessee Baptist as an assistant editor in 1846. Howell's pastoral duties at First Baptist Church led him to step down as editor in 1848, and Graves succeeded him in that role. Howell must have rued his choice of Graves when he discovered just how contentious his younger colleague would become. …

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James Robinson Graves: History in the Service of Ecclesiology: Many Baptists in America Revere a Small, Prosaic Booklet That Bears a Captivating Title-"The Trail of Blood". Following the Christians Down through the Centuries ... or the History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day
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