Engraving illustrating the caning of J.R. Graves by an ex-congressman in front of Scovel's drug store in Nashville for alleged slander.
Though raised in a Congregational background, he joined a Baptist church at age 15. Contemporary fellow ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention praised his preaching abilities. Thomas Treadwell Eaton wrote, "We have seen him hold a congregation packed uncomfortably, for three hours and a half without any sign of weariness on their part. This was not done once or twice, but scores of times." Denominational leader J. B. Gambrell described one of Graves' sermons at a small church in Mississippi as "The Greatest Sermon I Ever Heard." Scholars have recognized Graves as an early and chief promulgator of the Landmark movement.