Sketches Of

Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers


Z. C. GRAVES.

(pages 200 - 207)

Veteran teacher, lover of learning, pioneer of higher education for women, for more than a third of a century president of Mary Sharpe College.

The subject of this sketch was the oldest of a family of three children, and the namesake of his father, Z. C. Graves. a well-to-do merchant in the State of Vermont.  President Graves was born in Chester, Vermont, in 1816.  He was of French extraction and a lineal descendant of the French Huguenots. In early life he was lacking in robustness and on the advice of a physician was sent to the country to build up a stronger body on pure air and plain living in God's out-of-doors. Here he remained till he was sixteen, working on a farm through the crop season and through the winter months going to school. In his seventeenth year he made a profession of faith in Christ, uniting with the Baptist church in North Springfield. He now returned home to enter Chester Academy, where he prosecuted his classical and mathematical studies for five or six terms. Leaving his home school for better educational advantages, he entered the Baptist Normal High School, at Ludlow, where he further pursued his studies, supporting himself by teaching district schools through the winter months. The success of these winter schools and his genius for school management marked him out as a "coming teacher" long before his education was completed. At the age of 21 he went West and opened a private school at Ashtabula, Ohio, and a little later succeeded his brother, J. R. Graves, as principal of Kingsville Academy, a historic school in a neat little village on the shore of Lake Erie. In this institution men who have become "eminent as jurists and statesmen, missionaries, professors and college presidents, received their academic training" under the instructions and vitalizing touch of Z. C. Graves. Here he married Miss Adelia C. Spencer, an intellectual and accomplished woman, who, in later years, was to be known as the author of "Jeplrtha's Daughter," a poem of merit and promise, and more widely known, in literary circles, as the author of "Seclusaval, or the Arts of Romanism." She was also to leave her impress on hundreds of young women of tire South as "matron" of the Mary Sharpe College.

It is as a pioneer of higher education for women in Tennessee and the Southland and as president of Mary Sharpe College that Z. C. Graves did monumental work. Through the efforts of his brother, J. R. Graves, who had preceded him, five years or more, in pioneer work in Tennessee, the Mary Sharpe had been founded at Winchester, Tenn., in the year 1850 ; and when the school was ready to be opened Z. C. Graves was elected its first president, which position he held with distinguished ability and success for more than a third of a century. The aim of the president was to give girls a "classical education; an education as thorough as their brothers had been acquiring at their colleges and universities." It was his ambition and plea for women that they should have the "same knowledge, literary, scientific and classical, that had been for so many generations the peculiar and cherished heritage of the other sex; that the sister should be placed on an equality with the brother, for the development and unfolding of all the qualities of her mind, thus making her what she was designed to be by her Creator, a thinking, reflecting, reasoning being, capable of comparing and judging for herself, and dependent upon none other for her free, unbiased opinion." The Mary Sharpe curriculum, it is rightly claimed, was practically equal to that of Brown University, and it was intended that her graduates should be able to pass an examination with the seniors of that university, or of the University of Virginia. If space permitted it would be interesting to note the varied and extended courses of study prescribed in her catalogues for four years of proper college work rigidly required in order to graduation; and the claim of Mary Sharpe to being the first college in the United States to make a thorough study of both Latin and Greek necessary to graduation has not been seriously .challenged. The Mary Sharpe has been called "the Vassar of the South." And in that delightful little book, "Before Vassar Opened," a valuable "contribution to the history of the higher education of women in America," by Dr. James Monroe Taylor, the author  with piles of documentary evidence from all quarters before him, frankly admits that the Mary Sharpe "was veritably a pioneer, ten years before Vassar," and while claiming a more "developed curriculum" for Vassar, when that institution was full-established, does not hesitate to concede to the Mary Sharpe that hers "was certainly the most developed curriculum of which I've find clear evidence, ten years before Vassar opened, among the colleges for women in the South, and at that date there were no separate institutions for women in the North that claimed collegiate rank."

The school commenced its operations in the basement of the Baptist church with two or three teachers and a few earnest girls who hungered for an education; when the Civil War came on it had "patronage from twelve States, but more from Mississippi than from any other State. Often the girls came overland, long distances, in carriages, accompanied by some finale relative, with a colored man for driver. But the war came on, and the news of the Northern invasion of Tennessee spread panic, and Southern planters made haste to call their daughters home. It tried our very souls to see something over three hundred girls, representing the flower of Southern womanhood, fleeing before the advance of an invading foe, our buildings used for stable and hospital, our fine old pianos dumped on the rubbish pile, or split into kindling wood, and our library and other equipment scattered over the highways for miles around." (Dr. Graves to an old student, Mrs. J. F. Miller, and reported in Souvenir Bulletin,, Tennessee College, 1910.)  In this wreck Dr. Graves suffered heavy financial losses, for he had invested his hard-earned savings in college equipment. But the college survived the desolations of war and resumed its work. And more than twenty years afterwards it could be truthfully said, that "by her thorough work and high standard of culture she has become famous in every State as the `Woman's University of the South.'  She has won her prestige, not by endowments and magnificent edifices, but by honest, patient effort to educate the women of the land, to unbind the shackles of error and free them from the despotism of ignorance. Those who hunger for knowledge she welcomes to her gates; those who thirst for the waters of truth she invites to the fountain. Her mission is that of every true school of learning, to increase the power and range of the human mind, and to furnish it with the knowledge which shall most signally promote the well-being and true progress of humanity." (Catalogue.) The building of this institution was to be Dr. Graves' supreme life-work; in it he put his life-blood. During his thirty-nine or forty years' presidency, aided by his associate fellow-teachers, he educated in part and graduated more than four thousand young ladies at the Mary Sharpe, who are "occupying the first positions in social life, and not a few of them are among the noted teachers of the South."

It is not generally known that President Graves was an ordained preacher. He was pastor for three years while teaching, but the "call" to him became more and more emphatic, "Go, teach; go, teach," rather than, "Go, preach"; and he gave himself to the high vocation of a teacher. He was an LLD., but preferred the title of teacher to that of doctor; as a teacher he "magnified his office." He was a born teacher --had a passion to learn new truth and to teach it to others. He sometimes forgot to eat, in his zeal to impart truth to an inquiring mind. He had a penetrating mind and was highly cultured. His books were his companions and friends, his teachers; he was devoted to them. He was a philosopher rather than a theologian -i n his abstemious habits reminding one of the old Stoics, in his manner of teaching reminding you of Socrates. As a Christian he was devout, reverent. As a teacher of religion he was not dogmatic; he was somewhat of a mystic, more like John than Paul. He found Christ, the pre-incarnate Word, the Logos, in conscience, the light of all minds, the light of the heathen world. With him all true education was Christian, the highest knowledge was the knowledge of the Highest.  With Augustine he found Christ and Christianity "enfolded" in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Proverbs, which he was fond of studying with the whole school at the chapel hours and which every girl well-nigh knew by heart, with its personified "wisdom" and her call to virtue and honor and uprightness, to true happiness and success-its "knowledge" and "fear of God," the beginning and the crown of all true knowledge and the most important thing in an education.

Dr. Graves was a man of marked politeness and very great modesty. He was always approachable; in a word, he was a most lovable brother, and was greatly loved - by his pupils and by all who intimately knew him. It was the writer's privilege to be his pastor in the palmy days of the Mary Sharpe. It was the first pastorate of a poorly equipped and inexperienced youth. But the young pastor always found Dr. Graves sympathetic and helpful, in his study, in the pew, on the street. He was always in his place at the hour of worship, and was always loyal to his church, as were his faculty and the student body. The pastor was a welcome visitor at "chapel" and in the President's home, and received great quickening from his sympathetic touch.

The prophecy concerning. old age for the righteous is that "at evening time it shall be light"; but there is a tinge of melancholy, a note of sadness, in old age - there are shadows with the light. So it was with Dr. Graves, after he had passed his "four score years." In a letter written by him to Dr. Folk, and published in the Baptist and Reflector, August 4, 1898, on the occasion of Dr. J. R. Graves' retirement from the paper, we have this: "I am so grateful to our Heavenly Father that he has placed the mantle of my beloved brother upon one so worthy as I consider you to be. I am truly proud of our denominational paper. I am now in my eighty-third year. I have lost my hearing to that extent that I cannot understand anything said in public or at my own table. My health is not good. I have lost my physical strength so much that I cannot work in my garden." Three years later he said: "Old as I now am, in my eighty-sixth year, my desire to teach still lives, and if I could hear well, I could find no greater pleasure than that of teaching my dear little granddaughters (children of his son Hubert, whom death had removed from the home). Ada is now eight years old; I have taken her to the fourth grade, and started her in Latin. (Annie was younger.) Seeing to the education of these children is my only incentive to live."  One week later, early Sunday morning, May 18, 1902, it was announced, "Dr. Graves is dead; died last night, two hours after midnight." And then this note: "Grandfather was 86 years old in April, and his death came on a beautiful Sunday in the middle of May. He fell into his last, long sleep as peacefully as a child, worn out with play, falls into a sweet, refreshing nap. The Doctor said the machinery was old and the wheels run down. Grandmother and my aunt and uncle were buried down in the yard, and he wished to be placed beside them. But his pupils begged so that his body might be laid in the City Cemetery, that their request was granted. These loyal pupils, from all over the land, have erected a handsome monument to his memory. May their lives be as long, as happy and as useful as he would wish them to be, is the sincere wish of his granddaughter, Ada Graves, Tennessee College, May 14, 1910."

Dr. Graves has passed to his reward, and the Mary Sharpe is no more, but many are the daughters, now mothers and grandmothers, who bless the memory of their alma mater and revere the name of the long-time president of their beloved institution. One of the first two graduates (1853) from this historic school, Mrs. Wiley S. Embry (nee Miss Nannie Meredith), of Winchester, is still living, well preserved in body and mind. She was neighbor to Dr. Graves, and it is gratifying to know that she was able to minister to him in his extreme old age.

Tennessee College, Murfreesboro, might be considered the daughter of Mary Sharpe. It was founded to take the place and do the work of that institution. It has only come to pass that the fountain of learning "lost in one place" has broken out "in freshness in another place," while Murfreesboro has the same Middle Tennessee "Grecian skies," the same religious "traditions," educational "ideals" and "inspirational" surroundings that Winchester had in the olden time. So that, if we may not say that the mantle of a great college president has fallen upon his duly elected successor in office, we may at least be sure that the spirit of Dr. Graves and of the Mary Sharpe College "goes marching on" in the spirit and work of the Burnett brothers and Tennessee College. Cherish and nourish it-give it ample endowment, and it will live; with a generous endowment the Mary Sharpe, most probably, would not have died.


Burnett, J .J.  Sketches of  Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers.  Nashville, Tenn.:  Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.

URL:  http://www.knoxcotn.org/tnbaptists/index.html


[ Return to Index ]

HTML presentation of this material is
Copyright 2002  by Rose-Anne Cunningham Bray.
All rights reserved.