The Slave Preacher
By William E. Hatcher
IT is as a preacher that John Jasper is most interesting. His personality was notable and full of force anywhere, but the pulpit was the stage of his chief performance. It is worth while to bear in mind that he began to preach in 1839 and that was twenty-five years before the coming of freedom. For a quarter of a century, therefore, he was a preacher while yet a slave. His time, of course, under the law belonged to his master, and under the laws of the period, he could preach only under very serious limitations. He could go only when his master said he might, and he could preach only when some white minister or committee was present to see that things were conducted in an orderly way. This is the hard way of stating the case, but there are many ways of getting around such regulations. The man who could preach, though a negro, rarely failed of an opportunity to preach. The man who was fit for the work had friends who enabled him to "shy around" his limitations.
There was one thing which the negro greatly insisted upon, and which not even the most hard
hearted masters were ever quite willing to deny them. They could never bear that their dead should be put away without a funeral. Not that they expected, at the time of the burial, to have the funeral service. Indeed, they did not desire it, and it was never according to their notions. A funeral to them was a pageant. It was a thing to be arranged for a long time ahead. It was to be marked by the gathering of the kindred and friends from far and wide. It was not satisfactory unless there was a vast and excitable crowd. It usually meant an all-day meeting, and often a meeting in a grove, and it drew white and black alike, sometimes almost in equal numbers. Another demand in the case, - for the slaves knew how to make their demands, - was that the negro preacher "should preach the funeral," as they called it. In things like this, the wishes of the slaves generally prevailed. "The funeral" loomed up weeks in advance, and although marked by sable garments, mournful manners and sorrowful outcries, it had about it hints of an elaborate social function with festive accompaniments. There was much staked on the fame of the officiating brother. He must be one of their own colour, and a man of reputation. They must have a man to plough up their emotional depths, and they must have freedom to indulge in the extravagancies of their sorrow. These demonstrations were their tribute
to their dead and were expected to be fully adequate to do honour to the family.
It was in this way that Jasper's fame began. At first, his tempestuous, ungrammatical eloquence was restricted to Richmond, and there it was hedged in with many humbling limitations. But gradually the news concerning this fiery and thrilling orator sifted itself into the country, and many invitations came for him to officiate at country funerals.
He was preeminently a funeral preacher. A negro funeral without an uproar, without shouts and groans, without fainting women and shouting men, without pictures of triumphant deathbeds and the judgment day, and without the gates of heaven wide open and the subjects of the funeral dressed in white and rejoicing around the throne of the Lamb, was no funeral at all. Jasper was a master from the outset at this work. One of his favourite texts, as a young preacher, was that which was recorded in Revelations, sixth chapter, and second verse: "And I saw and beheld a white horse; and he that sat upon him had a bow, and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer." Before the torrent of his florid and spectacular eloquence the people were swept down to the ground, and sometimes for hours many seemed to be in trances, not a few lying as if they were dead.
Jasper's first visit to the country as a preacher of which we have any account was to Hanover County. A prominent and wealthy slaveholder had the custom of allowing his servants to have imposing funerals, when their kindred and friends died; but those services were always conducted by a white minister. In some way the fame of Jasper had penetrated that community, and one of the slaves asked his master to let Jasper come and attend the funeral. But to this the master made an objection. He knew nothing about Jasper, and did not believe that any negro was capable of preaching the Gospel with good effect. This negro was not discouraged by the refusal of the proprietor of the great plantation to grant his request. He went out and collected a number of most trustworthy and influential negro men and they came in a body to his master and renewed the plea. They told him in their way about what a great man Jasper was, how anxious they were to hear him, what a comfort his presence would be to the afflicted family, and how thankful they would be to have their request honoured. They won their point in part. He said to them, as if yielding reluctantly, "very well, let him come." They however had something more to say. They knew Jasper would need to have a good reason in order to get his master's consent for him to come, and they knew that Jasper would not
come unless he came under the invitation and protection of the white people, and therefore they asked the gentleman if he would not write a letter inviting him to come. Accordingly, in a spirit of compromise and courtesy very pleasing to the coloured people, the letter was written and Jasper came.
The news of his expected coming spread like a flame. Not only the country people in large numbers, but quite a few of the Richmond people, made ready to attend the great occasion. Jasper went out in a private conveyance, the distance not being great, and, in his kind wish to take along as many friends as possible, he overloaded the wagon and had a breakdown. The delay in his arrival was very long and unexplained; but still the people lingered and beguiled the time with informal religious services.
At length the Richmond celebrity appeared on the scene late in the day. The desire to hear him was imperative, and John Jasper was equal to the occasion. Late as the hour was, and wearied as were the people, he spoke with overmastering power. The owner of the great company of slaves on that plantation was among his hearers, and he could not resist the spell of devout eloquence which poured from the lips of the unscholared Jasper. It was a sermon from the heart, full of personal passion and hot with
gospel fervour, and the heart of the lord of the plantation was powerfully moved. He undertook to engage Jasper to preach on the succeeding Sunday and handed the blushing preacher quite a substantial monetary token of his appreciation.
The day was accounted memorable by reason of the impression which Jasper made. Indeed, Jasper was a master of assemblies. No politician could handle a crowd with more consummate tact than he. He was the king of hearts and could sway throngs as the wind shakes the trees.
There is a facetious story abroad among the negroes that in those days Jasper went to Farmville to officiate on a funeral occasion where quite a number of the dead were to have their virtues commemorated and where their "mourning friends," as Jasper in time came to call them, were to be comforted. The news that Jasper was to be there went out on the wings of the wind and vast throngs attended. Of course, a white minister was present and understood that he was the master of ceremonies. The story is, that he felt that it would not be safe to entrust an occasion so vastly interesting to the hands of Jasper, and he decided that he would quiet Jasper and satisfy the public demands by calling on Jasper to pray. As in fact, Jasper was about as much of an orator in speaking to heaven as he
was in speaking to mortal men. His prayer had such contagious and irresistible eloquence that whatever the Lord did about it, it surely brought quite a resistless response from the crowd. When the white preacher ended his tame and sapless address, the multitude cried out for Jasper. Inspired by the occasion and emboldened by the evident disposition to shut him out, Jasper took fire and on eagle wings he mounted into the heavens and gave such a brilliant and captivating address that the vast crowd went wild with joy and enthusiasm.
There is yet another story of a time when Jasper was called into the country where he and a white minister were to take part in one of the combined funerals so common at that time. Upon arriving at the church the white minister was unutterably shocked to find that his associate in the services was a negro. That was too much for him, and he decided on the spot that if he went in, Jasper would have to stay out, and he decided that he would go in and would stay in until the time was over and leave Jasper to his reflections on the outside. For two hours the white brother beat the air, killed time, and quite wearied the crowd by his lumbering and tiresome discourse. After he had arrived at the point where it seemed that no more could be said, the exhausted and exhausting brother closed his sermon and was arranging to end
the service. But the people would not have it so. Tumultuously they cried out for Jasper, - a cry in which the whites outdid the blacks. It was not in Jasper to ignore such appreciation. Of all men, he had the least desire or idea of being snubbed or side-tracked. With that mischievous smile which was born of the jubilant courage of his soul, Jasper came forth. He knew well the boundaries of his rights, and needed no danger signals to warn him off hostile ground. For fifteen or twenty minutes he poured forth a torrent of passionate oratory, - not empty and frivolous words, but a message rich with comfort and help, and uttered only as he could utter it. The effect was electrical. The white people crowded around him to congratulate and thank him, and went away telling the story of his greatness.
Tradition has failed to give us the name of the ill-fated brother who in seeking to kill time, seemed to have got knocked into oblivion. It is worth while to say that the white ministers were within the law in attending occasions like those described above and felt the necessity of care and discretion in managing the exercises, lest the hostilities of irreligious people should be excited against the negroes. It is due to the white people, and especially to that denomination to which John Jasper was associated, to say that under their influence the negroes, who were practically
barbarians when they were brought into the South, were civilized and Christianized. A large proportion of them were well-mannered and nobly-behaved Christians at the time their slavery ended. The church buildings were always constructed so that the white people and the negroes could worship in the same house. They were baptized by the same minister, they sat down together at the communion table, they heard the same sermons, sang the same songs, were converted at the same meetings, and were baptized at the same time. Ofttimes, and in almost all places, they were allowed to have services to themselves. In this, of course, they enjoyed a larger freedom than when they met in the same house with the white people.
They know little of the facts who imagine that there was estrangement and alienation between the negroes and the whites in the matter of religion. Far from it. There was much of good fellowship between the whites and negroes in the churches, and the white ministers took notable interest in the religious welfare of the slaves. They often visited them pastorally and gladly talked with them about their salvation. These chapter's are not intended either to defend or to condemn slavery; but in picturing the condition of things which encompassed Jasper during the days of slavery, it is worth while to let it be understood that it was during their bondage
and under the Christian influence of Southern people, that the negroes of the South were made a Christian people. It was the best piece of missionary work ever yet done upon the face of the earth.
Another fact should be referred to here. Jasper was a pastor in the City of Petersburg even before the breaking out of the Civil War. He had charge of one of the less prominent negro churches and went over from Richmond for two Sundays in each month. This, of course, showed the enlargement of his liberty, that he could take the time to leave the city so often in pursuance of his ministerial work.
It need hardly be mentioned that his presence in Petersburg brought unusual agitation. He fairly depopulated the other negro churches and drew crowds that could not be accommodated. When it was rumoured that Jasper was to preach for the first time on Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Keene, of the First Baptist Church, and many other white people attended. They were much concerned lest his coming should produce a disturbance, and they went with the idea of preventing any undue excitement. Jasper, flaming with fervid zeal and exhilarated with the freedom of the truth, carried everything before him. He had not preached long before the critical white people were stirred to the depths of their souls and their emotion showed in their weeping.
They beheld and felt the wonderful power of the man. It is said that Dr. Keene was completely captivated, and recognized in Jasper a man whom God had called.
[From William Eldridge Hatcher, John Jasper: the Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher, 1908, pp. 36-46. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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