By Lloyd Streeter
Who was the best pulpiteer, the finest orator, the most talented preacher in the history of American Christianity? Of course, talent in the pulpit is not everything; and most people would say that it is not enough. A preacher must also have spirituality and a heart for service. Nevertheless, those who study preaching and preachers would have a variety of opinions about such a question. Some, no doubt, would say that Jonathan Edwards, Congregationalist, Calvinist theologian, scholar, pastor, and president of Princeton University was the greatest American preacher because his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” triggered the Great Awaking.
Others might say that Dwight L. Moody, the Presbyterian evangelist and founder of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was the greatest pulpiteer in the history of our country, because of his moving and powerful preaching which brought more people to repentance and faith in Christ than did any other preacher before or since.
Still other observers would say that Henry Allen “Harry” Ironside was the most effective and talented preacher. He was a Plymouth Brethren Bible teacher, pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, and the author of more than sixty books (most of them still in print today).
I would cast my vote, along with some other thoughtful observers, for John Jasper of Richmond, Virginia. He is believed by many to be the greatest orator, whether preacher or politician, whether black or white, in all of American history. Historians, however, have rarely mentioned him, precisely, I think, because he was black.
John Jasper was born a slave on July 4, 1812, on Fluvanna Plantation, near Richmond. He was a third generation slave in America, his grandfather having been stolen from his homeland, packed into a slave ship, and sold into bondage. John’s father was a slave and a Baptist preacher, but died before John was born. All three generations of the Jaspers were slaves on the same Fluvanna Plantation, on the James River, thirty miles from Richmond. The plantation was owned by one of the first families of Virginia, the Peachy family.
John’s mother, Tina, had been a field hand, but had been disabled for field work, so she was moved closer to the great house where she was put to work making clothes for the slaves. John, her twenty-fourth and youngest child, stayed near her side and worked in the garden. The Jaspers loved Mr. and Mrs. Peachy who, in turn, treated their slaves with love and respect.
John learned a certain courtliness, a sort of aristocratic behavior, from the Peachys, a dignified people who lived in an elegant home. John exhibited some of this courtly behavior all through life, though he also later used, in his sermons, the slang and expressions of field hands.
In 1827, when John was fifteen, he was hired out to a tobacco factory. His overseer was Mr. Samuel Hardgrave, a Christian man who took a deep interest in the young slave’s spiritual welfare. Meanwhile, the elderly Peachys, who had treated their slaves so well, both died.
When John was twenty-two, he met an eighteen-year-old slave girl from another plantation. He fell in love with Elvy and they were quickly married. That same night, John Peachy, son of the kind old plantation owners who had helped rear John, sent out armed guards to bring his slaves home (some of them were running away). The guards found Jasper and his bride in their honeymoon cabin. He pleaded that he had no intention of running away and that he was just married. His pleading was of no avail. The couple were separated, a tearful farewell, and he was taken back to Fluvanna. He never saw his bride again.
Eventually, Samuel Hardgrove purchased Jasper outright. The young slave was a stemmer at a factory. He pulled stems out of the tobacco leaves.
John was saved in 1839. He came under conviction while in downtown Richmond on his birthday, July 4th. He was praying and searching for the Lord every day until finally on July 28, he was saved. On that day he was working in the tobacco factory. He told of the experience later in one of his sermons and it was reported word for word in the Richmond newspapers.
In his field hand dialect, he tells about his salvation:
Fac’ is bruthr’n, de darkness uv death wuz in my soul dat mornin’. My sins was pile’ on me like mount’ns; my feet wuz sinkin’ down ter de reguns of despar, an’ I felt dat uv all sinners I wuz de wust. I tho’t dat I would die right den, an’ wid wat I suppose’ wuz my lars’ breath I flung up to heav’n a cry for mercy. Befo’ I kno’d it, de light broke; I wuz light as a feather; my feet wuz on de mount’n; salvation roll’ like a flood through my soul, an’ I felt as if I could knock off de factory roof wid my shouts.
Jasper continued to work as a slave until freed after the Civil War. Hardgrave gave him liberty to go preach any time, any where. John started his church in an old horse shed. He had nine members. But eventually, with God’s help, he and his congregation worked their way up to where they built a huge brick structure in downtown Richmond. They called it the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.
An old newspaper report says that John was asked, “Mr. Jasper, does the name ‘Sixth Mount Zion’ mean there were five other Mount Zion Baptist Churches?”
“No suh,” he replied, “We jus’ liked de name.”
Eventually, his church had more than a thousand adult members and thousands more, both black and white, flocked to the church to hear Jasper preach. His eloquence was beyond description as he extolled his Lord in sermonic masterpieces with titles, such as, “Whar Sin Come From,” “De Stone Cut Out uv de Mount’n” and “Comin’ for to Carry Me Home.”
This last title was preached just two weeks before his death. At age eighty-nine, he painfully climbed the pulpit stairs, sensed the tension of his people, read from his Bible, closed it, took off his glasses, looked around, smiled, and said, “My time in dis worl’ am skin deep, an’ wen I look at my han’ an’ think how thin de skin is, I feel shu’ah nuf mus soon be gwine!”
People began to weep. Jasper straightened and shouted, “I’s no mo’ skeered uv death dan uv a hossfly.”
He then went on to carry out an imaginary conversation with an angel; Jasper speaking both sides of the conversation.
“You don’t deserve ter come in heah, John Jasper.”
“I knows it. But I ain’t countin’ on comin’ in heah on my merits! I’m countin’ on comin’ in on de merits uv my Jesus!”
“Come in heah!” shouted the angel jerking open the gate, “I can’t ba’ah de doors ter enyone wat talks dat way!”
On the last Sunday of his life on this Earth, Jasper preached on the subject, “Ye Must be Born Again.” His text was John 3:7. He urged his hearers to meet God’s conditions. Then he limped back to the parsonage and to his room. On March 28, 1901, he rallied long enough to whisper his last words:
“I have finished my work. I am waiting at the river, looking for further orders.”
He was a little over fifty-five when he organized the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. But he pastored the church for thirty-three and a half years. He had an overcoming faith. He overcame poverty, slavery, illiteracy, and prejudice. John Jasper–the greatest pulpiteer in American history.