The Early Life of Francis J. Grimké
The history of slave and master in the American South is a complicated one, involving brutalities and intimacies equal in their intensity and in their impact on all concerned. One such instance is the life of Francis James Grimké (1850–1937). Born October 10, 1850 to a slave mother, Nancy Weston, and her owner, Henry Grimké, he was the son of an aristocratic slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina and a relative of the famous abolitionist sisters Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimké.
Henry Grimké died of yellow fever when Francis was five years old, having stipulated that Nancy Weston and all of her children be placed in the possession of his oldest son and Francis’s half-brother, E. Montague. By custom, Montague was to “retain nominal ownership” and “regard the slaves as members of the family, thereby insuring their virtual freedom.”1 Montague respected the informal freedom intended by Henry Grimké for five years before attempting to re-enslave the three boys to personally serve his second wife. Francis attempted to avoid being re-enslaved by joining the Confederate Army, where he served for two years as an officer’s valet. Young Francis managed to evade Montague’s plots until Emancipation. After Emancipation, Mrs. Frances Pillsbury, the administrator of Morris Street School and a veteran educator and abolitionist from the north, sent Francis and his brother Archibald to Massachusetts to continue their education.
In 1871 he began studying law at Lincoln Univesersity, and in 1872 he moved to Washington, D.C. to continue pursuit of a law degree at Howard University. While at Howard University, Grimké felt called to the Christian ministry. He left Howard in 1874 to pursue theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary under the leadership of Charles Hodge. At Princeton, Francis received a thoroughly Reformed understanding of the Christian faith grounded in a high view of the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Scriptures. In 1936, sixty-two years after his entrance to Princeton, he wrote in his journal:
I accept, and accept without reservation, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s Word, sent to Adam’s sinful race and pointing out the only way by which it can be saved. [W]ithout the Holy Scriptures and what they reveal, there is no hope for humanity. To build on anything else is to build on the sand.2
Grimké graduated from Princeton in 1878 and soon after began his public ministry at the affluent 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. On December 19 of that same year Grimké married Charlotte Forten, granddaughter of influential businessman, activist, and abolitionist James Forten, Sr. of Philadelphia. Charlotte inherited her grandfather’s—indeed the Forten family’s—activist character and along with Francis formed a formidable duo for racial justice and women’s rights.
The Church's Role in the World
Aside from a brief stint from 1885–1889 at Laura Street Church in Jacksonville, Florida, Grimké served as pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church for his entire six decades of Christian ministry. Dr. Grimké’s pastoral career spanned the tumultuous periods from Reconstruction through the post-World War I era. The social changes and upheavals accompanying these periods, Grimké believed, required the guidance of men and women tutored by the gospel of Jesus Christ and fortified with Christian character. Though he remained first and foremost a pastor, Christian engagement with public pursuits was critical. A significant portion of his life was dedicated to wider public aims—serving as a trustee at Howard University, helping found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1906, creating educational opportunities, improving race relations, and encouraging suffrage.
And nowhere was his public life more critical and stinging than in his appraisal of the church and “Christian” hypocrisy in the face of injustice.
He thought of men and measures as good or bad. Expediency did not figure very much in his make-up. Diplomacy did not count for much with him. What could not be justified as the proper thing for mankind he frankly disapproved. His creed was to do right and thus be in a position to urge upon others the same duty without fear and trembling. He never preached what he did not earnestly try to practice. For the hypocrite he had the greatest contempt. He had no use for the minister who selfishly advanced himself at the expense of the church, or who used the pulpit to advertise himself before the world.3
From his own upbringing, Grimké knew the contradiction between profession and committed action. He witnessed the lash applied to enslaved Africans and the inhumane cruelty of selling “brothers” to the highest bidder. That the particular band of “brothers” known as Christians could be capable of the same treacherous hypocrisy was plain to Grimké as he observed the silence and inaction of both white and black churches in the face of racial injustice. Consequently he dedicated himself to expositing the role of the church in the world.
He understood that two great obstacles assaulted the church: ignorance and demagogism. Ignorance he thought could be combated with education and learning. But demagogism, or “the combination of unprincipled men within the church to get control, the monopoly of all positions of honor and trust of a general character,” needed the warring reaction of godly men who would protect the church and drive out unprincipled men. Without such a warfare, Francis Grimké believed, “the usefulness of the church [was] at an end,” and though “it may increase in numbers . . . in moral and spiritual power it will become a constantly diminishing factor.”4
No stronger charge and warning could be issued to today’s pastors and church leaders. In our time we need to hear the voice of Dr. Francis James Grimké as he beckons us to both reform the church and the men who lead her and to reform society with the gospel of Jesus Christ and Christian witness.
Grimké fought hard to maintain a gospel focus in all his ministerial endeavors and to apply that focus to the major social issues of his day. It seems to have always been the case that pastors are asked to represent every social concern their congregations and communities deem important. Grimké offers us one model for preserving and emphasizing the primary calling of preaching the gospel with Christ-centered activism in important social concerns.
In his 1892 sermon “The Afro-American Pulpit in Relation to Race Elevation,” Grimké sets his gaze on the issue of race elevation or progress among African-Americans and the responsibility that the African- American church owned in that progress. Grimké’s thesis was, “If we [African-Americans] are to stand, if our rise is to be permanent, if we are not to pass away like the morning mist, or wither like the grass, beneath the material and intellectual there must be a moral basis.” For Grimké, the essential ingredient to progress was character, Christian character. “What we need most of all is character,” he declared in the opening lines. In “The Afro-American Pulpit in Relation to Race Elevation,” he sought to raise up a biblical standard for ministers in their endeavor to build character and to evaluate whether his contemporaries were in fact meeting that standard. Ministers, he argued, were to follow the examples provided by the prophets, the apostles, and most importantly Christ Jesus himself. The standard that Jesus and His messengers raised was faithfulness in proclaiming justification by faith alone in Christ alone on the one hand and the outworking of that faith in Christian virtue as evidence of genuine faith on the other. Grimké maintained that if a minister were to “fulfill his high mission as God’s representative and . . . make himself felt as a moral force in properly directing the budding and expanding life about him,” he must both faithfully proclaim the gospel and also faithfully cultivate Christian character in himself and his people.
Ministers, he argued, were to follow the examples provided by the prophets, the apostles, and most importantly Christ Jesus himself.
Grimké's Challenge to the Church
If “The Afro-American Pulpit and Its Relation to Race Elevation” chastised black pastors who were performing beneath the high call of Christian ministry, “Christianity and Race Prejudice” excoriated the white Christian church for its duplicity in race-related problems. Dr. Grimké chose for his text the famous exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:9—”How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” The first part of the sermon, delivered on May 29, 1910, presented a basic description of race prejudice, the tenets of Christianity, and an exploration of the attitude of American Christianity toward race prejudice. Grimké held race prejudice to be utterly contradictory to the character of Jesus and the principles of Christianity—“there is not to be found anywhere in the religion of Jesus Christ anything upon which it can stand, anything by which it can be justified, or even extenuated.”
Grimké confessed to being surprised at “how little influence the religion of Jesus Christ has had in controlling the prejudice of men, in lifting them above the low plane upon which race prejudice places them.” He found professing Christians too much at-home with prejudice in their churches: “Race prejudice is not the monopoly of the infidel, of the atheist, of the man of the world. It is shared equally by so-called professing Christians.” For Grimké, such a state of affairs demanded one of two responses: either the white church should “disavow any connection whatever with Christianity, to repudiate it, to give it up entirely, to break absolutely with it, to say frankly: I believe in race prejudice, in these discriminations,” or it ought to “bring its actual life in harmony with the great principles which it professes to accept, to believe in.” Grimké asserted that genuine Christianity, backed as it is by the omnipotent power of God, is not impotent in the face of racial prejudice and that the church should abide in that power by doing something about the prejudice of society. Above all, he believed in the power of God and the gospel as a source for renewal—personal, social, moral, and spiritual. “Christianity is not clay in the hands of the world-spirit to be molded by it, but is itself to be the moulder of public sentiment and everything else.” And in that sense “Christianity and Race Prejudice” is not about race prejudice per se but about the responsibility of Christian ministers, of all Christians, and of the church to resist whatever evils exist contrary to Christ with the Word of Christ and the example of Christlikeness.
What Does This Mean for Today's Church?
For those who struggle today with understanding the role and work of churches confronted with social injustice, Grimké’s prescriptions for the race problems of his day are applicable. He proffered that the way to defeat race prejudice was for the white church to (1) dedicate itself to the careful teaching of God’s Word in educating its members and (2) to live out that Word in the world. No other power than God’s living Word incarnated in the lives of his people is necessary, and this power unleashed in millions of professing Christians could change the race problem almost overnight. Indeed, nothing has ever changed individual lives and entire societies like the peacefully conquering power of the gospel of Jesus Christ rightly taught and rightly lived. And nothing has ever formed so solid a foundation upon which to build a ministry and a church.
This article is adapted from The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors by Thabiti Anyabwile.
1. Henry J. Ferry, Francis James Grimké: Portrait of a Black Puritan (New Haven, CT: Yale University, Ph.D. dissertation, 1970), p. 9. Ferry’s dissertation is the only book-length treatment of the life of Grimké.
2. Francis J. Grimké, The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 3: Stray Thoughts and Meditations (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1942).
3. Carter G. Woodson, Introduction, The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 3: Stray Thoughts and Meditations, p. iv.
4. Francis J. Grimké, “Addresses Dealing with the Careers of Distinguished Americans: Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne,” in Carter G. Woodson, ed., The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 1: Addresses Mainly Personal and Racial (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1942), p. 13.
If the church is to prosper and mature, she will need faithful men to lead and care for her.
When the eternal Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us, he crossed an infinite chasm.
The following three examples are among some of the most quintessentially Henrician lessons I’ve learned.