Born on the 4th of July
Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia was a most depressing place to be in March of 1865. The doctors and staff were in dire straits, as were the wounded and dying Confederate soldiers who languished there. Medical supplies were in short supply, especially morphine. The gloom of death permeated the halls and stalked the wounded. Pain was the soldiers’ constant companion, and routine sicknesses and infections were often fatal.
Unsanitary conditions made the situation even worse. One of every 10 Confederates brought to Chimborazo with diarrhea or dysentery died. The overall mortality rate was 20 percent — actually good by 19th-century standards. Mixed with the stench of gangrene was the scent of the day’s “medicines” — turpentine, camphor, castor oil and whiskey.
(My own great-great grandfather, John Meredith Crutchfield, was one of the Confederate soldiers at Chimborazo and died there in March of 1865.)
Yet even in the cruel despair of war and death, a kind Providence often sends hope. In the final days of the war, hope came to Chimborazo in the form of a preacher. This preacher had to get special permission from the Confederate authorities to minister to the wounded at Chimborazo.
Permission was granted, and the preacher roamed the 150 wards of the hospital — praying with and for the wounded and dying. It was the perfect opportunity for a minister of the Gospel — the chance to share eternal salvation with those facing eternity. There was something unusual about this preacher. He was a slave. His name was John Jasper.
John Jasper was born the 24th child of slaves Philip and Tina Jasper on Independence Day in 1812. John’s mother was a devout Christian and prayed that God would call her son to become a preacher. However, as a young man, Jasper became bitter after his master cruelly separated him from his first wife.
Jasper’s bitterness caused him to sink deeper and deeper into a lascivious lifestyle. He eventually was purchased by a kindhearted Richmond businessman by the name of Samuel Hardgrove. Hardgrove was known for his personal piety, and his concern for Jasper’s spiritual welfare was obvious.
He was a deacon and member of the First Baptist Church of Richmond; his obituary in 1862 called him “a great citizen, businessman and Christian.”
Hardgrove prayed earnestly for Jasper’s conversion, and it was largely because of his kindness that Jasper acquired and retained a love for the white race — even though it was the white race that denied him his freedom.
Jasper would later speak of Hardgrove’s piety and kindness toward him and the influence Hardgrove had had on his life. When Jasper was converted in Hardgrove’s tobacco warehouse in 1839, Hardgrove immediately sent for him. After hearing John tell the story of his redemption, the two men wept openly together. According to the original biography of Jasper by W.E. Hatcher, John Jasper: The Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher, Jasper relates what happened next:
“Den Marse Sam did a thing dat nearly made me drop ter de flo’. He git out uv his chair an’ walk over ter me an’ give me his han’, an’ he say: ‘John, I wish you mighty well. Your Saviour is mine, and we are brothers in the Lord.’ Wen he say dat I turn ‘roun’ an put my arm agin de wall, an’ put my fist in my mouf ter keep from shoutin’.”
By now Hardgrove was overcome with emotion and according to Jasper:
“Marse Sam’s face wuz rainin’ tears, an’ he say: ‘John, you needn’t work any more today. I’m giving you a holiday … go tell your mother, go round to your neighbors and tell them; go anywhere you want to and tell them the good news. It’ll do you good and do them good.’ Af’er awhile Marse Sam lif’ up dem kin’ black eyes uv his an’ say: ‘Keep telling it, John … wherever you go, tell it!’ ”
Though illiterate at the time of his conversion, according to Richard Day’s book, Rhapsody in Black: The Story of John Jasper, Jasper was taught to read by another slave shortly after his conversion and was a much-sought-after preacher — especially for slave funerals. He became a leader among his people, and when Richmond fell and descended into chaos in April 1865, Jasper stood in the streets and (eschewing his black dialect as he was wont to do at times) pleaded with looters: “Richmond has fallen! We are free! But in the name of God let us act like men!”
There, on the streets of the war-ravaged, fallen capital of the Confederacy, at age 53, free for the first time in his life, with only 73 cents to his name, John Jasper gazed at the destruction and despair and wondered how he would support his wife and nine children.
But Jasper was no quitter. From that April through July, he worked for the city of Richmond, cleaning bricks at 50 cents a thousand so the city could begin the long process of rebuilding. His friends would sometimes encounter him on the streets covered from head to toe with lime dust, and he would laugh, “I’m jes’ like Paul: de preachin’ business got so bad he had to go back to tent-makin’!”
Jasper’s own enterprising spirit, hard work and sheer determination in the face of what for most men would be insurmountable odds was inspiring to many. In the winter of 1867, he became the first black minister to organize a church in postwar Richmond.
In another providential irony, Jasper’s first church building was an abandoned Confederate horse stable on Brown’s Island in the James River. His first service was organized with nine members, and his salary was $9 per week. After the war, many Richmond blacks sought refuge in the deserted shacks and shanties along the shore of the mighty James.
Jasper’s message and example were overpowering and attracted the despondent former slaves to his church. The congregation grew quickly, and after a few short years and several moves, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church occupied a beautiful brick edifice located in what was known at that time as “Little Africa.”
The structure contained close to 1,000 seats on the main floor and had modern gaslights. There were 16 windows that extended from the floor to the ceiling. Under the spacious pulpit platform, there was a baptistery, and a large bell in the tower would call all within hearing distance to worship.
For more than 30 years, Jasper preached and ministered to black and white alike from the pulpit of Sixth Mount Zion. The church is still located at the same spot and remains a vibrant ministry to this day. A room at the church is set aside and dedicated to Jasper’s memory. It contains many artifacts from his years there as pastor.
Jasper’s influence on the life of old Richmond is impressive. To this day, the mayor of Richmond opens City Council meetings with a gavel fashioned from wood taken from Jasper’s home after it was torn down.
It was Jasper’s preaching style and passionate love for his God that served as the principal attraction through his years as pastor of Sixth Mount Zion. John Jasper set an example of perseverance, faith and humility and was a shining example of the power of Christ’s forgiveness and love. Though Jasper was often treated unjustly, he never harbored bitterness toward anyone. He rose to prominence and preached to legislators, governors and other men of renown.
He once preached before members of the Virginia Legislature and stated, “I’ve read in the Bible that Pharaoh was an awful liar, just like they tell me most politicians are!”
Jasper’s wonderful sense of humor often brought smiles to visitors’ faces. When asked why Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church was named “Sixth” — were there five other Mount Zion Baptist Churches in Richmond? — Jasper answered, “No suh, we jes’ liked de name.”
On many occasions, white pastors in Richmond could find their missing members at Jasper’s church, their faces streaked with tears as Jasper preached a red-hot Gospel message filled with love and compassion. One prominent Virginian of the day proclaimed that Jasper was the greatest orator to ever come from the Old Dominion, greater even than Patrick Henry.
Jasper struck an imposing, dignified figure. He stood 6 feet tall and weighed 175 pounds. He was bald most of his life and wore a beard that was white in his later years. Neatly dressed in black coat, white shirt and white tie, with silver spectacles tied on top of his head with white string, he had an air about him that, while demanding respect, revealed a humbleness of spirit.
On Sunday, March 28, 1901, at age 88, the tired old man mounted his pulpit for the last time. His congregation sensed something was amiss, and many wept openly at the sight of their beloved pastor, who would soon pass from the scene.
Jasper himself sensed the end was near. But this battle-hardened Gospel warrior who had overcome slavery, lack of education and prejudice and had accomplished more in 30 years than most men accomplish in a lifetime, did not shrink from the final enemy.
“My chillun, my work on earth is done! I’se no mo’ skeered uv death dan uv a hossfly.” He preached his final sermon, walked slowly back to his home and went to his room to rest. Late in the afternoon, the ebony soldier of the cross stirred and whispered his last words: “I have finished my work. I am waiting at the River, looking across for further orders.” John Jasper is one of the best role models anyone could point to for courage, perseverance, overcoming adversity and love for his fellow man. He should be known by every school child in America. And he is one of my heroes.