John Jasper was one of the most famous black preachers of the 19th century and remains one of the most celebrated slave preachers. Jasper was born to Philip and Tina Jasper on July 4, 1812, the youngest of 24 children on Peachy Plantation, Fluvanna County, Virginia. His mother was a devout Christian, and his father was a Baptist preacher. Two months before Jasper’s birth, his father died. When Jasper was born, neighbors encouraged his mother to name him after his deceased father. However, she was inspired to name him after the beloved disciple John.
At 22 years of age, John met 18-year-old Elvy Weaden, a slave girl from another plantation. On the very same night, they were married. Their marriage, however, did not last long. Jasper and his new bride were found and thought to be trying to escape. Jasper tried to explain he was just married. His pleading was ignored and he was sent to Richmond.
Elvy did not understand and within a few moths sent word that if he did not come to see her she would remarry. Jasper pleaded with his owner, John Peachy, but Peachy refused to let Jasper go, so Jasper sent word to his wife that he could not come. Word was sent back: “Elvy is married again.” This tragedy caused Jasper to become bitter. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of many other tragedies.
Jasper had two other marriages, one ill-fated and the other ending by death. Finally, he married his fourth wife, Martha, in 1876; she survived John.
Just before Jasper’s second marriage, he was sold to Samuel Hardgrove, a devout member and deacon of the First Baptist Church of Richmond. Hardgrove’s deep religious convictions had a profound influence on Jasper. While working as a tobacco stemmer, Jasper, at age 27, converted to Christianity. He was persuaded and convinced by the power of God that he had been called to the sacred work of the gospel. His calling to preach occurred the same day he was converted.
When the members of First African Baptist Church in Richmond (also known in some historical documents as Old African Baptist Church) heard of Jasper’s conversion, they approved his baptism. The same day, he preached a funeral. Jasper did so well that no one wanted to send a loved one to glory without Jasper preaching. Thirty days after his baptism, the members of First African Baptist Church licensed Jasper to preach.
In April 1865, after working in the rolling mill in Richmond, Jasper was given his freedom. In 1867, after the Civil War and at the age of 55, Jasper organized the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in a horse stable with nine members and a $9 per week salary. The congregation purchased a small Presbyterian Church in Richmond at Dwight and St. John streets for $2,025 and spent another $6,000 remodeling and enlarging the building. The congregation grew from nine members to more than 1,000 and soon 2,000. Jasper reached the height of his preaching ministry as pastor of Sixth Mount where he served for more than 30 years.
Unfortunately, we have no written or published sermons of Jasper’s time as a slave. He did not write his sermons, but preached extemporaneously during that period of his ministry. Some of his post-slavery sermons, however, were reprinted by Clyde E. Fant and William Pinson in their collection of 20th century sermons and transcribed by William E. Hatcher [Jasper’s dialect], in his autobiography of John Jasper.
Jasper described his sermon preparation this way: “First, I read my Bible until a text gets hold of me. Then I go down to the James River and walk in it. Then I get into my pulpit and preach it out.” Jasper gained national fame as a preacher in 1878 when he first preached “The Sun Do Move.” The sermon evolved from a dispute between two members of his congregation concerning whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth around the sun.
Because they could not come to an agreeable conclusion, they brought their dispute to their pastor. Jasper immediately went to the Bible and preached this sermon to argue the sun does revolve around the earth. Thousands gathered at Sixth Mount Zion to hear this sermon when it was first preached. Jasper went on to deliver the sermon by invitation more than 250 times, including once before the entire Virginia General Assembly.
What made Jasper’s “The Sun Do Move” sermon so popular is that it opposed a new scientific theory known as Darwinism, attributed to the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Although Jasper’s claim sounded ridiculous to some, thousands came to hear it because he argued his unusual theory through Scripture in opposition to Darwinism. People came from everywhere to hear Jasper’s scientific and biblical claim. His sermon text was
It is on the basis of a literal reading that Jasper built his argument. His central claim is that if God made the sun stand still, then the “sun do move.” Jasper believed the Bible and often settled heated disputes and other matters with biblical references. He not only used the Bible as the authority to prove the sun moves; but also in this same sermon, he claimed the earth is square. He founded this theory while reading the first verse in the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelation. Jasper said four angels were standing on the four corners of the earth. He asked the congregation, rhetorically, if the earth is round, where does it keep its corners? Jasper claimed the earth was square and not round and that the Bible supported his theory.
Many people, including preachers, criticized Jasper’s nonscientific claims about the workings of the universe, but for Jasper to change his position would have required him to change his understanding of God and the God-given Scripture. In his literalistic hermeneutic, Jasper argued the Bible never contradicts itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. Whenever he preached, Jasper often would say, “These are not Jasper’s words but the Bible’s, and I believe in the Word of God.”
His belief in the authority of God’s Word was so strong and convincing that when others—doubtful about his theories—heard him, they were persuaded to believe not in the sun moving but in John Jasper. Richard Day writes one of the comments from a Richmond reporter: “I was surprised, but I managed to get into Mt. Zion. I laughed when I should and I cried too. Jasper’s respect for the Bible, his keen wit, his power in pathos was irresistible…In closing his sermon Jasper said, ‘Whenever you see a fourloserfer wat contradicts God’s Word, tell him, Good Night!’ The old rascal turned to the White ladies and said, ‘I see de bloom uv kulchur in youh faces. Think it over! I wants ever’ one ter vote. If you believes de sun do move, hole up youh han!’ My hand went up. But I did not vote that the sun moved. I voted for John Jasper.”
The Bible was Jasper’s sole authority, and he used it in a manner that made it difficult to argue against his case. His love and faith in the Bible caused him to be appreciated not only by his beloved members, but also by his critics.
Today, we must employ sound exegesis when preaching, be careful of proof-texting and eisegesis, cause Scripture to come alive in the hearts and lives of people, relate it to their day-to-day experiences, and believe that what we preach is God’s Word. One can take from Jasper’s popularity as a preacher the importance of possessing some type of authority to preach. Jasper’s belief that God called him gave him the authority to face critics with confidence. When one recognizes he or she has authority, whether given or inherited, one is more likely—as John Jasper—to stand confidently.
John Jasper died March 28, 1901, at the age of 89, a celebrated, respected and prominent preacher. His last words were, “I have finished my work and am down at the River, looking for further orders.” May we be able to say the same in the end.
For a detailed account of John Jasper’s conversion experience, see William E. Hatcher, John Jasper: The Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 23-9.