Rev. Mark R. Bradshaw-Miller
“The Life and Witness of Reverend Francis Grimke”
Amos 8:1-14; Luke 6:46-49
Francis J. Grimke was born on November 4th 1850, in Charleston South Carolina. His father, Henry Grimke, was one of the most prominent white men in all the Southern United States. Nancy Weston Grimke, Francis’ mother, was a slave of the Grimke Family. As you can imagine the rest of this prominent family was not pleased with this relationship. It appears the societal pressure was so great that Henry moved the family: Nancy, Francis and his brother Archibald, to the Charleston countryside.
Francis was five years old when his father died. Upon his death Henry freed Nancy and made his two sons free wards of his brother Montague. For five years Montague Grimke followed the wishes of his brother. But then he went back on his word and re-enslaved his own nephews.
Upon hearing the news, Francis ran
away and served as a valet to a confederate army officer. A few years later Francis’ regiment returned
war, Francis’ life would take many turns.
A former teacher of Francis and his brother Archibald became their beneficiary. Mrs. Pillsbury, of
Mrs. Pillsbury arranged for Francis
to apprentice with a doctor in
For a while
he did an apprenticeship as a shoe maker.
However this too did not suit Francis.
Fortunately life was about to take a very different turn. On one of his visits to the freedman’s bureau
he received a letter from Mrs. Pillsbury that would change the direction of
both he and his brothers lives. She had
arranged for them to interview at
During their interview, the
brothers were accepted with one condition.
They would have one year to catch up on their studies and pass the
entrance exam. If they could not pass they
would have to return to
their time at
their time at
Francis was well known as a preacher, but not because he said what people wanted to hear. Reverend Grimke was not one to shy away from controversy or from preaching a challenging word. He often preached that black people were obligated to fight for their very lives in ways that would shock many. He once said: “I am not saying that it is wise for the Negro to resort to violence, but I am saying that sometimes violence is the means which God uses to arouse the sleeping conscious. I trust that it may not be necessary, but if it must come, then I for one say, let it come, and the sooner it comes, the better…We should use any means at our disposal to end racial injustice.”
Within his chosen denomination he was often
engaged in struggles. He challenged a specific
Presbyterian Church that was unabashedly racist. The policy of the church regarding
African-Americans was out of sight, out of mind. And when denominational responsibilities
required the encountering of white and black folk, the tradition was for the
Black clergy to remain silent and go along.
But Francis was not about to play by these rules. He was deeply proud to be a gadfly in his
church. He was never willing to leave
the denomination but he was also unwilling to remain silent. When the Northern Presbyterian Church began
talks regarding reunion with the Cumberland Presbyterians, Reverend Grimke led
the charge against reunion because the
Reverend Francis Grimke was a preacher whose activism was a natural extension of his belief in Jesus Christ. Grimke wrote: “The only really effective way to confess Jesus Christ is to accept his principles, to live them – to follow his noble example.” Our scripture from this morning laid it out pretty clear. Jesus said: “Why do you call me Lord and do not do what I tell you?” How can you call me Lord and allow injustice to continue. The two just cannot go together. For Grimke this has undeniable connections to the struggle for racial equality.
Reverend Grimke knew that the struggle for racial equality was going to be long and hard. He lived in an era when the gains made in the reconstruction were all but erased in this country. However, despite all that he did not loose hope. In the midst of one setback he wrote: “Because God reigns, there is hope for the oppressed, for the downtrodden, for all upon whose necks the iron heel of oppression rests. There need be no fear as to the final assault, as to the final issue.”
Though Francis Grimke continued to educate and to agitate white America, he did not reserve his challenges for them alone. It is not well known, that Francis Grimke was the first leader in the black community to challenge Booker T. Washington. Grimke was openly critical of Washington because Grimke believed that Washington was to willing to accommodate to white perceptions of black inferiority. Grimke also disagreed with Washington’s willingness to forgo civil and political rights, particularly in the area of equal access to housing. His challenges to Washington’s teachings opened the door for a greater dialogue between African Americans on the best ways to achieve racial equality.
However, despite his criticism, Grimke and Washington were close. Like Washington, Grimke believed that self improvement was the absolute duty of all people. Grimke himself kept rigid standards of conduct for himself and expected the same for others. He believed the highest virtues were: Honesty, prudence, chastity, temperance, loyalty and generosity to the poor. He not only preached this, but was a living example of his own preaching.
Reverend Francis Grimke is not a name that is well known today. This is an unfortunate loss, not only to the African-American community, but to the whole Christian community and particularly the Presbyterian Church. It is hard to say why this man, who built his foundation on the solid rock of Jesus, has all but been forgotten. But, whatever the reason, we will give thanks for his life and witness. May his witness lead us to build our foundations on that same solid rock so that when we face struggles, and we will, that we too can lean on Jesus Christ. Amen.