WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

February 20th 2005

 

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 to Charleston.  He was recognized and placed in prison.  He nearly died behind bars before his mother was able to free him.  But freedom from jail meant a return to slavery.  Montague recognized he would have trouble making Francis serve him.  Montague decided to sell Francis to a confederate army officer who Francis served for the duration of the war.

            After the war, Francis’ life would take many turns.  A former teacher of Francis and his brother Archibald became their beneficiary.  Mrs. Pillsbury, of Boston, used her connections to find work and further schooling for both boys.  Unfortunately, her first attempt ended in an abysmal failure. 

Mrs. Pillsbury arranged for Francis to apprentice with a doctor in Massachusetts.  There was some miscommunication and by the time Francis presented his letter of introduction the position was filled.  The doctor offered him a job in the stables.  The only catch was that he would have to sleep with the animals.  After a short time in that drafty barn, Francis decided to go out on his own.

            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 Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania. 

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 Charleston.  This was all the motivation the brothers needed.

            During their time at Lincoln University, Archibald became known as a great public speaker and won many oratorical contests throughout the mid-Atlantic and northeast.  Francis was known as a quiet, serious, and focused young man.  So focused, that when he graduated in 1870 Francis was the class valedictorian.  Francis had become quite a scholar who had a passion that was reflected in his relentless pursuit of any task set before him.

            During their time at Lincoln University, Francis and Archibald became acquainted with two of their aunts living in the north.  The two boys had never met them.  Everything they had heard about them as children was not very nice.  Their uncle Montague had only bad things to say about Angelina and Sarah Grimke.  This was understandable since their aunts were leaders in the abolitionist movement which had caused them to be ‘requested’ never to return to Charleston.  Angelina, Sarah, Archibald and Francis remained extremely close for the rest of their lives.

            After graduation from Lincoln, Francis started Law school at Howard University.  Unlike his brother Archibald, who thrived at Harvard Law School, Francis became bored with the study of law.  He decided to follow his leadings to become a minister and attended Princeton Theological Seminary.  There were some concerns expressed about Francis’ quiet nature and soft voice being ill fitted to the life of a minister.  However, he graduated with high distinction and served as a Presbyterian for nearly forty years.

            Upon graduation from Princeton, Francis received a call to serve the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.  It is there that Francis became a real force in the city.  He served as a trustee at Howard University and for the D.C. public schools.  He lectured at Hampton University and the Tuskegee Institutes.  He became a leader in his community and well known in the nation wide struggle for racial equality.  Yet despite all his accolades Francis always saw himself as first and foremost a pastor.  In fact, when Francis was offered the Presidency of Howard University, he turned it down saying he could not leave the church.

            15th Street church was quite a place.  It was the church where Washington D.C.’s elite from the African-American community would worship.  But it was also a place where many white folks would come to hear this powerful preacher.  It was not uncommon on a Sunday morning to see members of Congress as well as members of the Supreme Court in the congregation. 

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 Cumberland church still practiced segregation.  

            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.