"If you is what you was, you ain’t."
In just eight words, slave preacher John Jasper was able to encapsulate the nature of man’s search for enlightenment.
Destined from birth to be a man of God – his father also was a slave preacher
and it was his mother’s dearest wish that her son "do nothin’ but sing de
praises of Jesus" – Jasper resisted his fate every step of the way. As a
young man, his lifestyle was far from sedate; he loved women and liquor and
made no secret of his enjoyment. Far from being Godly, instead, Jasper "served
in the army of sin and Satan for 28 years." (Richmond Times)
Then, one sunny day in 1839, he was relaxing on a park bench in Richmond, Virginia when, without warning, God struck.
"The Lord struck me first on Capital Square," said Jasper, "and I left there badly crippled."
His war with heaven lasted six pitiless weeks. God prevailed.
"My sins was piled on me like mountains; my feet was sinking down to the regions of despair, and I felt that of all sinners I was the worst. I thought that I would die right then, and with what I supposed was my last breath I flung up to heaven a cry for mercy..."
That was only the first of many battles for John Jasper. From that day forward, the focus of his existence was sharing the teachings of his Lord, but he had one impediment after another to overcome.
He was black. He was a slave. He was illiterate.
Nonetheless, he began to preach on a regular basis, first at funerals and later as a supply minister at various churches, and when people heard what he had to say, the demand for his services exploded.
"When Brother Jasper began to sing ‘bout goin’ up to heaven in a chariot of fire, I could see everything just as bright as day, and de people raised such a shout that I thought all de world was shoutin’…" (Parishioner Virginia Adams)
Then came the Civil War, the fall of Richmond, and Reconstruction. Suddenly, Jasper was a free man, with 70 cents in his pocket, $43 dollars in back rent owing, and no job. While he cleaned bricks at 50 cents per thousand, he continued to preach and, in 1867, he became the first black man to establish a church in postwar Richmond. On any given Sunday morning he could be seen leading a jubilant procession down to the James River for baptism; his record is said to be 300 souls in two hours.
His 1878 sermon "De Sun Do Move," in which he attempted to use Biblical references to prove that the sun moves across the sky, catapulted him into international fame, but made him a laughingstock. Nonetheless, he went on to deliver it more than 250 times, first in Richmond, where the entire Virginia General Assembly recessed and came to hear him speak, then in other parts of the Commonwealth, then in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, DC, always by request.
Jasper was a wondrously gifted speaker. His imagery was so vivid that people in the audience would get completely caught up in whatever story he happened to be relating.
"One day John Jasper was preaching on a favourite topic, Israel’s crossing the Red Sea to freedom. Pastor Jasper was urging the Israelites across the Red Sea, particularly one Israelite, who was lagging behind.
"One old sister was so overcome by the drama that she jumped up on the pew and yelled at this imaginary Israelite, ‘Hurry up, brother, git across, they cain’t git at you there!’ Physically, she was in her pew in the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, but in spirit she stood on the safe shore of the Red Sea, looking back at Egypt. She was not a mere spectator of the history, no mere historian, but she was a DISCIPLE, a PARTICIPANT in this glorious event." (Reverend Arie Blok)
Little is known of Jasper’s personal life. He was married four times, to Elvy Weaden, Candace Jordan, Mary Anne Cole, and a woman named Martha, last name unrecorded. He had six children by his second wife, Candace Jordan.
Life never proceeded smoothly for Jasper. In addition to the problems inherent in being a black man in the post-war South, he endured jealous colleagues, failed marriages, and worldwide ridicule of his religious beliefs. But, he persisted. More than that, he triumphed. His congregation had swelled into the thousands, more than one third of whom were white.
On March 30, 1901, the Reverend John Jasper died. It was the same day that fire destroyed the magnificent old Jefferson Hotel, but it was word of Jasper’s death that was on everyone’s lips.
"His death was as the going out of a great lamp by the icy hands of death. Yet we can see the rays of light that will shine on until the perfect day. He is not dead, but sleepeth. How can Jasper die?" (Reverend S. P. Robinson)
At his funeral, Reverend Hatcher delivered the eulogy, calling him "a prince of his tribe." Jasper is buried at Woodland Cemetery in Richmond, which also is the final resting place of tennis great Arthur Ashe.
Jasper’s last words were, "I have finished my work. I am waiting at the river, looking across for further orders."
But John Jasper’s legacy is more than mere history, however fascinating.
Sixth Mount Zion, the church he founded in 1867, is thriving today. People continue to argue over the meaning of his sermons and whether he was a hero to people of color or a disgrace. Visitors of every religious persuasion come from all over the world to tour the Jasper museum. In the 1950s, the Virginia Department of Transportation rerouted an interstate highway in order to preserve the bricks and mortar of his church and they have erected two monuments in his honor, most recently in July 2002.
Nancy B. Miner is an award-winning, freelance photojournalist living in Fluvanna County, Virginia. Although she primarily is interested in writing about social issues, she covers a wide variety of stories, including finance, crime, business development, local government, agriculture, historic preservation, gold mining, gardening, and more. Currently, she is at work on a full-length biography of Jasper and would like to hear from anyone who has questions, comments, suggestions, or information at 434-589-8906 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This article used by permission.