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Francis Grimke: An African American Witness in Reformed Political Theology

francis-j-grimke

““I cannot believe that the men who occupy the pulpits of this land, assuming that they are men of ordinary intelligence and common sense and that they have, as they ought to have as leaders, some little knowledge, at least, of the Word of God, are without some convictions on the subject (of race prejudice), that they do not know that it is wrong, contrary to every principle of Christianity.”[1]

For over half a century, Francis Grimke (1850-1937) held the reputation of being one of the leading African American clergy in the U.S. During the infamous Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Grimke found a prophetic voice which he used to proclaim the gospel of Christ over and against social ills which plagued the nation.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina to a slave mother, Nancy Weston, and her owner, Henry Grimke, Francis was the nephew of the well-known abolitionist sisters Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimke. Losing his father at age five and later resorting to joining the Confederate army in order to escape enslavement by his late father’s brother, Grimke survived a tumultuous upbringing which eventually landed him in Massachusetts, where he worked in a shoe factory and lived in a barn. However, with the assistance of his aunts, Francis eventually found himself enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Grimke thrived in school. After graduating valedictorian, he sought a law degree at Lincoln and Howard university, before finally deciding to pursue ordained ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Charles Hodge was closing in on his half-century of leadership. After graduating from Seminary, Grimke served for some 60 years at 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, with the exception of a four year stint in Jacksonville FL (1885-89).

Here, I’d like to consider a number of excerpts from Grimke’s published works which shed light on his vocation as a clergyman and civil rights leader. Grimke offers a perspective which emphasizes the spiritual mission of the church and the need for christian principle in society as two complementary components of the gospel ministry.

 

Given ongoing political-theological debates in American Reformed circles, Grimke’s perspective is instructive for at least three reasons:

  1. He is an American. American Reformed political thinkers often appeal to theologians and theological traditions which neither originated nor found significant concrete expression in the United States. Its important that we take into consideration those whose theological engagement proceeds from the actual historical circumstances that we so often debate, not least chattel slavery and Jim Crow.
  2. He is Reformed. Grimke’s work bears out his indebtedness to his Princetonian Reformed education. Hodge, of whom Grimke spoke fondly for the rest of his life, once described Grimke “a very able man, highly educated, of high character, and worthy of all confidence.”  Princeton President James McCosh praised him when he said “I have heard him preach, and I feel as if I could listen to such preaching with profit from Sabbath to Sabbath”[2]
  3. He speaks from an oppressed position, a victim of America’s “original sin” of slavery. Most Reformed discourse concerning political theology is dominated by white males who have the privilege of theorizing without having to endure any form of bias or discrimination. Despite the degree to which this impasse of privilege and oppression has been alleviated, it nevertheless remains that white Reformed Americans are the products of a tradition that has often failed miserably and tragically when it comes to racial bias and discrimination. We need Grimke’s voice.

We begin at the end, so to speak, with an aged, mature Grimke, who insisted on the gospel and the primary role of the church as follows:

“The great function of the Christian church is to minister to the spiritual needs of men. It may have other functions, but this is its supreme function. Its paramount obligation lies here. It is the one force or institution in the world set up by God himself with a definite spiritual mission-to wit, to bring men back to God, back to divine ideals and standards of living, back to holiness and heart and life.”[3]

Grimke shifted his tone on a number of issues during his lifetime, but these words, spoken at age 69, characterized his long-held insistence on the essential ministry of the church – to preach the gospel, bring people to repentance, and instruct God’s people in holiness. Grimke’s emphasis on these basic tenets of historic protestant faith was unwavering, and he believed it would be the primary avenue for God’s resolution of the race problem in the United States. “I place my hope not on government, not on political parties,” he once preached, “but on faith in the power of the religion of Jesus Christ to conquer all prejudices, to break down all walls of separation, and to weld together men of all races in one great brotherhood.”[4]

 “In spite of the shallowness and emptiness and glaring hypocrisy… of the church …I still believe that Christianity is in this land… Christianity shall one day have sway even in Negro-hating America… Jesus Christ is yet to reign in this land. I will not see it, you will not see it, but it is coming all the same. In the growth of Christianity, true, real genuine Christinity in this land, I see the promise of better things for us as a race.” [5]

It was precisely these deeply held theological convictions that sometimes left Grimke conflicted over his relationship and public association with those who advocated for civil rights apart from religious conviction. For instance, while displaying public support for the economic and political strategies advanced by W.E.B. Dubois, Grimke confided in his journal …when it comes to religion and morality, (Du Bois and others like him) are sadly in need of guidance…”[6]

 

And yet Grimke’s reliance on “spiritual” matters hardly precluded him from speaking  directly and explicitly to the pressing social and political circumstances in the U.S. As Albert Raboteau puts it, “Grimke’s claim that the power of Christianity would solve the problem of racism was hopeful, but not naively optimistic.”[7] Numerous sermons, speeches, letters, and other writings of Grimke vindicate this analysis. In a 1902 sermon which located the black American experience within the story of Israel’s Exodus, Grimke contended “We must agitate, and agitate, and agitate, and go on agitating” until blacks are accorded their full rights.[8]  Such passionate pleas for racial reconciliation were no more novel than his convictions about the person and work of Jesus Christ. For Grimke, the gospel was the primary and only promising avenue for trenchant, substantive, and fruitful engagement with society. He firmly believed that the right preaching of the gospel would and must directly address racial discrimination. In a sermon on 1 Cor 16:13 “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”

“…It is our duty to keep up the agitation for our rights, not only for our sakes, but also for the sake of the nation at large…. If justice sleeps in this land, let it not be because we have helped to lull it to sleep by our silence, our indifference; let it not be from lack of effort on our part to arouse it from its slumbers. Elijach said to the prophets of Baal, while they were crying to the god “Peradventure he sleepeth.” And it may be that he was asleep; but it was not their fault that he continued asleep, for they kept up a continual uproar about his altar. And so here, sleeping Justice in this land may go on slumbering, but let us see to it that it is due to no fault of ours. Even Baalam’s ass cried out in protest when smitten by his brutal master and God gave him the power to cry out, endowed him miraculously with speech in which to voice his protest.” [9]

And similarly, in an article in The American Missionary:

“We are not going to secure our rights in this land without a struggle. We have got to contend, and contend earnestly, for what belongs to us. Victory isn’t coming in any other way… We have god, in addition to the effort we are making to improve ourselves, to keep up the agitation, and keep it up until right triumphs and wrong is put down. A program of silence on the part of the race is a fool’s program. Reforms, changes in public sentiment, the righting of wrongs, is never effected in that way;”[10]

Grimke did not restrict his message to the institutional church, however. In a letter to the white house, he demonstrated a willingness to remind President and fellow presbyterian, Woodrow Wilson, of his responsibility to the nation to uphold and pursue principles that are democratic and Christian.

Dear Sir,
As an American citizen I desire to enter my earnest protest against the disposition, under your Administration, to segregate colored people in the various departments of the Government. To do so is undemocratic, is un-American, is un-Christian, is needlessly to offend the self-respect of the local black citizens of the Republic. We constitute one tenth of the population, and under the Constitution, have the same rights and are entitled to the same consideration as other citizens. we had every reason to hope, from your high Christian character, and from your avowal of lofty principles prior to your election, that your accession to power would act as a check upon the burial and insane spirit of race hatred that characterizes certain portions of the white people of the country. As American citizens we have a right to expect the President of the United States to stand between us and those who are bent on forcing us into a position of inferiority. Under the Constitution, resting upon the broad foundation of democratic principles as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, there are no superiors and inferiors. Before the law all citizens are equal, and are entitled to the same consideration. May we not expect, — have we not the right to expect, that your personal influence, as well as the great influence which comes from your commanding official position, will be thrown against what is clearly, is distinctly not in accordance with the spirit of free institutions? All class distinctions among citizens are un-American, and the sooner every vestige of it is stamped out the better it will be for the Republic.

Yours truly,
Francis J. Grimke[11]

 

Conclusion

Modern debates are chiefly concerned with the nature and the extent of the church’s involvement in the political institutions of the larger society. At one end of the spectrum, there is the erastian danger of the church becoming a glorified social or political agency; at the other, there is the the “spirituality of the church” danger of neglect and of absolving oneself of any socio-political responsibility. In between these extremes, we find Grimke, who spoke from a principled position which both insisted on the primacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and spoke prophetically to the fallenness of political institutions and the society as a whole.

Throughout the Grimke corpus, the theme of Christian principle emerges in a number of different ways. Such is the case in sermons, letters of civic and political engagement, as well as his personal journal. Its worth noting that Grimke, while remaining so insistent on this front, hardly resorts to any detailed political formulation, coercive legislation, or to my knowledge, any call for positive law whatsoever. Rather, Grimke seems concerned with persuasion, principle, and of course, the gospel. In this way, Grimke’s concern may serve us well in our own efforts to think theologically about the social and political realities we encounter. Yes, thinking theologically about politics and policy is a vastly complicated enterprise, and we would do well not to underestimate the precision required. But Grimke may serve us well as a reference point, and for some, a starting point.

In closing, words from Grimke on the floor of the 1888 General Assembly. Grimke, in opposition to a north-south reunion which would have resulted in segregated presbyteries and synods, stated:

“If the Bible is true; if Jesus Christ meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount and in his other utterances, and if we are to follow His example, and to be influenced by His Spirit, in a word, if Christianity is not a miserable farce, there can be no doubt as to where the change ought to be made, and as to what the duty of the church is …. Its duty is to seek to mould public sentiment in accordance with Christian principles, and not to be molded by it.”[12]

 


[1] Grimke, “The Religous Aspect of Reconstruction,” Feb 19, 1919.

[2] Louis B. Weeks III, “Racism, World War I and the Christian Life: Francis J. Grimke in the Nation’s Capital. Journal of Presbyterian History. Vol 41, No. 4, Winter 1973, pp 471-178. One might also note Grimke’s broadly Reformed doctrine of scripture: “I accept, and accept without reservation, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s Word, sent to Adam’s sinful race and pointing out the only way by which it can be saved. Without the Holy Scriptures and what they reveal, there is no hope for humanity. To build on anything else is to build on sand.” Works, III

[3] Grimke, “The Religious Aspect of Reconstruction” (Feb 19, 1919).

[4] Woodson, Carter, ed. The Works of Francis J. Grimke, I1942, p. 268.

[5] Works, I, 269

[6] Works, III, 465. On the other hand, Grimke compared Frederick Douglas with the American flag” “I always like to hold him up, and wave him before the eyes of the Negro youth of our land… For the flag has not always been the symbol of liberty and fair play, it has not always stood for human rights: it has stood for the rights of white men, and for Anglo-Saxon supremacy, but not for the rights of man as a man, as was true of this man.” Grimke, “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass.” Journal of Negro History, 19, (1934), 324-29.

[7]Raboteau, “Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands,” in Cornel West, Eddie S. Glaude, eds,  African American Religious Thought: An Anthology.

[8] Grimke, “A Resemblance and a Cotnrast between the American Negro and the Children of Israel” Works I:359.

[9] James Daley, “Equality of rights for all Citizens: Black and White, Alike,” March 7, 1909, Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Great Speeches by African Americans

[10] Grimke “Equality of Rights,” The American Misionary, Vol 63, 1909.

[11] Works, IV, 133f.

[12] Grimke, “(G.A.) Argument against Union,” 10.

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide. 

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