While some of us might disagree with Grimké’s assessment of government restrictions, every Christian will concur with his expression of deep gratitude for “the sense of security which a true, living, working faith in the Lord Jesus Christ gives one in the midst of life’s perils.”
We are not the first generation who must deal with a pandemic and racial unrest at the same time. The Spanish flu of 1918 hit America at a time when racial segregation and lynching of blacks were commonplace and largely ignored by the majority of Americans. Francis James Grimké led his congregation through both challenges, while defending human rights in his speeches and writings.
From Slave to Pastor
Born on November 4, 1850, to Henry Grimké, a white plantation owner, and a biracial slave, Francis was sold by his white half-brother Montague to a Confederate officer. Freed after the war, he reunited with his brother Archibald, who had been staying with a black family.
It was then that the abolitionist Frances Pillsbury noticed the boys’ abilities and managed to enroll them in Lincoln University outside of Philadelphia. An honorary mention in a local paper of Francis’s academic accomplishments caught the attention of Henry’s sisters Angelina and Sarah, who had never heard about their nephews. From then on, they supported them in his studies.
Both brothers studied law, first at Lincoln, then at Harvard. But while Archibald went on to work as an attorney, Francis answered a call to pastoral ministry, moving on to Princeton Theological Seminary to receive proper training.
In 1878, following his graduation and ordination, he accepted a call to be the pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. The same year, he married Charlotte Frosten, who provided a great support to his ministry. Francis remained with the same congregation until his death, apart from a four-year hiatus when he served in Jacksonville, Florida due to his wife’s poor health.
For Racial Equality
Faithful to the training he received at Princeton, Grimké stayed faithful to his primary task of preaching the gospel. At the same time, he believed the Bible said much against oppression, and the indifference and silence of most Christians about racial injustice was a poor testimony of the life-changing work of the gospel.
“If it were a little evil, hid out of sight, scarcely perceptible, there might be some excuse,” he said in a 1919 address, “but when it stinks to heaven, when it flaunts itself everywhere, when the very churches are full of it, what possible excuse can there be for silence? Think of a Bible conference aiming to magnify the Bible and Christianity, and yet afraid to deal with one of the greatest evils in the land today! Instead of magnifying the Bible and Christianity, it is the best way to bring them into contempt. The whole thing looks like a sham, a make-believe effort with no real, earnest, honest purpose of carrying out the principles of Christianity.”
To Woodrow Wilson, who had been President of Princeton University before becoming President of the United States, Grimké wrote a letter of disappointment in his support of racist segregation – which Grimké viewed as undemocratic, un-American, un-Christian, and a needless offense to “the self-respect of the loyal black citizens of the Republic.”