Although John Jasper started life as a slave working at whatever odd jobs his owners, the Peachy family, desired, he became famous for his scripture-based, charismatic preaching. His sermons had the power to persuade even the most skeptical among the congregation and brought both blacks and whites together. Though a passionate preacher, Jasper was dogmatic in his views and that dogmatism produced a great deal of dissension within the Baptist fellowship.
John Jasper was born into slavery on July 4, 1812 on a plantation in Fluvanna County, Virginia, to Phillip and Tina Jasper. Jasper was the youngest of twenty-four children born to the two. Phillip, an esteemed Baptist minister, was committed to spreading the gospel. Although legal and social attitudes toward race hindered his ministry, Phillip continued preaching against the white preachers' message to obey. Jasper's mother, Tina, tilled the fields for the Peachy family until the slaves were transferred to another plantation. She became a house slave and worked as a seamstress along with an older daughter.
Young Jasper's early jobs were as cart-boy, gardener, and yardman. Over a nine-year period beginning in 1825, Jasper was hired out to work in several industries. As he grew older, he worked off the Peachy plantation for Patrick McHenry, Dr. Woldridge, and Samuel Cosby (the latter for approximately seven years). Around 1833, Jasper worked as a stemmer at Sam Hargrove's tobacco plant, removing the stems from plants and thus readying them for final shaping into plugs.
Between 1832 and 1839, three events occurred that propelled Jasper toward his future role as preacher. Jasper, who throughout his life had watched the stars and planets, was the first of his factory co-workers to catch site of a brilliant star shower. So awed were the workers that they fell down to pray. The second extraordinary event that followed was the cholera outbreak in 1833. The slaves, including Jasper, saw these events as bad omens—forecasting the end-of-days—appeasable only by prayer and increased devotion to church and scripture. The deaths of Mrs. Peachy, his old retainer, followed shortly by the death of her son, John Blair Peachy, who planned to take his inherited portion of slaves to his Louisiana cotton farm, saved Jasper from being moved South, something all slaves greatly feared. Jasper again went to work for Hargrove. On July 4, 1839, Jasper felt guilty for his sins; his distress heightening for a number of days, on July 25 he confessed and found his faith. By 1840, he believed that he had been called to preach.
About four years after the Peachy estate was divided, Jasper was married to Elvy Weaden, a slave from Williamsburg. Jasper left Williamsburg immediately after his marriage and returned to Richmond. Since many slaves were then escaping North, Jasper was not allowed to return to Williamsburg or to see his wife ever again. She wrote to tell him that if he could not or would not come to see her again, she should be allowed to remarry. He replied that he would be unable to come again and that she should marry again if she desired to. Although marriage between slaves was seldom recognized or recorded, churches did offer some guidance for members. Jasper went to the membership of the old African Baptist Church in Richmond, seeking guidance on the status of his marriage. The elders told him that since his wife had remarried, he, too, should have the option to marry again if he chose. With the granting of the request, he was again free to marry and did so in 1844. His second marriage to Candus Jordan, who bore Jasper nine children, also ended in divorce. From the beginning the two were never on particularly good terms. Often when Jasper was out of the house, gossips came to Mrs. Jasper with stories about her husband's behavior. Gossips were generally motivated by jealousy, since Jasper frequently took parishioners away from other ministers or alienated them from their home churches. In 1863, Jasper married again. Jasper's third wife was Mary Anne Cole, a widow with one child, Mary Elizabeth. This union produced no children and the marriage ended with her death in 1874.
- Born on a plantation in Fluvanna County, Virginia on July 4
- Hired out to work in several industries
- Experiences a religious conversion; subsequently unites with the Baptist church
- Begins ministry in the Baptist fellowship
- Marrles Candus Jordan after annuiment of his first marriage to Elvy Weaden
- Works at the Rolling Mills recycling Iron and preaches to mill workers
- Marrles third wife Mary Ann Cole
- Preaches his last sermon before Richmond falls; answers call to return to the Third Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginia
- Founds the First colored Baptist church of Weldon, North Carolina
- Organizes the Sixth Mount Zion Church known as Jasper's Church
- Third wife Mary Ann Cole dies
- Gives sun sermon "De sun Do Move" for the first time, launching controversy with some of the scientific community
Decision for Ministry
During Jasper's first marriage, he made the decision to preach. He presented himself to the African Baptist Church and was found fit enough in his beliefs and knowledge of scripture to preach. Then he set out to minister to his people. Much of his first ministry was spent preaching at the funerals of dead slaves, but because of very rigid slave laws, he was required to ask for permission of his master and the approval of a committee of white preachers. Also, a fine of one dollar per day was charged for days missed (except Sundays) from labor. Ways were found around these requirements, and slave preachers often performed funeral services, particularly since slaves wanted to have fellow slaves officiate. As a result, Jasper was called to the plantation of a Dr. Winnfree who had several slaves to bury. The justice of the peace in attendance on this occasion tried to prevent Jasper from conducting the service but was put down by the arrival of Dr. Winnfree, who had invited Jasper and insisted that he be allowed to preach, offering to accept responsibility if anything went wrong. Thus agreed upon, the service began with the white preacher speaking for two hours—using up most of the two and a half hours allotted. Jasper, who understood the maneuver, took the stand and preached a sermon that even had many detractors under his spell. As his reputation grew, his ministerial range expanded, and before his ministry was over he had preached in all the cities of Virginia, had toured Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and several cities in New Jersey, and had spoken before the Virginia Legislature.
The Sun Sermon and Controversy
The speaking tour resulted from the notoriety that Jasper achieved in 1878 with his sermon on the rotation of the sun, entitled "De Sun Do Move." A parishioner and an unknown white man argued the question of the sun and its rotation around the earth as described in Exodus 15:3. Failing to agree, they put the question to Jasper to preach on. His sermon prompted so much interest by both blacks and whites that Jasper was requested to give the sermon again and again—possibly 250 times before his death. However, at the time of its delivery, the sermon caused a great controversy between Jasper and Reverend Richard Wells, pastor of the Ebenezer Church, regarding the theory of the rotation of the sun. Wells then released a newspaper dispatch that denounced Jasper and his theory. Jasper replied to it and apparently bested Wells in his response. However, after returning from his northern tour, Jasper learned that Wells had asked that a Baptist Council be convened to settle the troubles that had developed between them. At first Jasper refused to appear, responding that the council was not legal. The council immediately selected a new committee; they informed Jasper if he came to the council, he could make charges against Reverend Wells and be assured of a fair hearing, and that justice would be given to both, according to Baptist doctrine. When Jasper did appear before the council, he brought charges against Wells (in reference to the rotation of the sun sermon) for alleging that his reading and interpretation of biblical text was completely made up. Jasper stated that all he wanted from the hearing was an apology from Wells. Wells in turn denied writing anything that was unflattering to Jasper. The council concluded its business by stating that although they did not share Jasper's views on the sun's rotation, they did apologize for stating their position too strongly. Both Jasper and Wells signed the council's resolution, and the secretary was instructed to have everything that Wells had said about Jasper sent to the newspaper for retraction. However, the secretary failed to do so, and the retraction was apparently never published. The tension between the two ministers and their followers did not end, either. Outside elements wrote and published treatises on Jasper's theory of the sun's rotation and various Baptist congregations censored each other in the press.
Throughout his life Jasper earned a reputation as an effective speaker, a faithful interpreter of scripture, and a devout individual who thought and acted for himself. He was described as intelligent and gifted, possessing a keen memory, but he was also described as dogmatic and unwilling to alter his attitudes. Although he had an incomparable knowledge of scripture, he did not seek to broaden his knowledge in other areas. He was vain about his dress and he smoked. His supporters viewed him as a holy, nearly infallible authority on the gospel; his detractors saw him as arrogant and unbending. He died in 1901 at the age of eighty-nine.
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Matthews, Terry. "Religion of the Slaves." The Religion of the Slaves. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University, Department of Religion, 1995. http://www.wfu.edu/?matthetl/perspectives/twelve.html (Accessed August 24, 2005).
Randolph, Edwin Archer. The Life of Rev. John Jasper, Pastor of the Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., from His Birth to the Present Time, with His Theory on the Rotation of the Sun. Richmond: R.T. Hill & Co., 1884. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jasper/jasper.html (Accessed 13 March 2006).
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Lois A. Peterson