There are some stories which are simply neglected in the history of America and the story of the Grimké family is certainly one of them. What began with a southern, white family of Charleston aristocrats flowered into a group of people dedicated to the abolition of slavery and civil rights in America. The Christian gospel shapes the story at many of its twists and turns. The story of the Grimkés is far beyond the scope of this paper but in honor of Black History month we will look at the life and teaching of Francis, one of the most famous sons of the family.
In doing so we will lay out an ever so brief look at the Grimké family and how two sisters boldly broke with their southern slaveholding traditions to become leading abolitionists. Furthermore we will look at how one of their relatives became a highly educated and influential pastor and civil rights leader in the early twentieth century. Finally, we will look to this man for a few things we might learn as followers of Jesus for our lives today in the 21st century.
The Grimké Story
The Grimké family was of German origin but chose and adopted a French spelling for their name in order to have a better chance of success in the new world. The first Grimké in America, John Paul, was an influential silversmith who became a leader in Charleston SC in the 1700s and became a leading citizen and patriot in the revolutionary era. His grandson, John Faucheraud Grimké, would have two daughters that would make a firm break with South Carolina’s slave holding past. John was an Oxford graduate, lawyer, judge, revolutionary and constitutionalist who was a man of immense political influence and leadership in post-war Charleston. Two of his daughters, Sarah and Angelina would go on to shape the 19th century abolitionist movement as well as the early part of the move for women’s rights in our country. They also would be involved in educating their nephews, Archibald and Francis, who their brother Henry fathered with a slave named Nancy Weston. Francis would become an imminent scholar pastor and shaper of the struggle for civil rights in the early twentieth century.
Born in October of 1850 and passed away in October of 1937, Francis Grimké lived through truly tumultuous times. His family was a unique intersection of black and white, slave and free in the American experience. He lived in pre-Civil War south, served in the confederacy, went north to be educated after emancipation and served as a pastor for some six decades in Washington DC.
Francis moved north to Massachusetts when his sisters learned about him and his siblings being fathered by their brother. His sisters made every effort to fund their education and make sure they were given opportunities to become leading men of their time. Francis graduated in 1870 as Valedictorian of Lincoln University, the first degree granting historically black university. His focus of his early studies was on the subject of medicine. This interest soon gave way to law which he spent two years studying at Howard University. His final shift in study came in 1874 when he went to study theology at Princeton Theological Seminary during the days of the erudite evangelical scholar Charles Hodge.
The influence of various flavors of Christian faith was a constant in the lives of the Grimké family and their work for abolition and equality flowed from biblical convictions. Francis followed in this and became a Presbyterian minister after completing his seminary studies in 1878. He became pastor of 15th Presbyterian Church in Washington DC and was the pastor there for almost six decades. Even though he is rightly remembered today as a civil rights activist he was first and always a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was married to the forty-one year old Charlotte Forten, a woman thirteen years his senior. The two had one daughter who died as a baby. Francis was involved in public work for the uplifting of African American people but we must never forget that he consciously did so as a Christian pastor and his first work was always in and through the church.
There are several things we can learn from Grimké’s life and witness today and the following are but a few highlights that were an encouragement to me and which I feel are of value to our community.
Gospel and Cultural Engagement
Many times leaders can be about the gospel but not really address social issues and concerns of the day. There are other times when people can be about social concerns and use the church or the title “Reverend” as a mere position to pursue social activism. Grimke was a man who heartily embraced gospel ministry and through this conviction was active for issues of justice in the world. Two things demonstrated this to me. First, he was not just a pastor in name but his work was gospel work. His sermons illustrate this clearly. He was a gospel preaching man. His sermon “Christ’s Program for Saving the Word” is illustrative:
“1. To call attention specifically to Christ’s program for saving the world, for bringing about changes for the better in individuals and in communities –in the whole structure of society, in all human relationships.
a. It is by preaching the gospel—the gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus
b. It is by teaching—teaching not philosophy or science or any special department of human knowledge, but teaching what is written in the Scriptures, the Word of god, given by holy men as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. It is making known the contents of the Bible that Jesus here links up with the work of saving the world, of bringing about changes for the better in all human relations and conditions.”
His devotion to the transformation of society was never a gospel-less or gospel-light endeavor but rather grounded quite firmly in gospel convictions. Yet he did indeed give himself, although at his own time and pace, to the affairs of the world. Two things stand out in his legacy. First, his commitment to education and training is reflective in his service as a trustee for the prestigious Howard University. He worked hard to secure the right leadership for the institution that would avoid the parochialism, condescension and outright racism of prior administrations. Second, he was part of the community, along with his brother Archibald, who helped found and give early shape the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization was a light of hope for unity and influence during times where there was much infighting between national black leaders.
Ministry was not for Promoting Self
In our day where celebrities and obsessing with famous people is an American past time, this sort of mentality can sadly slip into pastoral ministry. Grimké was ever aware of the temptation for men to use the influence of church leadership for self-promotion. He would have nothing of it:
He never preached what he did not earnestly try to practice. For the hypocrite he had the greatest contempt. He had not use for the minister who selfishly advanced himself at the expense of the church, or who used the pulpit to advertise himself before the world.
Furthermore, he had a steadiness of life and ministry that his routine was to go before the Lord and go over his sermon each day of the week. This practice was maintained even as he was brought into the spotlight and center of civil rights movement. He remained focused to prepare to teach and lead his people in the work of God.
Elevation of Oppressed People and the Multiethnic Church
As a man of mixed racial background and a proponent of black equality he had strong convictions about how to elevate Americans of African descent. He was convinced that the gospel needed to shape the virtue and character of individuals, families and communities as well as work for institutional justice. The way up included being a godly people shaping godly families. In addition to his exhortation of people in the African American community he also had no tolerance for the twisted racism of many white church people. Yes, he exhorted his people in virtue, but he also called out white Christians who twisted their biblical confession with racial hatred and hypocrisy. His discouragement was in how little the gospel seemed to affect white “Christians” own racial prejudice saying:
Race prejudice is not the monopoly of the infidel, of the atheist, of the man of the world. It is shared by so-called professing Christians
He fought against Presbyterian unification of northern churches with the racist Presbyterians of the south and assumed that the gospel ought to allow black and white to be together as the church in a community where they shared a common language. His idea of equality and commonality in the gospel is a legacy we rejoice in at Jacob’s Well. The truth that God brings together people of various backgrounds together in the gospel is a great blessing to each of our lives. (Ephesians 2:14-16, Revelation 7:9-12)
Primary Mission of the Church
In closing, I learned greatly from Francis Grimké that we must never forget the primary mission of the church. In all our serving, loving our communities, working for justice, showing mercy we must never neglect, leave out or cease preaching the cross of Jesus Christ, the salvation of sinners and the truth of the Word of God. Grimké was so clear on this matter that I will give him our last word. This comes forth from a journal entry he wrote as a seminary student training for a life of ministry ahead:
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 the sand.
Amen, preach brother, preach!
Mark Perry, Lift up Thy Voice : The Grimké Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (New York: Viking, 2001), 17.
 More on John Grimké ibid., 17-20.
 Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher : Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007), 113.
 Ibid., 114. Hodge is still discussed today in areas of systematic theology and theological method as his approach has been described as a science of induction with the revelation of God in Scripture as the main source of data. This has drawn both fans and ire over the years. His theology is available for free online and remains well-read today – check it out and enjoy http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hodge/theology1.toc.html
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 135-182. Three of Grimke’s sermons are reprinted for us in Anyabwile’s work.
 Ibid., 178.
 His role in the controversies between black leaders/camps led by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington is highlighted in Perry, 322-325.
 Ibid., 325.
 Ibid., 332-336.
 Anyabwile, 117.
 Perry, 340.
 Anyabwile, 119.
 Ibid., 120.
 Perry, 324.
 Anyabwile, 120.