JOHN JASPER was born on July 4th in 1812. He was a Negro preacher, philosopher, and orator. He grew up in Fluvanna County, Virginia, the youngest of 24 children. Tina, Jasper’s mother was a godly woman, prayed that God would make her son a preacher as his father had been. For many years it seemed those prayers would not be answered. John had no interest in spiritual things. He had fallen in love with a girl from a neighboring plantation and been given permission to marry her. But on the day of their wedding, a slave uprising caused their masters to separate them, and John never saw her again. In bitterness he turned his back on God and lived for the devil.
John was rebellious and constantly in trouble with his owners, this lifestyle would change. It was while he was at work in a tobacco warehouse in 1839 that Jasper was stricken with "God's arrow of conviction." William Hatcher in his book on Jasper presents his conversion narrative in dialect rather than in standardized English, giving insight into what it might feel like to hear Jasper tell his story in person.
Jasper was looking for religious certainty when God moved him. The date was July 4th 1839, the place, Capital Square of Richmond, Virginia. It had been a particularly difficult morning, as he was stemming tobacco and feeling particularly depressed, "de light broke; I was light as a feather; my feet was on de mount'n; salvation rol'd like a flood thru my soul, an' I felt as if I could 'nock off de fact'ry roof wid my shouts”. He was so excited that he could not hold it in and he was taken to the master of the plantation, who instructed him, in Jasper's words, "Aft'r you git thru tellin' it here at de fact'ry, go up to de house, an' tell your folks; go roun' to your neighbours, an' tell dem; go enywhere you wan' to, an' tell de good news". It was this instruction that allowed Jasper to preach in the manner that he did. Slaves were not generally allowed to preach, a restriction which constrained the ministry of Jasper's father. But with his master's approval, Jasper preached often to his fellow slaves.
Thirty days after his baptism in 1840, he was licensed to preach by the Old African Baptist Church, and he didn't stop for more than sixty years! "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..." John Jasper certainly became a fulfillment of 2nd Corinthians 5:17 when it says; “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” John’s translation was; "If you is, what you was, then you ain't." In other words if you claim to be a Christian and you are still what you were before you received Christ then you are not a Christian.
He was ordained in 1849 and on the same day, he preached a funeral, which immediately brought him fame. He taught himself to read and write, and although he delivered his sermons in the dialect of the southern slave, more educated ministers said that Jasper's vivid and dramatic sermons transcended "mere grammar." Jasper became a noted funeral preacher long before the Civil War. During this time in Virginia Black men were not allowed to pastor churches or even preach in the open unless supervised by white ministers. Because of Jasper's pointed and powerful messages his fame grew and the demand for him to preach was increasing. Sadly the only place John could preach was at slave funerals. It was not long before these salve funerals not only drew colored folks to the hear him but now whites were coming from miles and miles away to hear this gifted man of God.
Because of Colossians 3:11, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” There seemed to be no racism when it came to the preaching of John Jasper.
Noted for his fervid zeal, gifted imagery, and colorful oratory, as a speaker Jasper was much in demand. He preached in many sections of Virginia and adjoining states. He is known to have conducted famous all-day camp meetings in the country. Sunday after Sunday he could be seen leading his flock to be baptized in the James River. He was known to have baptized as many as 300 people in four hours.
The Third Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia asked Jasper to preach twice a month, and other churches noticed a decline in their attendance on those Sundays. During the closing days of the Civil War, Jasper was asked to preach to the Confederate soldiers in the hospitals around Richmond. When the war ended, Jasper continued to preach. It was at this time that Dr. William Hatcher, pastor of the largest church in either Richmond or Petersburg, VA became of this gifted preacher. They became friends and Jasper studied theology under Hatcher. Hatcher also wrote a great biography of Jasper.
In 1867 he organized the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in an old Confederate cavalry stable. The church began with nine members. Fifteen years later there were more than 1,000 members, and at his death they numbered nearly 2,000 and still is thriving today. Jasper gained national distinction in 1878 when he first preached his famed "DE SUN DO MOVE" sermon, which he later delivered by invitation more than 250 times. He even was asked to preach once before the entire Virginia General Assembly. This sermon was his effort to prove through biblical references that the sun revolves around the earth.
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. In March of 1901, John Jasper preached to his congregation for the last time on the subject, "Ye Must Be Born Again." He urged his people to prepare for death, which he knew was coming soon for him. At his funeral, Dr.Hatcher delivered the eulogy, calling him "a prince of his tribe," he also said, "Every motion of his was made to exalt the Lord of his life." Jasper is buried at Woodland Cemetery in Richmond, which also is the final resting place of tennis great Arthur Ashe.
Once asked why he named his church the Sixth Street Mount Zion Baptist Church since it was on neither Sixth Street nor Mount Zion Street; Jasper’s reply was typically Jasper; “I just liked the way the words went together. I can imagine God, when asked why he called John Jasper to preach to say, I just liked the way he went together.”
"I have finished my work. I am waiting at the river, looking across for further orders." These were John Jasper's last words.