John Jasper was a preacher that made the Bible literally come alive!
‘IN the circle of Jasper’s gifts his imagination was preëminent. It was the mammoth lamp in the tower of his being. A matchless painter was he. He could flash out a scene, colouring every feature, defining every incident and unveiling every detail. Time played no part in the performance,–it was done before you knew it. Language itself was of second moment. His vocabulary was poverty itself, his grammar a riot of errors, his pronunciation a dialectic wreck, his gestures wild and unmeaning, his grunts and heavings terrible to hear. At times he hardly talked but simply emitted; his pictures were simply himself in flame. His entire frame seemed to glow with living light, and almost wordlessly he wrought his miracles. But do not misunderstand. Some insisted on saying that education would have stripped John of his genius by subduing the riot of his power and chastening the fierceness of his imagination. I think not, for John in a good sense was educated. He was a reverential and laborious student for half-a-century. He worked on his sermons with a marked assiduity and acquired the skill and mastership of faithful struggle. Even his imagination had to work, and its products were the fruit of toil. There was no mark of the abnormal or disproportionate in his sky, but all the stars were big and bright. He was well ballasted in his mental make-up, and in his most radiant pictures there was an ethical regard for facts, and an instinctive respect for the truth. Moreover, his ministrations fairly covered the theological field, were strongly doctrinal, and he grappled with honest vigour the deepest principles of the Gospel. He was also intensely practical, scourging sin, lashing neglect, and with lofty authority demanding high and faithful living.
Think not of Jasper merely as a pictorial preacher. There were wrought into his pictures great principles and rich lessons. But now and then he would present a sermon which was largely a series of pictures from beginning to end. His imagination would be on duty all the time and yet never flag. I cannot forget his sermon on Joseph and his Brethren. It was a stirring presentation of the varied scenes in that memorable piece of history. He opened on the favouritism of Jacob, and was exceedingly strong in condemning partiality, as unhappily expressed in the coat of many colours. That brief part was a sermon itself for parents. From that he passed quickly to the envy of his brothers.
Jealousy was a demon creeping in among them, inflicting poisonous stings, and spreading his malignant power, until murder rankled in every heart. Then came Joseph, innocent and ignorant of offending, to fall a victim to their conspiracy, with the casting of him into the pit, the selling of him to the travelling tradesmen, the showing to Jacob of the blood-stained coat, with scene after scene until the happy meeting at last between Jacob and his long lost son.
One almost lived a lifetime under the spell of that sermon. It was eloquent, pathetic, terrific in its denunications, rich in homely piety, and with strains of sweetness that was as balm to sorrowing souls. The effects were as varied as human thoughts and sentiments. The audience went through all moods. Now they were bent down as if crushed with burdens; now they were laughing in tumults at the surprises and charms of heavenly truth; anon they were sobbing as if all hearts were broken, and in a moment hundreds were on their feet shaking hands, shouting, and giving forth snatches of jubilant song. This all seems extravagant, without sobriety entirely, but those that were there, perhaps without an exception, felt that it was the veritable house of God and the gate of heaven.
At other times, Jasper’s sermons were sober and deliberate, sometimes even dull; but rarely did the end come without a burst of eloquence or an attractive, entertaining picture. But, remember, that his pictures were never foreign to his theme. They were not lugged in to fill up. They had in them the might of destiny and fitted their places, and fitted them well. Often they came unheralded, but they were evidently born for their part. On one occasion his sermon was on Enoch. It started out at a plodding gait and seemed for a time doomed to dullness, for Jasper could be dull sometimes. At one time he brought a smile to the faces of the audience, in speaking of Enoch’s age, by the remark: “Dem ole folks back dar cud beat de presunt ginerashun livin’ all ter pieces.”
As he approached the end of his sermon, his face lighted up and took on a new grace and passion, and he went out with Enoch on his last walk. That walk bore him away to the border of things visible; earthly scenes were lost to view; light from the higher hills gilded the plains. Enoch caught sight of the face of God, heard the music and the shouting of a great host, and saw the Lamb of God seated on the throne. The scene was too fair to lose, and Enoch’s walk quickened into a run which landed him in his father’s house. It was a quick, short story, told in soft and mellow tones, and lifted the audience up so far that the people shouted and sang as if they were themselves entering the gates of heaven.
One of his more elaborate descriptions, far too rich to be reproduced, celebrated the ascension of Elijah. There was the oppressive unworldliness of the old prophet, his efforts to shake off Elisha, and Elisha’s wise persistence in clamouring for a blessing from his spiritual father. But it was when the old prophet began to ascend that Jasper, standing off like one apart from the scene, described it so thrillingly that everything was as plain as open day. To the people, the prophet was actually and visibly going away. They saw him quit the earth, saw him rise above the mountain tops, sweeping grandly over the vast fields of space, and finally saw him as he passed the moon and stars. Then something happened. In the fraction of a second Jasper was transmuted into Elijah and was actually in the chariot and singing with extraordinary power the old chorus: “Going up to heaven in a chariot of fire.” The scene was overmastering! For a time I thought that Jasper was the real Elijah, and my distinct feeling was that the song which he sang could be heard around the world. Of course, it was not so; but there was something in the experience of the moment that has abided with me ever since.
At a funeral one Sunday I saw Jasper attempt a dialogue with death, himself speaking for both. The line of thought brought him face to face with death and the grave. The scene was solemnized by a dead body in a coffin. He put his hands over his mouth and stooped down and addressed death. Oh, death–death, speak to me. Where is thy sting? And then with the effect of a clairvoyant he made reply: “Once my sting was keen and bitter, but now it is gone. Christ Jesus has plucked it out, and I have no more power to hurt His children. I am only the gatekeeper to open the gateway to let His children pass.” In closing this chapter an incident will largely justify my seemingly extraordinary statements as to the platform power of this unschooled negro preacher in Virginia.
In company with a friend I went very often Sunday afternoons to hear Jasper and the fact was bruited about quite extensively, and somewhat to the chagrin of some of my church-members. Two of them, a professor in Richmond College and a lawyer well-known in the city, took me to task about it They told me in somewhat decided tones that my action was advertising a man to his injury, and other things of a similar sort. I cared but little for their criticism, but told them that if they would go to hear him when he was at his best, and if afterwards they felt about him as they then felt, I would consider their complaints. They went the next Sunday. The house was overflowing, and Jasper walked the mountain tops that day. His theme was “The raising of Lazarus” and by steps majestic he took us along until he began to describe the act of raising Lazarus from the dead. It happened that the good professor was accompanied by his son, a sprightly lad of about ten, who was sitting between his father and myself. Suddenly the boy, evidently agitated, turned to me and begged that we go home at once. I sought to soothe him, but all in vain, for as he proceeded the boy urgently renewed his request to go home. His father observed his disquietude and putting an arm around him restored him to calmness. After the service ended and we had reached the street, I said to him: “Look here, boy, what put you into such a fidget to quit the church before the end of the service?” “Oh, doctor, I thought he had a dead man under the pulpit and was going to take him out,” he said. My lawyer brother heard the sermon and with profound feeling said, “Hear that, and let me say to you that in a lifetime I have heard nothing like it, and you ought to hear that man whenever you can.”
I heard no later criticisms from any man concerning my conduct in evincing such cordial interest in this eloquent son of Fluvanna.
It was only necessary to persuade Jasper’s critics to hear him, to remove all question as to his genuine character and effective spiritual ministry. https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/hatcher/hatcher.html