It’s always sad to come to the ending of a good story. But, as with life, there must be an end. So, here we have the last chapter of the God called negro preacher, John Jasper, 1812-1901. It can safely be said ‘There will never be another John Jasper”! To God be the Glory! Great things He hath done!
‘I NEVER heard Jasper preach a sermon on heaven, nor did I ever hear of his doing so. So far as my observation goes, sermons on heaven have failed to edify the thoughtful–sometimes proving distinctly disappointing. It was not to Jasper’s taste to argue on heaven as a doctrine. With him it was as if he were camping outside of a beautiful city, knowing much of its history and inhabitants, and in joyous expectation of soon moving into it. The immediate things of the kingdom chiefly occupied his attention; but when his sermons took him into the neighbourhood of heaven, he took fire at once and the glory of the celestial city lit his face and cheered his soul. This chapter deals only with one of his sermons which, while not on heaven, reveals his heart-belief in it, and its vital effect upon his character.
Imagine a Sunday afternoon at his church–a fair, inspiring day. His house was thronged to overflowing. It was the funeral of two persons– William Ellyson and Mary Barnes. The text is forgotten, but the sermon is vividly recalled.
From the start Jasper showed a burden and a boldness that promised rich things for his people. At the beginning he betrayed some hesitation–unusual for him. “Lemme say,” he said, “a word about dis William Ellersin. I say it de fust an’ git it orf mer min’. William Ellersin was no good man–he didn’t say he wus; he didn’t try to be good, an’ de tell me he die as he live, ‘out Gord an’ ‘out hope in de worl’. It’s a bad tale to tell on ‘im, but he fix de story hissef. As de tree falls dar mus it lay. Ef you wants folks who live wrong to be preached and sung to glory, don’ bring ’em to Jasper. Gord comfut de monur and warn de onruly.
“But, my bruthrin,” he brightened as he spoke, “Mary Barnes wus difrunt. She wer wash’d in de blood of de Lam’ and walk’d in white; her r’ligion was of Gord. Yer could trust Mary anywhar; nuvr cotch ‘er in dem playhouses ner friskin’ in dem dances; she wan’ no street-walk’r trapsin’ roun’ at night. She love de house of de Lord; her feet clung to de straight and narrer path; I know’d her. I seen her at de prarmeetin’–seed her at de supper–seed her at de preachin’, an’ seed her tendin’ de sick an’ helpin’ de mounin’ sinn’rs. Our Sister Mary, good-bye. Yer race is run, but yer crown is shure.”
From this Jasper shot quite apart. He was full of fire, humour gleamed in his eye, and freedom was the bread of his soul. By degrees he approached the realm of death, and he went as an invader. A note of defiant challenge rang in his voice and almost blazed on his lips. He escorted the Christian to the court of death, and demanded of the monster king to exhibit his power to hurt. It was wonderful to see how he pictured the high courage of the child of God, marching up to the very face of the king of terrors and demanding that he come forth and do his worst. Death, on the other hand, was subdued, slow of speech, admitted his defeat, and proclaimed his readiness to serve the children of Immanuel. Then he affected to put his mouth to the grave and cried aloud: “Grave! Grave! Er Grave!” he cried as if addressing a real person, “Whar’s yer vict’ry? I hur you got a mighty banner down dar, an’ you turrurizes ev’rybody wat comes long dis way. Bring out your armies an’ furl fo’th your bann’rs of vict’ry. Show your han’ an’ let ’em see wat you kin do.” Then he made the grave reply: “Ain’t got no vict’ry now; had vict’ry, but King Jesus pars’d through dis country an’ tord my banners down. He says His peopl’ shan’t be troubled no mo’ forev’r; an’ He tell me ter op’n de gates an’ let ‘um pass on dar way to glory.”
“Oh, my Gord,” Jasper exclaimed in thrilling voice, “did yer hur dat? My Master Jesus done jerk’d de sting of death, done broke de scept’r of de king of tur’rs, an’ He dun gone inter de grave an’ rob it uv its victorous banners, an’ fix’d nice an’ smooth for His people ter pass through. Mo’ en dat, He has writ a song, a shoutin’ anthim for us to sing when we go thur, passin’ suns an’ stars, an’ singin’ dat song, ‘Thanks be onter Gord–be onter Gord who give us de vict’ry thru de Lord Jesus Christ.'” Too well I know that I do scant justice to the greatness of Jasper by this outline of his transcendent eloquence. The whole scene, distinct in every detail, was before the audience, and his responsive hearers were stirred into uncontrollable excitement.
“My bruthrin,” Jasper resumed very soberly, “I oft’n ax myself how I’d behave merself ef I was ter git to heav’n. I tell you I would tremble fo’ de consequinces. Eben now when I gits er glimpse–jist a peep into de palis of de King, it farly runs me ravin’ ‘stracted. What will I do ef I gits thar? I ‘spec I’ll make er fool of myself, ’cause I ain’t got de pritty ways an’ nice manners my ole Mars’ Sam Hargrove used to have, but ef I git thar they ain’t goin’ to put me out. Mars’ Sam’ll speak fur me an’ tell ’em to teach me how to do. I sometimes thinks if I’s ‘lowed to go free–I ‘specs to be free dar, I tell you, b’leve I’ll jest do de town–walkin’ an’ runnin’ all roun’ to see de home which Jesus dun built for His people.
“Fust of all, I’d go down an’ see de river of life. I lov’s to go down to de ole muddy Jemes–mighty red an’ muddy, but it goes ‘long so gran’ an’ quiet like ’twas ‘tendin’ to ‘ business–but dat ain’t nothin’ to the river which flows by de throne. I longs fer its chrystal waves, an’ de trees on de banks, an’ de all mann’rs of fruits. Dis old head of mine oft’n gits hot with fever, aches all night an’ rolls on de piller, an’ I has many times desired to cool it in that blessed stream as it kisses de banks of dat upper Canaan. Bl’ssed be de Lord! De thought of seein’ dat river, drinkin’ its water an’ restin’ un’r dose trees–” Then suddenly Jasper began to intone a chorus in a most affecting way, no part of which I can recall except the last line: “Oh, what mus’ it be to be thar?” “Aft’r dat,” Jasper continued with quickened note, I’d turn out an’ view de beauties of de city–de home of my Father. I’d stroll up dem abenuse whar de children of Gord dwell an’ view dar mansions. Father Abraham, I’m sure he got a grate pallis, an’ Moses, what ‘scorted de children of Israel out of bondige thru’ de wilderness an’ to de aidge of de promised lan’, he must be pow’rful set up being sich er man as he is; an’ David, de king dat made pritty songs, I’d like to see ‘is home, an’ Paul, de mighty scholar who got struck down out in de ‘Mascus road, I want to see his mansion, an’ all of ’em. Den I would cut roun’ to de back streets an’ look for de little home whar my Saviour set my mother up to housekeepin’ when she got thar. I ‘spec to know de house by de roses in de yard an’ de vine on de poch.” As Jasper was moving at feeling pace along the path of his thoughts, he stopped and cried: “Look dar; mighty sweet house, ain’t it lovely?” Suddenly he sprang back and began to shout with joyous clapping of hands. “Look dar; see dat on de do; hallelujah, it’s John Jasper. Said He was gwine to prepar a place for me; dar it is. Too good for a po’ sinner like me, but He built it for me, a turn-key job, an’ mine forev’r.” Instantly he was singing his mellow chorus ending as before with: “Oh, what mus’ it be to be thar!”
From that scene, he moved off to see the angelic host. There were the white plains of the heavenly Canaan–a vast army of angels with their bands of music, their different ranks and grades, their worship before the throne and their pealing shouts as they broke around the throne of God. The charm of the scene was irresistible; it lifted everybody to a sight of heaven, and it was all real to Jasper. He seemed entranced. As the picture began to fade up rose his inimitable chorus, closing as always: “Oh, what mus’ it be to be thar!”
Then there was a long wait. But for the subdued and unworldly air of the old preacher–full seventy years old then–the delay would have dissolved the spell. “An’ now, frenz,” he said, still panting and seeking to be calm, “ef yer’ll ‘scuse me, I’ll take er trip to de throne an’ see de King in ‘is roy’l garmints.” It was an event to study him at this point. His earnestness and reverence passed all speech, and grew as he went. The light from the throne dazzled him from afar. There was the great white throne–there, the elders bowing in adoring wonder–there, the archangels waiting in silence for the commands of the King–there the King in His resplendent glory–there in hosts innumerable were the ransomed. In point of vivid description it surpassed all I had heard or read. By this time the old negro orator seemed glorified. Earth could hardly hold him. He sprang about the platform with a boy’s alertness; he was unconsciously waving his handkerchief as if greeting a conqueror; his face was streaming with tears; he was bowing before the Redeemer; he was clapping his hands, laughing, shouting and wiping the blinding tears out of his eyes. It was a moment of transport and unmatched wonder to every one, and I felt as if it could never cease, when suddenly in a new note he broke into his chorus, ending with the soul-melting words: “Oh, what mus’ it be to be thar!”
It was a climax of climaxes. I supposed nothing else could follow. We had been up so often and so high we could not be carried up again. But there stood Jasper, fully seeing the situation.
He had seen it in advance and was ready. “My bruthrin,” said he as if in apology, “I dun fergot somethin’. I got ter tek anuth’r trip. I ain’t visit’d de ransum of de Lord. I can’t slight dem. I knows heap ov ’em, an’ I’m boun’ to see ’em.” In a moment he had us out on the celestial plains with the saints in line. There they were–countless and glorious! We walked the whole line and had a sort of universal handshake in which no note of time was taken. “Here’s Brer Abul, de fust man whar got here; here’s Brer Enoch whar took er stroll and straggled inter glory; here’s ole Ligie, whar had er carriage sent fur ‘im an’ comed a nigher way to de city.” Thus he went on greeting patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, his brethren and loved ones gone before until suddenly he sprang back and raised a shout that fairly shook the roof. “Here she is; I know’d sh’d git here; why, Mary Barnes, you got home, did yer?” A great handshake he gave her and for a moment it looked as if the newly-glorified Mary Barnes was the centre of Jasper’s thoughts; but, as if by magic, things again changed and he was singing at the top of his voice the chorus which died away amid the shrieks and shouts of his crowd with his plaintive note: “Oh, what mus’ it be to be thar!”
Jasper dropped exhausted into a chair and some chief singer of the old-time sort, in noble scorn of all choirs, struck that wondrous old song, “When Death Shall Shake My Frame,” and in a moment the great building throbbed and trembled with the mighty old melody. It was sung only as Jasper’s race can sing, and especially as only Jasper’s emotional and impassioned church could sing it. This was Jasper’s greatest sermon. In length it was not short of an hour and a half–maybe it was longer than that. He lifted things far above all thought of time, and not one sign of impatience was seen. The above sketch is all unworthy of the man or the sermon. As for the venerable old orator himself he was in his loftiest mood–free in soul, alert as a boy, his imagination rioting, his action far outwent his words, and his pictures of celestial scenes glowed with unworldly lustre. He was in heaven that day, and took us around in his excursion wagon, and turning on the lights showed us the City of the Glorified.
What is reported here very dimly hints at what he made us see. Not a few of Richmond’s most thoughtful people, though some of them laid no claim to piety, were present and not one of them escaped the profound spiritual eloquence of this simple-hearted old soldier of the cross.
Valiant, heroic old man! He stood in his place and was not afraid. He gave his message in no uncertain words–scourged error wherever it exposed its front stood sentinel over the word of God and was never caught sleeping at his post.
When his work ended, he was ready to go up and see his Master face to face.
The stern old orator, brave as a lion, rich in humour, grim, and a dreamer whose dreams were full of heaven, has uttered his last message and gone within the veil to see the wonders of the unseen. If the grapes of Eschol were so luscious to him here, “Oh, what must it be for him to be there.”‘ https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/hatcher/hatcher.html