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William E. Hatcher (William Eldridge), 1834-1912
John Jasper: The Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher
New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, c1908.


John Jasper (1812-1901) was a former slave and, for fifty years, a prominent Virginia preacher. He was the youngest of 24 children born to Nina and Phillip Jasper on the Peachy Plantation in Williamsburg, Virginia. John's father was also a well known preacher, so he grew up in the shadow of his father's reputation even though Phillip died two months before Joh-n's birth. While working on a tobacco plantation, John Jasper had a major conversion experience and his master encouraged him to share it with everyone, so he spent his life spreading the good news of Christianity. Jasper married, but when he was sold away the day after their marriage and his wife married another man with permission from Jasper. Jasper later married a second wife, Candus Jordan, and they had nine children together. During this time, he preached throughout Southern Virginia. He was the founder of the 6th Mount Zion Baptist Church, where he preached until his death.

Reverend William Eldridge Hatcher (1834-1912) graduated from Richmond College in 1858 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In addition to significant involvement in religious movements, he helped found the Philologian Literary Society. Hatcher was also granted multiple honorary degrees from Denison University, Colgate University, and Richmond, where he served on the College's Board of Trustees for 42 years. During that time he served as a Pastor at a number of Churches and was a minister for the Mt. Herman Baptist Church in Virginia. When Hatcher's landlady's son begged Hatcher to accompany him on a trip to see Jasper preach, Hatcher first "felt the mastery and the subduing sovereignty of the man" (p. 157). Hatcher wrote many books besides John Jasper:The Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher, including Life of J. B. Jeter, Along the Trail of the Friendly Years, and The Pastor and the Sunday School.

Hatcher begins his biography of Jasper by noting that "He was one of a class,--without pedigree, and really without successors, except that he was so dominant and infectious that numbers of people affected his ways and dreamed that they were one of his sort" (p. 7). Jasper was just one of twenty four children, and one of the many slaves working on Mr. Peachy's plantation, but he was also unique in that he felt called of God to preach the word. Hatcher claims that Jasper was the "last of his type, and we shall not look upon his like again" (p. 15). This biography does not provide a complete chronology of Jasper's life, consisting instead of a few "vagrant articles which find their kinship only in the fact that they present some distinct view of a man" (p. 15).

After a brief chapter on Jasper's childhood and family, Hatcher introduces Jasper by way of the conversion experience which is a turning point in Jasper's life. Jasper believed that "God had put him into the ministry" and called him in a manner that was "so reverential, so full of noble assertion and so irresistibly eloquent . . . that even his most sceptical critics were constrained to admit that, like John the Baptist, he was 'a man sent from God'" (p. 23-24). Hatcher presents Jasper's conversion narrative and sermons 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. One 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' (p. 25). 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" (p. 28). 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.

Hatcher believes that "It is as a preacher that John Jasper is most interesting," (p. 36) so he concentrates his efforts on Jasper and the pulpit. As the first 25 years of Jasper's ministry took place before slavery was abolished, he was limited to preaching at funerals. But slave funerals were a "pageant" (p. 37) that came from the traditions of African beliefs and ceremonies and this is where Jasper thrived. "Jasper was a master from the outset at this work," (p. 38) and was called to officiate at slave funerals throughout the surrounding country.

Though Hatcher only heard a single sermon by Jasper, he spoke to many witnesses of other sermons and includes their commentary on Jasper in his biography. The testimony of Virginia Adams, like others, is included as "simply the unmethodical testimony of a sensible woman, bearing about it the marks of sincerity, intelligence, and reverential affection" (p. 76). As a means of presenting Jasper's essence directly to the audience, Hatcher chooses to present reproductions of Jasper's preaching in a manner that captures the non-standard aspects of his colloquial speech. Among the sermons that Hatcher included in his biography were selections titled "whar sin kim frum?"(p. 47) and "dem sebum wimmin"(p. 89).

The conclusion that Hatcher comes to is that Jasper was a "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" (p. 182). Jasper's conviction and faith is evidenced through the multiple visions we are given of this great man's conversion, his preaching, and his ministering to those in need.

Works Consulted: "History of the University of Richmond: People," UR History Home, accessed 12 Nov. 2011; Hatcher, "William E. Hatcher, D. D., LL. D., L. H. D.: a biography, Volume 4," WC printing, Richmond Virginia, 1918; Eldridge Burwell, Moran, Jeffrey R., "The Scopes Trial and Southern Fundamentalism in Black and White: Race, Region, and Religion," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 95-120; Randolph, Edwin Archer, "The life of Rev. John Jasper, pastor of Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist church, Richmond, VA: from his birth to the present time, with his theory on the rotation of the sun," R.T. Hill & Co., 1884.

Laura Benning

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