Francis J. Grimke: Prophet of Racial Justice, Skeptic of American Power

Francis J. Grimke: Prophet of Racial Justice, Skeptic of American Power
Robert F. Schwarzwalder, Jr., M.A.

Editors note: The following chapter, completed in January 2020, is excerpted from Robert Schwarzwalder’s forthcoming doctoral dissertation, which is in the editing process. Mr. Schwarzwalder serves as Director of Regent University’s Center for Christian Thought and Action and Senior Lecturer in the Department of General Education.

Francis James Grimke’s relevance to this discussion is his ongoing commentary on international affairs as one of the most prominent black intellectuals and also most prominent black Evangelicals of his era.

Grimke was the grandson of John Faucheraud Grimke, an associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and wealthy slave holder, and one of three sons born to attorney and plantation owner Henry Grimke and his slave consort, Nancy Weston. Although a slaveholder, Henry was sufficiently fond of his three little sons that he wanted both their mother and them treated as free.

Henry died in 1852 and asked his all-white son Montague (his son by his legal wife, who died prior to Henry’s alliance with Nancy Weston) to allow the three boys to grow up in freedom. Although the boys had relative liberty in their early years, in 1860 Montague began subjecting his half-brothers and their mother “to the most degrading form of slavery, replete with floggings and imprisonment.” Francis ran away and upon being recaptured, was imprisoned and eventually sold by his brother to an officer in the Confederate army.[1]

After the war, Francis and his brother Archibald attended public school in Charleston, where school officials became impressed by the boys’ fine minds and sponsored the Grimke brothers at Lincoln College (now University) in Pennsylvania. His aunts, Southern abolitionists Angelina and Sarah, only learned of Francis’s existence by chance and thereafter provided him with financial assistance. [2]

The talented young man graduated as Lincoln’s valedictorian (Archibald was the third-ranking graduate) and thereafter started law school at Howard University in 1872. However, sensing the call to Christian ministry, he applied to and was accepted at the nation’s premier theological institution, Princeton Theological Seminary.

At Princeton, Grimke “was among the last group of students at Princeton to have Charles Hodge as his theology professor for all three years.” Hodge, the seminary’s long-time president, was a theologian of standing whose works are still in publication. Interestingly, Hodge himself either owned slaves or rented them from others. However, by the time Grimke was at Princeton, slavery was done. Additionally, Hodge felt the Southern practice of slavery was immoral and Grimke records no instance of racial prejudice on Hodge’s part. [3]

Additionally, Grimke won praise from Hodge’s son Archibald, a recognized theologian in his own right, and from Princeton College’s president James McCosh, who wrote, “The late Dr. (Charles) Hodge reckoned him equal to the ablest of his students … I have heard (Grimke) preach, and feel as if I could listen to such preaching with profit from Sabbath to Sabbath.” From Princeton, [4] Grimke went to the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church (sometimes referred to as the “Colored Presbyterian Church”) in Washington, D.C., where he remained as pastor, except for a four-year stint in Florida, for 60 years. [5]

During his tenure at Fifteenth, Grimke became one of the nation’s most outspoken and well-respected advocates for racial equality. He helped found several African-American organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [6] and engaged in extensive and sometimes quite potent correspondence with members of his own denomination and others concerning racial prejudice. As but one example, there was in 1916 a telling exchange between Grimke and Indiana Presbyterian Rev. Sol C. Dickey. Dickey wrote asking Grimke the following:

“I wish you would let me know what you consider the Negro problem and if you really insist on social equality, by which is meant intermarriage of the races. I simply write this to ask for your frank statement.”

Whether this could be taken as the ignorance of a provincial white clergyman or the condescension of a racist is difficult to determine. Whatever the case, Grimke responded to Dickey forcefully:

“You seem, for some reason, determined not to see the truth – determined to make Christianity conform to your notions rather than make your notions and prejudices conform to its teachings … You seem to be entirely unconscious of the fact that colored people have some self-respect … It is the lack of courage to stand with Jesus Christ and upon Christian principles in this evil and adulterous generation that is the curse of the Church today … I am, yours for a real, not a sham, Christianity, Francis J. Grimke” [7]

Perhaps the most vivid example of Grimke’s pursuit of racial justice were his letters to fellow Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson. Writing on November 20, 1912, only a couple of weeks after Wilson’s election, Grimke writes both of the trepidation of African-Americans concerning the election of a Democratic president (“the triumph of the Democratic Party has always been attended, more or less, with a sense of uneasiness on the part of colored people”) and his hope that “a man of (Wilson’s) known Christian character” and “who believes as he does in the Word of God” would ensure that “the race with which I am identified will have no just grounds of complaint” from Wilson’s administration.

Less than one year later, a disillusioned Grimke again wrote Wilson, registering his “earnest protest against the disposition, under your Administration, to segregate the colored people in the various departments of the Government. To do so is undemocratic, is un-American, is un-Christian, is needlessly to offend the self-respect of the loyal black citizens of the Republic.” Grimke indicts Wilson for failing to “check … the brutal and insane spirit of race hatred that characterizes certain portions of the white people of the country.” [8]

A further testament to Grimke’s prominence, even at a relatively young age, was the legendary African-American statesman and activist Frederick Douglass’s personal request that Grimke perform Douglass’s marriage to Helen Pitts, subsequent to the death of Douglass’s first wife. This Grimke did on January 24, 1884, only six years after his graduation from Princeton Seminary. [9]

Grimke’s Evangelicalism

In a letter to the members of Princeton Seminary class of 1878 on the event of the 40th anniversary of their graduation, Grimke summarized his ministry:

“During these forty years two things I have tried to do with all my might: (1) To preach the gospel of the grace of God – to get men to see their need of a saviour, and to accept of Jesus Christ as the way, they truth, the life … (2) I have sought with all my might to fight race prejudice, because I believe it is utterly un-Christian, and that it is doing almost more than anything else to curse our own land and country and the world at large.” [10]

While most white Evangelicals were tragically silent on matters of race, it is clear that in his theology and his preaching, Grimke was squarely in the Evangelical Protestant camp. Trained in Princeton Seminary’s strong Reformed theological tradition, Grimke identified as a pastor and proclaimer of the Gospel as understood by historic Protestant creeds and convictions. 

He echoed these convictions often. He put it succinctly in his personal diary: “My mission is to win men to Christ; to bring them to accept him as their Lord and Saviour and to begin in earnest to live the Christian life.”  [11]

His desire to evangelize was not limited to the pulpit. In a letter to ailing former Louisiana Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African-American ever to hold governorship of a state, Grimke wrote:

“Soon the end of the earthly pilgrimage must come. Have you thought about the future upon which you must soon enter? Have you made any preparation for it? … On the basis of our record, there is not one of us that will be able to stand in the judgement of the great day. Fortunately for us, God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. Never mind what our past record has been God has offered to pardon us of our sins, if we repent and accept Jesus Christ … We cannot go into eternity with our sins unrepented of and hope for any good. The blood of Jesus Christ alone cleanses from sin … Don’t allow life to pass without making the great surrender of yourself to Jesus Christ.” [12]

As with other Evangelicals, Grimke’s faith was grounded in a reliance on an infallibly inspired Bible. In a letter to British academic and theologian G. Campbell Morgan, Grimke wrote that he considered the Bible to be “God’s Word and the gates of hell will never be able to prevail against it … What is needed is a living faith in the Word of God – a hearty acceptance of the great principles enunciated in the Bible – faith enough in it to lead us to live according to its teachings.” [13]

Grimke retired from the pastorate in 1923, his principal biographer noting that “years of prophetic encounter with white America had taken their toll,” as had the duties of pastor and preacher. [14] He died in 1937, although (see below) after his retirement he remained an active voice in public affairs.

Grimke and the Great War

 As noted above, Grimke’s support for American entry into the First World War was less than enthusiastic. Writing in his journal in May 1918, Grimke wrote:

“… the only difference between Germany and this country and the Allies is that Germany wants not only white supremacy, but German supremacy, which the rest of the white nations are not willing for her to have. Neither of them care anything for the supremacy of right, – of fair play for all irrespective of color … the slaughter will go on, I believe, until right will have a chance to triumph, until the forces of evil have exhausted themselves.” [15]

A few weeks later, he writes, “The whole thing (the war) is nothing but a sham, a make-believe interest in the triumph of the great and eternal principles of right, of justice, of humanity. Such hypocrisy must be a stench in the nostrils of Jehovah, the God of truth, of sincerity.” [16]

Grimke seemingly showed some sympathy for a postmillennial eschatology. “There is no solution for the world’s troubles except as it makes way for the leadership of Jesus Christ who is the true light, and the only way out into a larger and better day, into peace and happiness … The world must move along the lines of Christian principles or else it will go on plunging deeper and deeper into darkness and misery.” [17]

Writing in the summer of 1927, Grimke saw a victorious temporal future for his faith:

“Christianity … will never cease fighting until all enemies are put under its feet; until the banner of the Prince of Peace waves triumphantly over all; until from the river to the ends of the earth his kingdom shall be set up … We have a prophecy of what is sure to come. Christianity is not an evanescent, transient influence; it is here to stay until its mission has been fulfilled, until God’s purpose has been fully accomplished through it.” [18]

Yet he also evinced skepticism about any future collation of nations, less because of his wariness of such alliances than his disdain for the then-sitting president. Writing in his diary, he confided”

“Humanity is not likely to make very much progress in pushing forward the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, in enthroning in the hearts of men the great ideal of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and the practical realization of this great ideal in the everyday life of the world, in all the relations existing between man and man, except under such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt. Leaders of the type of Woodrow Wilson will always be a clog on the wheels of progress as humanity moves on towards the goal, – the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” [19]

A few days later, he quotes Theodore Roosevelt as saying, “A man that is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.” Of this, Grimke writes, “I wish that that sentence could be burnt into the consciousness of Mr. Woodrow Wilson and his southern sympathizers, and all Negro-haters, North as well as South.” [20]

However, Grimke did have hope, if not for strides toward racial equality in light of black participation in the war, then at least for a renewed sense of resistance to white aggression against blacks. On November 27, 1919, at a “Union Thanksgiving Service” at Plymouth Congregations Church in the nation’s capital, Grimke preached a sermon titled, “The Race Problem as it Respects the Colored People and the Christian Church, in the Light of the Developments of the last Year.” He said that the “evident purpose” of African-Americans had become unwilling any longer

“… to submit quietly to the acts of violence that a certain class of whites have felt free to inflict upon them … The Negro has come at last, after years of patient suffering … to the realization of the fact, that there is such a thing as self-protection – a right, inherent in every human being, a right, God-given, God-conferred, and aright to be exercised when there is no other way of escaping the danger which threatens … The Negro is no longer running as he used to do. A new spirit is taking possession of him.” [21]

This new spirit, per the title of the sermon, evidently had been awakened by the “events of the last year,” meaning the active participation of African-American soldiers and sailors in the Great War and their newfound confidence in their right fully to participate as citizens in American life.

Grimke was outspoken on some of the issues that flowed from the war. For example, in 1920 the Washington Evening Star published a letter of his under the heading, “Bolshevist Literature.” In it, Grimke responds to remarks by Utah Republican Reed Smoot in the Senate concerning the Howard University library holding a pamphlet titled, “Bolsheviks and the Soviets.” Grimke writes that libraries should be:

“… repositories of all kinds of information, and should they not contain books on every phase of human thought and endeavor? I am wondering whether I am living in democratic America or in Russia of the csars … If bolshevism is a bad thing, the best way to kill it is to let people know what it is… The attempt to suppress a publication is the best way to advertise it, to call attention to it … It is not for any servant of the people, in Congress or out of it, to dictate to them what they shall read or what they shall not, to say how far they shall be permitted to inform themselves as to what is going on in this great world drama that is in process of unfolding.” [22]

A month later, Smoot responded to the letter and other remarks Grimke had made concerning the former’s criticism of Howard holding material from the nascent Soviet Union. In a display of senatorial unctuousness at its most orotund, Smoot said that Grimke had “made some remarks that were taken exception to by certain members of the House of Representatives.” [23]

This kind of attack failed to prevent Grimke from speaking out. In his 1923 convocation address at Howard University School of Divinity, the pastor (and Howard trustee) excoriated Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan for what he viewed as their hypocrisy in exalting Christian faith while actively or passively endorsing systemic and institutional racism. “I have very little faith in the Christianity of Mr. Woodrow Wilson,” Grimke said sardonically.

These statements so outraged South Carolina Democrat James Byrnes, whose racism was so engrained that he opposed even anti-lynching legislation, that he recommended that the federal appropriations intended for Howard be withheld. “He endeavored to arouse prejudice against the white people and incite these young negroes to acts of violence because negroes were not admitted to membership in white churches and in the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A.” [24] The attacks on Grimke continued, undertaken by various Members of Congress, for five small-type, single-space Congressional Record pages, including publication of the complete text of his Howard School of Divinity address.

Grimke’s Final Message to the Church on World Problems

In what was the last major address of his eventful life, Grimke in 1935 took the pulpit of the Fifteenth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington to speak to the issues of war and peace.  Titled, “Conditions Necessary to Permanent World Peace,” it was a re-working of an address he had given 17 years before. However, given the simmering crises in Europe and Asia and his own advanced age, the message took on a fresh urgency as the aged theologian articulated his views and exhortations. [25]

Grimke cited Harding’s international peace conference of the early 1920s and offered a realistic appraisal of what it could and could not have achieved. “Let us suppose that that conference had succeeded in coming to an agreement as to the limitation of armaments … what evidence is there that a reduction of armaments would result in curbing the spirit out of which war comes, or that other questions of equal gravity would not arise in the East, in the years, to come, to disturb again the peace of the world?” This is a classic application of the orthodox Christian view of human nature, that external conflict is the fruit of man’s inner, driven, and sinful desires. As the apostle James asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (4:1).

“The thing that imperils the peace of the world is not to be found in the multiplication of dreadnaughts and … in the building airplanes … but in the spirit out of which all these things come,” said Grimke. “And no conference which does not deal with the great underlying cause of all this restlessness … will amount to anything as a permanent solution of international problems.”

He goes on to tell his audience there were four conditions for “permanent world peace:”

  1. “The lifting of … the religion of the Bible, to the supreme place in the thought of the world.”
  2. “Jehovah, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, must be the God of all the nations … There must be one Lord and one faith over all the earth.”
  3. “There must be the careful teaching of the ways of Jehovah. In other words, the truth of God must be everywhere disseminated.”
  4. “There must be the practice of religion, the actual living out of its great ideal and principles.”

Rather oddly, he then calls for a “League of Nations” for the purpose of carrying out his four, rather than 14, points. Given his deep skepticism of international arms control, one wonders if Grimke threw this in to assure his audience that the four premises he has just proposed as the basis for global peace would not have to wait, at least entirely, for the next world.

Grimke’s thoughts from hereon are a mix of Evangelical theology and mundane proposals for “the betterment of man.”

“There is no other hope for world peace except through Christianity, except through the all-conquering power of the religion of Jesus Christ. It is only as He is lifted up, as He comes into control that a new day will begin and a new order set up. This idea of world peace, which is in the public thought today as never before, has in it, it seems to me, a message particularly for the Christian Church. It is a solemn, impressive and urgent call to it to be about its Master’s business … If we put our faith in any League of Nations, or any Limitation of Armaments Conference we will be disappointed. Nothing but hard, earnest faithful preaching and teaching and living Christianity on the part of all Christians everywhere, will bring the desired result.”

Yet then he describes “conferences which shall have for their object the betterment of man, morally and spiritually; the putting into man a new spirit, a spirit of unselfish love; the setting up before him higher and nobler ideals.”

This proposal seems inconsistent with his earlier meditation on “the spirit of these things,” the sin about which he had spoken and written so extensively over many decades of ministry. However, few people of Grimke’s time had articulated so faithfully or forcefully his twin belief in human fallenness and the possibility of regeneration as had he. Armed with powerful moral courage and a profound sense of justice, these things compose his larger legacy.  

[1] Willard B. Gatewood, Review of Bruce, Dickson D. Archibald Grime: Portrait of a Black Independent. African American Review (29:1), Spring 1995, 135

[2] See Louis B. Weeks III, “Racism, World War I and the Christian Life: Francis J. Grimke and the Nation’s Capital,” Journal of Presbyterian History (51:4) Winter 1973, 473; Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters From South Carolina : Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 258

[3] Nichols, Stephen J. Five Minutes in Church History (Sanford, Florida: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 120; cf. Torbett, David. Theology and Slavery: Charles Hodge and Horace Bushnell (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2006), who writes that although Hodge believed in some limited form of slavery, he “opposed slavery on the basis of a genuine, though qualified, belief in racial equality” (57). See also Allan Guelzo, “Charles Hodge’s Antislavery Moment,” in Stewart, John W. and James H. Moorhead, eds., Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 299-325.

[4] On October 18, 2019, Princeton Theological Seminary announced its intention to initiate “ten new annual Francis Grimke scholarships each year (up to 30 active scholarships at a time), valued at the cost of tuition plus an additional $15,000, to students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups.” “Audit of Princeton Theological Seminary and Slavery: A Report of the Historical Audit on Slavery Recommendations Task Force, Adopted by the Princeton Theological Seminary Board of Trustees on October 18, 2019,”, 13, in “Princeton Seminary and Slavery: A Journey of Confession and Repentance,”

[5] Letters of James McCosh, October 18, 1879 and February 10, 1881 (no addressee given) and letter of A.A. Hodge to Rev. Theo L. Cuyler, October 18, 1879 in Woodson, Carter G., ed., The Works of Francis J. Grimke, Volume I: Addresses Mainly Personal and Racial (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1942), x. Among Grimke’s parishioners was Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress and confidant of Mary Lincoln. Letter of Francis J. Grimke, The Journal of Negro History, 21:1 (January 1936), 56-57

[6] Berson, Robin Kadison. Marching to a Different Drummer: Unrecognized Heroes of American History (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 239. Grimke was also were prominent in the National Citizens Rights Association and the American Negro Academy. Carolyn L. Karcher, “The National Citizen’s Rights Association: Precursor of the NAACP,” 5 Elon Law Review 107 (2013); Weeks, 471

[7] Carter G. Woodson, ed. The Works of Francis J. Grimke, Vol IV: Letters (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1942), 147-150

[8] Woodson, Vol. IV, 129, 133. Howard University scholar Kelly Miller, with biting eloquence, echoed Grimke’s contempt, replete with theological references, in 1920’s Radicalism and the Negro: “Elected President of the United States, he makes himself the Chief Magistrate of Mankind … He believes in Democracy for humanity but not for Mississippi … (Abraham Lincoln) never uttered one insincere or uncertain word; the utterances of the latter (Wilson) rarely escape the imputation of moral ambiguity … (Wilson) proceeds to the Peace Conference enshrouded in the sacredness and secrecy of Sinai, and returns with the League of Nations written upon the tablet of his own conception with the finger of finality.” Radicalism and the Negro (Washington, DC: Murray Brothers Printers, 1920), 4

[9] Francis J. Grimke, “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (July 1934), pp. 324-329. Grimke wrote in this 1934 that he had “regarded it ever since, as an honor that  I was selected by the greatest man of the race to play this part in his illustrious career.”

[10] Woodson, Vol. IV, “Francis J. Grimke to the Members of the Class of 1878 of Princeton Theological Seminary,” April 27, 1918, 215

[11] Woodson, Vol. IV, Stray Thoughts and Meditations, 56

[12] Ibid, 171-172. It is noteworthy that Pinchback was only one-quarter black but was still regarded as a “Negro” and worthy of severe racial discrimination (e.g., after being appointed to the U.S. Senate, white southern Democrats prevented him from being seated). See Henry Louis Gates, “The Black Governor Who Was Almost a Senator,” accessed October 22, 2019

[13] Collected Works, Vol. IV, 139. In his letter to Morgan, former president of Cheshunt College, Cambridge and a prominent Evangelical preacher and writer, Grimke made a moving plea to Morgan to take a public stand for racial equality.

[14] Ferry, Henry Justin. Francis James Grimke: Portrait of a Black Puritan. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1970, 342

[15] Vol. 4, 45

[16] Ibid, 46

[17] see pp. 574-577, Addresses. See V. 4, p.85, Oct. 1919

[18] V. 4, Summer 1927, 218-219

[19] Vol. 2, Sept 28, 1918, 179

[20] Ibid, 185

[21] Woodson, Vol. I: Addresses Mainly Personal and Racial, 606,608

[22] Washington Evening Star, “Bolshevist Literature,” January 17, 1920, 4

[23] Congressional Record 65:3 February 20, 1924, 2832

[24] Congressional Record (Part 4, Vol. 65) March 13, 1924, 4096

[25] All quotes from this lecture are from Rev. Francis J. Grimke, “Conditions Necessary to Permanent World Peace, 3 November 1935,”  Francis Grimke Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC – Box 40-6, #316.