Francis James Grimké – Through a Pandemic and Social Unrest

Francis James Grimké – Through a Pandemic and Social Unrest

We are not the first generation who must deal with a pandemic and racial unrest at the same time. The Spanish flu of 1918 hit America at a time when racial segregation and lynching of blacks were commonplace and largely ignored by the majority of Americans. Francis James Grimké led his congregation through both challenges, while defending human rights in his speeches and writings.

From Slave to Pastor

            Born on November 4, 1850, to Henry Grimké, a white plantation owner, and a biracial slave, Francis was sold by his white half-brother Montague to a Confederate officer. Freed after the war, he reunited with his brother Archibald, who had been staying with a black family.

            It was then that the abolitionist Frances Pillsbury noticed the boys’ abilities and managed to enroll them in Lincoln University outside of Philadelphia. An honorary mention in a local paper of Francis’s academic accomplishments caught the attention of Henry’s sisters Angelina and Sarah, who had never heard about their nephews. From then on, they supported them in his studies.

            Both brothers studied law, first at Lincoln, then at Harvard. But while Archibald went on to work as an attorney, Francis answered a call to pastoral ministry, moving on to Princeton Theological Seminary to receive proper training.

            In 1878, following his graduation and ordination, he accepted a call to be the pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. The same year, he married Charlotte Frosten, who provided a great support to his ministry. Francis remained with the same congregation until his death, apart from a four-year hiatus when he served in Jacksonville, Florida due to his wife’s poor health.

For Racial Equality

            Faithful to the training he received at Princeton, Grimké stayed faithful to his primary task of preaching the gospel. At the same time, he believed the Bible said much against oppression, and the indifference and silence of most Christians about racial injustice was a poor testimony of the life-changing work of the gospel.

            “If it were a little evil, hid out of sight, scarcely perceptible, there might be some excuse,” he said in a 1919 address, “but when it stinks to heaven, when it flaunts itself everywhere, when the very churches are full of it, what possible excuse can there be for silence? Think of a Bible conference aiming to magnify the Bible and Christianity, and yet afraid to deal with one of the greatest evils in the land today! Instead of magnifying the Bible and Christianity, it is the best way to bring them into contempt. The whole thing looks like a sham, a make-believe effort with no real, earnest, honest purpose of carrying out the principles of Christianity.”[1]

            To Woodrow Wilson, who had been President of Princeton University before becoming President of the United States, Grimké wrote a letter of disappointment in his support of racist segregation - which Grimké viewed as undemocratic, un-American, un-Christian, and a needless offense to “the self-respect of the loyal black citizens of the Republic.”[2]

Through a Pandemic

            Grimké’s reflections after the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed over 675,000 Americans (about 0.5% of the population at that time) are striking for their honesty and relevance to many of today’s concerns. Pondering on lessons learned, Grimké started with the unescapable realization that man’s destiny is truly in God’s hands.

            “I have been impressed with the ease with which large portions of the population may be wiped out in spite of the skill of man, of all the resources of science. Suddenly this epidemic came upon our city and country, and though every physician has been employed and every available nurse has been at work day and night, thousands have died, the awful death toll continued. … How easy it would be for God to wipe out the whole human race, in this way, if he wanted to; for these terrible epidemics, plagues, the mighty forces of nature, all are at His command, are all His agents. At any moment, if He willed it, in this way, vast populations or portions of populations could be destroyed.”[3]

            As it is now, the government at that time took drastic measures, “in closing up the theaters, schools, churches, in forbidding all gatherings of any considerable number of people indoors and outdoors, and in restricting the numbers who should be present even at funerals.”

            And, as it is now, there were complaints.

“There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger and expect God to protect us. And so, anxious as I have been to resume work, I have waited patiently until the order was lifted.”[4]

            Grimké admitted he had worried about the state of the church, and whether the forced closure would damage the work. “But I soon recovered my composure. I said to myself, Why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.”[5]

Grateful Commitment

            While some of us might disagree with Grimké’s assessment of government restrictions, every Christian will concur with his expression of deep gratitude for “the sense of security which a true, living, working faith in the Lord Jesus Christ gives one in the midst of life's perils.”[6]

            “I felt, as doubtless you all felt, who are Christians, the blessedness of a firm grip upon Jesus Christ—the blessedness of a realizing sense of being anchored in God and in His precious promises. While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would—whether we were smitten with the epidemic or not, or whether being smitten, we survived or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed. Even if death came, we knew it was all right.”[7]

            And every Christian today will certainly concur with Grimké’s concluding hope: “We ought to come out of this epidemic more determined than ever to run with patience the race that is set before us; more determined than ever to make heaven our home. And this, I trust, is the purpose, the determination of us all.”[8]



[1] Francis Grimké, The Works of Francis Grimké, ed. by Carter G. Woodson, vol. 1, Washington D.C., The Associated Publishers, 1942, p. 612. (This and other volumes are available online through The Log College Press https://www.logcollegepress.com/francis-james-grimke).

[2] Ibid, p. 518.

[3] Francis Grimké, “Some Reflections, Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City.” a discourse delivered in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Sunday, November 3, 1918, digitized by Emory University, p. 4

[4] Ibid., p. 6

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 10.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Ibid., p. 12