Francis J. Grimké

Francis James Grimké - Wikipedia
Francis J. Grimke, c. 1902

This paper was originally written as a Church History research assignment doing a biographical study of a significant figure in the history of the church between the Reformation era and modern day. Francis Grimké was chosen because of his unique influence on the church as a proponent of the inerrancy of Scripture, love for the local church, and Reformed theology. His doctrine worked itself out horizontally through a robust application of that theology in society to prophetically address social issues with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Nicholas R. Barnfield, M.Div. NOBTS, 2020.
Paper originally submitted July 20, 2020.

Francis J. Grimké: Puritan, Pastor, and Prophet

I. Introduction

Francis James Grimke (1850-1937), born in Charleston, South Carolina to a slave owner and his mistress, was a black Presbyterian pastor who spent over fifty years faithfully ministering in Washington, D.C. He was known as a pious man with a relentless advocacy for the supremacy of the Word of God as the means by which the world would be transformed for the better. Grimke was a preacher, writer, and theologian who was known for his prophetic voice on modern issues while holding fast to the ancient truths revealed in Scriptures. His preaching and writing ministries were directed at reforming both the black and the white church in America, as he saw racial justice and righteousness in personal living as equally important concerns of Christians in America. One historian wrote of Grimke that he was “one of the most sensitive and articulate clergymen of his race.” Grimke had the ability to articulate the Word of God and offer practical applications aimed at the well-being his flock, but often seized opportunities to aim his addresses at the broader society in which he lived. Francis Grimke was a prophet, a shepherd, and a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ who He sought to present before a world that so desperately needed the direction and comfort of the Good Shepherd.

II. The Making of Francis Grimke

The Rev. Francis James Grimke was born on November 4, 1850, at Caneacres Plantation just outside the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Francis was the second child born to his mother Nancy Weston, a servant girl owned by his father Henry Grimke, who came from “an aristocratic slave-holding family.” Quite ironically for Henry, his two sisters Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimke were known in their time as staunch abolitionists. Henry Grimke’s first wife had passed away in 1843, leaving behind three children, Henrietta, Montague, and Thomas Grimke. The dynamic of Henry and Nancy’s relationship eventually changed and on August 17, 1849, Nancy would bear her first child and Francis’ older brother Archibald Henry Grimke. The family dynamic of the Grimke boys was complicated to say the least, with a mother who was a “mulatto servant girl” of white, black, and Indian descent and a white father who was also legally their owner due to the laws at that time.

 Evidence of Henry’s admiration for Nancy was the structure of his will, which was to sell all his property and possessions, including slaves, with the exception of Nancy and her three boys, whom he left to his son Montague. Life for the youngest Grimke boys on Caneacres plantation was short-lived, as Henry Grimke died of Yellow Fever on September 28, 1852. Francis’ mother was pregnant at the time of Henry’s death and was forced to move with Archibald and Francis to a small house on family land in the city of Charleston. 

Raising three sons as a single mother was difficult for Nancy, who found work cleaning and ironing clothes for some of the wealthy men in Charleston. Nancy involved Archibald and Francis in the family work in order to make ends meet, creating an environment in which the two boys would learn at an early age the same work ethic and determination that would undergird their future endeavors in education and ministry. In addition to her work ethic, Nancy’s spiritual influence would prove formative in the religious conscience of her young boys. Nancy’s spiritual disposition in raising her boys is well captured by historian Henry J. Ferry, who said, “Like many of her contemporaries, this Negro mother believed in a God whose protection and justice covered her boys.” The Grimke boys were clearly impacted by their mother, and their lives displayed a reverence for God and a disdain for the vices that ensnared so many young men in their day, particularly alcohol. One of the defining aspects of Francis’ later pulpit ministry was his emphasis on character, and he upheld righteousness as the standard which all men were to be admonished toward if their lives were to count for any good. 

The modest but simple upbringing of Francis and Archibald in the home of a loving mother would not last long. Following the death of his first wife, their half-brother Montague Grimke, forced the three boys to become personal servants to his new wife. For the first time in their lives, the Grimke boys experienced first-hand the life of a slave. Montague’s attempt to domesticate the boys and rebel against his father’s wishes was met with fierce opposition by Francis and Archibald, who frequently ran away. Punishment in the form of imprisonment and whippings became a regular occurrence until the boys finally escaped. Francis enlisted himself in the service of a Confederate officer as a valet, but it was a short-lived career. During one of his regular trips to Charleston to visit his mother, he was captured in exchange for a bounty placed on him by his half-brother Montague. Grimke was then sold by Montague to the officer he formerly worked for, but this time he would work as human chattel, the legal property of that officer, until the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

After the war, an abolitionist schoolteacher named Francis Pillsbury who was working in South Carolina arranged for Francis and Archibald to move to the North and pursue an education. It was through the help of Ms. Pillsbury that the boys eventually ended up at Lincoln University, a Presbyterian school whose mission at its founding was to equip freed African Americans for missionary work in Africa. Francis excelled in his time at Lincoln, earning accolades for his scholarship and eventually graduating as class valedictorian in 1870. After graduating from Lincoln university, Grimke remained at Lincoln to teach and study in a fledgling law program started by the school, but the law program failed shortly after its creation and Grimke was forced to look elsewhere to study law. 

In 1862, Grimke moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University in his second attempt to study law. The door to enter the law profession once again closed on him when the Howard University law program unraveled due to institutional division. His time in Washington, D.C. was not wasted, as Grimke immersed himself in the life of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, where he quickly gained the respect of the church members and leadership. It was through the failed attempt to study law at Howard that Grimke resolved to enter the ministry.

Grimke’s decision to enter the ministry would be aided by his friend and pastor Dr. John Reeves, whom he had met while attending Lincoln University. The early influence of Reeves proved an invaluable source of encouragement and guidance that would eventually lead Grimke to follow in the footsteps of his friend. Reeves’ church would later recommend Grimke to the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a candidate for Gospel ministry. Also worth noting is that the decision for Grimke’s approval and endorsement by the Philadelphia Presbytery would not have come without the support of Reeves, due to an apparent concern that Grimke’s voice was “so weak that he never would be able to meet the demands of a regular pulpit.” Grimke’s life and ministry would later prove the folly of such an assumption. In hindsight, the opposition Grimke initially faced from the Presbytery also seems counter-productive to their mission to prepare more African American men for the work of the ministry, considering that the Presbyterians were sadly outworked by Baptist and Methodists in proselytizing the Negroes.

Grimke’s pursuit of ministerial training brought him to Princeton Seminary, a school that had been developed to address the Presbyterian Church’s lack of qualified and capable ministers, in part due to its stringent requirements for ministerial qualification in a time of war and social unrest. During his Princeton studies, Grimke was heavily influenced by Charles Hodge, a theological hero in the Presbyterian tradition. Among other great contributions to the Christian faith, particularly within the Reformed heritage, Hodge was known for his stance on the verbal infallibility or “inerrancy” of the Scriptures. The impact of teachers like Hodge can be observed in the writing and preaching of Grimke, who also held to a high view of the Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God and the only hope of mankind. In one of Grimke’s later reflections, he reaffirmed these same truths that were instilled in him during his theological education saying,

“I accept, and accept without reservation, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s Word, sent to Adam’s sinful race and pointing out the only way by which it can be saved. Without the Holy Scriptures and what they reveal, there is no hope for humanity. To build on anything else is to build on the sand.”

-Carter G. Woodson, The Works of Francis J. Grimke, Vol. 3., (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers Inc., 1942).

Grimke flourished during his time at Princeton and had an impact on Hodge, who described Grimke as “a very able man, highly educated, of high character, and worthy of all confidence.” 

Before his senior year in 1877, Grimke was asked to spend his summer serving as the supply preacher to 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington. Grimke’s time spent serving the church in an interim role likely provided further confirmation for members of the church who already held Grimke in high regard. What began as an opportunity for Grimke to apply the ministerial training he received at Princeton was another providential movement to bring Grimke to the church he would serve as pastor over the next fifty years of his life.

A few months into his pastorate at 15th Street Presbyterian, Grimke married Charlotte Forten, a writer and prominent anti-slavery advocate from Philadelphia. The two met years earlier in Massachusetts but providence brought Charlotte to Washington, D.C. to join as a member of the church. Despite a significant age difference, Francis and Ms. Forten were a clear match and they married in December of that same year. They later had one child who died suddenly at six months old and never had any more children. In the absence of children, the Grimkes spent the entirety of their life caring for other family members and devoting themselves to the ministry God had given them at 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Grimke would serve that same church until the time he died in 1937.

Grimke’s faithfulness and longevity is one of the characteristic marks of his ministry, as well as his prophetic voice to the American church. In a world where black men had few opportunities for prominence in society, Grimke made use of his platform in the church. Due to the limited opportunities for blacks in America, the black church grew to be one of the staple institutions in black society, and the means by which many black men could exercise leadership and influence both inside and outside the church.

III. The Ministry of Francis Grimke

Grimke ministered in a time filled with turmoil and uncertainty even as the country recovered and improved from the devastation of the Civil War. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Grimke saw the tense racial strife as a backlash to the integration of blacks and immigration of Europeans, the shifting values of an ever secular culture, the onset of a major World War, and the Great Depression, just to name a few of the challenges faced by Grimke in his pastorate. Central to Grimke’s ministry was the preaching of the Word of God as the hope for men’s souls. In a reflection on the anniversary of his fiftieth year of pastoring, Grimke remarked,

“Whatever the effect of these fifty years of preaching and of living may be, the purpose running through them all has been to lead men to repentance and faith, and to build them up in comfort and holiness.”

-Carter G. Woodson, The Works of Francis J. Grimke, Vol. 3, (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers Inc., 1942), 266.

As Grimke saw things, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the only means by which the ills of society would ever be improved. Grimke’s love of the simplicity of the Gospel message he preached is communicated in his saying,

“I wanted to mark the close of the half century by calling attention to the fact that I began my ministry with the old, old story of Jesus and his love, and that with the same old gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, it was my purpose to end it, having no faith in any other means of saving men.”

-Carter G. Woodson, The Works of Francis J. Grimke, Vol. 3, (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers Inc., 1942), 266.

Grimke’s early influence by the faithful ministry of Rev. John B. Reeves had a lasting impact his life, evidenced by Grimke’s tenure at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Reeves also had a tenure of over fifty years of ministry at the Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where Grimke attended church during his summer breaks from school at Lincoln University. Reeves was a devoted scholar of the Bible and put a high priority on the preaching of the Word in his pastoral ministry. His commitment to the study of the Word and sermon preparation was such that he did not spend a great deal of time doing pastoral visitations outside of the necessary pastoral duties such as dealing with illness, death, or necessary pastoral counseling. When it was once asked of Reeves to do more pastoral visitations, he is said to have replied that increased visitations to socialize with church members would be “at the expense of less studied sermons.”

Grimke later said of Reeve’s preaching, “I never heard him preach a poor sermon; I never heard him when I was not benefited.” Reeves’ example of faithfulness was used by God to mold and influence another divinely appointed servant of the church in Francis Grimke. Even in his dedication to sound and faithful preaching, Grimke earnestly sought to be a helpful preacher rather than clever preacher.

IV. The Message of Francis Grimke

One of Grimke’s greatest contributions to Christianity at large in America was his call for the reform of the Black and White Churches as institutions under the Lordship of Christ. Grimke, unafraid to chastise if it was in the best interest of the recipient, had harsh words for both institutions and believed they had fallen short of their duty and identity. Grimke accused the pulpits [preachers] in the Black Church of being hindered by emotionalism, which forsook sound teaching for religious experience, robbed people of true spiritualty as revealed in the Scriptures, and greed for money, with many preachers taking advantage of the respect and power afforded to ministers in that day. In his sermon titled The Afro-American Pulpit in Relation to Race Elevation (Washington Minister’s Union, 1892), Grimke says, 

The thing most to be deplored in our condition today is not our poverty, nor our arrogance, but our moral deficiencies, and for these deficiencies the Afro-American pulpit is in a very large measure responsible. The very fact that our people have had a long schooling in slavery, the tendency of which has been to blunt the moral sensibilities and to degrade the whole moral nature, makes it all the more important that special attention should be given to their development in this direction and renders the character of much of our pulpit ministration all the more reprehensible.

-Thabiti Anyabwile. “The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 133.

Not to be used as an apologetic towards the inferiority of the Black Church, Grimke had equally scathing remarks for the White Church. Using the story of the Woman at the Well from the text John 4:9, Grimke preached in his sermon Christianity and Race Prejudice (June 5, 1910) saying,

It is a humiliating confession to make, but it is true – the church today is the great bulwark of race prejudice in this country. It is doing more than any other single agency to uphold it, to make it respectable, to encourage people to continue in it. It not only upholds it within its own peculiar institutions but furnishes an example to the non-believing world to do the same….The older white Christians are dying out, but race prejudice is no dying out; it survives in their children, and it survives in their children because it lived in them, and it will continue to survive in the children as long as it lives in the parents.

-Thabiti Anyabwile. “The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 141, 148.

Grimke’s solution was either for the American church to cease aligning itself with Christ and His Gospel message or repent of the anti-Christ doctrine of race prejudice that had infected it down to its very core. Grimke, lovingly and pastorally, offered a way forward for the White Church. He held forth the character and nature of Christ, ever looking towards the Father to accomplish reconciliation in the world and display the fruits of the Spirit. Grimke was bold and prophetic in His preaching of the Gospel and zealous for the Bride of Christ to shine brightly in the world. His hope was not in man to accomplish this work, but in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

V. Conclusion

Francis J. Grimke was a spiritual giant in his day, and his contributions to the church continue to bless saints in churches of every color. The long-term impact of a robust biblical worldview on a congregation seated within a major cultural center in a rapidly changing America cannot be understated. Grimke’s emphasis on issues such as Christian character, race equality, biblical womanhood, and discipleship of the youth, would have contrasted greatly with many religious counterparts in his day, but they proved helpful for shepherding his flock.

The robust nature of Grimke’s teachings can be attributed to his high view of Scripture and devoted study of it. In the examination of a life faithfully lived to the end, Grimke’s personal commitment to holiness and complete dependence on the Holy Spirit stand out as the means of grace which seasoned his ministry with a distinctly prophetic and puritanical essence. The Church in America has undoubtedly suffered from amnesia at times that forgets some of its greatest contributors. By the grace of God, every now and then men like Francis Grimke are brought back out into the light. The Lord has and will continue to use faithful saints like Francis J. Grimke to encourage and challenge the Church in every culture and context to fulfill the calling given by its head and Chief Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth.

VI. Application Point

28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Colossians 1:28-29

In this passage, Paul states that the mission of the Christian life is to “present everyone mature in Christ.” The life of Francis Grimke was a life that exemplified a commitment to see everyone reach full maturity in Christ, using every means provided to Him to show Christ’s preciousness to the world. I am humbled and encouraged by Grimke’s story, which rivals any great novel in the road he traveled from his birth into slavery to serving for over fifty years as one of the most respected pastors in America, to those who had the spiritual eyes to see it.

Francis Grimke is a testimony to a weak man who had little to boast in apart from Christ, but through His dependence on Christ found true power to live a life of usefulness to the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom in the world. My prayer is that I too might be a Spirit-led and Spirit-dependent servant of Christ’s church in the same humble and faithful manner that Grimke did.


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