Francis J. Grimké on the great honor of preaching the gospel anywhere

On November 19, 1916, Francis James Grimké delivered a 75th Anniversary Address to the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C., of which he was the pastor. In this address he took note of a former pastor of the same congregation, Henry Highland Garnet, who had the honor in 1865 to become the first African-American pastor to preach a sermon before the U.S. Congress. Grimké’s words on the subject, in which he addresses considerations of race and the preaching of the gospel, are profound (The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 1, pp. 541-543).

At a meeting held March 2, 1864, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, of New York City, was nominated and unanimously elected pastor. His salary was fixed at $800. The call was accepted by Dr. Garnet, and he entered upon his duties in July of the same year, and continued to serve the church until October, 1866, covering a period of a little over two years. Dr. Garnet at that time was at the height of his fame as a pulpit orator and anti-slavery lecturer. His ministry here attracted, therefore, many of both races to hear him. He was a man of commanding presence and had a magnificent voice. It was while here that he preached in the National House of Representatives. It was the first time, and the only time, I believe, that that honor, if it be an honor, has been accorded to a colored man. I say, if it be an honor, and I mean just that. According to my notion the honor lies in being permitted to preach the Gospel, and not in the place where it is preached or to whom it is preached. It is just as great an honor — no more, no less, in my estimation — to preach to the humblest as to the greatest; for, in the sight of God, there is no difference. They are all sinners, standing alike in need of the Gospel. I know we are prone to think otherwise — to think that it is a great honor to be invited to preach before distinguished people. I have never been able to bring myself to look at it that way. The honor in preaching is, as the Apostle Paul expresses it, in being entrusted with the Gospel by Jesus Christ, and in giving the message. Unless we recognize this and lose sight of these earthly distinctions — unless we get out of our minds entirely the thought of great and small, high and low — we won't be able to give the message effectively. I remember some time ago hearing a member of our race say : Such and such a man, calling him by name, was invited to preach in a certain white church. It was a great honor, he said. It was the first time a colored man had ever occupied that pulpit. A great honor to preach in a white church! Is that so? Is it any more of an honor to preach in a white church than in a colored church? Any more of an honor to preach to white people than to colored people? Are white people any better than colored people? Are they not all sinners alike? To my way of thinking, it is just as great an honor to preach in a colored church as it is to preach in a white church; just as great an honor to preach to colored people as it is to preach to white people. I can't see that the color of the audience can possibly have anything to do with it. I remember when Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan died, the colored papers spoke of the great honor that was conferred upon Mr. Burleigh in that he was permitted to sing at Mr. Morgan's funeral. In my judgment — and I said so at the time — it was no more of an honor for Mr. Burleigh to have sung at the funeral of J. Pierpont Morgan than for him to have sung at the funeral of the humblest member of his own race, or of any other race. If there was any honor in it, it was the splendid manner in which Mr. Burleigh acquitted himself. The fact that Mr. Morgan was rich and that he was white did not make it any more of an honor to sing at his funeral than at the funeral of anybody else, and the sooner we come to see it in that light, the better it will be for all. The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, as I was saying, was invited to preach in the National House of Representatives, and had among his auditors Senators and Representatives. Well, what of that? Those Senators and Representatives were sinners, just as we are, and there was no more honor in speaking in that hall, and to that audience, than in speaking from this pulpit, and to the audiences that greeted Dr. Garnet here Sabbath after Sabbath.

I have referred to this incident in this anniversary address, not because I attach any personal importance to it, but simply because it was regarded, at the time, and is still regarded, as a great honor that a member of our race should have had such a courtesy extended to him, and because this man so honored happened to be the pastor of this church at the time. It was not, of course, because he was the pastor of this church that he was invited, though it occupied a conspicuous place in the community, but it was because of his prominence as a national character. He was a man that stood side by side with Frederick Douglass, in the popular estimation, and was almost as widely known.