Grimké's Tribute to Theodore Roosevelt - 100 Years Ago

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Last month marked the centennial anniversary of the death of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 - January 6, 1919). His death was commemorated exactly one hundred years ago on February 19, 1919 in an address by Francis J. Grimké, which we remember today.

The man who occupied the White House at this moment in history was the noted Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson (his father Joseph Ruggles Wilson on the occasion of Woodrow’s 1897 ordination to the office of ruling elder famously declared: "I would rather that he held that position than be president of the United States”). Meanwhile, Grimké was serving as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Grimké and Wilson had a difficult past history: In September 1913, Francis Grimké had written to President Wilson opposing his administration’s newly-enacted policy of segregating the federal service. Francis’ brother, Archibald Grimké, was serving at the same time as head of the D.C. branch of the NAACP, and also opposed President Wilson’s policy of racial exclusion towards African-Americans, leading a protest of 10,000 citizens to a church a few blocks away from the White House in protest of what he termed the “New Slavery.” Francis Grimké later continued to speak out against segregation of the U.S. armed forces during World War I.

While President Wilson’s tenure in office was a great disappointment to Francis Grimké on the grounds of Wilson’s treatment of African-Americans, Grimké had the utmost respect for President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as Grimké had observed in an October 1901 sermon, famously dined at the White House with Booker T. Washington, much to the dismay of many American whites. In the eulogy which Grimké delievered on February 19, 1919, he drew a distinction between the two presidents,

"What a contrast there is between Woodrow Wilson and a man like Theodore Roosevelt. How different is the impression that the two men make upon you. Mr. Roosevelt impresses you at once, not only with his extraordinary vigor of body and mind, but also with his bigness of soul, with his great-heartedness, with his broad humanitarian principles, with his interest in and desire to give every man, of whatever race or color, an even and equal chance in the race of life. You never find him standing in the way, set ting himself in opposition to the progress of any class or race of human beings: you never find him wallowing in the mire of a narrow, degrading, ignoble race prejudice. You find him always reaching out himself for the largest and the best things, and saying to every other man, be he white or black. 'Come on and do likewise, — make the most of yourself and of your opportunities.' Theodore Roosevelt possesses not only a virile personality and a big brain, but also a big heart, — a great soul, — a man who has caught the vision of what it is to be a man, animated by the spirit of Jesus Christ, built after His model, and not a mere thinking machine, cold, calculating heartless.

"The contemptible little business in which Mr. Wilson and his southern friends and admirers are engaged, of trying to keep the colored people from going forward by endeavoring to block their way, by doing everything they can to impress them with their inferiority, and to beget in them a spirit of contentment in a condition of inferiority, is in marked contrast with the high minded, liberty-loving, justice seeking, kindly, brotherly spirit of Mr. Roosevelt. 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 fullness of Christ."

For Grimké, the difference between the two men, based largely on Roosevelt’s ability to deal with men of all colors as men, and Wilson’s evident desire to keep African-Americans within a second class status based on the color of their skin, was enormous. The text chosen by Grimké for Roosevelt’s eulogy was: “And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel” (2 Samuel 3:38). Theodore Roosevelt was beloved by Grimké, and the tenderness and respect which he held for the former President is as evident in this address as is the palpable bitterness and disappointment with which Grimké viewed the current president.

It is not often that God sends into the world a man like Theodore Roosevelt; only once in a great while, only once in many centuries. What Shakespeare said about Hamlet may be truly said of him,

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

Surely, not in our day shall such a unique personality appear on the stage of action.

This is the tribute of an African-American Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Washington, D.C. during the administrations of two presidents whom he saw as very different men. Take time, if you will, to read his full address honoring the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, given 100 years ago today exactly, which can be found in his Works, Vol. 1, beginning at page 174 at Francis Grimké’s author page here. For more on the life of Francis Grimké, see Thabiti Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (2007) at our secondary sources page here. To purchase Francis Grimké’s Meditations on Preaching, please visit our bookstore here.

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.

Learning to pray through the Psalms: Francis J. Grimké

Francis James Grimké on the value of learning to pray through the Psalms:

In studying the psalms we get a pretty good idea of what prayer is. It is talking to God; telling him all about ourselves, our cares, our anxieties, our troubles, vexations, disappointments, in a word, unbosoming ourselves to him as we would to a confidential friend. We not only learn what prayer is, but also the comforting assurance that God wants us to come to him, wants us to confide in him, to roll our burdens upon him. We need never hesitate therefore about going to him at all times and under all circumstances.

This devotional thought comes from The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 3: Stray Thoughts and Meditations (p. 3), which is a real treasure. This volume is full of references to the Book of Psalms, which were both an inspiration and a comfort to Rev. Grimké, especially during a particularly reflective period of his life. If you appreciate his devotional work as well as his pastoral ministry, be sure to also check his Meditations on Preaching, available at Log College Press here.

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