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A black and white sermon: John Jasper’s capitalization on white exploitation in late nineteenth-century Virginia

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Abstract

Groups within southern society seized on John Jasper’s sermon arguing that the sun moved around the earth in order to reinforce ideas of African American inferiority. Jasper, however, took advantage of these efforts at exploitation. By embodying the stereotype whites sought to promote, Jasper became very popular with white visitors, and tourists to Richmond frequently requested renditions of the sermon. Through preaching his sun sermon on 253 occasions, Jasper was not only able to secure the financial and social independence of his church, but also provided inspiration to African Americans through highlighting that southern white supremacy could be overcome.

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Article
John Jasper (1812–1901), a major if misunderstood figure in post-Civil War African American culture, exemplifies a preaching tradition that used biblical ideas of covenant and apocalypse to orient the faithful in the furnace of the post-Reconstruction South. Jasper’s sermons, usually titled “The Sun Do Move” and “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain Without Hands,” are among the works that make him, in Ralph Ellison’s words, one of the “eloquent and heroic Negroes” whose “spirit still moves us through the contributions they made to the flexibility, music and idealism of the American language” (“Remembering” 668). Recent scholarship has taken Jasper as being significant because of the disregard for natural law signaled in the “Sun” sermon’s conventional title, which implies “God’s ability to alter the natural order,” and so belies Southern assumptions that “slavery and race domination are inherent” in that order (Roberts 139). Scholars note too that “[a]lthough the sermon is titled ‘The Sun Do Move,’ Jasper’s real purpose is to demonstrate the truthfulness and reliability of the power of God” (LaRue 33). Despite their insights, these views reflect over-reliance on the best-known but truncated and misleading version of this sermon, remain unaware of its emphasis on the God of Exodus, and fail to relate it to others, such as “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain.” Fuller reconstruction and contextualization place the two works centrally in the biblical covenant and apocalyptic traditions, with their assumption that God providentially directs history toward salvation of the covenant people. Not incidentally, this reconsideration also helps undermine the cliché that religious faith encourages acceptance of injustice. Jasper was born July 4, 1812, in Fluvanna County, Virginia, and remained a slave until emancipation. Converted in 1839, he began preaching the next year and built a reputation over many years largely on the funeral circuit (Randolph 10).1 Following the Civil War, he was a minister in Petersburg, Virginia, helped organize Baptist churches in Weldon, North Carolina, and Richmond, and eventually founded Richmond’s Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist Church (Randolph 28–33), remaining pastor until his death. Jasper is today known almost entirely for the “Sun” sermon, though in his lifetime and immediately after he was famed for others as well (see, e.g., Brawley 84–85). He is first known to have preached the sermon in early 1878 and he repeated it hundreds of times, often before white audiences. The title is not Jasper’s, and is used here only for convenience.2 The sermon has come down to us as a biblically based argument for a geocentric, flat-earth view of the universe, and yet is arguably about Exodus, covenant, and apocalypse as much as it is about the sun. The sermon’s seemingly central concern with the sun is indeed partly an artifact of its being known, even today, almost exclusively in a shortened version excluding other material. This version was published (1908) seven years after Jasper’s death by a white Baptist minister and admirer, William E. Hatcher, and this reconstructed excerpt represents the appropriation and celebration of only a part of the sermon’s content. An earlier and more reliable biography of Jasper (1884), by Edwin Archer Randolph, the first African American law graduate of Yale, gives a better idea of the sermon’s focus but is today almost unknown.3 Further, since Jasper composed orally, accounts of his sermons are based on newspaper reports, including both summaries and purported dialect transcriptions.4 Both the sermon and its author long held different meanings in African American and white traditions. Among whites of his day, Jasper was a figure of some renown. Though his was an African American congregation, white guests frequently attended and were received with unfailing courtesy (Hatcher 124–26), and a syndicate sent Jasper on tour to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in mid-1878 (Randolph 36; Hatcher 129–31). These acts point to some genuine, if limited common ground between the races. Yet even avowed admirers present Jasper with palpable, if unconscious condescension. To Hatcher, he is a “most original and picturesque representative of his race,” and a “wonderful prince of his tribe” (125, 22), and...
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