Image of funeral procession courtesy of Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
John Jasper was born a slave on July 4, 1812, on the Fluvanna County plantation owned by Wilson Miles Cary. By 1878, he'd undergone a life-altering conversion, built up Sixth Mount Zion from a Brown's Island shanty and become a renowned preacher. In March of that year, at the church's location of Duval and St. John streets, where it stands today, the Rev. Jasper came to the pulpit to begin a sermon he would go on to preach 273 times in more than 250 venues, including before the Virginia General Assembly. The title was "The Sun Do Move," and it posited how the sun circled around the Earth in accordance with Scripture.
Thousands crammed into the sanctuary for Jasper's sermons. A Richmond writer described his oratory as "a Pentecost for the curious, a juice apple for the hard-driven reporter, a festival for the scoffer, and a roaring financial bonanza for the saints of Sixth Mount Zion."
Jasper never wrote out the sermon, or any that he preached, but this one was transcribed and reprinted and written about — as was Jasper — throughout the world.
His renown is better understood now with the work of research historian Claire Hope, an independent scholar working in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University's Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library and Sixth Mount Zion. She compiled more than 300 newspaper articles that mentioned Jasper between 1871 and 1912, largely through the Chronicling America online newspapers project. The sermon and his 1901 death were written about in publications as distant as Hawaii.
A Washington, D.C., correspondent, writing in May 1878, is more or less typical:
"I have seen and heard him. I mean the Rev. John Jasper, of Richmond … John is well set up, coal black, about six feet high, well-built, partly bald, and sports beard and moustache. He was dressed in black with a white cravat. Age somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-five. He has a good delivery and fair voice, which runs at times into the sing-song yes, ah! And no, ah!"
Jasper was the 24th and final child of plantation preacher Philip Jasper and his wife, Tina, slaves inherited by Mary Monro Cary, who married William Samuel Peachy. Tina, Jasper and several of his siblings were taken to the Peachys' Williamsburg home.
At age 13, Jasper became an industrial slave in Richmond's tobacco factories. His religious conversion occurred while crossing Capitol Square during the 1839 Fourth of July festivities. He described the moment as getting "shot through by the arrow of the Lord" and that he left the square "crippled." Later baptized, he preached memorable funeral sermons and conducted slave weddings. He accrued secret rudimentary reading skills, using the Bible as text. During the Civil War, he ministered to the sick and wounded at Chimborazo Hospital. After forming Sixth Mount Zion on Sept. 3, 1867, Jasper's congregation outgrew every place it met.
Church historian Benjamin Ross said, "People, white and black, came to Sixth Mount Zion just to hear him. It was a festival, a circus, a spectacular scene. Up front, they were hooting and hollering."
A devoted audience member was the Rev. William Hatcher, the esteemed minister of Grace Street Baptist Church. Hatcher transcribed "The Sun Do Move," attempting to mimic Jasper's patois. A Richmond reporter recalled, "Jasper could talk quite grammatically when on his dignity; but, when he struck the abandon and lawlessness of his imagination, he dropped back into his dialect and then he was at his greatest."
Jasper's more than 30 years of stewardship at Sixth Mount Zion and the Jackson Ward community extended beyond one well-known sermon. He taught and developed social-services programs for orphans, the aged and the indigent.
He married four times, twice while still enslaved. His second marriage to Candace Jordan resulted in 10 children.
He seems to have preached "The Sun Do Move" for the last time in October 1900. During the winter, his deteriorating health quieted his former flamboyance. He prepared the congregation for the inevitable. In his house at 1112 St. James St., he lay dying, surrounded by friends and parishioners. At the last he said, "I have finished my work and am down at the river waiting for further orders." His death on March 30 shared headlines with the tremendous fire at the Jefferson Hotel.
Jasper's funeral went on for almost five hours including the lying-in-state. A Washington reporter wrote that the hymn "Tossed and Driven," when sung by "2,000 negro voices seemed to fairly lift the roof off" the church. About 2,000 more people couldn't get in. The procession took an hour to enter the gates of Barton Heights' Ham Cemetery.
Sadly, Jasper did not rest in peace.
The city demanded the land for expansion 18 years later, necessitating the disinterment of bodies. Members of Sixth Mount Zion hastened to remove their patriarch. Committee members opened the casket, "where they had the pleasure of gazing upon him." He was removed to Woodlawn, where Arthur Ashe was later interred.
Sixth Mount Zion has commemorated Jasper's bicentennial with the creation of an 11-by-11-foot quilt featuring 38 stars symbolizing Jasper's years of freedom. Historian Ross will speak about Jasper at 6 p.m. on July 12, at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.