“Friend of the Poor and the Suffering”: A Christmas Sermon by Francis Grimké (1880)

(image: Harriet Jacobs; Charlotte Forten Grimké; Francis J. Grimké)

Francis J. Grimké

After graduating from Princeton Seminary in 1878, Francis Grimké began his first run as pastor of Fifteenth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. While in D.C., Francis and his wife Charlotte Forten Grimké renewed their friendship with Harriet Jacobs, the famous author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). In 1862, Jacobs had recruited Charlotte to travel to St. Helena’s Island in Beaufort, South Carolina to help newly liberated enslaved people. When Jacobs died in 1897, Francis Grimké delivered the eulogy for her (available on JStor). Among her qualities, Grimké highlighted her generosity: “She was also the very of generosity; she possessed in a remarkable degree, what we sometimes call the milk of human kindness. Especially did her sympathies go out towards the poor, the suffering, the destitute. She never hesi­tated to share what she had, with others to deny herself for the sake of helping a suffering fellow creature. There are hundreds, who if they had the opportunity, today would rise up and call her blessed, to whom she has been a real sister of charity, a veritable Dorcas…”

Julia Wilbur Diary, December 25, 1880

On Christmas Day, 1880, Jacobs and Grimké and a few other women (including Mary Chaflin and Julia Wilbur) collaborated to put on a “holiday dinner” for a group of “destitute old freedwomen” (The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, 2: 760). Abolitionist and suffragist Julia Wilbur was present for this dinner and describes the scene in her diary (available online here): “There were 12 women & 12 children there. Dinner set in style in an elegant dining room. Mrs. C.[Chaflin] & niece & one other lady waited on them. It was like a foretaste of Paradise for these poor old ex slaves… Mrs. C. said ‘she believed she was the happiest of them all.’ There is luxury in doing good.”

The People’s Advocate (January 8, 1881)

The whole scene was written up as an article and published in The People’s Advocate as “Our Duty to the Poor–How We Observed it On Christmas” (January 8, 1881). Jean Yellin suggests that it was “perhaps written by Jacobs’s friend Charlotte Forten Grimké” (HJFP, 2:760). The article includes an account of a brief sermon that Francis Grimké delivered to the attendees. The sermon is wonderful meditation on Christ’s care for the lowly and downtrodden, and Grimké highlights how “When he was upon the earth he was the friend of the poor and the suffering.”

Jacobs, Grimké, and friends believed themselves to obeying Jesus’s command in Luke 12: “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsman, nor thy rich neighbor, but when thou makest a feast call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed. For they cannot recompense thee but thou shalt be recompensed in the resurrection of the just.”

I have transcribed the article here, which includes Francis Grimké’s sermon:

Christmas feasts for the poor were not the only occasion of Jacobs’s kindness. In his eulogy, Grimké later recalled other occasions of her generosity as well:

“She ministered to souls, poor and suffering ones, as God gave her the ability. I remember some years ago, it was on Thanksgiving day, how she gathered into her home a goodly company of old people, who were in destitute circumstances, and made a feast for them. And I remember also how happy it made her to see the old people enjoy themselves. It was a real pleasure to her. How her face lighted up as she looked upon their bright, happy faces. She seemed even happier than the old people themselves, though their hearts were overflowing with joy”

Francis Grimké, “Eulogy for Harriet Jacobs

Grimké’s eulogy is a profound and moving tribute to a remarkable woman. I highly commend it to you, in addition to his Christmas Sermon, for your holiday reading: “O Death, where is Thy Sting?: Reverend Francis J. Grimke’s Eulogy for Harriet A. Jacobs

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A Climax of Redemptive History (Christmas) Song

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!

Probably my favorite song from Joy Beyond the Sorrow, which might be my favorite Indelible Grace record yet.

Merry Christmas, as we celebrate the coming of David’s Greater Son.

The Undertow of the Eschaton

Christmas as the End of History by John Piper (12/20/81).

I just listened to this sermon today, and was struck by the parable of the “already/not yet” or “inaugurated eschatology” theme.  It was the final sermon in a 10 part series on The History of Redemption preached in 1981.  If you can, I recommend downloading the mp3 and listening to it, rather than just reading the transcript.  There is so much more life in a sermon actually heard instead of read.

Anyway, here’s the conclusion:

Christmas and the River of History

Creation out of nothing was an awesome event. Imagine what the angelic spirits must have felt when the universe, material reality of which they had never imagined, was brought forth out of nothing by the command of God. The fall was an awful event, shaking the entire creation. The exodus was an amazing display of God’s power and love. The giving of the law, the wilderness provisions, the conquering of Canaan, the prosperity of the monarchy—all these acts of God in redemptive history were very great and wonderful. Each one was a very significant bend in the river of redemptive history, bringing it ever and ever closer to the ocean of God’s final kingdom. But we trivialize Christmas, the incarnation, if we treat it as just another bend on the way to the end. It is the end of redemptive history.

And I think the analogy of the river helps us see how. Picture the river as redemptive history flowing toward the ocean which is the final kingdom of God, full of glory and righteousness and peace. At the end of the river the ocean presses up into the river with its salt water. Therefore, at the mouth of the river there is a mingling of fresh water and salt water. One might say that the kingdom of God has pressed its way back up into the river of time a short way. It has surprised the travelers and taken them off guard. They can smell the salt water. They can taste the salt water. The sea gulls circle the deck. The end has come upon them. Christmas is not another bend in the river. It is the arrival of the salt water of the kingdom of God which has backed up into the river of history. With the coming of Christmas, the ocean of the age to come has reached backward up the stream of history to welcome us, to wake us up to what is coming, to lure us on into the deep. Christmas is not another bend in the river of history. It is the end of the river. Let down your dipper and taste of Jesus Christ, his birth and life and death and resurrection. Taste and see if the age to come has not arrived, if the kingdom has not come upon us. Does it not make your eyes sparkle?

My prayer for us all this year is that we might see ourselves living between the first and second appearances of Jesus Christ, which together, are the end of redemptive history. That we might see these two appearances united by the overflow of the glorious ocean of the future kingdom of God into the present; and ourselves borne along no longer by the forces of history, but by the power of the age to come. May we feel the undertow of the eschaton and yearn to be there with the Lord forever. Even so come quickly, Lord. Amen.