By the time the Civil War ended, John Jasper was a well-regarded black preacher in Richmond, but emancipation meant he could start his own church. It stands today in Jackson Ward.
During its 150-year history, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church has burnished Jasper's legacy with a commemorative stained glass window, a church museum and an annual holiday. Now an updated version of his most famous sermon — previously available only as transcribed dialect — has been rereleased in modern English.
“De Sun Do Move” caused a stir when Jasper first began preaching it in 1878. Jasper systematically pulled passages in which the Bible conjures images contrary to scientific observation and made the case for a flat, square earth orbited by the sun. It became a public spectacle, says Sixth Mount Zion historian Benjamin Ross.
It captivated people because it was not your run-of-the-mill sermon,” Ross says. “Here was someone fresh out of slavery talking about the celestial bodies and using the Bible to prove a point. He was pushing the buttons.”
He pushed those buttons more than 200 times — at the General Assembly and in front of picnicking audiences up and down the East Coast.
The anti-science message “didn't play too well in Philadelphia and New Jersey,” Ross says. It didn't play that well down the block, either, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which stills exists.
“There was a little tit for tat, back and forth,” between the two pastors, Ross says.
Despite the not-so-scientific thrust of the sermon, it's resonated over the years and has been long admired by John Bryan. He updated the sermon in a paperback version — the proceeds of which, in part, benefit the church. He says he was drawn to Jasper's assertion that no matter what advances were made by scientific reasoning, a greater power superseded them, a theme he was delighted to find echoed in the writings of the renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, who even referenced the same Bible passage as Jasper had 125 years earlier.
Though he'd long been a Jasper fan, approaching the congregation about his project was a little ticklish. “This is the founder of their church,” he says, “and here you've got some middle-aged white guy monkeying with the words that have been in print for over 100 years.”
Bryan heads the Arts Council, but when he was working on the book he was vice president for advancement at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, says the “tit for tat” to which Ross eludes came from differences within the black community about how to best present yourself in public: with clipped formal pronunciation, as the Ebenezer folks favored, or with familiar dialect, as Sixth Mount Zion chose.
Although “translating” something out of dialect, and pulling a text across time and race, can bring significant pitfalls, Lee says the new version maintains the familiar tone of the dialect “without distorting it.”
Sixth Mount Zion pastor Tyrone Nelson says: “I think [Bryan] has brought Jasper's words to life in the [21st century].” S
The book is available at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Valentine Richmond History Center or www.amazon.com.