Francis Grimké was born in 1850 as a slave on a plantation near Charleston, S.C. He had a white father who died when he was rather young. And as the law had it at the time, he became the property of his white half-brother. Initially, his half-brother treated him well, and Grimké and his other siblings, along with his mother, lived in town basically as free persons. But then something happened, and as Grimké was moving into his upper teens, his half-brother brought him into his home as a house slave and, by all accounts, treated him very harshly. During the Civil War, one of Grimké’s other brothers managed to run away successfully. So, Francis himself attempted to run away during the Civil War. He was caught and returned, but after the war he was finally emancipated.
Grimké went with one of his brothers to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and received his bachelor’s degree in 1870. After a few years, he made his way up to New Jersey and became a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He studied in earnest from 1875 to 1878 and was among the last group of students at Princeton to have Charles Hodge as his theology professor for all three years. Upon his graduation, he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian church.
In 1928, on his fiftieth anniversary of being in ministry, Grimké wrote of his appreciation for Princeton in reference to early-twentieth-century liberal Christianity: “The findings of higher critics, the rationalist tendencies within the church, the dogmatic and arrogant assumptions of science that would banish God from the universe or limit his power, all of that has not affected me in the least, nor affected my perfect faith in the Bible.” That’s a testament to the education that he received at Princeton Seminary under professors such as Charles Hodge.
After graduating, he served as pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1878 to 1885. In 1885, he began serving as a pastor in a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Fla., but he missed Washington, D.C., and the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and returned in 1889. He would serve there until 1928, when he retired. He died in 1937.
As a student of Princeton Theological Seminary, Grimké had read John Calvin, and he admired him throughout his ministry. At one point, after reading an address on John Calvin, he wrote in his diary:
As I laid it aside, more profoundly impressed than ever before by the character and work of John Calvin, there went up from my heart the earnest prayer that when my life ends here that I too may be remembered because of some things I have said or done in bringing men face to face with life and its great and solemn responsibilities for which they must answer at the bar of God. To feel, as John Calvin felt, the sovereignty of God and to get others to feel the same, . . . is a great achievement and will go on working for good long after we are gone.