“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection.…” Philippians 3:10a
On a misty morning in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, two heart-broken, teary-eyed young boys, ages four (1) and seven, stand by their dying mother’s bedside. The disinterested world at large, far removed from that quiet farm in Old Virginia, took little notice of the events that were about to unfold, but Heaven stood at rapt attention. As the godly Presbyterian mother’s soul prepared to take its heavenly flight, she sent up a petition to the God of her fathers that would affect not only her two young sons, but thousands yet unborn as well. The younger son would later write:
Though faintly remembering it... they told my brother and myself that she used much of her dying breath in praying that we might be ministers and in that way it seems she entered as a silent factor among the forces which set for us the course of life.
God graciously answered the dying mother’s request — both boys converted at an early age and went on to become preachers of the gospel. The youngest was destined to become one of the most popular and influential Southern Baptists of the 19th century. William Eldridge Hatcher (1834-1912) would be a testimony to the power of Christ’s resurrection to impact culture and alter the courses of men’s lives.
A Mother’s Living Faith
Though the mother had been buried deep in the rich Virginia soil, her faith in the power of Christ’s resurrection was manifest in a multitude of ways that will only be fully known in eternity. God had blessed the Hatchers with a multi-generational vision, and the influence the family2 had on Virginia is a little known yet fascinating tale of how Christ’s power and glory can impact a society and “set the course of life.” The story provides inspiration and confirmation that 21st century Christians need to take the “long view” regarding our progress towards influencing our society.
W. E. Hatcher’s grandfather, Jeremiah Hatcher, had pastored in nearby Chesterfield County and was a “man of considerable means.” Jeremiah Hatcher’s passion was preaching — a passion that William inherited. The elder Hatcher eventually constructed a church building at his own expense in Bedford County. This structure became known as “Hatcher’s Meeting House.” His labor in that part of Virginia “wrought a signal transformation in that portion of the country.”
Jeremiah was blessed with three grandsons who also became ministers of the gospel. Besides William, God called his older brother, Harvey, and a cousin, Jeremiah B. Jeter,3 to the ministry. But it was William Hatcher’s life that yielded the most lasting impact. Converted to Christ at the age of fourteen, Hatcher later wrote that his “soul cried out for the ministry.” From 1854-1858, Hatcher studied for the ministry at Richmond College. While at the school, Hatcher influenced the spiritual lives of many of his fellow students:
He set his heart upon having a great revival of religion among the students…. His prayers and efforts were rewarded and a revival broke out among the students… nearly every student was brought to Christ.4
One observer of this outpouring of the Spirit testified: “The memories of that revival would fill a book and rarely do they ever come back without opening the fountains of my soul.” One of Hatcher’s contemporaries took note that Hatcher “had the brightest mind of any man I ever knew” and, “That young man will make his mark.”
Hatcher accepted his first pastorate at Manchester, just across the James River from Richmond College. While serving as pastor in Manchester,5 Hatcher witnessed the fall of Richmond as the Confederate government collapsed in the spring of 1865. “Pregnant and historic years,” Hatcher wrote of those tumultuous times.
His Mature Ministry
Hatcher also pastored in Baltimore and Petersburg, but it was at Grace Street Baptist in Richmond that Hatcher’s ministry laid roots and bore the most fruit, or in Hatcher’s words, “the maturest and most experienced part of my life… nothing else on earth attracted me.” Hatcher pastored at Grace for twenty-six years, from 1875-1901.
Hatcher went on to serve as editor of The Religious Herald, preach scores of revival meetings, write hundreds of articles and several books, establish a military school for boys,6 and even preach in London at Spurgeon’s request. But perhaps the most interesting, and the most important, of Hatcher’s work, was his discipling and mentoring the renowned black preacher, John Jasper. His biography of Jasper introduced millions to one of God’s choice servants.
Jasper was born in 1812, the 24th child of slave parents. He was almost a quarter century older than Hatcher. Converted at the age of 27 in a tobacco warehouse under the prayerful care of his master, Jasper has been called one of the greatest orators Virginia ever produced. But it was Hatcher who succored Jasper as they spent many quiet afternoons discussing the church, doctrine, and the goodness of God.
Hatcher described his first encounter with Jasper:
The writer of this book heard that there was a marvel of a man “over in Africa,” — a not too savory portion of Richmond, Virginia — and one Sunday afternoon in company with a Scotch-Irishman, who was a scholar and critic with a strong leaning towards ridicule, he went to hear him preach. Shades of our Anglo-Saxon fathers! Did mortal lips ever gush with such torrents of horrible English! Hardly a word came out clothed in its right mind. And gestures! He circled around the pulpit with his ankle in his hand, and laughed and sang and shouted and acted about a dozen characters within the space of three minutes. Meanwhile, in spite of these things, he was pouring out a gospel sermon, red-hot, full of love, full of invective, full of tenderness, full of bitterness, full of tears, full of every passion that ever flamed in the human heart.7
Hatcher continued to visit Jasper’s church, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist, for twenty years. Jasper founded the church in an abandoned Confederate horse stable in 1867 with nine members. At the time of his death, in 1901, Sixth Mount Zion boasted over one-thousand members housed in a beautiful brick edifice. The church is still a vibrant ministry and influence in Richmond’s African-American community today.8
Co-Laborers and Dear Brothers
Though Jasper’s success as a preacher and pastor was due to God’s calling and unction upon his life, much credit must be given to Hatcher’s doctrinal tutelage of Jasper. The two had a deep and abiding respect for each other, though it is difficult to say which one had more impact on the other.
Hatcher got his heart warmed at Jasper’s Sunday afternoon services, and Jasper’s head as a student was held level by frequent visits to Hatcher’s study. The love between the two ministers seemed unlimited.9
Hatcher’s son wrote of his father’s acceptance and promotion of Jasper, even though Virginia society at that time did not readily embrace the qualifications of a black preacher:
…underneath Jasper’s eccentricities and oddities Dr. Hatcher saw a jewel of purest ray and he picked it up, rubbed off the dirt and held it for the world’s gaze and verily there are those who say that the light will never go out.10
I would be one of those who say that light still shines — as does the power of Christ’s resurrection. As Hatcher lay dying at his home in Fork Union, Virginia, in 1912, those gathered around his bed heard the old preacher whisper, “John Jasper, we’re brothers now, and we’ll live forever round the throne of God.” — And ‘round the risen Christ.
1. William Hatcher’s mother died on his fourth birthday.
2. William’s progenitor, also named William, was the first Hatcher to set foot on American soil and served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. He once shouted down the Speaker of the House by crying out, “The mouth of this house is an atheist, a blasphemer and a devil!”
3. Jeter was, for many years, pastor of one of Richmond’s most influential churches, Grace Street Baptist (Hatcher also later served as pastor of Grace) and was greatly admired for his untiring work among Confederate soldiers. Tradition has it that upon hearing that a Yankee ironclad was steaming up the James River toward Richmond, Jeter grabbed his shotgun from his mantle and marched indignantly down to the river’s edge to confront the intruder alone. Fortunately, for Jeter, it was a false alarm.
4. Eldridge B. Hatcher, William E. Hatcher, D.D., LL. D., L.H.D. — A Biography. (Richmond, VA: W.C. Hill Printing Co., 1915), 20.
5. Manchester is part of Richmond today.
6. Fork Union Military Academy is still in operation today as a private, all male, military high school. It has continued to hold to its Christian heritage: “The Christian principles that guide cadet life remain true to the Academy’s spiritual heritage.” www.fuma.org
7. William E. Hatcher, John Jasper — The Unmatched Negro Philosopher and Preacher (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 9.
8. It was my privilege to accept an invitation and step into the pulpit to “bring greetings” two years ago at Sixth Mount Zion’s 135th anniversary.
9. Richard Ellsworth Day, Rhapsody in Black — The Life Story of John Jasper (Stuarts Draft, VA: Virginia Gentleman Books, (Reprint) 2000), 114.
10. Eldridge B. Hatcher, 563.