Copyright 2020 © Neal Campbell
Stuart Grizzard was the sort minister that has almost disappeared from the religious landscape of the early 21st century, and really has entirely disappeared from the Southern Baptist Convention. The blurb on the dust jacket of his memoirs (published privately in about 1991, and written by his daughter) describes him as
“active in the Southern Baptist Convention and in the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. He was an evangelical, with a world view and an ecumenical perspective. The social dimensions of faith were deeply significant to him, and he took a stand for racial justice at a time when many pastors were silent. Years ago he became a champion of the right of women to be in ministry.”
Since I was a teenager when I served as the organist of his church, the subtleties of that description weren’t obvious at the time, but this describes him well as I remember him 50-plus years later. On a personal level I remember his friendship and his love of music and dignity in worship.
Dr. Grizzard was well-educated, even learnèd, but not scholarly or overtly erudite. He was from Orange, Virginia, and graduated from the University of Richmond and Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania. Prior to National Baptist, from which he retired in 1978, he held pastorates in Orange, Norfolk and Richmond. He was friendly and easily approachable, but never glad handing or cheesy. He was a truly gifted orator, but had no idea of what it might mean to be media savvy. He spoke with the conviction and authority inherent in the subject of his discourse, not because of his own self-importance. He was a part of an era of free-thinking Baptists that also produced more famous southern preachers such as Carlyle Marney, Edward Hughes Pruden, Clarence Cranford, and Vernon Richardson, each of whom Stuart knew and counted as friends and colleagues. And, like them, his leading of public worship was of a style that evoked classical dignity in its ordering. There were no gimmicks; it was church. It was to be approached with awe—with “fear and trembling.”
My most vivid memory of Dr. Grizzard is of him in the pulpit. During services when it was time for the sermon, the house lights were dimmed slightly and he read the appointed scripture from a large Bible on the pulpit, which was front and center on the rostrum—central, but not overwhelming or imposing. When he finished the reading, he closed the large volume with an audible thump, turned off the reading light, and preached without notes for fifteen or twenty riveting minutes—not especially long by Baptist standards.
Many years later I found out from reading his memoirs that in fact he prepared his sermons carefully with painstaking study and thought. He wrote them out either in longhand or, when he had the services of a secretary, they were typed. He then memorized them and delivered them without manuscript in such a way that if you didn’t know it (as indeed I did not at the time) you might think he was speaking extemporaneously.
Stuart Grizzard was the pastor of Washington’s National Baptist Memorial Church from 1964-1978, of which church I was the organist for slightly over a year from 1969-1970 when I was in high school. I didn’t exactly report to him in my work; my boss was the choir director, John Bigbee, who was also the baritone soloist of the church. John had a pleasant voice in a slightly over-the-hill sort of way. I’ve never known if he was trained to be a professional singer. But he did sing for various organizations around town and was entirely suited to his position at the church. Some years previous he had been the bass-baritone soloist among the quartet at the church, and somewhere along the way became choir director as well. I still remember when the choir sang the trio and chorus The Heavens Are Telling from Haydn’s Creation, John would direct the choir, then when it came time for the trio to sing “the day that is coming” he would simply turn around, face the congregation to sing the trio, then turn back to the choir and more or less cue them when it was time for their entrance, which overlapped with the conclusion of the trio.
That episode epitomizes the casual, amateur approach to music making at the time, which was a slight contrast to the otherwise formal and dignified conduct of worship, which was typical of the prosperous era to which this congregation now found themselves in the twilight . . . which probably also explains why they were willing to entrust the position of church organist to a 16-year-old high school student. There were regular services on Wednesday evening, Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon or evening. During my first weeks there was a 5:00 Sunday afternoon service. It consisted of some hymns, a solo, and a brief, less weighty form of sermon titled simply “Message.” At some point in the service—probably after the pastoral prayer—I was required to play one stanza of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” (the Maker tune) on the chimes, which for some electro-technical reason would only play if the cross over the choir loft was turned on, and the only way to turn it on was from a switch in the stairwell I took to get to the organ console. It was therefore solely by my action that this important task could be accomplished.
The afternoon services weren’t well attended and at some point soon into my tenure the church experimented with other sorts of early afternoon happenings following lunch in the church hall, including a series of “Focus Groups.” I even led one of them on “Contemporary Trends in Church Music,” about which I knew absolutely nothing. What I did know was that Washington Cathedral had recently completed the building of the central Gloria in Excelsis tower, which event was covered widely in the local press, and there was much music commissioned expressly for the dedicatory celebrations by living composers such as Leo Sowerby, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, John LaMontaine, Stanley Hollingsworth, and Roy Hamlin Johnson —contemporary music in its definitive textbook definition by my reckoning. An impressive album of LP recordings and an authoritative book containing the orders of service and copies of all the music commissioned for the occasion was available from the local Takoma Park library, which I seem to have checked out in perpetuity.
So this “focus group” gathered around some sort of record player in the choir room and I took them through some of the newly commissioned compositions such as Lift up your heads great gates and sing by Ned Rorem, and a setting of the Prayer Book canticle Benedicite omnia opera by Richard Dirksen. Each of these new compositions was written with the intent of being performed outdoors along the area of the south transept of the cathedral with the new tower illuminated behind and above the “stage” set up at the top of those steps leading down to the statue of George Washington. In particular, I remember the class was impressed with Dirksen’s Benedicite omnia opera, as it employed lots of woodwinds instead of the usual brass for outdoor accompaniment. That, plus the concept of every living thing, and even inanimate objects such as hail and snow, praising the Lord, as enumerated in the text of the prayer book canticle . . . all this made a favorable impression on my appreciative audience as they were being presented with my version of new trends in church music.
Dr. Grizzard attended my class, as he did everything offered in the name of the church. I’m totally unaware of what he might have been like around the office on a daily basis as a manager or “head of staff” as some places now style their spiritual leaders. I suspect he was of the same type as Marney and his other colleagues I previously mentioned, who were known to let others on their staff do their respective administrative and secretarial ministries. His concentrations, from all I could gather, were on study, sermon preparation, writing, and visiting. I know that while I was there the church hired a third full-time clergyman whose title was Minister of Administration; John Bigbee selected the hymns and seemed to have total control of the music of the church. But, Dr. Grizzard was as big presence, though I doubt anyone would call him a micro-manager. For the few social things I attended, like church luncheons or suppers, he was always there. His was not a secluded ivory tower existence.
John Bigbee had a secular job as manager, maybe even owner, of a printing company in Washington. The only reason I know this was that his outfit printed the weekly church bulletins and orders of service. So, I saw John only on Sundays, because he was there only on Sundays! I was in high school, and had a fair amount of control over my schedule by that point, and had already established myself as a young church musician with a clear and advancing path ahead of me, and I actually spent quite a bit of time around the church practicing after school hours on weekdays, and almost all afternoon each Saturday preparing for the service on Sunday. At my request, I even had an office at the church which had recently been vacated by the director of some ancillary counseling service that had vacated the premises. It was on the second floor, Columbia Road side of the church near the entrance to the gallery. It had a couple of nice slender windows, one of which looked down Columbia Road toward Sixteenth Street with a view of the impressive Mormon chapel across the street. Dr. Grizzard’s office was directly next to mine and in the typical goings and comings, we actually saw a lot of each other—usually just brief hallway chats about things, my studies and musical activity.
I do remember once being in his office, which was spacious and comfortable. On his desk was a large cigar still unopened in its wrapper. It may have been the first time it occurred to me that a man of the cloth might indulge in such worldly pleasures. Stuart confesses in his memoirs, which he wrote as he approached retirement, that he did indeed enjoy an occasional cigar or cigarette, but said he was thankful not to be a slave to tobacco. I don’t think it was uncommon in that era, especially among clergy from the south. A friend who went to Baylor University remembers that when Carlyle Marney came for a campus series of lectures he always smoked a cigar openly. An unusually devout and precocious young man came up to him and questioned its appropriateness and Marney retorted contemptuously “grow up kid! Haven’t you got anything else to worry about.”
National Baptist is located at a prominent site on Sixteenth Street, just north of Meridian Hill Park at the confluence of the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Adams-Morgan, and Mount Pleasant. Its architect, Edgerton Swartwout, formerly of the McKim, Mead & White atelier, designed an imposing tower taking advantage of the triangular site at the top of Meridian Hill created by the gradual incline of Sixteenth Street as it works its way north. As a result of this site location and the architecture of the surrounding area, it is every bit the equal of the more prosperous neighborhoods of Embassy Row or Dupont Circle. At one time I believe it was even planned for Sixteenth Street to be named something more descriptive than its generic numeric appellation. It is a long wide avenue stretching directly north of the White House all the way to the Maryland state line in Silver Spring, and there are many churches of varying denominations, and one or two synagogues along the complete length of the thoroughfare. At Columbia Road, the center of Columbia Heights, there are three churches of significant, prominent architectural interest with spires or towers to match: All Souls Unitarian Church, the former Washington Mormon Chapel (now the Unification Church), and National Baptist. At Meridian Hill Park, just south of Columbia Road, Sixteenth Street takes a dramatic downward incline all the way to the White House. In fact, Meridian Hill Park itself it characterized by an upper park at level grade, and a lower park featuring a fountain feeding into a series of pools descending down the hillside.
Likewise, the drive from the Maryland state line to Columbia Road is also slightly downhill. Driving south from our home in Takoma Park, as I did regularly, one can see the three towers at Columbia Road rather prominently on the horizon. In the neighborhood of National Baptist there are apartment houses of significant architectural proportions and several embassies, including those of Spain, Mexico, Italy, and some of the smaller African nations.
National Baptist was founded in 1906 as Immanuel Baptist Church and assumed the present name when it was decided to build a new national church in Washington sponsored by both American and Southern Baptists as a memorial to Roger Williams and religious liberty. President Warren G. Harding broke ground in 1921, and the cornerstone was laid by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes the following year.
Swartwout’s design placed seating for the main portion of the congregation under a large circular rotunda. When combined with additional space from the original church, it provided a combined seating for some 1,100 persons. There was a large partition which could be drawn to separate the seating under the dome from that of the original church, which created a smaller seating area when desired. This was the standard configuration for services by the time I arrived, but on the few occasions when the entire area was open it was an impressive space.
The organ was Austin’s Opus 1403 containing 42 ranks spread over three manual and pedal divisions, and was built in 1923 for the new church. It was installed in the lower portion of the tower directly above the choir loft. There was nothing especially distinguishing about the sound, but it provided a good variety of stops and was fairly complete. It was my main practice instrument and I learned lots of repertoire on it as I continued my studies with William Watkins and prepared for various student recitals and competitions. Also, preparing the accompaniments for the various anthems, oratorios, and solos required lots of practice time. In a holdover from the past tradition the church employed a quartet of soloists, some of whom were quite good and were generally on the choral scene in Washington. The typical drill on Sunday morning was for there to be a solo and a choral anthem at each service, in addition to hymns and some choral responses. The choir also presented an oratorio once or twice a year and it was here that I first learned Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s The Creation, and portions of Elijah by Mendelssohn. The organ suited these accompaniments well. Once or twice I had my lessons at the church if I were preparing something special, but by this time figuring out the layout and use of a moderately large organ was not a foreign task for me, and I played as much repertoire as I could for services.
At 18th Street and Columbia Road, two longish blocks from the church was a bustling neighborhood center that later became known as Adams-Morgan. I would occasionally walk down there from the church to get coffee or lunch, or go to the People’s Drug Store. In the same neighborhood was Gartenhaus Firs, Avignone Frères Catering and Dining establishment, a local branch of Riggs National Bank, and the rather imposing First Church of Christ, Scientist. To a high schooler such as myself, it really did feel big time. I’d just gotten my driver’s license and drove to the church on Sundays, but during the week when traffic was heavier and parking space rare, I would frequently take the bus from Takoma, transferring somewhere around Petworth to get over to the church and would explore the neighborhood during practice breaks.
The reasons for these neighborhoods’ slow decline are many, and are far beyond this the scope of this remembrance, but a cursory understanding of the scene helps describe something of the remarkable ministry of Dr. Grizzard at that critical juncture in the history the church and the city. For a 16-year-old it was all quite heady and was my first serious foray into church life, and I felt that I was a central participant in it all. The congregation may have already seen its glory days, but there is no doubt that the riots of 1968 following the death of Martin Luther King cemented its fate for many years to come. On Good Friday 1969 when I played for the three-hour service many people recalled the vivid memory of the previous year when the service was cut short as the riots were fully underway a block away on 14th Street.
One Sunday morning in October 1969 National Baptist was visited by representatives of the Black United Front of Washington demanding reparations from the church. I was generally unaware of the political ramifications of race relations at the time, although I vividly remember the rioting following the assassination of Dr. King and the resulting general unrest throughout the nation. National Baptist was well represented by both Afro-Americans and Africans and other foreign nationals attached to the nearby embassies and everyone seemed to get along just fine. Of course the memory of the previous years’ riots and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 were still very fresh, as were the physical manifestations of the riots in our immediate neighborhood.
Quoted in John Wann’s history of the church Dr. Grizzard said “One of our most growing experiences was the confrontation with the Black United Front and their demand for $250,000 in reparations in October of 1969.” The previous May an incident at The Riverside Church in New York made the news. James Foreman invaded the morning service making demands which not only interrupted the service, but actually ended it in chaos immediately after the opening hymn. I’ve never known if the incident in New York inspired the local representatives of the Black United Front, but it was very much on Dr. Grizzard’s mind.
Before the service he came up to the organ loft and told me that he was not going to let the service end in chaos as it had at Riverside. He instructed me to, if things got out of hand, play a hymn as loudly as I could until either he gained control of the service or everyone left while I played. He specified which hymn I was to play, and I wish I could recall what it was—something familiar and strong like “The church’s one foundation” I suspect. In the end it was not necessary, and I remember being both disappointed and relieved! The representatives of the BUF said they came in peace, and their actions bore that out. They had their say, remained for the rest of the service, and visited at lunch afterward. But I’ve never forgotten the tension the incident induced in me. That it mirrored a prominent recent incident at the famous New York church made me feel like a very central participant in weighty matters, which in a way I was, and so was the church.
In closing, it’s worth recounting in full Dr. Grizzard’s reply to the representatives of the Black United Front. The full text appears in John Wann’s history of National Baptist Memorial Church, and was also entered into the Congressional Record of the House of Representatives by the Hon. Joel T. Broyhill on Thursday, October 30, 1969. Dr. Grizzard resided in Broyhill’s congressional district.
Reparations, Restitution and Repentance—October 19, 1969 (read by Dr. R. Stuart Grizzard)
II Corinthians 5:17—If any man be in Christ he is a new creature . . . all things are become new. Revelation 21:5—Behold, I make all things new.
Since the Black United Front has come to us and presented these demands for what they call reparations, it seems fitting that I, as Pastor, should make some reply to them.
We do appreciate the fact that they told us they were coming and that last Sunday, when they wanted to come, they were considerate enough to postpone their coming because we had a service of ordination for Mark Tracy, which involved six ministers, and it would have lengthened that already long service unnecessarily.
In time of revolutions, as in war, the first casualty is truth. Revolution has a logic of its own but common sense, objectivity, reasonableness, is turned aside for passionate emotion, confrontation and chance, whether it is purposeful or not. The voice of moderate progressiveness, which tries to keep the fabric of life from being torn apart during change is not heard. Yet, I will be heard on this for I know that ultimately it is the voice of reason that will prevail.
I quite understand the emergency of black nationalism. It is a needed corrective for the intransigence of a stubborn racism that is inflexible in granting simple human rights to people. But that kind of separation will only result in a polarization of society, which will continue animosity that will perpetuate hostility forever. We are going to have to learn to accept one another and live with one another with mutual respect.
Evidently we have been selected because we are designated as the National Baptist Church and, therefore, representative of all Baptists. Perhaps through us you hope to reach other Baptists. We are not the oldest, richest, largest or most Caucasian of all Baptist churches as I shall show in the course of these remarks.
A Baptist church, in structure, is a democracy. I cannot speak for the church. I can only speak to it. This obtains not only for this occasion but for all. What I am to say does not officially represent a reply by this church or by Baptists. It does represent the deep feeling of my own heart, given after prayer and study. The demands, as presented, will be received and acted upon by the church itself at a later meeting.
Evidently, those who composed these demands know little of this particular church. I would not, for anything, defend the past history of prejudice or inequities on the part of the white majority in this country in its relationship with ethnic minorities. It is writ in a record of shame that brings blushes to the cheek, and in this record the Church of Christ has not acquitted itself too well in trying to right these wrongs. Let it be said, however, that always there were those, laymen and ministers, who did speak out against the evils of racism and slavery. But these voices and examples were not heeded.
The indictments brought here today are not always correct as far as this church is concerned. A candor and sense of fairness makes it necessary to set the record straight.
I do not want to be misunderstood in this. Our church is by no means perfect in its adjustments to these revolutionary days. We have done a great deal but what we have done and are endeavoring to do should be set forth.
I fully realize that we are just beginning to get ready, to commence, to start. Most respectfully, I ask that you know of what we have done and are doing.
1. We are an open, inner city church.
We have, for more than 7 years, gladly received all who will come into our fellowship and qualify for membership in our church, without concern for racial, cultural or national background. Our only concern is that they accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and pledge to serve Him as Lord of Life. Not only are there scores of black children in our Sunday School, there are about 100 people who are internationals from all over the world who have affiliated with our church. At least half of the people who now join our church are black. Many of thee are now assuming places of leadership and responsibility. If you look around you today you will see that approximately one-third of this congregation is black. Here are some of the community involvements of our church.
a. The Columbia Heights Church Community Project.
This is a structure of community churches to do community work in which we have put about $15,000 in the past four years. For three years the director of it was a black woman of great charm, accomplishment, education and compassion. This project has concerned itself with clothing distribution, push-cart Bible program, teenage clubs, tiny tot clubs, and a day care center which meets in our church. During the riots in 1968, along with other churches of this area in the project, we attempted to alleviate suffering through the providing of food, clothing and housing.
During the Poor People’s Campaign we made available a part of our property as a registration center and groups within the church ministered to the needs of the poor people.
b. The five houses in the next block were purchased for the purpose of doing community work and the hope that we could upgrade the community.
c. Recently, part of our reserve money was placed in the Change Credit Union, a black-owned and operated institution to provide blacks with business opportunities and capital.
d. The church will consider soon our participation with responsible groups in the rebuilding of our burned out area.
e. Last summer, two members of the staff of this church, one part-time and one full-time, were black ministerial students.
Of course we have not done enough to minister in these difficult days. But we are open and we are earnestly trying to be relevant to our situation in the name and spirit of Christ.
2. Reparations is not a Christian concept.
It is a legalism which is antithetical to the teaching of Christ. It seems to say that the payment of money can make right the past. I must repudiate this concept because it becomes ridiculous in application.
If all the injustices of past centuries are to be dealt with in this way, we will never settle the score. Should the descendants of the Indians, who reputedly sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch for a measly $24.00, be properly compensated now? Shall the descendants of all the Union soldiers who were killed in the Civil War, fighting to free the slaves, be remunerated now? Shall women, white and black, until recently the most discriminated against group in society, be paid for their generations of servitude as the minions of man? I do not think this can be done.
If you are going to play this game, I have what seems to me to be a just complaint. My saintly father, the latches of whose shoes I am not worthy to unlace, preached for 40 years for Baptists in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. Early in his sixties he had a stroke and was never able to function very well after that. There was no provision for his retirement, disability or support. I was forced to leave this city, interrupt my education, go home, work in the cotton mills in Danville, Virginia, and on an ice truck to support the family. This I was glad to do, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. Baptists should have provided for that contingency. They could have and should have.
Reparations never catch up with injury. It cannot by its nature do so, and it heals nothing.
3. Restitution is a Christion concept.
In this, by requesting and granting of forgiveness, relationships are healed and one tries to make up to the injured for wrongs done him. This is accomplished by love, sympathy, and perhaps by material things, too. It is done to the person wronged and not to his descendants.
4. Repentance is a Christian concept.
In fact, this is the beginning of forgiveness. One is genuinely sorry for his sins, for his acts that were wrong, for his hateful attitudes. In genuine contrition he turns from them, asks forgiveness of God and the people he has wronged. It is God’s grace that makes it possible for there to be healing and a new beginning. His grace makes it possible to forgive each other.
Renewal comes from repentance and forgiveness. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature, all things are become new” (II Corinthians 5:17). Then we are told in Revelation 21:5 as God speaks, “Behold I make all things new.”
The greatest injustice of all time, the cruelest also, was the rejection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who, as a result of rejection by those he came to save, was crucified. In this foul act, God, through Christ, became completely identified with sinful man and, through the suffering of Christ on the cross, made possible man’s redemption from his sinful nature. God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead. Each of us by an act of faith may appropriate the salvation of our souls and lives through trust and acceptance of Christ.
There is a positive lesson that we in this church must not miss. Demands like these should forever disabuse this and every church of the illusion that we can shut ourselves up behind our cloistered walls and lose ourselves in obscurantism while social change whirls around us. We are going to have to become more and more supportive of these forces that are trying to bring meaningful chance into our world.
Racism is a rejection of persons as persons and is a grave sin against people of God. I am resolved, so help me God, to continue to stand out against racism of any kind, as I have endeavored to do for 30 years.
Here in this church we are dedicated to what is regarded by many militants as passé, but we believe in it. We are committed to a belief that in the local, parish church people of differing ethnic, social and national backgrounds can come together under the Lordship of Christ, accepting Him and each other on the basis of our hopes, to serve Christ and our day as the community of the concerned. In this fellowship we will, ever, strive to change as led by the Holy Spirit of God to be God’s instrument in this place for the betterment of all His people.
(Signed) R. Stuart Grizzard
John Wann’s history of the church indicates that the members of the Black United Front remained after the service for “Christian fellowship” and then left peacefully, and that the church accepted Dr. Grizzard’s reply as “fitting and proper.”
As of this writing it has been 51 years since Dr. Grizzard wrote these words, and the topic of reparations has been renewed in several progressive places. Many institutions have taken definite steps to make restitution. For example, the Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, has taken a very public stand in admitting its racist past and has established an endowment fund, the proceeds of which benefit descendants of the slaves who built the seminary.
In his written remarks Dr. Grizzard admits that his approach may appear passé to the militant progressives, and I imagine it might seem so today. I’m not enough of a theologian or anthropologist to effectively argue the point one way or the other, and I certainly wasn’t in 1969. But my remembrance of this great man was that he was acting on his convictions, and he was eloquent in his presentation, which was based on scripture and his understanding of Christian principles.
In the fall of 1970 I accepted another job of increased responsibility, professional standing and scope . . . and salary. In reflecting on my relatively short tenure at National Baptist, I’m put in mind of some of those contemporary pieces of art consisting of several overlapping geometric designs, where each resultant space is filled in with a different color. Usually it is in these smallest spaces that the colors stand out most brilliantly. At any rate, it is with that brilliance and vividness that I recall my brief tenure at National Baptist Memorial Church and my friendship with Dr. R. Stuart Grizzard.
Bibliography and Sources
Bigbee, John Chapman. Obituary in The Washington Post, January 17, 1991.
Carey, John J. Carlyle Marney: A Pilgrim’s Progress. Mercer University Press, Press, 1980.
Grizzard, R. Stuart. Obituary in The Washington Post, February 23, 1989.
Grizzard, R. Stuart. Sweeter As The Years Go By. Private Memoir, publ. 1991.
Walker, J. Samuel. Most of 14th Street Is Gone: The Washington, D. C. Riots of 1968. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Wann, John L. A History of the National Baptist Memorial Church, Washington, D. C. Private Publication, 1976.