John Chavis (AD 1763–1838)

Chavis studied at Princeton for three years then completed his studies at Washington College in 1802. He was the first ordained African American Presbyterian preacher and he held to unlimited atonement.[1]

Chavis fell victim to the 1832 law in North Carolina prohibiting blacks from teaching or preaching, effectively depriving him of his livelihood. Shortly thereafter, Chavis decided to write a sermon on the atonement since the topic was being debated within his own denomination. He sided with the New School Presbyterians, most of whom adhered to unlimited atonement. He intended the sermon to be published but the Orange Presbytery refused to publish it. Finally, it was published in 1837 in Raleigh, NC.

Chavis’ main argument for an unlimited atonement is the command of God to preach the gospel to all people. “The character of the Saviour, the plan of Redemption, reason and common sense forbid such a belief [in a limited atonement].”[2]

Chavis, like all Calvinists who reject limited atonement, saw the serious problem with God’s command to preach the gospel to all people when on a limited atonement scheme, there is no possibility of salvation for the non-elect since there is no atonement for their sins. Coupled with the fact that Scripture  is crystal clear that Christ died for the sins of all people, Chavis felt that “reason and common sense” actually “forbid” belief in limited atonement.

Notice also his argument that the character of Jesus is seriously problematic for limited atonement. How can the love of Christ, which is said in Scripture to be universal, in any meaningful way be said to exist for the non-elect for whom no atonement has been made?

The love of Christ for a lost world, coupled with his death on the cross for the sins of all people, demonstrate that to God, all lives matter.


[1] See H. C. Othow, John Chavis, African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher and Mentor (1763–1838) (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2001).

[2] M. Simmons and F. Thomas, eds. Preaching with Sacred Fire: an Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2010), 35. The entire sermon can be found on pp. 32–44, and also in Othow, John Chavis, 13–32.