Image by Okeeba Jubalo for NobleSol Art Group
“You know how many people would die to preach Aretha’s funeral! What an honor.” – Dr. Joseph Williams proudly proclaims about his father to his Salem Bible Church congregation.
Just the first names Oprah, Lebron, Madonna and Beyoncé are all equally recognizable superstars in their respective fields of endeavor. So too is the name “Jasper” within America’s Black Baptist Church community. He’s the riveting gospel singer, and revered Pastor Emeritus of Atlanta’s Salem Bible Church, Rev. Jasper L. Williams, Jr.
For the past 55 years in that pulpit, and 68 years as a minister of the gospel, Rev. Williams Jr. has become so renowned for his civil rights activism and pulpit prowess as a Baptist preacher, that his peers and parishioners respectfully refer to him simply and succinctly as “Jasper”! He is truly and uniquely one of a kind – so much so that the 75-year-old Williams is said to be the “nation’s quintessential African American pulpit preacher.”
Rev. Williams’ singular, superstar status as arguably America’s premier African American pastor was validated when “The Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin called him just days before her death and asked her family friend “Jasper” to preach her eulogy on Friday, August 31st in Detroit.
“She trusted that I would be able to rise to what her expectations were,” Williams said of the “challenge” to preach her funeral that will be viewed worldwide. “I’m going to take the life of Aretha; I’m going to take the word of God; I’m going to take society as it is now and do my best to mesh all of that into hopefully what a eulogy ought to be.”
Rev. Williams continues, “You’ve got to study. The difficulty I’m faced with is here is an icon, a lady who had a whole lot of different aspects about her. And, I already feel insignificant about being called upon to do it. That’s Rev. Franklin’s daughter. Rev. Franklin was the icon, guru preacher of my whole life. He mentored me. He was the greatest preacher of the 20th century.”
Williams is regarded as a “pastor among pastors” who eloquently embodies the flaming oratorical tradition of the black church.
“Rev. Jasper Williams is not only one of the most prophetic voices of our time, but one who can effectively articulate what the life of Aretha Franklin has meant and will mean to the world,” says Rev. Gerald Durley, a prominent theologian and environmental activist. “He had known her for most of her life and is more than qualified to share the true essence of her legacy.”
Dr. Joseph L. Williams, the senior pastor of Salem Bible Church says most of the world doesn’t understand the magnitude of this event. “Not only do you have this legendary person, Aretha Franklin, who shaped a genre of music and had a global impact, but you have a person in Dad who is eulogizing the ‘Queen of Soul’,” said Dr. Williams in a Facebook post. “What people are missing is that Dad is not only going to have the last word over this amazing woman of God, Aretha Franklin, but he also had the last word over the ‘King of All Gospel Preachers’ in her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin.
“The success of Aretha Franklin was heavily connected and achieved sublimely by her father’s oversight and guidance,” Dr. Joseph Williams continues. “The spirit of her Dad is, was, and will forever be on her and all the things that she touched. So, for Dad to be the person to have the final words over the ‘King of All Gospel Preachers’ and ‘The Queen of Soul’ gives him a Samuel type of spiritual anointing. In the Old Testament, Samuel was the prophet who anointed two kings.”
“Jasper” calls it a divine destiny of his ministry. “So, here we are again, ironically 34 years later, still in the month of August, I’ve been asked by her again. That’s another thing that strikes me as being providential,” he says.
During a recent news conference, the polished and eloquent Rev. Williams shared his thoughts with reporters on the significance and legacy of Aretha Franklin regarding the black church, and comment on how he will author and craft her eulogy.
“That’s been the challenge,” Rev. Williams answered when asked how he is preparing to preach Aretha’s last word. “That’s the thing that is so behooving and moving to me. I feel like I’m carrying out an order that only the queen gave.”
“Rev. Jasper Williams is absolutely the right man at the right time. It is marvelous that he is giving the eulogy at Aretha’s funeral,” said former Detroit City
Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who has been a longtime friend of Aretha Franklin.
“He was an ally and a close friend of Rev. Franklin. It is prophetic and profound that he is giving the eulogy at her funeral,” Watson said. “Aretha trusted him to eulogize her father, so how fitting that he has been selected to eulogize her.”
“The pulse of Aretha Franklin’s music demands the blood of life, opines black Republican strategist Leo Smith. “It is only appropriate that the propulsive liturgical gifts of Jasper Williams keep the portal open so that our lives may continue her soulful symphony.”
Dr. Joyce Dorsey, President and CEO of the Fulton County Action Authority, is the daughter of the late Rev. E.H. Dorsey, a friend and colleague of Rev. Jasper Williams Sr. in Memphis and Rev. C. L. Franklin out of Detroit. They often visited Atlanta to preach Baptist revivals with her father at Tabernacle Baptist Church. So, did, Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. who began preaching in 1950 and was often billed as the Young Son of Thunder.
“Rev. Williams Jr. knew Aretha Franklin and shared a lot in common; fathers who were dynamic pastors, and their mutual love for gospel music. They made a perfect pair in the pulpit/choir stand,” recalls Dr. Dorsey. Aretha also later married her cousin Glenn Turman.
Dr. Dorsey adds, “There could be no better choice than the unmatched, dynamically eloquent, exegetically correct orator of the gospel, and friend for more than five decades that Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. to deliver the eulogy of an unduplicatable songstress, composer and lady of distinction like the phenomenal Aretha Franklin.”
Rev. Williams told reporters that his favorite Aretha Franklin song is, Ain’t No Way.