He had the benefit of quality education growing up under the guidance of educationist Henry Pattillo. John Chavis, one of the few African Americans who earned a degree before slavery was abolished, enrolled in Princeton with the aid of a scholarship from the Leslie Fund in 1792.
One of the requirements at Princeton was that for a student to be granted admission, he had to pass tests in English grammar, punctuation, geography, orthography, United States history, Greek grammar, Latin grammar and mathematics.
Though Chavis excelled in the exams, his stint at Princeton was short-lived and he had to complete his education at Washington College in 1802, according to the Gospel Coalition. His sterling academic performance made him a preferred candidate for ministry. The authorities in Virginia were confident Chavis would make a great evangelist and convert many people of African descent.
The Lexington Presbytery on October 19, 1799, decided to groom him. One of the leading presbyters after observing Chavis’ appreciation of his duty, made a case for him to be given a pass to begin his ministry of evangelizing. However, this was subjected to a vote which maintained that Chavis must take his final exams. He was subsequently granted a license to preach afterward.
Some historical accounts say he was the first African American to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church though he did not go through the final process of being ordained. He served various presbyteries from Lexington, Hanover and Orange as a riding missionary under the direction of the General Assembly.
Even though his responsibility was to evangelize the Black community, historical records suggest that he preached to more whites than people of African descent. The challenge was that in the 1800s enslaved Africans were not permitted to worship in white-dominated churches.
His missionary work many a time was under the umbrella of preaching tours and sometimes offering assistance in giving the Lord’s Supper and pastoral duties. In the presbytery circles, Chavis was acclaimed as a talented educator ending up establishing a classical school in Raleigh in 1805.
His school initially opened access to education to both Black and white students. However, over time some white parents who were unhappy with the integration forced Chavis to separate the white students from the Black ones. The school trained many of the children from North Carolina’s leading families. He is believed to have trained prominent U.S. lawyers, pastors, and governors, with U.S. Senator Willie Mangum being one of his students.
Chavis was born in 1763 in Granville County, North Carolina, a few kilometers north of Raleigh bordering Mecklenburg County, Virginia. There is little account of his early life and ancestry but it is believed that he had links with the first African Americans to be identified as free persons in Granville County.
There are arguments that he has a lineage made up of Africans, American Indians and Caucasians and this possibly explains his privileged birth from free Blacks who owned property in Virginia to people who had the opportunity of benefiting from quality education.
Chavis was a devoted Presbyterian, a federalist and a fierce critic of slavery and racism. He passed away on June 15, 1838. Historian Charles Lee Smith wrote that Chavis’ life and professional accomplishments were exceptional. An article in The New York Times in 1924 also called Chavis “without any exception the most remarkable [B]lack man who ever lived in the United States.”