As a child, having been born into slavery in 1843, John Sims was forced to train the bloodhounds his master used to track runaway slaves. When the Civil War began in 1861, the teenaged Sims escaped bondage in his native South Carolina and fled north. When he died 73 years later, Sims was a beloved and well-known figure on Capitol Hill, a friend and confidant of some of the most powerful men in Washington. Despite his impressive rise from the bonds of slavery to the corridors of power, he is largely forgotten today. That’s because John Sims wasn’t a powerful senator or a high-profile member of Capitol Hill staff—he was the Senate’s barber.1
Sims’s dangerous flight to freedom landed him in the town of Oskaloosa in southeast Iowa. He arrived with no funds and no marketable skills, but he managed to find work in a barbershop. An apprenticeship followed and soon he was earning a living as a skilled barber. Then, in the mid-1880s, came the first of two fateful senatorial encounters—when Iowa senator William Boyd Allison got a haircut.
Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, many Senate jobs were filled through patronage. Senator Allison, who chaired the Appropriations Committee, had plenty of patronage to give. He brought Sims to the Senate, where the barber’s tonsorial talents gained recognition. Sims “knows the whims [and] the vanities” of the Senate, reported the New York Times. His skill with shears and razor kept him employed long after his patron was gone, but it was Sims’s weekend job and a second notable encounter that brought him to public attention.2
John Sims moonlighted as a preacher at the Universal Church of Holiness in Washington, D.C. One day in 1916, Ohio senator (and future president) Warren G. Harding sat in the barber’s chair. “Sims,” he said, “I’m coming down next Sunday to hear you preach.” A few days later, to the surprise of the entirely African American congregation, Senator Harding attended the service. “He walked in by himself,” Sims recalled, “and took a seat near the middle of the church and waited until I was through.” When the service ended, Harding thanked Sims and returned to the Capitol to spread the news of the preaching talents of the Senate barber.
A week later, Harding returned to the Universal Church of Holiness and brought several of his colleagues with him. As the years passed, more and more senators appeared. Vice Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Charles Dawes also attended. “From the North, from the South, from the East and the West they have come to hear me,” Sims explained. “And to think that I have come up from a lowly place of humility . . . to where I have the honor of preaching to those who are high in the nation’s affairs!” Sims insisted that he owed it all to Harding. “He started it all—and the Senators have been coming to hear me ever since.”
The preaching barber became known as the “Bishop of the Senate.” His prayers, noteworthy for both length and fervor, also enlivened his official Senate duties. “[If] he thought the occasion required [it],” commented a reporter, Sims would “drop to his knees . . . in the midst of . . . a shave and pray with all his heart” for the senator sitting in his chair. In 1921, as the Senate prepared to vote for its next official chaplain, Senator Bert Fernald of Maine asked, “Can we vote for anybody who has not been placed in nomination?” With an affirmative answer to his question, he cast his vote for John Sims, although the post went to the Reverend Joseph J. Muir.3
Bishop Sims was strictly nonpartisan and loyally supported all of his patrons at election time. When two of his favorite Senate clients—Democrat Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas and Kansas Republican Charles Curtis—competed for the vice presidency in 1928, Sims fervently prayed for each to win their party’s nomination. His prayers were answered. The two men faced each other in the general election. “Who are you for [now],” Robinson asked the barber, “myself or Senator Curtis?” “I prayed for your nominations,” Sims replied diplomatically, but now “you gotta hustle for yourself.”
John Sims achieved success, as barber and as preacher, but one cherished goal remained elusive—to pray in an open session of the Senate. “Sims cannot die happy unless he has had at least one chance to shrive the Senate,” reported the Baltimore Sun in 1928. “For many years he has been longing to be allowed to open one of the Senate sessions with a prayer.” That year, it looked as if the 85-year-old preacher’s wish would finally come true. With the second session of the 70th Congress set to convene in December, a senator pledged to invite him to give the daily prayer, but no record of such an occasion has been found. It seems that wish remained unfulfilled.4
Rising from slavery to become friend and confidant of senators, vice presidents, and presidents, John Sims remained on duty in the Senate barbershop until his death at age 91. Even after he retired from active barbering and served only as supervisor, he reported to work every day, preaching to the Senate community. Eventually, age and illness took their toll and kept Sims away from the Capitol, prompting senators to visit him at his home where they could still count on his advice and encouragement. “Don’t you worry,” Sims reassured Minnesota senator Henrik Shipstead during one of his visits to the sickbed, “I will be back in the barbershop in a couple of days.” When Sims passed away on March 29, 1934, Shipstead echoed many of his colleagues when he described the preaching barber as “the most beloved and popular man on Capitol Hill.”5
A reporter once asked Sims to explain the secret of his popularity among senators. I’m just “shaving and saving,” Sims responded. Give a good shave, and always preach salvation.6
5. “Bishop Sims,” South Carolina Genealogy Trails, accessed April 26, 2021, http://genealogytrails.com/scar/bio_bishop_sims.htm.