Growing up under the tutelage of educationist Henry Pattillo, he received a good education. In 1792, John Chavis, one of the few African Americans to earn a degree before slavery was abolished, enrolled at Princeton with the help of a Leslie Fund scholarship.
One of the requirements for admission to Princeton was that a student pass tests in English grammar, punctuation, geography, orthography, United States history, Greek grammar, Latin grammar, and mathematics.
Despite excelling in the exams, Chavis’s time at Princeton was brief, and he had to finish his education at Washington College in 1802, according to the Gospel Coalition. His outstanding academic performance made him a popular ministry candidate. The Virginia authorities were confident that Chavis would become a great evangelist and convert many people of African descent.
On October 19, 1799, the Lexington Presbytery decided to groom him. After observing Chavis’ sense of duty, one of the leading presbyters advocated for him to be given permission to begin his evangelizing ministry. However, this was subject to a vote, and Chavis was required to take his final exams. Following that, he was granted a license to preach.
According to some historical accounts, he was the first African American to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church, though he did not complete the final ordination process. As a riding missionary under the direction of the General Assembly, he served various presbyteries from Lexington, Hanover, and Orange.
Despite the fact that his role was to evangelize the Black community, historical records indicate that he preached to more whites than people of African descent. The problem was that enslaved Africans were not allowed to worship in white-dominated churches in the 1800s.