Monday, June 23, 2008

John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898)

(November 14, 1825 - June 23, 1898)

Before moving to Charleston, SC I was introduced to John L. Girardeau by Prof. Willborn at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I have not read it, but he wrote his dissertation on Girardeau. My family and I traveled back and forth from Greenville to Charleston for over six months before we made the move, and I spent as much time as possible trying to track down information on the life and ministry of Girardeau.

His son-in-law, the Rev. George A. Blackburn, put together an excellent biography and a collection of sermons which have been reprinted by Sprinkle Publications:

Blackburn, George A., editor, The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D. (Sprinkle Publications, nd), 412 pp.

See also:
Kelly, Douglas. Preachers with Power: Four Stalwarts of the South, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 198 pp. [Amazon | WTS | CBD]

Girardeau was born on James Island, immediately south of the city. His parents, John Bohun and Claudia Herne Freer Girardeau, were of Huegenot descent and were members of the Presbyterian Church on the island (ie. James Island Presbyterian Church). (Columbia, S.C. : The State Co., 1916), 432 pp.

This church was planted in 1706 by the Rev. Archibald Stobo (a very interesting man, too). The building shown (left) was erected in 1908. Girardeau's mother died when he was seven years old and was buried in the church's graveyard.

After he finished his seminary training, Girardeau began to preach for the Congregational Church of Wappetaw, which met in the Parish of Christ's Church. He preached there for six months (Nov. 9, 1848-May 1849). In 1849, Girardeau accepted the call to preach at Wilton Presbyterian Church. He commenced to preach on June 10, 1849 and was called to the pastorate in the spring of 1850. He was ordained and installed (officially under the Charleston Presbytery) on June 9, 1850, and served this church until November, 1853. The work here was simple but formative. It was during these years that he became increasingly burdened to expend himself as a minister of the Gospel to the numerous slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

In 1853, Girardeau took the pastorate of Dr. Adger's congregation in Charleston (Zion Church). This church originally met on Anson street where a Reformed Episcopal congregation now meets. Having outgrown that location a new sanctuary was erected at the corner of Calhoun and Meeting Street. The site is marked by a simple plaque near the sidewalk facing Calhoun Street. The building has since been replaced by a hotel.

Under the spell of [Girardeau's] oratory the congregation grew till Zion Church, the largest church in the city, and one of the largest in the Assembly, was erected for its special benefit by the contributions of the people of Charleston. From the first, the main floor seating a thousand Negroes and the balcony holding about 250 whites were crowded. Time and time again, Dr. Girardeau declined flattering calls to white congregations, that he might do something for his 'brother in black.' When the war broke out he resigned his charge to become a chaplain in the army. Gradually he passed into the larger service of the church, and in 1876 became professor of systematic theology in Columbia Theological Seminary, a position which he continued to hold till 1895. (Earnest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South. John Knox Press, 1963. Pp. 442.)
Girardeau spent the latter part of his life as a theological professor in Columbia, SC. He entered into the presence of his Savior 110 years ago today, and his body was laid to rest under the magnolia trees at the Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia. He is buried near J.H. Thornwell and his son-in-law George A. Blackburn.

In closing I would like to share stanzas 1 and 4 of an anonymous poem published in The Southern Presbyterian of July, 1989:

Affectionately dedicated to the family of Rev. J. L. Girardeau."

"Brother, all thy toils are ended;
All thine earthly warfare's done;
To thy long-sought rest ascended,
Thou hast won thy starry crown!
There the welcome plaudit met thee;
Well-done Servant of thy Lord,
Faithful toiler in My vineyard,
Enter on thy full reward!

"Wile on earth, Redemption's story,
Ever dwelt upon his tongue.
And to him the 'Songs of Jesus'
Were the sweetest ever sung.
Now the loved ones led to Heaven,
By his earnest pleadings here,
Join with him to praise the Saviour,
Who redeemed and brought them there."

(Blackburn, Life and Works, p.p. 391-392.)

Reference -
Willborn, C. N. "John L. Girardeau: Pastor to Slaves and Theologian of Causes", unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary, 2003).