Friday, November 14, 2008

John L. Girardeau: Southern Presbyterian Minister of the Slaves

(This article first appeared in The Epistle Volume 13 Issue 10 - October 1, 2008, the newsletter of Eastwood Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, Alabama, and is republished here with the permission of the author, Brian MacDonald.)
John L. Girardeau (1825-1898) is undoubtedly one of the most overlooked yet effective Southern Presbyterian ministers. He has been deemed one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of Southern Presbyterianism, but it was his heart and passion for the gospel to be advanced among an unprivileged people that fashioned his legacy. I have had the opportunity to study the life of Girardeau, and I would like to introduce this man to you in the hope that each of us may follow in his footsteps of mercy ministry.
John L. Girardeau was born of French Huguenot descent in 1825, on James Island, South Carolina.[1] After completing high school at the age of fifteen, he entered Charleston College, where he was dramatically converted to Christianity.[2] Following college, Girardeau attended Columbia Theological Seminary, and it was during his time in seminary that his love for the poor and socially disadvantaged was cultivated. He would often conduct missionary services to the poor in an abandoned warehouse on the destitute side of Columbia. It was reported that many broken people, including several prostitutes, came to a saving knowledge of the Lord through his ministry.[3] Undoubtedly, it was these experiences that laid the foundation for his desire to minister to the South Carolina “low country,” coastal slaves.
After he graduated from seminary, Girardeau refused several pastoral calls from New York, Philadelphia, Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans because of his love for his state and his devotion to the spiritually malnourished slaves.[4] Girardeau commented on this decision saying, “While at the theological seminary, I only refrained from going on a foreign mission, because I felt it to be my duty to preach to the mass of slaves on the seaboard of South Carolina.”[5]
Girardeau’s heart bled for this lost and abandoned group of people. On Sunday afternoons he would preach to the black community of rural Colleton County; and then, following these services, he would conduct preaching visitations to the slaves on the local plantations.[6] He believed that “not only did black slaves have souls which needed to be saved, but [also that] they had intelligent minds which were capable of assimilating and doing great things with the truth of God.”[7] A colleague of Girardeau commented that, “He would listen with profound respect to the humblest [slaves], and cheerfully acknowledged that from them he had often learned some of the profoundest and most important lessons of the Christian life.”[8] Girardeau’s dynamic preaching and tender shepherding began to attract slaves by the multitudes. “Some even walked twenty miles to hear the young, powerful preacher, who had obvious zeal for their salvation.”[9] After ministering to the black slaves in the rural plantation churches for five years, Girardeau took a call to pastor the New Black Mission Church at Anson Street in Charleston.[10] When he arrived at the Anson Street church in 1854, there were thirty-six members. By 1860, there were over 600 official members with a regular Sunday attendance of 1,500-2,000. The church was predominately black with ten percent being sympathetic whites. As the church rapidly grew under Girardeau’s powerful preaching, space became limited forcing the church to construct a larger edifice to meet their needs. The new church building, located on Calhoun Street, was called Zion Church, and it boasted itself as the largest church of any denomination in Charleston.[11]
Zion’s growth was attributed to the grace of God through the dynamic preaching of Girardeau. He was once called the “Spurgeon of America,” and many were moved by his inspiring Christ-centered preaching. Among the inspired was Robert E. Lee (then President of Washington College in Lexington, VA) who was filled with overwhelming emotion when Girardeau preached on prayer at the college in 1869.[12] In Preachers with Power, Douglas Kelly describes Girardeau as one who “had a profound grasp of the reformed faith and was skilled in preaching it with unusual power, clarity and unction to the men and women of his own culture…not a few observers expressed surprise at the theological nature of his preaching to the black slaves.”[13] One black critic of Girardeau inquired of his brother on why he attended a church with a white preacher. The man simply responded, “Yas, he face is white, but he heart is black.” [14]
The success of Girardeau’s ministry was drastically altered by the Civil War. He served the Confederate Army as a chaplain of the twenty-third regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. Yet, over and above his loyalty to the South was his devotion to Christ, which he exhibited on numerous occasions by praying with and ministering to wounded and dying Yankee soldiers.[15] After the War, Girardeau returned to his church in the defeated and traumatized city of Charleston. The change in race relations had a large impact upon Girardeau’s post-war ministry. Although he maintained a deep love and concern for the spiritual well being of the black community, his pre-war ministry was no longer practical. Things had changed legally, culturally, and economically since the beginning of the war, and many of the black parishioners now felt it was inappropriate to be under a white pastor.[16] Nevertheless, Girardeau continued to pastor his congregation, which eventually became largely Caucasian, until 1876, when he was called to succeed Plumer in the chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology of Columbia Theological Seminary. He served in that position for nineteen years until he retired due to poor health. John L. Girardeau died on June 25, 1898, in Columbia, South Carolina. His body was finally put to rest under that blessed soil to which he consecrated his life.
If Girardeau was called the “Spurgeon of America,” then why does the world and many within his own denomination not know of him? A number of potential reasons could have affected his lack of fame, but undoubtedly his devotion to pour his heart and efforts into a disadvantaged people is among the chief explanations. By serving these people, Girardeau denied himself of popularity, fortune, and comfort; yet he gained so much more with the opportunity to clothe and feed his dear and living Savior (Matthew 25:35-40). May you and I learn from this man as we seek to love and serve our neighbor!


[1] Douglas Kelly, Preachers With Power: Four Stalwarts of the South (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 121.
[2] Smith, Morton H. Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology (Philipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 1987), 234.
[3] Kelly, Preachers With Power, 124
[4] George A. Blackburn, The Life Work of John L. Girardeau (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1916), 60.
[5] Ibid, p. 76
[6] Kelly, Preachers With Power. p. 131
[7] Ibid, p. 149
[8] Ibid, p. 150
[9] Ibid, p. 124
[10] Kelly, Preachers With Power. p. 132
[11] Ibid, p. 132
[12] Ibid, p. 144
[13] Kelly, Preachers With Power. p. 142, 152.
[14] Blackburn, The Life and Work. p. 66.
[15] Ibid, p. 135.
[16] Ibid, p. 137.

Brian MacDonald is currently the pastor of 2Cities Church located in downtown Montgomery, AL.  He was previously the Director of Youth Ministries at Eastwood Presbyterian Church (Montgomery, AL).


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