John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898)

I was doing some reading over at the Presbyterian Church in America Historical Center (www.pcahistory.org) and found a short biography of John Lafayette Girardeau written by Dr. C. N. Wilborn. Girardeau was a long time pastor and educator in the Southern Presbyterian Church during the 19th century. Christians in the ante-bellum South have been so demonized by moderns that I thought sharing his bio might shed some light on the “rest of the story.” I will just allow Dr. Wilborn’s pen to tell the story:

“In January 1854, he [Girardeau] and his wife Penelope Sarah (“Sal”) moved from St. John Parish and Wilton Presbyterian Church (January 1849-December 53) to Charleston to assume the work begun by John B. Adger and the session of Second Presbyterian Church. The work was designed to establish a church for and of the slaves. In 1850, citizens of Charleston built a meeting house on Anson Street for the exclusive use of the slaves. After Adger’s health failed, Girardeau was handpicked by Adger and Smyth to lead the work forward. The work expanded from thirty-six black members when Girardeau arrived to over 600 at the time of the American Armageddon. He preached to over 1,500 weekly from 1859 through 1861.

“In 1858/59 the Anson Street Mission experienced a marvelous revival and in April 1859 they moved into a new building at the prestigious and prime intersection of Meeting and Calhoun Streets. The black membership was given the privilege of naming their church (which was particularized in 1858) and they chose “Zion.” Zion Presbyterian Church became famous for Girardeau’s preaching-he was called “the Spurgeon of America”-, but it was also noteworthy for its diaconal ministry in the community, catechetical training of hundreds in the city, sewing clubs for the women, and missionary activity. The outreach and influence of Zion was of such public notoriety that Girardeau and the session were often criticized and sometimes physically threatened. For example, the catechetical training and teaching of hymns and psalms was so effective that some Charlestonians believed Girardeau was teaching the slaves to read for themselves (which was contrary to state law).

“After the War and before Girardeau could return to Charleston, a number of freedmen of Zion Presbyterian Church beckoned Girardeau to return to “the Holy City” and resume his work with them. They desired to have their white pastor whom they knew, loved, and respected, rather than a black missionary from the North. Throughout the post-War and Reconstruction years, he arduously worked amongst both black and white in Charleston. He mightily labored within the Southern Presbyterian Church to see that the freedmen were included in the church and in 1869 he nominated seven freedmen for the office of ruling elder in Zion Presbyterian Church, preached the ordination service, and with the white members of his session laid hands on his black brothers.”

“Unfortunately, the pressures of Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the hardened positions of notables like B. M. Palmer and R. L. Dabney brought the church to a pivotal moment. The weight of political and social issues eventuated in “organic separation” of white membership and black membership and the formation of churches along the color line. Girardeau alone dissented against the resolution at the 1874 General Assembly in Columbus, Mississippi, for which he served as Moderator.”

Although the last paragraph reminds us of the social pressures that sadly separated the Presbyterian churches into black churches and white churches during the post-war period, it was a blessing to see someone who understood that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) (The entire biography can be found at http://www.pcahistory.org/periodicals/spr/bios/girardeau.html.)

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2 Comments

  1. Carly said,

    May 15, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    That is a beautiful story. Sad ending though.

  2. George said,

    May 16, 2009 at 4:10 PM

    Girardeau was truly a great Christian influence in the south. Maybe we could learn something today, from his deep compassion for others. He was the Spurgon of the South!


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