3 Lessons from John L. Girardeau for Crossing Divides

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

I remember as a young kid waking up in the middle of the night and walking into my parent's room and just staring at them. It sounds creepy, but I'm sure that many parents know exactly what I am talking about. I did not want to wake my parents, so I decided just to get right in their face and stare. They would wake up, startled, and fuss over the mild heart attack I just gave them.

In a way, this is the story of the old Presbyterian churches throughout the South. Looking back into the early nineteenth century, the Southern Presbyterians were solid in their doctrine, but inconsistencies in their practices and teaching were staring them right in the face. Slavery.

Didn’t slavery in the antebellum South not go against the grace and compassion that the Southern Presbyterians preached? Was this not breaking the commandment to love your neighbor? One minister —a Southern Presbyterian—struggled with these questions.

John L. Girardeau is not a household name, but his boldness for the Scriptures and his heart for discipleship should not be forgotten. Early on Girardeau desired to minister to the slave community in the low country of South Carolina. He graduated seminary in 1848 and went on to be a famous pastor to the slaves of Charleston, SC.

Through his pastor's heart, his Biblical convictions, and his boldness to break the great divide of race, he has a lot to teach us today about discipleship.

1. A Pastor to the Least of These

Girardeau spent much of early life around slaves because his father ran a small plantation. His mother’s compassion for the slaves made a strong impression on the young John. He watched as she would care for them while they were sick and share Bible stories with them. Girardeau's love for the slaves as people and his desire to see them know Christ would grow.

Conviction, compassion, and a pastor’s heart starts in the home—even when inconsistencies and sin are present. His home was full of regular family devotions, his parents taught him what it meant to pray without ceasing, they worshipped faithfully together at their local church, and observed the Lord's Day with great reverence and admiration. Later in his life Girardeau shared these practices and his knowledge of Christ with slaves.

As he grew, he attended college and enrolled in seminary at Columbia, SC. He would regularly listen to the preaching and teaching of James Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer. These men's theological convictions and walks with Christ were instrumental to Girardeau. All the while, he still longed to minister to the "least of these."

Even in his time in the midlands of South Carolina, Girardeau would spend time in the streets ministering to the homeless. He would travel to the local plantations and preach the gospel to the slaves. He would continue to do this while fervently studying with the goal in mind—go back to his home region and preach and teach to the slave community.

As he returned to the low country of South Carolina, his longing became a reality as he began his ministry to the slaves. At his first church, he would preach in the mornings to his white congregation then for the slaves on Sunday afternoons. He would travel around to the different plantations in the surrounding area and preach from the porches of the slave houses. Girardeau would sometimes preach six or seven times on a given Sunday. He would eventually be called to serve as the minister of a mission church built for the slaves in the Charleston area. In 1854, he had a regular attendance of thirty-six people and six short years later would preach to a congregation of over 1500.

Through his preaching there was never a doubt where his theological convictions were founded. Girardeau held fast to the Scriptures and found the Westminster Confession and Catechisms a faithful exposition of biblical truth. He would use both throughout his preaching and ministry.

Ultimately, the small mission church Girardeau was called to pastor was too small for the crowds that were gathering to hear him preach. The plantation owners in the Charleston area built another church for the slaves. The slaves would call it Zion Presbyterian Church. Zion Church would continue to grow and its influence in the lives of the slaves and in the community would not be surpassed.

2. A Barrier Breaker

Girardeau has been considered by some to be the "Spurgeon of America." He preached with a clear and gentle voice. His sermons were always Christ-centered and applicable. The congregation was regularly brought to deep conviction of their sins sometimes to the point of tears.

His proclamation of the gospel was clear and precise. He handled the Word rightly. He always presented the gospel then underlined the believer's response to the gospel as he called the people to love God with all of their heart, body, and soul and for them to love their neighbor as themselves.

Girardeau, in the new Zion Presbyterian Church, established a thorough education program where the catechisms, hymns, Psalms, and Scripture memorization were practiced. This entire education program came at a time when it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write. Girardeau and the elders of the church would be criticized and sometimes were physical intimidated by those who disagreed with their ministry.

However, the church stayed true to its vision and taught the slaves fervently through what Girardeau called Sabbath Schools. The slaves would be discipled in classes and spiritually strong men would be trained to be future leaders of the church.

As the Civil War began, Girardeau was called to be a chaplain for the Confederate Army. However, his intentional discipleship of the "least of these" never stopped. These classes were continued even in his absence. As the war ended, Girardeau was begged to come back to the Zion Church. Dr. C.N. Willborn writes in the Presbyterian Church in America history logs,

"[The Zion Church] desired to have their white pastor whom they knew, loved, and respected, rather than a black missionary from the North." [1]

Even with this pleading from the congregation, because of Reconstruction and the Freedman's Bureau happening throughout the South, he could not return.

Davey Salley, in his article for Banner of Truth, writes,

"It was a sad situation: many of the Southern whites were defensive and bitter; and the policy of the Freedman’s Bureau, set up by the Northern government, was to divide the now free black citizens from the Southern white populace."[2]

Nevertheless, Girardeau still trained the newly freed slaves through Sabbath Schools and taught them the same as if he was their pastor.

This discipleship process culminated in 1869, after the Civil War, as Girardeau nominated seven newly freed slaves to become elders of the Zion Presbyterian Church. Later that year he preached the ordination service and along with his white elders, they laid hands on their black brothers ordaining them to the office of ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church.

3. A Reformer Who Stood Alone

Stepping across the great divide of race within the South before and after the Civil War did not come without a price.Girardeau and some of his elders were criticized and even threatened for teaching and training the slaves. Even after the Civil War when the slaves were freed, Girardeau still faced great opposition for his desire to disciple the "least of these." One particular instance would pin him against one of the very men who he was mentored by during his time in seminary. Willborn again writes,

"The pressures of Reconstruction and the Freedmen's Bureau, and the hardened positions of notables like B. M. Palmer [who Girardeau would sit under the preaching of during his time in Columbia] 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." [3]

Girardeau was the only dissenting vote. He boldly stood. He believed the Scriptures demanded loving and teaching the "least of these" and his convictions held fast. He would stand alone if that is what it took, and sometimes he had to do just that.

Girardeau would continue to preach and teach until his death. He would be nominated to take the endowed chair at Columbia Theological Seminary and is still recognized as a prominent professor. However, we should rejoice and take note of  his work discipling the slave community where he lovingly pastored the "least of these," faithfully taught them while breaking barriers, and many times stood alone.

[1] Dr. C.N. Willborn. http://www.pcahistory.org/HCLibrary/periodicals/spr/bios/girardeau.html
[2] Davey Salley. https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2015/john-l-girardeau-minister-to-the-slaves-of-south-carolina/
[3] Willborn.

Matthew D. Adams is the Director of Youth and Family Ministries at First Presbyterian Church, PCA in Dillon, SC. He is currently a Master’s of Divinity student at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia, SC. He lives in a small town by the name of Hamer, SC and is married to Beth. Follow him on twitter @Matt_Adams90.