John Lafayette Girardeau
by Dr. C. N. Willborn, Associate Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
There is little doubt in my mind that few readers of this article will recognize the name of John Lafayette Girardeau. Yet, there is even less doubt in my mind that he is one of South Carolina’s and the South’s greatest men. Now I realize that is a rather remarkable statement but I hope to give you some good evidence to tantalize your interest in this great son of South Carolina.
On November 14, 1825 John Lafayette Girardeau was born to Claudia Herne Girardeau and John Bohun Girardeau on James Island. He was of French Huguenot and Scottish Presbyterian stock. The local field school trained him in the three Rs and more. When he was eight, his mother died and he was sent to live in Charleston to complete his secondary education at the German Friendly Society School on Archdale Street. By age eighteen he held valedictorian honors and a diploma from the College of Charleston in classical languages.
After studying for the ministry in the Theological Seminary in Columbia, he returned to the lowcountry to pursue a life as a Presbyterian minister. After serving churches near McClellanville and at Adam's Run, he was summoned to "The Holy City" in 1855 to assume leadership of the nascent work among the slaves which had been initiated by Second Presbyterian Church in 1847. He inherited a Gothic structure on Anson Street which had been built in 1850 expressly for the slaves of Charleston. By 1859 the Presbyterian Church for slaves had outgrown its facility and moved into a mammoth structure on Calhoun Street near the corner of Meeting Street. The building was the largest church building in town, seating 1500. The slaves were given the privilege of naming their church and they chose to call it Zion Presbyterian Church. In Charleston Girardeau became known as "the grandest preacher in all our Southland."
Facing monumental opposition, Girardeau and the white elders of Zion (which included prominent names like Robert Adger, E. C. Jones, and F. W. Robertson) provided an extensive religious education program for the slaves. So successful were they in orally instructing the slaves in the catechism, hymns, and Psalms of the church that some citizens thought they were surely violating the civil law which forbade teaching the slaves to read and write. Girardeau also held wedding services in the prominent church structure on Calhoun Street. Some citizens objected to this, concerned about the "freedom" the blacks had to stroll the streets in their "fine silk and feathers."
By the time the War erupted, the black membership of Zion numbered over 500 with an additional white membership of some 200. Girardeau preached regularly to a congregation of 1500 blacks and whites, three times each Sunday. His preaching to the slaves was uncompromised. He did not believe in lowering the bar but rather preached with the goal of raising the slaves to higher levels of knowledge and Christian devotion. Between his extraordinary preaching and the extensive education effort of the white membership toward the blacks, Girardeau developed numerous black leaders for the future.
After serving as a chaplain in the Twenty-third Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers and a brief imprisonment on Johnson Island, Ohio, Girardeau returned to his patria of South Carolina. Upon crossing the state line from North to South Carolina, he ordered the wagon to be brought to a halt and leaped to the ground. Falling prostrate to the ground, head pressed against the earth, and eyes flowing with tears of gratitude, he cried out: "O South Carolina, my mother, dear, God be thanked that I can lay my head on your bosom once more."
After the War the black leaders of Zion invited Girardeau by letter (and a moving letter it is) to return to Charleston to continue as their pastor and for the next ten years he labored arduously for their spiritual, social, and moral welfare. He was the first Presbyterian minister in the South to ordain black men to public office in the church and alone stood against segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1874. With his ministry to blacks closed, Girardeau felt his pastoral labors were finished and he accepted a faculty post at the Presbyterian Seminary in Columbia (now Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA) to teach theology. He authored numerous books, defended the church against the inroads of atheistic evolutionary theories, and became the leading theologian of the Presbyterian Church US, along with R. L. Dabney.
In 1871 Girardeau delivered a moving memorial address at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery for the reinterment of numerous South Carolinians martyred at Gettysburg. In that address Girardeau called Southerners to remember "the cause" and his cry helped establish Palmetto policy for several decades according to Walter Edgar. The Cause for Girardeau was not about keeping blacks on the plantation, it was about life and liberty. It was about order and civility. "If we tenaciously hold on to the fragments of a noble past, cling to the planks of a ship-wrecked Constitution, the very attitude we shall maintain may possibly inspire other lovers of liberty in this land to rally to a last, mighty effort to regain lost ground, or at least to arrest further strides to ruin...."
Girardeau died on June 23, 1898 and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery near his paragon James Henley Thornwell.