Columbia History: Prof. John L. Girardeau

Columbia History: Prof. John L. Girardeau

June 1, 2019Since its founding in 1828, Columbia Theological Seminary has witnessed and supported the society changing within and around it. In anticipation of the release of Erskine Clarke’s history of the seminary, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary and CTS’ 200th anniversary in 2028, the C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives is utilizing its archival material to explore historical actors whose complexities have influenced Columbia’s culture and educational experience. The brief biographical account of the life and ministry of John L. Girardeau (1825-1898) is intended to provide a historical context for archival material related to Girardeau described at the close of this article.

John Lafayette Girardeau was born on November 14, 1825 to John Bohum Giradeau and Claudia Herne Freer. During his early years he attended James Island Presbyterian Church under the preaching of Aaron W. Leland, one of Columbia Theological Seminary founders. After completing his education at the College of Charleston in 1844, he returned to James Island to minister to enslaved Africans and African-Americans.1 From 1845 through 1848, he studied at Columbia Theological Seminary.2 Due to influence from James Henley Thornwell and his cousin Charles Colcock Jones, he continued to focus his ministry on enslaved Africans and African Americans.3 He filled the pulpit at Wappetaw Independent Presbyterian Church before his ordination in 1850 at Wilton Presbyterian Church in Adams Run, SC.4

Girardeau’s ability to draw crowds of enslaved Africans and African-Americans became widely recognized in the Charleston Presbytery. In 1853, he was called to Anson Street Presbyterian Church, a plant of Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston. Opening in 1850, Anson was established by Thomas Smyth and John Adger specifically to reach the enslaved population.5 When Girardeau began his preaching ministry at Anson, church membership was at thirty-six. Within a few years, membership grew to 600, with over 1,500 attending each week.6

From 1858 through 1859, in order to accommodate its growing size, Second Presbyterian Church oversaw the construction of the largest church building in Charleston, SC: Zion Presbyterian Church, whose name was chosen by the attending enslaved population. The main center seating area belonged to the enslaved persons and attending or visiting whites would sit in the balcony.7 Girardeau faced strong local opposition, including multiple death threats by those who feared he would incite a slave insurrection.8

Apart from preaching weekly, his ministry to enslaved persons included delegating oversight to members of the congregation, allowing members to lead prayers, Bible study, funeral orations, participate as witnesses in discipline, and meet various diaconal needs.9 Though Girardeau could not legally teach enslaved members to read, he led them in the memorization of Scripture, catechism, and hymns.10 Most notably, enslaved persons had both their first and surname listed on written membership rolls, which differed from the common practice of only a first name with the last name of the individual or family which owned them as slaves.11

In 1861, Girardeau stepped down from his ministry to serve as chaplain to the 23rd Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers.12 Toward the close of the Civil War, he was captured and was sent to the prisoner-of-war camp on Johnson’s Island, Ohio, until June 1865, a few months after the close of the war.13 During his time as chaplain and prisoner, he was noted on several occasions for his preaching and ministering to hundreds of soldiers and prisoners.

In April 1866, Zion Presbyterian Church and Glebe Street Presbyterian Church merged congregations to form Zion (Glebe Street) Presbyterian Church with members remaining in two buildings (Glebe Street and Calhoun Street) separated along racial lines.14 Girardeau began preaching to the congregation at Glebe at the merger in April 1866 but was not able to resume at Calhoun until late December 1866.15 When Girardeau resumed his pastorate at Zion (Glebe Street) the merged congregation had a membership of 440, including 116 freed persons.16

In 1869, Girardeau was among the first (in the newly formed PCUS) to ordain freed African Americans as elders and support measures for integrated worship as modeled at Zion.17 His service at Zion dissolved within a few years stemming from the PCUS 1874 General Assembly resolution favoring ecclesiastical “organic separation” from African Americans. Coincidently, that year Girardeau was the moderator and the lone dissenting vote against the measure.18

Girardeau’s treatment of Africans and African-Americans prior to and after the Civil War was in large part an expression of paternalism: just as there were mutual obligations between husbands and wives, children and parents, so too there were mutual obligations between masters and slaves. Those in subservience had an obligation to obey while the head had an obligation to provide and care.19 Along these lines, several prominent antebellum Southern Presbyterians, Girardeau included, shared a belief that divine providence had given enslaved Africans into their possession as a means to civilize and evangelize them while reducing slaveholder abuses.20

Girardeau professed the full humanity of Africans and African Americans and evidence suggests that his treatment and teaching to them was unlike other plantation missionaries.21 Yet his ministry model sustained and reinforced notions of racial hierarchy. He believed Africans and African Americans were “sons of Ham.”22 He also owned slaves and defended the institution as a positive benefit for them.23 These beliefs and practices infected his imagination and perpetuated his paternalism.

His postwar ministry and public teaching did not depart from this ideology, he simply found new ways to cultivate and sustain it. While he might have been alone in advocating for continued ecclesiastical union with freed African Americans, his position stemmed from his fear of what would happen without white supervision and control.24 His alternative was that the freed population should have separate churches with their own elders and deacons with oversight of a white pastor from an adjacent congregation.25

On May 10, 1871 in Charleston, SC, before an audience of six-thousand, Girardeau memorialized Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.26 Girardeau charged his audience to not merely contemplate in memory those who died for a cause that was now lost, but to remember their death by embodying their cause in the face of new changes: “Let us cling to our identity as a people!” Girardeau’s call was to produce a culture that would promote Southern history, support monuments, and propagate a Southern lexicon.27

With this ideology he entered the classroom at Columbia Theological Seminary. In 1876, he filled the vacancy of William Swan Plumer as Professor of Didactic and Polemical Theology.28 He combined elements of Reformed scholasticism and the teachings of James Henley Thornwell, among others, to cultivate and preserve an “aggressive Calvinism,” a distinctly Southern Presbyterian theology.29

Girardeau’s aggressive approach is clearly seen during the trial of James Woodrow, the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation. In 1884, Woodrow was under investigation for teaching evolution at Columbia. After being exonerated by the Columbia Board of Directors, Woodrow faced trial before the four Synods governing the seminary. During Woodrow’s trial at the Synod of South Carolina, Girardeau became one of Woodrow’s most formidable opponents.30 In his opposing case, Girardeau asserted that there might be ways to sustain evolutionary claims that might not contradict the Bible, but “non-contradiction” is simply too low of a bar without “harmony.”31 More importantly for Girardeau, evolutionary claims ran counter to how the Bible had long been interpreted and received within Southern Presbyterian theology, which Columbia was intended to safeguard and propagate.32 The trial was moving too slow for Girardeau and in response he tendered his resignation (right) at Columbia Theological Seminary on October 6, 1885. Soon Woodrow was forced to resign, and in late 1886 Girardeau resumed his teaching responsibilities. He remained at the seminary until 1895 and maintained a strong influence even after his retirement.


Archival Resources

The John L. Girardeau Papers in the C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives contain correspondence, early published pamphlets, sermons, his inaugural address as Professor of Didactic and Polemical Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, and speeches and letters by Girardeau related to the trial of James Woodrow:

Several handwritten items by Girardeau, including four sermons, and a 635-page loose-leaf manuscript of essays entitled, “Discussion of Philosophical Questions” are found in the archive. These sermons and collection of essays were posthumously edited and published under the oversight of his son-in-law George Blackburn.33

A 379-page loose-leaf manuscript English translation of a work by John Calvin, “Calvin on the Will: A Defense of the Sound and Orthodox Doctrine Concerning the Bondage and Liberation of the Human Will, Against Pighius of Kempen” is available as well.34 Throughout Girardeau’s academic career, he published extensively on the doctrine of freedom of the will and prepared this translation as means to support his position.35 This translation, including an introduction by Girardeau, has never been made public.

Many readers may be interested to know that the archive possesses church records for Zion Presbyterian Church during the time of Girardeau’s ministry work as a pastor before and after the Civil War.

If you are interested in accessing these historical documents of Columbia’s history, please contact the C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives.

Phone: 404-687-4648
Mail:  PO Box 520
Decatur, GA 30031



1 George Blackburn, “Conversion and Early Ministry,” in The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D., edited by George Blackburn (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1916), 24-27; C.N. Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98): Pastor to Slaves and Theologian of Causes,” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2003), 73-74. The majority of enslaved persons at this time would have been born within the United States at this time, but there would have been a minority population brought from Africa.

2 Blackburn, Ibid, 27.

3 Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau,” 58-69.

4 Blackburn, Ibid, 26-29; Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98),” 75-92.

5 Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1996), 108, 189-195. Edward C. Jones, “Work Among the Negroes,” in The Life Work (see note 1), 31.

6 Jones, Ibid, 32.

7 Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 188; Otis W. Pickett, “‘Neither Slave nor Free’: Interracial Ecclesiastical Interactions in Presbyterian Mission Churches from South Carolina to Mississippi, 1818-1877” (PhD diss. The University of Mississippi, 2013), 46, 245.

8 Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98),” 110-112.

9 Pickett, “‘Neither Slave nor Free,’” 237-39.

10 Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98),” 121, 127-28; Pickett, “‘Neither Slave nor Free,’” 240.

11 Pickett, “‘Neither Slave nor Free’,” 175, 243-45; Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 197.

12 D.W. McLauren, “The Confederate Chaplain,” in The Life Work (see note 1), 107.

13 McLauren, Ibid, 122, 126; Thomas H. Law, “Pastorate After the War,” in The Life Work (see note 1), 133.

14 Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 226; Law, Ibid, 142-43.

15 Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98),”184.

16 Wilborn, Ibid, 202.

17 Willborn, Ibid, 203-4.

18 John B. Adger, My Life and Times, 1810-1899 (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1899), 177.

19 Dale Edwyna Smith, “Paternalism,” Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia Vol. I, edited by Junius P. Rodriguez Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007), 409.

20 Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 120, 189-195, 226-27. Thomas Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, Letters, and Reflections, edited by Louisa Cheves Stoney (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans, & Cogswell, 1914), 200; Joseph B. Mack, “The Work Among the Negroes–Part II” in The Life Work (see note 1), 63-65; Proceedings of the Meeting in Charleston, S.C., May 13-15, 1845, On the Religious Instruction of the Negroes, Together with the Report of the Committee, and the Address to the Public (Charleston, SC: B. Jenkins, 1845).

21 John L. Girardeau, “Our Ecclesiastical Relation to Freedmen” The Southern Presbyterian Review 18, no. 1 (1867): 2; Pickett, “‘Neither Slave nor Free,’” 241, 248-49.

22Girardeau, “Our Ecclesiastical Relation,” 2; Ibid, “The Prosperity and Efficiency of a Church,” in Sermons by John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D., edited by George Blackburn (Charleston, SC: The State Company, 1914), 237; Jones, “Work Among the Negroes,” 50.

23 Mack, “The Work Among the Negroes–Part II,” 63-65; Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, 197, 200; Wilborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-98),” 102-6. Ernest Trice Thompson provides a telling and disturbing quote from Girardeau from the 1882 PCUS GA indicating that he supported and perhaps participated in a form of slaveholder physical abuse (“thrashed”), “Black Presbyterians, Education and Evangelism after the Civil War” Journal of Presbyterian History 51, no, 2 (1972):  180-81. Thompson does not specify a source, but this same quote appears in, “Park in the Assembly: The Colored Brother as Voting Presbyterian” The Atlanta Constitution 14 (May 26, 1882): 1.

24 Mack, “The Work Among the Negroes–Part II,” 70.

25 Mack, Ibid, 70; Girardeau, “Our Ecclesiastical Relation,” 6-17.

26 John L. Girardeau, Confederate Memorial Day at Charleston, S.C.: Reinternment of the Confederate Dead from Gettysburg (Charleston, SC: William G. Mazyck, 1871); Clarke, Our Southern Zion, 220-24.

27 Girardeau, Ibid, 17-18; Otis W. Pickett, “Race and the Visions of John Lafayette Girardeau,” Southern Religion, Southern Culture: Essays Honoring Charles Reagan Wilson, edited by Darren E. Grem, Ted Ownby, Jr., and James G. Thomas (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi, 2018), 55-57; Erskine Clarke, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, forthcoming), chapter 7 .

28 Law, “Pastorate After the War,” 157.

29 Thornton Whaling, “The Theologian,” in The Life Work (see note 1), 307-8, 338-40; Clarke, To Count Our Days, chapter 8; cf. John L. Girardeau, Theology as a Science, Involving an Infinite Element: Inaugural Address, Delivered Before the General Assembly at Savannah, Ga., May 23d, 1876 (Columbia, S.C.: Presbyterian Publishing House, 1876).

30 Clarke, To Count Our Days, chapter 9; Monte Harrell Hampton, Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2014), 206-8.

31 John L. Girardeau, The Substance of Two Speeches on the Teaching of Evolution in Columbia Theological Seminary, Delivered in the Synod of South Carolina at Greenville, S.C., Oct., 1884 (Columbia, S.C.: William Sloane, 1885), 7-11.

32 Giradeau, Ibid, 12, 13, 15-35; Hampton, Storm of Words, 209.

33 John L. Girardeau, Sermons by John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D., edited by George Blackburn (Charleston, SC: The State Company, 1914); Ibid, Discussions of Philosophical Questions, edited by George A. Blackburn (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publications, 1900).

34 The first published English translation of Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de servitute et liberatione humani arbitrii adversus calumnias Alberti Pighii Campensis (1543) would not appear until nearly a century after Girardeau’s death. Cf. John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius, edited by A.N.S. Lane and translated by G. I. Davies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996).

35 John L. Girardeau, The Will in its Theological Relations (Columbia, SC: W.J. Duffie, 1891).

2 thoughts on “Columbia History: Prof. John L. Girardeau”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.