A Shameful Precedent
. . . there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and freeman, but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11).
The so-called Charles Spurgeon of America, John Lafayette Girardeau, was born in 1825 on James Island, South Carolina into a French Huguenot family. He was reared in the Reformed faith and cut his teeth on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Young Girardeau was a Greek and Latin scholar who graduated with honours from the College of Charleston at the age of nineteen. After working a year he entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, after marrying his sweetheart, Penelope Hamlin. John regularly attended the pulpit ministry of Benjamin Palmer at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia as well as the lectures and chapel services of James Henley Thornwell, President of the College of South Carolina (now the University of South Carolina). Both John and Penelope came from privileged families and both had great compassion for the poor and oppressed. John regularly ministered the word of God to his father’s slaves on their plantation and while in seminary engaged in evangelistic preaching in the poor and destitute regions of Charleston, winning to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit, many drunkards and prostitutes. Upon graduation from seminary in 1849, John took a rural pastorate in Wilton, South Carolina and served the congregation for four years. He preached to the white people in the morning and as the service ended the slaves from nearby rushed to fill the church, often trotting to get there on time.
In 1854 the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston called John Girardeau to continue a ministry they had begun a couple of years earlier to the slaves of Charleston. Girardeau began his ministry with thirty-six slaves as members. By 1859 he had six hundred members and preached each Sunday to over fifteen hundred people. He trained his people in the Westminster Confession of Faith and his members had memorized the Shorter Catechism. When many white people in town saw how articulate their slaves were in the faith they accused Girardeau of teaching them to read and write, something sadly forbidden at the time by South Carolina law. Girardeau was a powerful preacher1 who was able to combine a rich and deep knowledge of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Scripture, using vivid imagery through the work of the Spirit to drive home gospel truth. When asked to preach to the South Carolina General Assembly on the topic of the judgment to come, the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia was full. For ninety minutes Girardeau unpacked the awesome reality of the judgment to come. As he neared the climax of his sermon the entire congregation was leaning forward, tears streaming down the faces of many, not wanting to miss a word of what he was saying. When he concluded, collectively the vast congregation sat back and sighed.
Much has been spoken and written on the revival God wrought in the church Girardeau served, the Zion Presbyterian Church,2 so I will not spend time on that now. I will say however that through the revival, in preaching nightly for eight weeks, over six hundred slaves and three hundred white people were saved. Indeed it was a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
What I do wish to stress here is a shameful precedent. After serving as a chaplain in the Twenty-third Regiment from South Carolina in the War Between the States, Girardeau returned to the war-ravaged south to once again take up his pastoral ministry at the Zion Presbyterian Church. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was a horrible tragedy for the south because Lincoln, who it seems was converted to Christianity sometime in the fall of 1862, was willing to show compassion to the conquered south. This was evident in how he instructed U. S. Grant to show respect to Lee and his vanquished army at Appomattox. But Lincoln’s death put into office the rabid Republican Vice President Andrew Johnson. A spirit of revenge overcame many in the north and this further drove a wedge between not only the north and the south but also between white and black in the south. But Girardeau stood against segregation. He continued to pastor his congregation of mainly former slaves. By 1869 he had trained seven black men and he and his white elders laid hands on their black brothers and ordained them as elders in the church. As the rift between the north and the south escalated, causing tensions between the races to likewise escalate, leading men in the Southern Presbyterian Church, specifically R. L. Dabney and Benjamin Palmer began to lobby for a separation of the races in the southern church. Girardeau respectfully but vehemently spoke against such a separation, stating that there was no biblical warrant for such, that Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and freeman are all one in Christ. He reminded them that the Lord Jesus broke down the barrier of the dividing wall by making all believers one in him (Eph. 2:14ff).
In the end, however, the Southern Presbyterian Church voted in 1874 at the General Assembly in Columbus, Mississippi, to move toward what they euphemistically called ‘organic union’ of the races. John Girardeau, the Moderator of the General Assembly that year, was the lone dissenting voice. Indeed, this was a very shameful precedent. We are only now beginning to turn back this shameful chapter of our church history. There are many encouraging signs in this regard. First, there are now forty-eight African American pastors in the Presbyterian Church in America.3 Second is the amazing work of racial reconciliation presently occurring at the First Presbyterian Church, Clarksdale, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta. Pastor Bill Gleason came to the church about fifteen years ago with ‘no agenda’. However God was working in the congregation to move them to look beyond themselves to all the people of Clarksdale. Mark Webb, an African American pastor in town whose children were attending the day school associated with First Presbyterian Church (FPC), became convinced of the Reformed Church. To make a long story short, Mark joined the staff of FPC, was recently voted a Ruling Elder, and is finishing up his theological credentials to become a Teaching Elder in Covenant Presbytery. The beauty and power of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ which reconciles us to God ought also to reconcile us to brothers and sisters who are different from us. There is no room for racial or ethnic bigotry. God hates that sort or thing. He is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. In a presently highly charged culture of racial tension on both sides, which reminds me of the 1960s, surely this is a time where believers ought to humble ourselves before God and love one another, not in word only but in deed and truth.
I used to tell our congregation in West Hartford, which was wonderfully diverse, not only in race but also in economic terms, that though some of them may be ‘somebody’ out in the world due to their position, status, or money; and though some out in the world may be ‘nobody’ for lack of those same things; the moment we enter into the church we are all equal. Surely this is what Paul is repeatedly after in his epistles. Surely we must also be about the same thing.
- For an insight into the magnificent preaching of Girardeau I recommend Douglas Kelly’s Preachers with Power, pages 121-170; and David Calhoun’s Our Southern Zion, pages 237-239, both published by Banner of Truth.
- See Douglas Kelly’s Preachers with Power, page 134, for a beautiful account of the revival.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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