Clergyman, educator. Girardeau was born on November 14, 1825, on his family’s plantation on James Island, the son of John Bohun Girardeau and Claudia Herne Freer. He attended a school on the island taught by Rawlins Rivers and went to the James Island Presbyterian Church where his parents, grandparents, and numerous relatives were members. Following the death of his mother, he went to the school of the German Friendly Society in Charleston. He entered the College of Charleston at age fourteen and graduated at eighteen. In 1845 he entered Columbia Theological Seminary where he studied under George Howe, Charles Colcock Jones, and Aaron Leland and came under the influence of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer. After his graduation from Columbia in 1848, he served the Wappetaw Independent Presbyterian Church in Christ Church Parish and the Wilton Presbyterian Church at Adams Run on the lower Edisto River. Both of these congregations were composed of wealthy planters and numerous slaves. In 1849 he married Penelope Sarah Hamlin. The couple had ten children.
In 1853 Girardeau was called as pastor to the Anson Street Presbyterian Church, Charleston, a congregation organized for mission to slaves. A powerful preacher who was at home with the Gullah dialect, Girardeau attracted large numbers of African Americans to the congregation. To accommodate the growing crowds, a new church building, Zion Presbyterian, was built on the corner of Calhoun and Meeting Streets primarily with money from the Adger and Smyth families of Charleston. Zion was said to have the largest church sanctuary in the city. A small group of affluent whites belonged to the church, served as officers, and sat in the balcony while the large African American congregation utilized the main floor. Girardeau’s work was an experiment in paternalism that drew on the theological and social thought of James H. Thornwell.
During the Civil War, Girardeau served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. He returned to Charleston in 1865 as an advocate for the old order, insisting that southerners must “cling to our identity as a people.” He was ousted from the Zion pulpit by northern missionaries, but he later returned at the request of his former black parishioners. His insistence on white leadership for the congregation led to the disaffection of much of the black membership. He resigned in 1875 and accepted a position at Columbia Theological Seminary as Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology.
At Columbia, Girardeau represented the most conservative elements in the Southern Presbyterian Church. He bitterly opposed his colleague James Woodrow who was advocating a theistic interpretation of evolution. Girardeau wrote several books on theological and liturgical subjects. While he lacked the theological depth and sophistication of his mentors—especially Thornwell—he did have, primarily through the force of his personality and preaching, an influence on his generation of southern white theologians and preachers. He died on June 23, 1898, and was buried in Columbia’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Blackburn, George, ed. The Life Work of John L. Girardeau. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1916.
Clarke, Erskine. Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690–1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. 3 vols. Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1963–1973.