By the books bearing his name, one could easily be led to think John Girardeau was a philosophical theologian of ivory tower standing. That was true, but he was first and foremost, by heart, a missionary to the poor and needy of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
On November 14, 1825, John Lafayette Girardeau was born to Claudia Herne Girardeau and John Bohun Girardeau on James Island, South Carolina. He was of French Huguenot and Scottish Presbyterian stock. The local field school trained him in the three Rs (“reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic”) 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 in classical languages from the College of Charleston.
After studying for the ministry in the theological seminary in Columbia, he returned to the Lowcountry to pursue a life as a Presbyterian minister. He served churches near McClellanville and at Adam’s Run before he was summoned to “the Holy City” of Charleston in 1854 to assume leadership of the nascent work among the enslaved men and women there. This work was initiated by Second Presbyterian Church in 1847. He inherited a Gothic structure seating some five hundred people on Anson Street, which had been built in 1850 expressly for the slaves of Charleston. By 1859, they had outgrown their 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 1,500. They named it Zion Presbyterian Church. In Charleston, Girardeau became known as “the grandest preacher in all our Southland” and was called by one renowned minister, “the Spurgeon of America.”
Facing monumental opposition from racists, Girardeau and the white elders of Zion provided an extensive religious education program for the slaves. So successful were the elders in orally instructing the congregation in the catechism, hymns, and psalms of the church that some citizens thought they were violating the civil law which forbade teaching slaves to read and write. Girardeau also held wedding services, “til death do us part,” in the prominent church structure on Calhoun Street. Residents objected to this, concerned about the “freedom” the black membership had to stroll the streets in fine clothing.