John Lafayette Girardeau on the Church's Responsibility to Foreign Missions


In May of 1868, some three years after the end of the Civil War, John Lafayette Girardeau was called upon to address the Society of Missionary Inquiry at Columbia Theological Seminary. The Presbyterian Church in the United States (the Southern Presbyterian Church) had recently seen a resurgence in interest in foreign missions, and Girardeau wanted to strike while the iron was hot. The text of this discourse was printed in the August 1868 edition of The Missionary, and presents us with a stirring call to consider the obligation upon the church to bring the gospel to the nations who have not yet heard it. 

Girardeau writes out of his particular context, and so explores the Southern Presbyterian Church's relative lack of foreign missionary involvement in the antebellum period, as well as the changes that the Civil War had brought, and the opportunities that were then before the church by God's almighty providence. His convictions about the gospel are clear: "That the heathen, as constituents of the federal head of the race, are involved in the guilt of his first sin; that they are voluntary transgressors of natural law indelibly impressed upon the conscience of mankind; that they perish under the operation of the penalty of that violated institute though it be not reduced to a written form; that their condition is one of misery, ruin, and death; that their only hope of eternal salvation lies in their knowledge of the gospel of Christ; that the Church as the constituted trustee of that gospel is imperatively bound by her Master's last command, by the laws of her being and the very instincts of her nature, to preach to them a crucified and risen Saviour as their light in darkness, their deliverance from sin, and their redemption from woe..." Likewise, his belief in the necessity of foreign missions is settled: "A selfish Church would be a contradiction in terms, a monster drinking from her own breast the milk which was intended to nourish the dying children of want."

Girardeau's address captures a vital aspect of the ministry of the church, at a significant time in the life of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. It is relevant both as a historical document, and for its ongoing encouragement to those engaged in foreign missions on a variety of levels. Tolle lege!