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 It is relevant both as a historical document, and for its ongoing encouragement to those engaged in foreign missions on a variety of levels.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! 

John L. Girardeau Entered Glory

It was on June 23, 1898, that John Lafayette Girardeau entered Paradise. He had recently suffered a stroke, but his passing was peaceful. After a life spent as a husband, father, pastor, theologian, professor, chaplain, philosopher and poet, including many years of service to the black community, he completed his task on earth and went on to receive his heavenly reward. 

After his death, an anonymous poem was published in the July 14, 1898 issue of The Southern Presbyterian, a tribute to the man who wrote his own poems on "Life" and "Death." 


Affectionaly dedicated to the family of Rev. J.L. Girardeau.

Brother, all thy toils are ended;
All thine earthly warfare's done;
To thy long-sought rest ascended,
Thou has won thy starry crown!
There the welcome plaudit met thee;
Well-done Servant of thy Lord,
Faithful toiler in My vineyard,
Enter on thy full reward!

Thou was faithful with the talents
I committed to thy care,
And each burden laid upon thee,
Gladly for Me thou didst bear.
Now beside the 'living waters,'
In my greenest pastures rest;
And forget thine early sorrows,
Leaning on My loving breast!

Oh! methinks the holy angels
Never had a dearer care,
Than that ransomed soul to glory,
On their shining wings to bear!
Hark! the golden harps of Heaven,
Quiver with a richer strain,
As that voice with holy rapture
Blendeth in the glad refrain!

While on earth, Redemption's story,
Ever dwelt upon his tongue.
And to him the 'Songs of Jesus'
Were the sweetest ever sung.
Now the loved ones led to Heaven,
By his earnest pleadings here,
Join with him to praise the Saviour,
Who redeemed and brought them there.

Jure Divino Presbyterianism

"The Southern Presbyterian Church was committed from its initial organization in 1861 to a theory of the church advanced by Thomas Cartwright in England in the latter part of the 16th century, embodied in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1581) and championed by James Henley Thornwell and other Southern Presbyterian divines as over against Charles Hodge of Princeton in the 1850's." -- Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2: 1861-1890, p. 414.

As Thompson goes on to relate, John Lafayette Girardeau summed up the Southern Presbyterian position well, historically known as jure divino Presbyterianism, or divine right Presbyterianism, as he laid it out in a sermon before the General Assembly of 1875: 

"There are two supreme obligations which this final charge of the Lord Jesus lays upon the  heart of the church. The first is the transcendent duty of universal evangelization. The second is the inculcation and maintenance of the truth which Christ, the prophet of the church, has taught, and the commands which Christ, the king of the church, has enjoined. The call of the gospel is to be addressed to all the sons of men, and when they accept it, and are gathered into the fold of the church, she is to teach them all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. There are obviously a positive and a negative aspect of this charge to the church, — positive, in that she is directed to teach all that Christ has commanded; negative, in that she is implicitly prohibited from teaching anything which He has not commanded. The negative duty is a necessary inference from the command which enforces the positive. Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers — that what is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the  church. She can utter no new doctrine, make no new laws, ordain no new forms of government, and invent no new modes of worship. This is but a statement of a fundamental principle of Protestantism, contra-distinguishing it from Rationalism on the one hand and Romanism on the other, — that the Scriptures, as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule  of faith and duty. They are complete, since they furnish as perfect a provision for the spiritual, as does nature for the physical, wants of man, and, therefore, exclude every other rule as unnecessary and superfluous. They are ultimate because, being the word of God, they must pronounce infallibly and supremely upon all questions relating to religious faith and practice.  The duty of the church, consequently, to conform herself strictly to the divine word, and her guilt and danger in departing from it would seem to be transparently evident. But the clearest principles, through the blindness, fallibility, and perverseness of the human mind, frequently prove inoperative in actual experience; and the history of the church furnishes lamentable proof that the great, regulative truth of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures constitutes no exception to this remark. Because we are Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants, because the doctrine of the perfection and ultimate authority of the word lies at the root of our system and is embodied in our standards, we are not, therefore, free from the peril attending the failure of the church to conform herself in all things to the revealed will of Christ, and her tendency to rely upon her own folly instead of His wisdom" ("The Discretionary Power of the Church," Sermons, p. 370-371).

John Lafayette Girardeau's Short Address to the Inquirer

In the 1860 Catechism he wrote for the African-Americans seeking admission to the church he pastored in Charleston, South Carolina, John Lafayette Girardeau included a short address to the inquirer, "in the hope that the truths contained in the Catechism may be enforced in the form of direct exhortation." The beauty and power of these gospel words depict the heart of this evangelistic pastor, and challenge the modern church's lack of evangelistic zeal and its truncated gospel. Use these words in your preaching; include them in your personal evangelism; share them with the lost in as many forms as you can come up with.  

My Friend, are you inquiring about the salvation of your never-dying soul? You are right. You cannot live here very long. You must soon die, and pass into eternity; and if that one soul, which God has given you, be lost, your all is lost. Will you listen to some affectionate advice on this all-important subject?

First, then, consider how great a sinner you are in God’s sight. You have broken His Law, that holy, just and righteous Law which angels and all good beings reverence and obey. You have wickedly trampled under foot all the commands of God’s Law, and you know full well that you have not had the shadow of an excuse for so doing. That Law says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” You have sinned, and you, therefore, deserve to die. Consider, too, how you have abused God’s great goodness and mercy to you. Ever since you were born God has been blessing you. He has given you clothing, food and shelter, and has mercifully provided for all your wants. Above all, He so loved sinners that He gave His only-begotten Son to die for them; and you have also despised this His amazing mercy, and refused to take God’s crucified Son as your Savior and your Lord. Think, too, how far short you have come of God’s glory in all things. You have not loved Him nor obeyed Him in any degree as He requires. You are a great sinner in God’s sight. Your sins are exceedingly offensive and abominable to Him, your Maker and your Judge. If He should cut you down and send you to hell, there to suffer forever and ever, He would treat you just as you deserve. O my friend, pray earnestly to God that He would convince you of your sins, by His Holy Spirit. Pray to Him to open your eyes that you may see your awful danger. Pray to Him to show you your great and manifold sins. Pray to Him to make you deeply feel your need of Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin and hell.

You cannot save yourself. You have no goodness to recommend you to God’s favor. You are vile and wicked in the sight of a holy God. You have no righteousness. “All your righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” They cannot cover you in the day of God’s wrath. You cannot obey the Law in your own strength, for you have broken it already and its awful curse is now resting on your soul. Nothing that you can do can lift that curse from your soul. It threatens to sink you down into the bottomless pit. No works that you can do can save you. “By the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” If you pray in your own strength, that will not save you. If you try to serve God, in your own strength, that will not save you. Pray that God would show you that you are “miserable and poor and blind and naked;” that you are “dead in trespasses and sins;” and that unless He have mercy upon you, and save you, you must be lost and undone forever and ever.

Are you, then, shut up to final despair? Is there no hope for you? Hear, O sinner, what God has done to save us. He is full of pity, love and mercy, to poor, guilty, wretched sinners. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Yes, Jesus Christ, God’s well-beloved Son, saw us in our sinfulness and misery, and touched with heavenly pity for us, He came down to this world to save us. Jesus took the place of sinners. Jesus suffered, and bled, and died for sinners, that He might deliver them from the dreadful curse of the Law. He died and rose again from the dead, and now ever liveth in heaven to intercede for sinners.

Do you ask, now, what you must do to be saved? This blessed Savior, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for sinners, graciously invites you to come to Him, that you may have everlasting life. Listen to His sweet invitation to sinners! “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Do you want rest from the burden of your sins? Go to Jesus and He will give you rest. Do you want to be happy? Hear what He says: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” Be not afraid to venture your soul upon Him. “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come; and let him that heareth say, come; and let him that is athirst come; and whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Think not, because you are a great sinner, that He will not receive you. Hear what Jesus says: “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” The first thing, then, for you to do, is to go to the Lord Jesus, and believe in Him. When the Jews asked Christ what they must do, He answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe in Him whom He hath sent.” When the jailor asked Paul and Silas when he must do to be saved, the Apostle told him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

Go, then, O sinner, to Jesus Christ the Savior, and go just as you are. Stay not in the vain hope that you can make yourself any better than you now are. You cannot prepare yourself to go to Christ. The greater your sins are, the greater is your need of Christ. He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Carry all your sins to Him. Lay them all on Him. “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” You have nothing but sins to give to Him, and He is willing to take them, and, in exchange, to give you His finished righteousness. What you want is mercy. Plead with God, for Christ’s sake, to have mercy upon you, to wash you in the atoning blood of Jesus, and to pardon all your sins. Trust alone in the righteousness of Christ. You have none of your own. Beseech God to accept you as righteous in His sight for the sake of His dear Son Jesus Christ. Do this, and being justified by faith, you shall have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And, sinner, go to Jesus at once. Do not suppose that it is your duty to spend a long time in seeking pardoning mercy, before you ought to expect to find it. God has made it your duty to believe in Christ now. And suppose you die before you find Christ as your Savior, of what good will your seeking be to you? Your life is uncertain. Tomorrow you may die; and if you die out of Christ, you will be lost forever. Be in earnest. Press your case in prayer before God. Plead as for your life that He would not enable you to believe in Christ, and to lay hold upon Him as He is freely offered in the Gospel. If God should please to keep you waiting some time before He gives you an answer of peace, be not discouraged. Draw nearer to Christ, and cry, “Lord, help me;” and never cease to cry for mercy, until God, for Jesus’ sake, pardons your sins and converts your soul.

And should God in infinite mercy be pleased to hear your prayer, and speak pardon to your soul, oh think of your crucified Savior, and think of your sins that nailed Him to the tree, until your heart melts into penitence at His feet. Plead with Him for strength to enable you to give up all your sins, and to do all His commands. And as you went to Jesus, at first, a poor, worthless, helpless sinner, so continue to go to Him every day and hour of your life. Trust in Christ, love Christ, live for Christ; and when you come to die, Christ will be with you, and give you the victory over death. Your body will sleep in Jesus till the glorious resurrection morning; and your happy, ransomed soul will go at once to be with Jesus, and to sing His praise forever and ever. Thus, to you, to live will be Christ, and to die will be gain.

What Are the Limits of Church Authority?

As we have noted before, few questions are more important than to understand the nature and limits of church power. How do we distinguish between circumstances of worship and prescribed elements? May the Church authorize ceremonies in worship not commanded in Scripture?

The answer is clear from the Westminster Assembly: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also" and "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2; 21:1).

On this topic, we have previously highlighted John Bailey Adger (1810-1899)'s 1884 article on "Church Power." He affirms: "Our doctrine, our discipline, our worship, are all divine and revealed things, to which the Church can add, from which she can take away, nothing. No more discretion has the Church in regulating those who compose her membership. She can make no new laws to bind their conscience. Neither contrary to, nor yet beside the Scripture, can she impose any new duties not imposed on men by the Word. On the other hand, she cannot make anything to be sinful which God himself has not forbidden. In fine, the Church has no lawmaking power, except as to circumstances of time and place, order and decency, which, from the nature of the case, Scripture could not regulate, and which must needs be left, and have therefore been left, to human discretion. All the power which the Church has about laws is declarative and ministerial. Her officers are servants of the Lord, and declare not their own will, but the Lord's, and that only as he makes it known in the Word, which is open to all men, and which every man is entitled to judge of and interpret for himself."

We would also bring your attention two additional works by John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898): 1) The Discretionary Power of the Church (a sermon preached in 1875, found in his Sermons, wherein he quotes James Henley Thornwell so profoundly; and 2) Individual Liberty and Church Authority, a sermon preached in 1889. 

These works help to clarify that ecclesiastical authority is ministerial and delegated, not authoritative in itself. Adger and Girardeau have correctly and helpfully exposited the nature and limits of church authority, limiting it to what God has authorized, and not going beyond that. Take time to study these works, and to address what a very important question that every Christian must face. 

Three 19th century Presbyterian poets/hymn writers: J. W. Alexander, B. B. Warfield, and John L. Girardeau

I knew that James Waddel Alexander was a poet. He translated "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" from the German. But I had no idea that B. B. Warfield and John Lafeyette Girardeau were also poets and hymn writers. Yet listen to these rich gospel lines from the pen of Girardeau:

'Nothing to pay?' No, nothing, to win
Salvation by merit from law and from sin;
But all things, to buy, without money and price.
The wine and the milk of a free Paradise.

'Nothing to do?' No, not to procure
A heaven, by infinite blood made secure;
But all things, with labour and sweat of the face,
To honor my Saviour and magnify grace.

'What of the law?' Its thunders were stilled
Against my poor soul, by the blood that was spilled:
But the hands which were nailed to the wood of the Tree
Now wield its commands to be honored by me.

'Nothing of guilt?' No, not to my God,
As Judge and Condemner, uplifting His rod;
But, ah, I am guilty of breaking His Word
In the house of my Father—the Church of my Lord.

'What am I waiting for?' Spare me a while
To tell of Thy love to a sinner so vile!
Then take me to Heaven, which is not my due.
And give me the Crown of Fidelity, too!

You can find Alexander's translations of German hymns (entitled The Breaking Crucible) here; B. B. Warfield's Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses, a published volume of hymns (with some musical settings!) and poems, here; and Girardeau's poems on pages 345-364 of The Life Work of John L. Girardeau by George A Blackburn. Use these volumes in your private worship. And let me know if you think it would be a worthy project to reprint these hymns/poems in a single book.

And now, a book you didn't even know you've been waiting for...

This is a book I've been eagerly anticipating uploading to the Log College Press site, because it's never been reprinted, and because it can be hard to find an original copy of it. And becaus it's good, very good - for not only does John Lafayette Girardeau take on Jonathan Edwards toe to toe and win, but also he so helpfully expounds for us the will in its fourfold state. The Will in its Theological Relations is now available here online in PDF form! I must give credit to Travis Fentiman at Reformed Books Online, who originally scanned this book for his site. Thank you, Travis!

If you're interested, I've written an article examining Girardeau's critique of Edwards' view of Adam's will before the fall in Volume 11 of the Confessional Presbyterian, available for purchase here

Why do we remember the fathers and mothers of the faith? John L. Girardeau: "To magnify the grace of God."

John Lafayette Girardeau, in his eulogy of George Howe, uttered these words, which remind us that the primary purpose of Christian biography is to glorify God by remembering the work He has done in His servants:

“In doing honor to those who have attained to eminence, there is a tendency unduly to exalt the perfection of human nature, from the indulgence of which we are restrained by the principles of Christianity. It can never be forgotten by those who are imbued with its instructions and possessed of a consciousness illuminated by its light, that all men, even the greatest and best, are sinners; and that, whatever advancement in mere moral culture may be effected by the force of natural resolution, neither the beginning nor the development of holiness is possible without the application of the blood of atonement, and the operation of supernatural grace. To signalise, therefore, the virtues of a departed Christian is to celebrate the provisions of redemption, and to magnify the graces of the Holy Ghost.”

Because Christians are sinners, we dare not lionize them. But because Christians are God's workmanship, redeemed in Christ Jesus, we dare not demonize them. 

Why does Covenant Theology matter? A little known gem from John L. Girardeau

In 1884, a memorial volume was published in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Columbia Theological Seminary (we'll have this book uploaded eventually!). There were several significant articles in this volume, but perhaps none more important than John Lafayette Girardeau's "The Federal Theology: Its Import and Its Regulative Influence." Girardeau gives several reasons why covenant theology matters, and the way it shapes our theology as Presbyterians. This thirty-three page has been reprinted in the last twenty-five years, but it is now out of print. Yet it still deserves a broad readership. So read, share, and read again. You won't be disappointed.