John Girardeau’s fame in Presbyterian circles rests on his ministry as the white minister to majority black congregations in Charleston, South Carolina during the Nineteenth Century. He remained committed to many of the woefully unjust conceptions of the civil order, race, and slavery that typified white southerners in the Nineteenth Century. He never openly denounced the Confederate cause, and his misgivings over slavery never compelled him to seek a more holistic and biblical understanding of human equality. He was in many ways a man of his times. He did not, however, see the human race as essentially divisible. His ministry to Black Charlestonians, for all its inconsistencies, was driven by his essential belief in the unity and eventual reconciliation to all peoples in Christ. The great division of humanity in Girardeau’s Christian economy was between Christian and pagan, and not between racial or ethnic communities.
Girardeau headed a committee of the Southern Presbyterian Church articulating his views on race and religion in the aftermath of the Civil War. Humanity was also not in the abstract meant to be divided “by differences of race or nationality, for the apostle Paul distinctly asserts that, in the new man ‘there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision.’” He also noted that the essential oneness of humanity in Christ was not destroyed “by difference of culture, for in Christ there is neither wise nor unwise.”
Work on missions allowed Girardeau to articulate this view of humanity’s oneness. He saw missions as an explicit command as long as any “portion of the race remains in ignorance of the provisions of the gospel. Every creature in every generation and in every clime ought to be evangelized.” He also chose to use individualized conceptions of evangelism rather than national, tribal, or Kinist ones. God’s command, he said, was to “preach the gospel to every creature.”
An emphasis on the essential unity of humanity remained the heart of of Girardeau’s missional theology, which for him was conditioned on a “heart which is jealous for the divine name, and solicitous for the enthronement of Jesus in the affections of the human race.” He saw a unitary purpose to humankind. “The spiritual interests and the eternal destinies of mankind” were “implicated” in the question of reaching people he called heathens. Girardeau essentially divided the world between Christians and pagans. “Philanthropy, as well as piety, hastens the Church in complying with the vocation of her Head to evangelize a world lying in wickedness, and shadowed by death.” Human souls were the chief framework of missions, not nations or tribes. “The salvation of every human soul is conditioned upon its contact with the gospel of the grace of God. It alone is redemption for the lost.” The heathen, Girardeau argued, “must have the gospel, or perish.” The ultimate Christian pursuit and the ultimate telos for human interaction was “not civilization, but redemption; not science, but religion; not literature and the arts, but eternal life.”