When Dr. John B. Adger returned for physical recuperation from the mission field in Smyrna [part of Turkey], he soon began to preach to a congregation of blacks whom he gathered in the basement of the Second Presbyterian church of Charleston, South Carolina, where his brother-in-law Dr. Thomas Smyth was pastor. With appeal to the city and to the Presbytery on behalf of the newly gathered congregation, Dr. Adger delivered a sermon before the Presbytery on May 9, 1847. His text was “the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5). Without delay, Dr. James H. Thornwell prepared a review of the sermon, which appeared on the pages of The Southern Presbyterian Review, giving support to Adger’s plan, as unveiled in the sermon. Dr. Adger had argued that blacks ought to have their own congregations, a full-time white minister, and the Gospel preached in terms that they could understand. While this plan certainly encountered opposition, nonetheless the leading citizens of Charleston and particularly those of Second Presbyterian gave enthusiastic support to the idea.
It was with this support that a chapel was built for the fledgling congregation on Anson Street in Charleston, at a cost of $7,700, and the building was dedicated on this day, May 26th, in 1850.
Dr. John L. Girardeau succeeded Adger as pastor of the congregation, and the Anson Street chapel soon became too small. Expansion required a move to Calhoun Street, where the largest church building in Charleston. Dr. Girardeau noted that he was only kept from going to the foreign field by the call to preach to the mass of slaves on the seacoast. The church records for Zion Presbyterian Church give evidence of Girardeau’s diligence in caring for his flock and how often he was called upon to minister to them in their dying hours.
But Girardeau had stiff opposition from many of the citizens of Charleston, including the mayor. In a 2005 essay titled “A Lost Moment in Time”, (now Dr.) Otis W. Pickett observed that
Girardeau had become so unpopular that he was almost lynched by a crowd of angry as well as nervous Charlestonians in 1859. However in the midst of all this Girardeau press on with his ministry and it continued to prosper. Many African Americans flocked to his church because he acknowledged the need of the African American community to have an identity independent of the white congregations in Charleston. He acknowledged that the African Americans needed to be religiously empowered; by providing this in a limited way at Zion Church, he endeared himself to his flock. Distinct from all other churches of the time, Girardeau’s church allowed African Americans to sit in the pews while the white families were made to sit in the balcony. The environment that Girardeau created for African Americans in his church has been described as “their church, as no other church in Charleston has been theirs since Morris Brown and the African Methodist Church. It was a building, a place, that had been built for them. Here they could gather, could claim a community and thus a humanity in the very midst of an alienating and dehumanizing bondage.”
However, his most revolutionary act was allowing the slaves in his church to have surnames. For hundreds of years, slave owners throughout the south had denied their slaves surnames in order to show that slaves had no lasting family connections because of their status as property. Hence, claiming surnames was a bold display of independence for slaves. By allowing this, Girardeau made Zion Presbyterian Church a place where slaves could publicly declare they had a family history and they had an allegiance to people other than their owners. As a result of this training and ministry experience, unlike many of his contemporaries, Girardeau was more than adequately prepared to extend greater racial equality after the Civil War was over.
After the War and before Girareau could return to Charleston, a number of freedmen of Zion Presbyterian Church beckoned Girardeau to return to “the Holy City” and resume his work with them. They desired to have their white pastor whom they knew, loved, and respected, rather than a black missionary from the North. Throughout the post-War and Reconstruction years, Girardeau worked arduously among both black and white in Charleston. He labored within the Southern Presbyterian Church to see that the freedmen were included in the Church and in 1869 he nominated seven freedmen for the office of ruling elder in Zion Presbyterian Church, preached the ordination service, and with the white members of his Session, laid hands on his black brothers.
Unfortunately, the pressures of Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the hardened positions of notables like B. M. Palmer and R. L. Dabney brought the church to a pivotal moment. The weight of political and social issues eventuated in “organic separation” of white membership and black membership and the formation of churches along the color line. Girardeau alone dissented against the resolution at the 1874 General Assembly in Columbus, Mississippi, for which he served as Moderator.
By 1959, the historic building of the Zion Presbyterian Church was demolished to make room for the expansion of two insurance companies. The building had been sold to Public Savings Life Insurance Company for $70,000, after the congregation made the decision that the building was larger than needed and began seeking a smaller, more modern building to better suit the needs of the congregation. The church continues to this day, having merged with another to become the Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church.
Words to Live By:
As Dr. Pickett observed at the opening of his essay,
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that eleven o’clock Sunday morning is America’s most segregated hour still rings true today. As sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have noted, American Christians are “divided by faith” along racial lines. While a number of factors—social, economic, educational—have contributed to this segregation, the most significant determining factor continues to be historical.
In the early days of Reconstruction, American evangelicals in the south missed an opportunity to break down racial barriers by fostering interracial congregations. Instead of seizing the moment, evangelical Christians buttressed the dividing walls of hostility, failing to live out the reality of the Gospel. While each mainline denomination in the south had its own way of proliferating racial separatism, none provided a more heart-breaking example of this than the Southern Presbyterians.
The challenges that confront our culture today present Bible-believing Christians with a great opportunity, one in which we truly can, if we will rise to the occasion, show that the Gospel cuts across all dividing lines. As the wider culture is increasingly fractured, the Church is afforded an opportunity for witness. How can you pray? How can you support new works like Crown & Joy Presbyterian Church, or older works like New City Fellowship? How can you strengthen men in their preparation for the ministry? How can you extend a hand of fellowship? Will you?
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