John L. Girardeau on Evangelists

John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898) was born on James Island, South Carolina to French Huguenot parents.  Many French Huguenots had fled to South Carolina after the Edict of Nantes (1598) was revoked in 1685. That edict had previously granted religious toleration and rights to Protestants. Girardeau’s grandfather had fought in the American Revolutionary War and he was, therefore, named Lafayette after the French general, Marquis De La Fayette (Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) Girardeau is best remembered by Presbyterians today as one of the most polished and erudite theologians of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. His works include: Calvinism and Evangelical ArminianismDiscussions of Theological QuestionsThe Federal Theology: Its Import and Its Regulative Influence; Discussions of Philosophical QuestionsConscience and Civil Government; and, Theology as Science. If James Henley Thornwell is the greatest Southern Presbyterian theologian, then Girardeau would have to be ranked third behind Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney. Third behind those two great men is still pretty high cotton. 

George A. Blackburn wrote a biography of Girardeau, The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D. D., in which the office of evangelist is discussed in a chapter written by a fellow Presbyterian minister, Robert A. Webb, on “The Presbyter.” I am sending it out in this week’s email newsletter because no position of Vanguard Presbytery has received more criticism than our view on evangelists. It has always been befuddling to me why that is so. Vanguard neither believes that evangelists have revelatory gifts nor episcopal powers. What we do believe is that evangelists are elders who are especially gifted in evangelism and are given the powers of presbytery under extraordinary circumstances where the destitute parts of the church cry loudly for such help or the foreign fields necessitate it. 

The number of great Presbyterian and Reformed ministers who believed in the office of evangelist, therefore, is impressive: John Bunyan, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Blair, Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, Daniel Baker, Charles Hodge, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Robert A. Webb, James Henley Thornwell, and John Lafayette Girardeau. I certainly believe that George Whitefield would have called himself an evangelist, as his biographer, Arnold Dallimore, did. Every Book of Church Order of American Presbyterian denominations has had sections that describe the duties and functions of evangelists. I have not had the time to comb the works of all the American theologians and ministers to find out how many of them agree with Vanguard’s position, but I would be most happy to be able to do so. Yes, I know that John Calvin wrote against the office of evangelist as being a permanent office in the church, but he also contradicted himself in other places and entertained the idea that God could raise up evangelists under extraordinary circumstances. Also, the Church of Scotland had an office similar to that of evangelist. John Calvin and John Owen, great as they were, are not the final word in all matters of theology. I almost agree with everything they both wrote—but not always. And that is the way it should be. With all the great men who held to the office of evangelist and all the BCO’s that include it, Vanguard, in my opinion, has the high ground. Our position cannot simply be dismissed by quoting Calvin and Owen. To me, it is very simple. The office of evangelist will cease to be necessary when the whole world has been converted to Christ or when Christ returns. Until either one or the other happens, there will be souls that need converting and evangelists will be needed to preach the gospel to them.     

With thankfulness to Joel Pankratz for sending me the following quote from Blackburn’s biography of Girardeau, I give you what Webb wrote about him:   

Having himself been a missionary to the negroes, Dr. Girardeau had an abiding and enthusiastic concern in all the foreign and domestic missionary enterprises of the Church. He and his session and congregation of the Glebe Street Church in Charleston did a wonderful work in saving the churches of the seaboard of South Carolina after the desolations of the Civil War. On the floor of ecclesiastical bodies he often lifted up his voice in rousing speeches and proposed policies in behalf of all the extension work of the Redeemer’s kingdom. In this connection he gave much time and thought to the powers of the evangelist, which was mooted in Church circles. He held that the evangelist was a minister extraordinary, especially commissioned in view of unorganized conditions. He was not a bare preacher, or revivalist. He had in his single person the authority of a presbytery. There were limits, however. As soon as he had organized a session, the most elementary court in the Presbyterian system, he could not be a bishop over it, but must be subordinate to it. In a foreign country such a session must be regarded as the nucleus of a Presbyterian Church-an embryonic presbytery, synod and assembly. He was watchful against the slightest movements in the direction of an episcopacy. Power could be put into the hands of a single individual only for extraordinary purposes, and as soon as the circumstances changed the power must lapse back to the principal.

He held to the official parity of elders and preachers. During his day this was a topic of live debate. Some thought that the preacher held an official rank above the ruling elder-making a kind of house of lords in the Church. He participated in this discussion, and did yeoman’s service in making triumphant the official equality of teaching elder, or preacher, and the ruling elder. They were officers of the same rank. They had the same functions. Each was a teacher. Each was a ruler. It was the stated business of the preacher to expound and instruct in the gospel. The elder was to preach as occasion called for it, but it was not his set employment. Each was to rule, but conjointly in the session and in other courts. No power of government vested in the preacher as preacher. He was entitled to “double honor” only because he was supposed to exercise the twin functions of his office, preaching and ruling, in a manner especially praiseworthy. He denied that the office of preacher included the office of elder as the higher includes the lower. The office is one, the functions are two, preaching and ruling; each holder of the office may exercise both its functions. (George A. Blackburn, comp. and ed., The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D. L.L.D., Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1916, pp. 218-219).

As a former church planter and as a chaplain in the Army, I had the powers of an evangelist given to me by presbytery for the purpose of holding the Lord’s Supper. Normally, that sacrament is under the authority of the session. Yet, believers in a mission church should be permitted to partake of the sacraments even before a session has been elected and installed. Also, mission churches in foreign countries where churches do not already exist require that those missionaries be clothed with the powers of an evangelist. Girardeau struck the right balance when he noted that as soon as the circumstances changed that required the office, then the power “must lapse back to the principal”—the presbytery. Thus, the powers given to evangelists are extraordinary and temporary. 

That is one function of an evangelist. Another function is that which Bunyan writes about in Pilgrim’s Progress. I wonder how many of those Presbyterian or Reformed ministers opposed to Vanguard’s view of evangelists have read Bunyan’s great book and never noticed that he describes the person who awakened Christian with the message of the gospel as The Evangelist. John Gifford was the person about whom Bunyan wrote. Gifford had been a major in the Royalist army fighting against Parliament’s army at a battle fought at Maidstone in Kent on June1, 1648 when he was captured, taken as a prisoner, and awaited the gallows. His sister visited him the night before his execution and helped him escape to Bedford. His life in Bedford was a public disgrace and he was soon reduced to poverty and was on the verge of suicide. It was at that point that Gifford, clothed with rags and a burden on his back, began to cry out to God, “What must I do to be saved?” He came under the power of the truth and his burden was lifted. His conversion soon became known and Gifford aligned himself with the Puritans against whom he had earlier fought. He soon became a minister in Bedford and John Bunyan was awakened through his evangelical sermons. Gifford was the ‘evangelist’ who ministered to Bunyan and through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to millions since then. So, what is an evangelist? He is an elder who is especially gifted and capable of evangelizing the lost. We need more such evangelists in our day.    

Vanguard News: Over the past few weeks, I have talked with several people in various churches who have expressed these words to me: “I do not see any other option for our church except Vanguard Presbytery.” I know how they feel. If there were other options, we would not have started Vanguard. I could not go into a denomination that would take possession of the church property and make it virtually impossible to ever leave with the property. I could not go into a denomination that is only a few years behind the liberal progression of the denomination I left. I could not stay in the denomination where I was and watch it going more and more woke with each passing day. For me, there were only two choices—either start a new denomination based on Scripture or become independent. For some people, the latter option is attractive because they say, “Presbyterianism does not work.” I disagree and will write more about that position next week. It is not that Presbyterianism has been tried and found wanting. Rather true Scriptural Presbyterianism has scarcely ever been tried. As I wrote last week, we cannot reverse engineer a flawed design of a denomination and expect to come up with a good model. What we must do is scrap everything except the Scripture alone and let the Bible gives us the true pattern. If we do that (which Vanguard is striving to do), Presbyterianism will not be a failed ecclesiastical system. It will work where sincere officers and members strive together to follow the Scripture. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Visit us at:

Mail any contributions to:

Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540 

 We the Members and Officers of Vanguard Presbyterian Church, in order to form a more perfect Denomination, govern with Scriptural justice, ensure ecclesiastical Tranquility, provide for the defense of the Faith, propagate the Gospel, evangelize the Lost, pray for Revival, uphold the Scriptural view of Creation, promote Scriptural Sexuality and Purity, and secure the Blessings of Liberty in Christ to ourselves and our children, do establish this Constitution for Vanguard Presbyterian Church. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: