Were it not for a tragic case of kidney failure in 1892, the celebrated Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon would have turned 186 last January. Rumors of his death have, however, been greatly exaggerated: His remains are buried in London’s West Norwood Cemetery, but his influence lives on. Today, Spurgeon’s best-known religious writings still outsell most new releases on the subject, and his insights are regularly plagiarized by modern preachers (like myself). 129 years after his death, the “Prince of Preachers” is still a rock star – at least among Protestants. One area in which his remarkable legacy has unfortunately not taken hold, however, is politics. Spurgeon was a political maverick. Contemporary Christians should learn from his example.
“Charles Spurgeon was arguably one of the foremost exemplars of evangelical activism in his day,” writes Alex DiPrima:
“By 1884, Spurgeon had pioneered 66 benevolent ministries through his local church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, located in the heart of south London. These ministries included, among others, a pastor’s training college, two orphanages, a ministry to needy widows, a clothing bank, a ministry to policemen, an outreach to prostitutes, a ministry to the blind and a host of children’s ministries.”
In this sense, Spurgeon was a forerunner of the large scale, multifaceted social ministries that operate out of many churches today. This is fascinating in itself, but barely scratches the surface of the prince of preachers’ unique breed of Christian social engagement. Although the Metropolitan Tabernacle engaged in a superhuman degree of voluntary social activism, they were equally oriented towards enacting broader social reforms. Spurgeon did not content himself with bankrolling almshouses. He wanted to reform the goings-on of the state houses.
“Were it not for the religious questions involved we should not concern ourselves to any great extent with the doings of the polling booths,” he said on one oft-quoted occasion. But Spurgeon saw most political questions as religious questions: “We are now called upon to exercise one of the privileges and duties which go with liberty, let no man be neglectful in it,” he clarified elsewhere. “Every God fearing man should give his vote with as much devotion as he prays.”
In a sermon to the Metropolitan tabernacle, he called his congregants to action:
“Let us whenever we shall have the opportunity of using the right of voting, use it as in the sight of Almighty God, knowing that for everything we shall be brought into account, and for that amongst the rest, seeing that we are entrusted with it. And let us remember that we are our own governors, to a great degree, and that if at the next election we should choose wrong governors we shall have nobody to blame but ourselves, however wrongly they may afterwards act, unless we exercise all prudence and prayer to Almighty God to direct our hearts to a right choice in this matter.”
He often worked through political issues within the pages of The Sword and Trowel, a monthly magazine published under his banner. “His commentary on political issues was generally limited to matters that touched upon religious concerns,” DiPrima continues:
“Such as the disestablishment of the state church (which he supported), the question of Irish Home Rule (which he opposed) and British foreign policy (Spurgeon was not a pure pacifist, but was extremely negative about war). Spurgeon encouraged his members to vote in elections and was open about his own allegiance to the Liberal Party.”
“I am as good a Liberal as any man living,” he quipped, sometimes publicly endorsing the policies of Prime Minister William Gladstone. “Spurgeon opposed the elite aristocracy of the Conservative Party,” writes one of his nameless biographers, “and in the election of 1880 distributed so many political leaflets in South London that he single-handedly swung the election in favor of the Liberals.”
His activism was not simply partisanism, though. At the heart of Spurgeon’s seemingly relentless engagement with the social issues of his day was a passion to see the government of England reflect the governing principles of Christ.
“We believe that national peace, and the security of our great cities, can only be guaranteed for a long future, by the recognition of the religion of Jesus Christ, and the wider spread of its principles,” he wrote in The Sword and Trowel. “Let the spirit, the essence, the governing power of our holy faith predominate, and the work is done.”
This was not mere “Our Country Needs To Come Back To God!” rhetoric, a la the mostly decorative religious trappings of the Christian Right. Spurgeon’s project of political Christianization applied directly to the most pressing political issues of his day.
In an ironic twist, Spurgeon has become a darling of the political right because he condemned revolutionary attempts to dismantle the social order: “Would you desire reigns of terror here, as they had in France?” he warned. “Do you wish to see all society shattered and men wandering like monster icebergs on the sea, dashing against each other and being at last utterly destroyed?”
“German rationalism which has ripened into Socialism may yet pollute the mass of mankind and lead them to overturn the foundations of society,” he continued in another venue. “Then ‘advanced principles’ will hold carnival and free thought [i.e., atheism] will riot with the vice and blood which were years ago the insignia of ‘the age of reason.”
If his rhetoric sounds overheated, the succeeding years bore him out. While the Soviet Empire remains the most prominent whipping boy for pundits warning about the dangers of “Statism,” Spurgeon’s warning is likewise applicable to authoritarian regimes propped up by canned religious rhetoric – a la the “Patriotic Christianity” of Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s mobilization of Catholic voters. “Deadly principles are abroad,” Spurgeon foreboded, “and certain ministers are spreading them.”
Spurgeon would likely have seen movements like these as extensions – however extreme – of the aggressive social engineering toward which the would-be clergy and culture-makers of his day aspired. In countless addresses, Spurgeon savaged the new “refined” Christianity. Still, Spurgeon’s disdain for the arrogance of 19th century social engineering should not be taken as evidence that he was somehow in thrall to “the glories of the free market.” Spurgeon would not have landed John MacArthur’s gig at The Daily Wire.
To understand the social ministry of Spurgeon, you have to understand the context in which he worked. As the Victorian preacher took part in both voluntary activism and political campaigning, he worked arm in arm with several of his generation’s most infamous social reformers. He was, for example, associated with his good friend Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, reviled in his day by the capitalist class for his lifelong campaign to break workers – especially children – free from servility through the introduction of robust labor protections. Perhaps most noteworthy was Spurgeon’s association with John Ruskin, the legendary Victorian socialist.
As Eric W. Hayden chronicled in a 1991 issue of the Christian History magazine, “Ruskin regularly attended Spurgeon’s Surrey Gardens Music Hall services.” He “gave Spurgeon a complete set of Modern Painters which the preacher annotated and frequently quoted,” and “when The Metropolitan Tabernacle was being built, Ruskin contributed £100, a considerable sum in those days.” Ruskin namedrops Spurgeon in a letter to his friend Reverend Malleson, reminiscing about “Mr. Spurgeon, under whom I sat with much edification for a year or two.” We see small glimpses of their friendship in the playful letters they would send to each other, as well as the litany of stories recorded in Spurgeon’s autobiography.
“So long as politics exist, there will be Christian politicking. Exemplars like Spurgeon can guide us a long way towards getting Christian politicking right.”
During Ruskin’s lengthy period of unbelief, he sometimes called on Spurgeon with the express purpose of haranguing him, but Ruskin famously returned to the faith during his twilight years. The precise reason for his prodigal return is unclear, but given the established relationship between the two men and the remarkable similarities between late-phase Ruskin’s fundamentalist faith and late-phase Spurgeon’s role in the Downgrade Controversy (a small-scale civil war between theological conservatives and theological liberals taking place within the Baptist Union at the height of the Victorian era), it is entirely possible that Spurgeon played a role in shepherding Ruskin back into orthodoxy. In 1886, six years before the death of his friend, Ruskin again shared the creed of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. “The God who made earth and its creatures, took at a certain time upon the earth, the flesh and form of man,” he wrote in his autobiography:
“He in that flesh sustained the pain and died the death of the creature He had made; rose again after death into glorious human life, and when the date of the human race is ended, will return in visible human form, and render to every man according to his work. Christianity is the belief in, and love of, God thus manifested. Anything less than this, the mere acceptance of the sayings of Christ, or assertion of any less than divine power in His Being, may be, for aught I know, enough for virtue, peace, and safety; but they do not make people Christians.”
Through everything, the two men drew inspiration from one another, which is readily apparent when reading both the sermons of Spurgeon and the moral and political lectures of Ruskin. Sometimes that inspiration was implicit, as when Ruskin cribbed Spurgeon’s Calvinistic idiom to explain the significance of beauty in public architecture, “You show me what you like, and I’ll show you what you are.” In other cases, it was explicit, such as Spurgeon’s direct appropriation of Ruskin’s musings on moral development in an issue of The Sword And Trowel. It is impossible to gauge the precise degree of Ruskin’s influence over Spurgeon’s social thought, but one thing is fairly clear: Spurgeon came to agree with Ruskin’s frontal assault on capitalism.
“Lay not out your life for gathering wealth,” he wrote in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel. “If you accumulate either money or raiment, your treasures will be liable to ‘moth and rust,’ and of both you may be deprived by dishonest men.” Accumulating more wealth than was necessary to live comfortably was a fool’s errand. “To live for the sake of growing rich is a gilded death in life.”
The pursuit of excess wealth, Spurgeon preached, was spiritual suicide:
“Care to get money, covetousness, trickery, and sins which come from hasting to be rich, or else pride, luxury, oppression, and other sins which come of having obtained wealth, prevent the man from being useful in religious matters, or even sincere to himself, ‘and becometh unfruitful.’ He keeps his profession. He occupies his place, but his religion does not grow, in fact, it shows sad signs of being choked and checked by worldliness. The leaf of outward religiousness is there, but there is no dew on it. The ear of promised fruit is there, but there are no kernels in it. The weeds have outgrown the wheat and smothered it. We cannot grow thorn and corn at the same time. The attempt is fatal to a harvest for Jesus. See how wealth is here associated with care, deceitfulness, and unfruitfulness. It is a thing to be handled with care. Why are men so eager to make their thornbrake more dense with briars? Would not a good husbandman root out the thorns and brambles? Should we not, as much as possible, keep free from the care to get, to preserve, to increase, and to hoard worldly riches? Our heavenly Father will see that we have enough. Why do we fret about earthly things? We cannot give our minds to these things and to the kingdom also.”
Spurgeon’s invective against the hoarding of capital wasn’t just personal advice for individual Christians. It was a broadside against England’s prevailing economic culture. An epidemic of capital hoarding had turned Victorian London into a political powder keg. Class warfare, inflicted on the laborer by the owner class, often boiled over into violence, with the British government typically coming to the aid of the factory owners. “It would greatly tend to allay all feeling of popular discontent, if all employers acted as true Christians should in the matter of wages,” he wrote, again in The Sword and Trowel:
“It cannot be just and equal to give a man a pittance upon which he can barely exist, and which compels him to live in a hole unfit for a dog or a horse. I may be a heathen and grind the faces of the poor, but a Christian I cannot be. A personal, independent, and upright course of action on this point, on the part of every follower of the Lord Jesus, would go far to influence other employers, and lay the ax at the root of much of the evil which is leavening the community. This much being done, the work has only begun; for much is needed on the worker’s side.”
At times, his passion to see the government of England reflect the governing principles of Christ dragged him in the wrong direction: “I should not allow a Mormonite to be Judge in the Divorce Court, nor a Quaker to be Commissioner of Oaths, nor an atheist to be Chaplain to the House of Commons; and, for the same reason, I would not have a Roman Catholic, sworn to allegiance to the Pope, to be Viceroy of India,” he once wrote in a letter to his friend J.S. Watts.
But the same principles that occasionally steered him towards exclusionism often moved him to transcend his generation’s hyper-individualistic indifference toward the sufferings of the poor. “Spurgeon was pro-life at every stage of human development,” his nameless biographer continues. “He spoke harshly against the evils of abortion (which he called “infanticide”).” Tom Nettles chronicles that “Spurgeon preached in support of making government low-income housing projects more humane and encouraged Christians to vote for the governmental alleviation of poverty.” He drew the ire of conservatives by advocating for “civil rights for minorities,” even bankrolling “the safe passage, education and life-long missionary work of Thomas L. Johnson—a former slave from Virginia.”
Most startling was his marked opposition to British imperialism. “What pride flushes the patriot’s cheek when he remembers that his nation can murder faster than any other people,” Spurgeon proclaimed in an 1871 Christmas Eve sermon. “Ah, foolish generation, ye are groping in the flames of hell to find your heaven, raking amid blood and bones for the foul thing which ye call glory. Killing is not the path to prosperity; huge armaments are a curse to the nation itself as well as to its neighbours.”
“Christ’s church hath been also miserably befooled; for this I will assert, and prove too, that the progress of the arms of a Christian nation is not the progress of Christianity,” he declared elsewhere:
“The Christian soldier hath no gun and no sword, for he fighteth not with men. It is with ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’ that he fights, and with other principalities and powers than with those that sit on thrones and hold sceptres in their hands.”
At times, his disdain for imperialism extended to a full-throated disdain for warfare in general – at least when combat is preventable: “The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army,” he lamented in an earlier sermon. “Yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel.” Thus, he prescribed a solution:
“I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter.”
“The only war he fully justified was the American Civil War because he believed so strongly in the cause of freeing slaves,” writes Tom Nettles. “It even caused some Southerners in America to boycott his books.”
That’s an understatement, actually. When news spread that the outspoken abolitionist Spurgeon was considering a lecture tour in the United States, a mob in Montgomery, Alabama made preparations to introduce him to his maker:
“Last Saturday, we devoted to the ames a large number of copies of Spurgeon’s sermons. . . . We trust that the works of the greasy cockney vociferator may receive the same treatment throughout the South. And if the pharisaical author should ever show himself in these parts, we trust that a stout cord may speedily find its way around his eloquent throat.”
Even now, in my current residence of North Carolina, a columnist at the Weekly Raleigh Register wrote that “anyone selling Spurgeon’s sermons in Raleigh should be arrested and charged with ‘circulating incendiary publications.”
Spurgeon’s contrarian stands won him a host of enemies, but he was undeterred. “Too many Christians must be respectable, they must vote in the majority,” he decried those who feared departing from the mainstream on issues like imperialism or slavery:
“I fear that many of you professors would not lose a situation for Christ. Some of you could not lose a shilling a week of extra pay for the Lord. Ah me, this is a miserable age! Go with a lancet throughout these Isles, and you could not get enough martyrblood to fill a thimble. Backbones are scarce, and grit is a rare article. Men do not care to suffer for Christ; but they must be respectable, they must vote in the majority, they must go with the committee, and be thought well of for their charity. As to standing up and standing out for Christ, it is looked upon as an eccentricity, or worse. Today if a young man proposed to sacrifice his position for Christ’s sake, father, and mother, and friends would all say: ‘Do not think of such a thing. Be prudent. Do not throw away your chance.’ Once men could die for conscience sake: but conscience is nowadays viewed as an ugly thing, expensive and hampering. No doubt many advised Moses to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but he steadily refused. He deliberately divested himself of his rank that he might be numbered with the down-trodden people of God.”
Today, Spurgeon feels like a space alien. We have politically engaged clergymen, yes, but mostly of the Robert Jeffress/Al Sharpton mold: Republican or Democratic hirelings, seemingly pre-programmed to reverse-engineer theological justifications for whatever the party-line happens to be at any given moment. The result is that Christianity, the faith that has driven most of American politics for most of American history, feels increasingly like a captive of the two major political parties, but mostly the one with the elephant.
In a context like ours, then, the political witness of Spurgeon is a welcome punch in the mouth, a dose of sobriety. So long as politics exist, there will be Christian politicking. Exemplars like Spurgeon can guide us a long way towards getting Christian politicking right.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.
James G Hanink
Thanks, Ryan, for another highly instructive piece. I’m sending it to a friend who is a Ruskin scholar. Now…getting back to your first sentence. It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Or the reverse.