Charles Spurgeon, a Reformed Baptist known as the “prince of preachers” in the 19th century, remains revered.
Known especially for his devotional writings, he currently ranks in the top 100 best-sellers of Christian literature on Amazon.com.
Tom Nettles, a professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that contemporary fascination with Spurgeon is due to “his commitment to gospel-centered preaching, belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and the sheer success of his ministry.”
In every sermon, no matter what the text, he incorporated a simple explanation of the way of salvation. For all these reasons, Spurgeon is an icon within neo-Reformed circles.
But would a reincarnated Spurgeon actually be welcomed at Mars Hill Church in Seattle or Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, high-profile congregations within the neo-Reformed Calvinist resurgence?
As Jonathan Merritt noted in a Religion News Service column, the “prince of preachers” criticized capitalism.
He favored government welfare policies to alleviate poverty. And he denounced Christian participation in war.
In contrast to the full-throated defense of just war emanating from many neo-Reformed pulpits, Spurgeon consistently spoke out against redemptive violence.
“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.”
He spoke on peace and war in the inaugural address of the 1880 Conference of the Pastors College.
In the address, titled “The Sword and the Trowel,” Spurgeon said, “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 Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; 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,” Spurgeon declared in a Dec. 26, 1858, sermon.
And if you have a spare 48 minutes, listen to this rendition of Spurgeon’s 1859 sermon titled, “War! War! War!” If you just want to skim it, click here for the full text. More Spurgeon quotes are available here.
Nettles’ biography of Spurgeon, “Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” features blurbs from John Piper, David Dockery and others from top neo-Reformed seminaries. Al Mohler calls him “a mountain – a massive figure on the evangelical landscape.”
But none of the endorsements mentions Spurgeon’s view of war (though Nettles does in interviews).
And the few evangelicals who do in other contexts, like those who post on the online discussion forum Baptist Board, are not impressed.
“I have a real problem with anyone, Spurgeon, or anyone else who never served in the armed forces, or was in combat, commenting about the merits or lack thereof of war,” one writes.
And another, “War is necessary because there is evil in the world. Jesus came the first time in peace. The next time, He will be riding a white horse leading an army of His saints.”
Like so many historical figures, Spurgeon violates our categories and sensibilities.
Don’t conservative politics, a high view of Scripture and redemptive violence inherently belong together? Charles Spurgeon would beg to differ.
The very elements that make him so attractive to evangelicals – his commitment to evangelism, gospel-centered preaching and Scripture – formed the very foundation of his Christian pacifism.
David Swartz is associate professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of “Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly. You can follow him on Twitter @davidrswartz.