“Not excepting Garrison himself”: Charles Spurgeon’s Abolitionism

I found out about Charles Spurgeon’s outspoken and anti-slavery stance in recent years, due particularly the work of Dr. Christian George:

George does a great job describing Spurgeon’s overall anti-slavery stance, in particular, the violent reaction (including threats and book-burning) that ensued throughout the South. I wanted to find the context for the original quote, so I went digging.

In one article, George cites “Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 331,” and Pike devotes a whole chapter to “Mr. Spurgeon and the Americans,” including the saga over slavery. Pike was the one who pointed me to the original source in the Christian Watchman and Reflector:

The “thunderbolt,” or, as the author himself regarded it, the “red-hot letter,” duly appeared in The Watchman and Reflector, and had the slave-holders been actually attacked with heated shots the excitement could hardly have been greater (331).

I highly recommend reading George’s articles for a broad exploration of this incident, including articles and sources from several newspapers at the time. This article explores a more focused view: Spurgeon and slavery as reported in the Christian Watchman and Reflector.

1859 – “plainness and pungency”

On March 10, 1859, the Watchman and Reflector published a short article, “The Courier and Mr. Spurgeon” (original pdf here). A paper in London had hinted at “Mr. Spurgeon’s probable treatment of slavery in his visit to this country [America]” and an American paper called the Courier threatened potential violence: “We do not pretend to say what might occur to brother Spurgeon, if he should count too much upon the liberties of fraternal relations in his efforts to stir us up on slavery. But we doubt very much whether our people would hear him as indifferently as they do the railings of our own anti-slavery volunteer orators.” The editors of the Watchman and Reflector condemned the Courier for “inviting mob-law against the preacher,” and replied: “we presume the London preacher will speak with plainness and pungency of any sin the Bible condemns, even if, like Paul at Ephesus, it may excite commotion among the silversmiths or cotton-merchants.”

On June 23, 1859, the Watchman and Reflector published some “Familiar Letters from Europe” (original pdf here). A correspondent from Europe, one “W.C.C.,” visited London and heard Spurgeon preach. Afterward, they “sat awhile with him in his vestry, and enjoyed a very pleasant conversation with him. Socially, he is exceedingly agreeable. He told us how negotiations failed, which contemplated his visiting America, and uttered the strongest expression of abhorrence to slavery that we ever heard from human lips, not excepting Garrison himself.

1860 – “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere”

As news of Spurgeon’s views on slavery began to leak, the reaction and speculation grew steadily stronger, until Spurgeon finally penned his “red-hot letter” to be published in the Watchman and Reflector. This letter is the source of one of his most well-known quotes on slavery:

I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. Whenever one has called upon me, I have considered it my duty to express my detestation of his wickedness, and would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church, or into any sort of friendship, as a manstealer.

The full text of the letter can be found here: Spurgeon’s “Red-Hot Letter” on American Slavery.

The letter was subsequently reprinted in full in a number of other newspapers, including The Liberator (see pdf here).

Spurgeon’s 4th Letter: “The dangers of nations lie in their sins”

Spurgeon followed up on this in his fourth official letter to the Christian Watchman and Reflector, on “The Crisis now in Europe and America”: 

“The dangers of nations lie in their sins, and both the old country and the new have a full measure of in­iquity to answer for. Other nations may go unpun­ished because they have not our light and knowl­edge, and therefore God winketh at their sins of ig­norance, but of us the Lord may well say, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; there­fore I will punish you for your iniquities.” Surely you are not so blind a lover of your republic as to hold her guiltless, while before the entire world she scourges her helpless captives, and makes merchan­dize of the flesh of men. No, my friends, we may alike expect the chastening of the Lord upon our fellow-citizens; for the lands are defiled by our in­iquity against God and the oppression of men.”

“Mr. Spurgeon will do no good by the agitation of this question”

Predictably, Spurgeon’s “red-hot letter” set off a flurry of reactions, including in the Watchman and Reflector itself. The first came on March 22, from a reader in Alabama (original pdf here). “I had fondly hoped for much enjoyment from the perusal of Mr. Spurgeon’s letters, which are to be contributed to your columns; but judging from the sentiments and feelings of his second letter, which reached me last week, I fear I shall be doomed to disappointment.” “We are on the verge of a revolution” the writer goes on, “Volunteer companies are being organized and armed throughout the entire South.” Further, he had heard that there were some in England planning to fan the flames “in the hope thereby of producing a dissolution in the Union.” He hopes “Mr. S will have the good sense and Christian modesty to let alone the agitation of a subject upon which too much has already been said… With all due respect for Mr. Spurgeon as a theologian and successful preacher, I am free to say, he will do no good, but much evil by the agitation of the slavery question.”

Scotch Ministers

Apparently two Scottish ministers, “Drs. Candish and Guthrie” expressed similar sentiments as Spurgeon (original pdf here). It was reported that they made the toast: “The next negro insurrection, may it be successful.” The Watchman and Reflector reprinted an article from the Christian Intelligencer complaining that “the effects of immediate emancipation would be worse to the slave even than to the master.” The editors of the Watchman and Reflector find it a sorry situation that one can be more condemned for speaking out against slavery than for it.

“A Vindictiveness Approaching to Malignity”

On June 7, the editors published a letter from James B. Taylor in Richmond Virginia on “The Irrepressible Conflict: A Southern View” (original pdf here). They introduce his letter by saying, “His views diverge from ours almost as widely as the Poles, but it is only by temperate discussion in a Christian spirit that differences of opinion can be reconciled.” The letter is filled with positive portrayals of Southern slavery. Taylor portrays slaves in the south as better treated than freedmen in the north: “I am greatly mistaken, if the black man in the South is not, physically, intellectually, socially and religiously, elevated many degrees above his brother at the North.” He goes on: “the truest friends of the blacks are found in the southern countries, and a more fearful evil could not befall them, than the immediate abolition of slavery, scattering the emancipated ones among the whites of the North.” He laments the split between Northern and Southern Baptists over slavery, then turns to Spurgeon. “This leads me to refer to the position taken by Mr. Spurgeon on this subject, induced manifestly by some appeal from this side of the water. There is, it seems to me, a vindictiveness approaching to malignity in his allusion to slaveholders, so little in keeping with the genius of the Gospel.” He laments that Spurgeon would praise John brown, “an infidel!” Taylor hopes that God will “still the tumult of the people, and preserve this American people, one and indivisible.”

Given that many in the south burned Spurgeon’s sermons after his letter was published, it is not surprising to read such vehement rejection from a Southern reader.

“It Has Not Convinced Us”

In an article published on June 21, 1860 (original pdf here), the editors of the Watchman and Reflector call James Taylor on his false representation of southern slavery. They indicate that they have read James Taylor’s letter two or three times, “but it has not convinced us. What seems to our brother too clear to be called in question, seems to us accordant neither with reason, nor scripture, nor fact. He may reasonably doubt our ability to discuss matters with which we have little practical acquaintance. We must doubt, in turn, the clearsighted impartiality of a southern mind in discerning moral issues which involve so many pecuniary and social interests. If the northern conscience tends to fanaticism, from want of a through knowledge of slavery as it is, the southern conscience must tend to blindness and insensibility, from the bias of personal interests. The vender of opium, or of intoxicating drinks, who is accumulating a fortune, does not readily discern the unlawful nature of the traffic.” The editors then dismantle his letter point by point with reasoned arguments. They particularly address the issue of John Brown: “Our brother, too, ought to know that we at the North, and Mr. Spurgeon and the Englishmen in general, look on the character of John Brown in quite another light from his. If we accepted Romish testimony against Luther, we must regard him as a lying, profane, and licentious reprobate… And, if we accepted the testimony of one or two southern men (who reported conversations in his cell,) against John Brown, we should be compelled to believe him an infidel. But we have learned to distrust the testimony of inimical parties, and have no more faith in the assertions of these men than in the assertions of the Romish traducers of Luther… If Mr. Spurgeon believed that John brown ever used such language as our brother quotes, (taken, we believe from eh report of a Methodist clergyman,) he would have no kind words to say of his Christian character. But he believes them as little as he credits Mary’s account of her interviews with John Knox.”

1861 – “the most beautiful and eloquent prayer”

The American Civil War officially began in April 1861. On June 27, an account appeared in the Watchman and Reflector from a correspondent who visited a prayer meeting and heard Spurgeon pray regarding the war: “A gentleman informs me… that he heard a prayer by Rev. Mr. Spurgeon… in favor of President Lincoln and the cause of the North, which he characterizes as the most beautiful and powerful prayer he ever heard in his life. The whole audience was moved to tears, and even sobbed aloud at the eloquent preacher’s appeals to God and to civilized mankind in aid of so holy and so righteous a cause as that in which the North is engaged.” Spurgeon’s anti-slavery stance was not limited to his letters or private conversations–it infused even the public life and corporate prayer time of at the London tabernacle.

1862 – When principled non-violence meets abolition

After the Civil war had progressed for several months, but the slaves had not been emancipated, Spurgeon undertook to write again to the Watchman and Reflector. This letter was perhaps an even bigger bombshell than his “red-hot” letter, in that it enflamed the north as much as the south.

Many in Britain thought that the war would result in emancipation, but the North had not done so. Spurgeon: “The universal conviction in England is, that the leaders of your government care nothing about slavery, and that they make you fight for empire and not for freedom… It is no one’s business here which of you conquers, as long as slavery is not at issue.”  This came at a time when there were growing tensions between the north and England. The “Trent Affair” had occurred in November 1861, and many in England had begun to view the North as adversaries, and not allies. Spurgeon’s is a fascinating window into how a preacher and the people he represented viewed the American Civil War from across the pond. “Halting between two opinions has ruined the cause. The friends of Africa are sick at heart. Your government has fooled you.” “We both seem to be drifting most ridiculously, but most lamentably from our proper positions. Our place is at your side in a great moral conflict, yours it is to make that conflict moral.” Spurgeon’s purpose in the whole letter is twofold: to encourage the North toward emancipation, and to assuage the growing hostilities between the North and England. The whole letter is incredible, and the full text will be made available soon.

The reaction to this letter was enormous, with no less than thirteen letters received and printed, including an immediate response from the editors of the Watchman and Reflector themselves. This whole saga is worthy of its own focused treatment, as a study in the motivations and strategies of the North and the relationship between the war and slavery.

Conclusion

It is fascinating to read the reactions provoked by Spurgeon’s letter. It is amazing to read in real time the debates between Northern anti-slavery Southern pro-slavery Baptists. It is encouraging to know that there were Christians in that time who stood firmly against slavery, and expressed their opposition clearly and courageously. Spurgeon is hero of mine for that reason, and even though the editors of the Watchman and Reflector sometimes seem to try to toe a moderate line, they should also be commended for giving voice to sentiments like Spurgeon’s.

(Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash)

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The Edwardseans and Immediatism

From Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 622:

“New England Congregationalism showed a moral intensity that could be traced back to Edwardseanism. ‘It is only when we have in hand the puzzle piece of the ethics of disinterested benevolence,’ write Sweeney and Guelzo, that we can grasp ‘the fiery urgency of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. Indeed, it was on the topic of slavery that the Edwardseans became known for their radicalism. By 1771, [Samuel] Hopkins was preaching against the slave trade. By 1773, he was attacking slavery itself. Hopkins’s moral radicalism and theological intransigence prepared him to be the preacher of abolition in Newport, Rhode Island—the epicenter of the American slave trade. He won a following in among African Americans in Newport, as well as enduring hostility from slave ship owners. For Hopkins, slavery was a flagrant offense against benevolence and the result of a ‘most criminal, contracted selfishness.’ The only remedy was immediate emancipation, as Hopkins argued in A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (1776). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote in The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of Slavery (1791) that ‘I conceive it [the slave trade] to be unjust in itself’ and ‘contrary to every principle of justice and humanity.’ Nathanael Emmons also denounced slavery from the pulpit. ‘Immediatism’—the demand for immediate, unconditional emancipation of all slaves, rather than gradual or partial solutions—was the socio-political correlate of Hopkins’s view of conversion and his call for ‘immediate repentance.’”

(Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash)

“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Last year I did a fresh reading of the book of Philemon for a hermeneutics class at Bethlehem College & Seminary and was struck by how masterfully Paul orchestrated the situation in order to display the power of the gospel to transform the heart of a slave-owner such that he would free his former slave while his whole house-church and all  of Paul’s companions looked on.

Or so I thought. Apparently, not everyone has read the book of Philemon this way.

R.L. Dabney, in his A Defense of Virginia and the South has a chapter on the “New Testament Argument” for slavery, and within it, a section on “Philemon and Onesimus” (176–185). For Dabney, “the Epistle of Philemon is peculiarly instructive and convincing as to the moral character of slavery. This Abolitionists betray, by the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which they resort in the vain attempt to evade its inferences” (176). Indeed, “such are the wretched quibblings by which abolitionism seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word” (185).

To the contrary–I hope to demonstrate that it is Dabney who has cleverly wriggled out of the clear inferences of this epistle.

The main verses that I wish to highlight are 15–16:

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν, μάλιστα ἐμοί, πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ.

In particular, note carefully the phrase in verse 16:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved

When I read this verse in a “simple” “straightforward” manner this verse says that Paul is urging Philemon to liberate Onesimus: “no longer as a slave.”

So how does Dabney (and others) get around this verse? By adding some words to their translation and interpretation. He starts by quoting at length “the judicious Dr. Thomas Scott” who was himself “a declared enemy of slavery.” Scott commented on verse 16 with this:

“In this case he knew that Philemon would no longer consider Onesimus merely as a slave, but view him as ‘above a slave, even a brother beloved” (179).

Note the addition: the verse says “no longer as a slave”; Scott’s paraphrase is “no longer merely as a slave.”  See how much hangs on even a single word. That one word–“merely”–is the difference between slavery and freedom!

Dabney knew that some had found in this epistle an argument against slavery. They “learn that he was manumitted by the letter of Paul; so that they find here, not a justification of the slaveholder [which Dabney has found], but an implied rebuke of slavery… The ground claimed for the latter position is, v. 16” (184).

After relying on Scott earlier, Dabney does the same thing. He adds words to text of Scripture in order to suit his favored interpretation:

“Now the obvious sense of these words is, that Philemon should now receive Onesimus back, not as a slave only, but as both a slave and Christian brother.”

I must confess, the sense is not “obvious” to me at all; in fact, precisely the opposite. Dabney’s reconstruction has no basis the original text of Scripture itself:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved
not as a slave [only] but as [both] —— a slave [and] a brother [Christian]

You should know that Greek has a way of saying “not onlybut also Y.” In fact, it does this pretty regularly. The phrase is Greek is “οὐ μόνον X ἀλλὰ καὶ Y.” It appears in a number of verses:

Matthew 21:21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.

John 5:18 Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

This combination appears dozens of times in the NT, and Paul uses it quite frequently:

Romans 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

2 Corinthians 7:7 and not only by his coming, but also by the [a]consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.

Ephesians 1:21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Philippians 2:27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.

1 Thessalonians 1:5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.

(There are many more; see also: Rom 4:12, 4:16, 5:3, 5:11, 8:23, 9:10, 9:24, 13:5, 16:4; 2 Cor 8:10; 8:19; 8:21, 9:12; 1 Thess 1:8, 1 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 5:13; 2 Tim 2:20; 4:8)

Clearly, Paul has resources in the Greek language for saying “not only X but also Y.” If he had wished to urge Philemon to receive Onesimus “not only as a slave but also as a beloved brother” he could easily have said that. He says it all the time elsewhere; but that is emphatically not what he says. He says–unambiguously–that Philemon is not to receive him as a slave any more — that relationship has been dissolved by the power of the gospel of King Jesus — but instead is to receive him as he would receive Paul himself (v. 17), as a beloved brother.

Paul uses this particular constructions two other places in his epistles (“οὐκέτι X ἀλλά Y” — “no longer X but Y”):

Galatians 4:6–7 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

How ironic (and sad) that the two other places Paul uses the construction speak of our own deliverance from slavery (Gal 4) and our reconciliation with God and our fellow man which crosses ethnic barriers and walls of hostility (Eph 2). If we treated these passages the way Dabney (and others) treat Philemon 16, we would subvert the central message of the gospel itself.

Those who sought to defend slavery from the Bible did not simply read the text in a “straightforward manner.” In at least this case, they had to resort to adding to the words of scripture to make it mean precisely the opposite of what it actually says. Such Scripture-twisting, and the fruit that resulted from it, is abominable and deserves a verdict like this:

“the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which he resorts in the vain attempt to evade its inferences; the wretched quibblings by which he seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word.”