“Better every white man, woman and child be murdered in the South and a thousand Unions be dissolved, than human slavery be allowed to exist in peace and quietness in the Southern States of the American Union.”
On July 6, 1860, the Richmond Enquirer, of Virginia, cited a lecture by Charles Spurgeon which allegedly included the above quote. Did Spurgeon really say that?! To try to answer that question, we need to understand Spurgeon’s history of misrepresentation in various newspapers, specifically the contested second-hand accounts of his views of slavery, as well as the South’s intense bias against him.
Over the years, Spurgeon was constantly subjected to public speculation and outright falsehood about his life, beliefs, and even quotes that he had supposedly made.
On December 9, 1858, the Watchman and Reflector included this report: “It has been stated, we hear, that this gentleman lives in extravagant style, in a magnificent mansion, with troops of servants, and a coach and I do not know how many richly caparisoned steeds, and is driven about London, and to church, by a liveried coachman whose hat is ornamented with a cockade. This story bears on its face the very marks of untruth, but I am happy to be able to state that it is altogether false…Mr. S was in no way given to extravagance in his household arrangements… he has no coach, generally going afoot or in public conveyances.”
In 1859, the New York Waverly claimed that Spurgeon was readying his sermons “Corrected and Revised by himself expressly and exclusively for the New York Waverley.”
Spurgeon wrote several letters, to the Waverly, and to his legitimate publishers at Sheldon and Co., correcting this false claim: “I am sorry to add that I have to complain that you have gone beyond all the rules of honesty in the deliberate falsehood which heads several of your advertisements, vis., that these sermons are reported “exclusively” for the Waverly, whereas they were never reported for you at all. This glaring falsehood has compelled me to speak out, and I am now about to take some more decisive action.”
On January 14, 1860, the Penny Press claimed that “It is stated on good authority that Mr. C.H. Spurgeon made, about three weeks ago, a formal recantation of the extreme Calvinist tenets which he had been hitherto preaching. He said that he and others who had taught as he had done, and had been doubtless grievous stumbling blocks in the way of many pious an earnest persons, and that the only amends which lay in his power was to state publicly that he had been in error, and to guarantee that he would never propagate similar false doctrines again.”
Spurgeon responded on February 9, in the Christian Watchman and Reflector: “I have just seen a paragraph in which it is stated that I have recanted my Calvinistic sentiments, and am very penitent on account of the mischief I have formerly done by my doctrines. This is but a specimen of the villainous lying to which I am daily subject. I am now quite used to these things, and do not think that those who know me believe any such infamous libels.”
In his last letter to the Christian Watchman and Reflector (April 2, 1863) Spurgeon lamented: “Certainly the false rumors which are raised about all public men are enough to put one out of heart with mankind, and make us think them like the Cretians, ‘always liars.'” He himself had been the target of countless public falsehoods: “Continually am I assailed with accusations from every quarter, bringing to my charge words I never uttered and deeds I have never dreamed of. From the first day until now I have never answered a slander. I have seen my best motives impugned, my holiest aspirations ridiculed, and my most disinterested actions calumniated, and hitherto I have held my peace.”
A “Queer Anecdote”
In 1857, an English paper, the Gateshead Observer, published a story about Spurgeon and an American from the South. In reprinting it, the National Era in Washington D.C. called it “a queer anecdote.” The Christian Era in their introduction said this: “It may be true; it seems something like the man. And then again like many other stories narrated about noted persons, it may be entirely false.” Of course, they reprinted the article anyway:
An American minister called upon Mr. Spurgeon, and said, in the conversation, that he had a congregation in the States of 3,000 people. Spurgeon. And have you blacks in your congregation? Jonathan. O, yes. “And do you all worship together, or have you partitions and curtains?” “ O , the blacks are behind a curtain?” “And do you take the Lord’s Supper with the blacks behind a curtain?” “ O, yes.” “ Now, sir, do you know what a monomaniac is?’’ “O, yes.” “ Well, sir, I’m a monomaniac—a monomaniac on the subject of slavery. (And Spurgeon dashed his hand into his pocket, and, bringing out his penknife, opened it.) Yes, sir, I’m a perfect monomaniac. I’ve no control over myself, sir; and if you stay here ten minutes longer, I may put this knife into your hypocritical bosom. So I warn you. Be off, sir! be off! I feel it rising in me. Be off, I say! (And he hustled Jonathan to the door, nervously handling his knife all the while.) “And did you really mean to stick the fellow?” said the friend to whom he related the story. “Why no,” said he, “perhaps not quite that; but I’m going to America before long, and I wanted them to know, before I go, that they won’t humbug me about slavery.”
Of course, other papers took this as a true account. The Daily Globe of San Francisco republished the story in their paper with some commentary: “Mr. Spurgeon, if this story is correct, lied grossly and outrageously, and showed himself to be a paltry, mendacious boor.” This kind of insulting treatment of Spurgeon was commonplace among Southern newspapers, especially once Spurgeon’s anti-slavery positions were verified and became more well known. Did Spurgeon actually pull his penknife on Jonathan? I’m not sure. The story sure is “queer,” and demonstrates the blurry line between fact and anecdotal fiction that was growing up around Spurgeon’s views of slavery. Apart from first-hand evidence, I suppose we’ll never know whether the story is genuine or not. We should acknowledge the difference between words expressly from the mouth and pen of Spurgeon, and the unreliability of “reported” words and stories, even when printed in public newspapers.
The edited sermons
But even the expressly reported words of Spurgeon were subject to editing and revision, unknown to him. Godfrey Pike carefully relates several instances of this in his biography, The Life & Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1892):
American slavery had now become one of the burning questions of the day; and from the fact that Spurgeon’s Sermons were being issued in the United States with certain passages omitted which the publishers knew would be distasteful to their constituency, many inferred that the English preacher had changed his views on that question, or at least had greatly modified them. Mr. Henry Ward Beecher called attention to this fact; and it appeared like a challenge for the real truth to be known… Later on this work of suppression was shown to be the work of the publishers alone (330).
When Spurgeon was made aware of this, he immediately made plans to address it:
I do not see how the Americans can have expurgated the anti-slavery sentiments, for I do not think it was a subject which thrust itself in my way in the ordinary duties of my ministry. I have written a letter to an influential paper in America [the Christian Watchman and Reflector], and will see to it that my sentiments are really known. I believe slavery to be a crime of crimes, a soul-destroying sin, and an iniquity which cries aloud for vengeance. The charge against my publishers of altering my sermons I believe to be utterly untrue, and they are ready , as their best contradiction, to print a work on the subject if I can find time to write it, which I fear I cannot, but must be content with some red-hot letters.
He then sent his red-hot letter, addressing the charge of selective editing, and making his anti-slavery views clearly known:
Nevertheless, as I have preached in London and not in New York, I have very seldom made any allusion to American slavery in my sermons. This accounts for the rumor that I have left out the anti-slavery from my American edition of sermons.This is not true in any measure, for, as far as my memory serves me, I cannot remember that the subject was handled at all in any of my printed sermons beyond a passing allusion, and I have never altered a single sentence in a sermon which has been sent out to my American publishers beyond the mere correction which involved words and not sense.
If there was any question about it before, there was none anymore.
Besides the issue of slavery, Pike notes that “passages relating to open communion were also taken out of the American edition of the Sermons” (330–31). Spurgeon was such a popular and influential figure, that his views on certain matters had to be carefully handled and manipulated so as to produce the intended affect on the broader reading public.
“Better every white man, woman and child be murdered in the South”
This brings us back to our original question. Did Spurgeon really say the words attributed to him in that Richmond Enquirer article? Let me start by quoting more context from the original article:
A certain Captain Kuber, “is a very wealthy gentleman, resident on Gwin’s Island, and is the only local preacher belonging to the regular Baptist denomination in Mathews county. Having been an ardent admirer of the Rev. Mr. Spurgeon, and preaching from him on Calvinism at Mathews Church, some one sent, enclosed in an envelope, Mr. Spurgeon’s Lecture at Exeter Hall, England, on Slavery, shortly after the John Brown raid, at Harper’s Ferry, where old Brown was martyrized as a saint, and in which Mr. Spurgeon said, ‘better every white man, woman, and child be murdered in the South and a thousand Unions be dissolved, than human slavery be allowed to exist in peace and quietness in the Southern States of the American Union.”
The original article was published in the Richmond Enquirer on July 6, 1860. After Spurgeon’s “red hot letter” on slavery had been published in January of that year, many in the South had reacted violently, threatening his life and burning his books and sermons. This particular article was published in Richmond, in the South, and the whole article was written to justify these Southern slaveholders burning his books. Given the intense bias against Spurgeon in the South, I’m already skeptical. Add to this the third (or fourth) hand nature of the quote (a newspaper article about a man who received a letter containing a lecture all the way from England) and there are just too many links in this game of “telephone.” I would love to know if there exists anywhere the original lecture notes of this lecture.
To be clear, though, Spurgeon was an ardent abolitionist. In 1859, one visitor heard him utter “the strongest expression of abhorrence to slavery that we ever heard from human lips, not excepting Garrison himself.” After Harper’s Ferry, Spurgeon expressed admiration for John Brown, and this fact alone would be enough to unhinge slaveholders in the South. He closed his letter about slavery with this: “Finally, let me add, John Brown is immortal in the memories of the good in England, and in my heart he lives.” For some, including paleo-confederates today, any positive mention of John Brown is considered outrageous. But we must remember that in Spurgeon’s own day, Brown’s legacy was contested. In June 1860, a letter was published in the Watchman and Reflector defending Spurgeon:
“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 the 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.”
What did Spurgeon say?
Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey record a version of this incident in their excellent book, Steal Away Home. However, in relating the scene, they include part of this quote, but not another:
“Precisely,” replied Kuber. “I read the sermon in its entirety and I was appalled by its utter audacity. Spurgeon claimed that it would be better for a thousand unions to be dissolved than for us to own a few slaves in the peace and quiet of the southern states of the American Union” (137).
It is entirely plausible to me that after John Brown’s death, Spurgeon gave a memorial lecture celebrating Brown’s anti-slavery activism. But because John Brown was equated in the minds of Southerners with “the murder of white men, women, and children,” it is also plausible to me that this inference of theirs was made explicit and turned into a quote. To the Southern mind, after all, to say the one is all the same as if you had said the other. By the time these “anonymous lecture notes” found their way to Captain Kuber, and then into the pages of the Richmond Enquirer, it had become a quote on the lips of Spurgeon.
Frankly, I have a hard time believing that Spurgeon actually said these words. Perhaps part of the quote is genuine (“better a thousand unions be dissolved…”) and part of it was embellished (“better every white man, woman, and child be murdered in the South…”). Honestly, even the use of a the descriptor “white” in “white men, women and children” sounds more like a phrase used in America than something Spurgeon would say. In reading his comments about slavery and the United States, I just haven’t heard him talk that way elsewhere.
Further, as others have noted, Spurgeon was opposed to war, and lamented its horrors. Even given his ardent abolitionism, it’s hard for me to imagine a statement like this coming from his mouth.
So, did Spurgeon really say this? Ultimately, I really don’t know, and I could be proven wrong, were the original lecture notes ever to come to light and we could see for ourselves. Until that happens, this quote will always have a big asterisk hanging over it for me. The work of careful historical investigation is fraught with difficulty and complexity. Ours is not the first “sound bite” age. Whenever you see a snappy quote or story, it would be good to pause and ask yourself:
Where are the receipts?
(Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash)