“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)