Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Charles Spurgeon Edition

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Charles Spurgeon Edition September 3, 2014

SpurgeonCharles Spurgeon, a Reformed Baptist known as the “prince of preachers” in the nineteenth century, remains revered. Known especially for his devotional writings, he currently ranks in the top 100 bestsellers of Christian literature on Amazon. 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 or Bethlehem Baptist Church? As Jonathan Merritt notes, 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. Here are just a few examples within his pacifist oeuvre:

  • “What pride flushes the patriot’s cheek when he remembers that his nation can murder faster than any other people. 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.”
  • “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.”
  • And if you have a spare 48 minutes, listen to this rendition of Spurgeon’s 1859 sermon entitled “War! War! War!” If you just want to skim it, click here for the full text. And for more Spurgeon quotes, visit www.spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/.
Spurgeon preaching, circa 1858
Spurgeon preaching, circa 1858

Nettles’ new biography of Spurgeon (which I’m very much looking forward to reading) 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,” writes one. 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. He argued that the very elements that make him so attractive to evangelicals—his commitment to evangelism, gospel-centered preaching, and Scripture—form the very foundation of his Christian pacifism.

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  • steve burdan

    Good points, but as with CS Lewis, Amer. Evan. will pick and choose among Spurgeon’s teachings, as is only fair and right – if a teaching is considered wrong and acceptable, then the reasons must be sketched out – no one should be forced to accept each and every teaching if conviction and reason don’t allow. Spurgeon no doubt would look down on the large part musical performance plays in the spectrum of Evan. services.

  • davidrswartz

    Important point, Steve. I’m not asking anyone to adopt wholesale the teachings of any one person or institution. Just making a historical point about how categories shift. That said, I really do wonder if he would be invited to Southern Baptist Seminary now. Just two days ago Al Mohler tweeted a Spurgeon quote. Would he do that if Spurgeon were still alive preaching fervently against war?

  • Roy Gathercoal

    One thing we often forget is that the norm in Christianity was pacifism, not war, for much of its existence. It seems strange for us to hear of Spurgeon preaching against war, but it would have been expected in his day and place and time.

  • philipjenkins

    “The norm in Christianity was pacifism, not war, for much of its existence”. I dearly wish that was the case, but I see no evidence for that after the first couple of centuries. For most of its history, the great majority of Christians have lived within state churches. The ones who didn’t also showed little sign of pacifist leanings.

  • stefanstackhouse

    It needs to be kept in mind that in Spurgeon’s time, Britain was one of the world’s chief aggressor nations. The Empire didn’t just fall into their lap without a shot being fired. Every war that Britain fought between Waterloo and WWI was completely offensive in nature. The Just War theory would have had to be stretched far beyond the breaking point to justify any of it. There actually was a very good case to be made for Christians not aiding and abetting the aggression, even if one didn’t take an absolute pacifist stance.

  • philipjenkins

    “Every war that Britain fought between Waterloo and WWI was completely offensive in nature.” I assume that absurd statement is meant humorously?

  • stefanstackhouse

    I suppose it could be, and I’m sure that there are Brits who would argue that at least some of their many wars (big and small) fought during that time frame were justified. The truth, however, is that the UK proper was never actually under any direct threat at any time during that time period.

  • philipjenkins

    Read some very basic history first, and then we can discuss it.

  • Hillary Spragg