Spurgeon: How the politically liberal preacher became a conservative Christian paragon

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19th Century British preacher Charles Spurgeon is revered among conservative Christians. Many don't know he was politically liberal. - Image via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cIHF2q)

19th Century British preacher Charles Spurgeon is revered among conservative Christians. Many don't know he was politically liberal. - Image via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cIHF2q)

19th Century British preacher Charles Spurgeon is revered among conservative Christians. Many don't know he was politically liberal. - Image via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cIHF2q)

Nineteenth century British preacher Charles Spurgeon is revered among conservative Christians. Many don’t know he was politically liberal. – Image via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1cIHF2q)

Charles H. Spurgeon has been called “the greatest of the Victorian preachers,” but the 19th century Brit is much more than an artifact. Modern conservative Christians maintain an enduring fascination with Spurgeon, whose writings still rank among the top 100 bestsellers of Christian literature on Amazon.

Most of the books, blogs, and articles written about the longtime pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle center on his evangelistic fervor and theology. But the most fascinating thing about Spurgeon may be his lesser known political views.

“Spurgeon was basically a left winger politically,” says Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He was politically active, but some evangelicals may be surprised to find that he was usually on the side of liberal politics.”

Though Spurgeon supported Bible teaching in public schools, Nettles says, Spurgeon “loved the American idea of the separation of church and state.” He favored the disestablishment of the Anglican church from the British government and spoke about it often.

Spurgeon was also sensitive to the problems of the poor that arose as a result of the industrial revolution in the West. He favored the abolition of the elitist House of Lords that disempowered ordinary Brits, and he publicly support more liberal policies to address poverty.

“He was very active in preaching about certain social issues,” says Nettles, author of the forthcoming Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. “Spurgeon preached in support of making government low-income housing projects more humane and encouraged Christians to vote for the governmental alleviation of poverty.”

But one of Spurgeon’s lesser known and more contentious political stances was his opposition to war. He believed that war was “an enormous crime” and “regarded all battles as but murder on a large scale.” Spurgeon said in his 1857 sermon “Independence of Christianity,”

Christ’s church hath been also miserably befooled; for this I will assert, and prove too, that the progress of the arms of a Christian nation is not the progress of Christianity…. The Christian soldier hath no gun and no sword, for he fighteth not with men. It is with “spiritual wickedness in high places” that he fights, and with other principalities and powers than with those that sit on thrones and hold sceptres in their hands.

“Spurgeon was anti-war,” says Nettles. “I don’t know if he actually rejected just war theory, but every time he talks about war, he speaks of it in the most negative, unattractive way. The only war he fully justified was the American Civil War because he believed so strongly in the cause of freeing slaves. It even caused some Southerners in America to boycott his books. I wouldn’t go so far as calling him a pacifist, but he would think the justification for war would be extremely rare.”

Bill Leonard, church history professor at Wake Forest Divinity School and author of Baptist Ways: A History, says Spurgeon’s views on foreign policy were formed as a response to a time in which his mother country ruled the world and was sending its soldiers to fight foreign wars. His situation, Leonard says, is not unlike ours.

Today, conservative Christians in America often find themselves among those who have a weaker view of the separation of church and state, favor individual responsibility over poverty alleviation by the government, and often support war. It’s not difficult to imagine that Spurgeon would have opposed the political positions of many conservative Christians today–for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2003 resolution endorsing the Iraq War.

So how has this politically liberal preacher become a paragon among so many conservative Christians?

Nettles believes evangelicals’ fascination is, in part, due to Spurgeon’s commitment to gospel-centered preaching, belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and the sheer success of his ministry. Spurgeon averaged over 300 baptisms a year during his ministry and, in some ways, became Britain’s first mega-church pastor.

“Evangelicals love success—or what we think is success,” Nettles says. “Perhaps too much sometimes.”

When asked about Spurgeon’s contemporary appeal, Leonard points to his prolific writing—“Spurgeon didn’t have an unpublished thought and was the most prolifically published thinker of his time”—and the clarity and romanticism of his sermons, which almost always featured a heart-tugging story.

But both Leonard and Nettles agree that part of modern Christians’ fascination with Spurgeon is his broad appeal. Theologically, he was a staunch Calvinist, which makes him interesting to Reformed Christians. But Spurgeon also placed the conversion of sinners at the center of his ministry, which makes him interesting to Arminian Christians.

“Spurgeon represents the best in modified Calvinist preaching. He preaches as if everybody could be saved, but he affirms a Calvinist theology that leaves conversion to God,” Leonard says. “He talked like a Calvinist and acted like an Arminian. That’s what draws people back to him.”

Regardless of the reason conservative Christians revere Spurgeon, it remains that many have overlooked important aspects of his life and beliefs. Spurgeon was a theologian and evangelist, that’s true, but he was also an anti-war, anti-imperial poverty advocate. And in this, the “Prince of Preachers” offers us more than a sermon. He also reminds us that the relationship between theology and politics is more complex than we often assume.

  • Rich

    Liked your article but I have a spelling nit. It’s Arminian and not Armenian. It’s not just Spurgeon who was politically progressive. Evangelicals as a rule were progressives until the 1940s with the so-called Red Scare. See Dochuk’s “From Bible Belt to Sun Belt” to see the progression of American evangelicals towards political conservatism.

  • Gotta love the Word autocorrect feature. Who knows? Spurgeon may have a draw with the good citizens of Armenia too. 🙂 Thanks for the heads-up. Fixed!

  • Nathan

    I fail to understand how one can advocate the elimination of elitist positions in society but insist that government be big enough to “take care of” all its own poor and needy citizens? If government becomes that large, two things will happen with historical certainty. 1. “Elitist” persons will seek to and indeed rise to take in the key positions of administration of such a monstrous effort. Thereby becoming further established in their position of power disparity. These persons (in this system) will without fail illustrate the maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely. 2. The number of those willing to work to help provide will quickly diminish once they learn they don’t have to and simply claim to need. This will lead to a significant disparity between the number of people working to contribute and those looking for a handout not because they need but they need because they choose to. As Ravi Zacharias said in summing up Marx, “neither the employee nor the employer, put then together and have a classless society. Funny thing, they never show you one.”

    For how long will the church shift it’s burden to care for the widow and orphan, the sick and the poor to the state? Christs followers were commanded to do these things out of transformation of the spirit working in their lives leading to the deep care and affection of their fellow man. Not because the government was imposing morality through law or altruism through taxes. No, that is simply tyranny and it’s the true reason the pilgrims left for the new world, so they could worship AND live as their conscious dictated.

  • Side note: Spurgeon was a fierce opponent of socialism and a critic of Marx.

  • It is one of the early reforms that protestants enacted was to move care of the poor from primarily a church activity to primarily a government activity. This is true for Puritans, Calvin, Lutheran and many other protestant groups. This is in large part because the church prior to the Reformation did a lousy job of caring for the poor.

    There has never been some magical Christian era when the church actually did a great job caring for the poor outside of descriptions in Acts. And even then I believe it was probably not all of the poor, but a subset (probably those poor that were associated with the church.)

  • Great facts, interesting article…the biggest and most obvious flag for me is that the camps of “progressive” and “liberal” were very different back in Spurgeon’s day. I sincerely doubt he would fall into those camps as they are represented today! The assertion is a tad misleading…in my opinion. 🙂

  • Characterizing Surgeon’s views on war as “politically liberal” can make us overlook the foundation on which they rested–Jesus’ teaching and the call to holiness. See more quotes on this hear: http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  • Adam

    That’s just a side note? In an article that glorifies Spurgeon’s “liberal” politics. Are you kidding me?

    And where’s the context for what “liberal” means to scripture? Or what those issues meant in that time of history. Or Spurgeon’s fight in the Down-Grade Controversy against liberalism?

    You dismiss his appeal among conservatives to “oh, he was popular because he wrote a lot, was successful, he was part Calvinist and part Arminian, and told heart tugging stories. Gosh, we don’t really know, but liberalism ain’t as bad as we thought, folks.”

    You skim over Spurgeon to draw to assert your own conclusions. Another commenter pointed it out, it’s misleading.

  • I disagree. If you’re a conservative today you might have been a liberal in the 20s (do you favor the legal sale of alcohol) or the 40s (do you favor legalization of no fault divorce) or the 50s (do you think gay people should be imprisoned as sodomites). Much of what is liberal today seems conservative tomorrow and much of what is conservative today would have been liberal yesterday. That is the way it often works.

    Though to be fair, you’ll find very people anti-war poverty advocates who are considered conservative these days either.

  • Yes, a side note. Most “liberals” in America today would be opposed to socialism and Marxism, regardless of the caricatures you encounter on Hannity’s America.

  • Another side note: I didn’t dismiss and I didn’t label him first as a liberal. A Spurgeon scholar weighed in. Actually two. And one of them was no liberal himself.

    Don’t shoot the messenger.

  • Jessup Pyun

    Interesting article and thoughtful responses to comments.

  • Actually, in the 20s, prohibition was supported by most liberals & progressives and opposed by most conservatives. In fact, Spurgeon’s “liberal” set of policy preferences included strong support for the temperance movement in Britain.

  • Spurgeon said this:

    I long for the day when the precepts of the Christian religion shall be the rule among all classes of men in all transactions. I often hear it
    said, ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought, and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick. I would have the Cabinet and Members of Parliament do the work of the nation as before the Lord, and I would have the nation, either in making war or peace, consider the matter by the light of righteousness. We are to deal with other nations about this or that upon the principles of the New Testament.

    If you’re looking for “a weaker view of separation of church and state” among today’s conservative Christians, you’re going to have to look for quite a long time.

  • BMR

    This is an interesting take, but I’m not sure it encompasses the entire picture. Many of Spurgeon’s contemporaries were anti-authoritarian without being called liberals. A Baptist was, by definition, against the idea of the Church/State connection as the Church in the UK was the Church of England. It sounds like he was against European Imperialism, slavery, and authoritarianism, but I don’t see where he would have been called a liberal in his day.

    If you want to show that he was a Liberal, you will need to show what he believed about issues such civil rights, law, the French revolution, etc. It would also be helpful to see what he thought about the liberal philosophy of his day.

  • Jessi

    This is the sort of article that makes a political historian cringe. The “conservative” and “liberal” that you speak of is a modern concept and can hardly be placed on the shoulders of someone in the 19th century.

  • Danny

    There are a lot of presuppositions here. Not sure that Spurgeon would condone the “liberalism” of today. I consider myself a classical liberal but vote almost exclusively Republican. But, whatever furthers your thesis.

  • I didn’t say the 20s. I said the 40s. By the 1940s, abstinence (not even temperance) was firmly implanted in religious conservatism. Although, I have to disagree with you on your perspective about the 1920s. A good book on this is Barry Hankins’ Jesus and Gin, which traces the modern American culture wars back to prohibition. Hankins is a first rate historian who directs the PhD program at Baylor. I highly commend his book to you.

  • It’s the beard, that’s how:

    “If you feel that you want something else, why, then grow your beards! A habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.”

    One would never catch a liberal saying things like that.

  • Sorry to be that guy, but actually Hankins says what I said:

    Prohibition is often viewed as an attempt to bring people’s private habits in line with some sort of Puritan behavioral norm, and even some scholars and pundits have portrayed it that way…. Such a view has been laid to rest by scholars who interpret Prohibition as part of the Progressive Era (1900-1925), when reformers tackled a series of abuses that threatened society’s bold march into the future. “if the Progressive movement was nourished on a belief in the moral law,” wrote historian James Timberlake in 1963, “so was Prohibition, which sought to remove from commerce an article that was believed to despoil man’s reason and undermine the foundation of religion and representative government.” Seen this way, Prohibition was a sibling to child labor laws, legal limits on the working hours of wage earners, and other regulations on industrial working conditions. Prohibition reflected the progressive belief in efficiency that resulted from scientific progress. Science showed that alcohol diminished the capacity of human beings to be productive, that it led to crime, poverty, and disease. Eliminating the liquor trade, reformers hoped, would remove these obstacles to progress. This is not to say that all progressives supported Prohibition. Old-stock, Anglo-Protestant reformers did, while ethnic, urban reformers often did not. (pp. 22-23)

    Sure prohibition was supported by low-church rural Evangelicals and Fundamentalists too, but these folks were not particularly politically “conservative” at that time. One of their chief political heroes was the populist and progressive, William Jennings Bryan.

  • I’m not contesting the progressive impulse of some who favored prohibitionists. But I don’t think you can say that “MOST conservatives” (depending on how your using that word) opposed it. And, no, Hankins does not argue that either, even when he traces the progressive cultural roots of the movement.

    You’re right to say that prohibition was supported by rural (most evangelicals were rural at the time, so this is a strange qualifier) evangelicals that they were not all that “conservative” (although that is a strange way to put it since they were somewhat apolitical at the time). The fact remains that the prohibition movement was driven by Protestants (disproportionately women) who are, as Hankins argues, in some ways the spiritual and political ancestors to modern Christian culture warriors.

    But, I’m not sure how we got off on this tangent about prohibition. My comment to which you replied wasn’t addressing the prohibition movement of the 1920s. I spoke of the 1940s (when conservative would have supported strict liquor laws, for example). But even that wasn’t the point. Rather I was making a larger point about the cultural relativity of these terms–sure, what is liberal today may not be liberal by tomorrow’s standards.

    But I have a creeping feeling your contention has less to do with the history of American prohibition and more to do with the misalignment of Spurgeon’s political posture and your own.

  • Josh,

    Nice. You’re citing Spurgeon’s often overlooked philosophy of facial hair. 🙂

  • Reader

    I’m not sure that is a tenable hypothesis. Monasteries were among the first places for quality health care for all, Christians led the way in creating adoption for exposed children and there is even a letter from a Roman official detailing how the Church would transform a community by caring for the least, the last and the hurting. I would say that the post-Constantinian Church, seduced by power, has had a hard time reconciling the command to help the poor with a desire to be at the center of cultural life and influence. However, to say that the problem goes back to the second generation of the Church would miss the mark on some important Church history.

  • I’m guessing that liberalism today is much different than liberalism in Spurgeons day. Even JFK would be considered a conservative to todays liberal.

  • Stephen Pflug

    I liked the article. I once heard the term “Thoughtful Christianity.” I think that is a good term for Spurgeon’s holistic approach in his faith. I think as Christians we can all benefit from not being conformed to the labels we attach to groups and individuals today. Its easy to form God into our ideals but it is very hard to allow God to conform us into His Son.

  • Sherri Hampton

    I think that’s what I’m saying…”liberal” and “conservative” back then would both be very different from what they represent today. If Spurgeon was a “liberal” politically, he would probably fit more into conservatism today. Just as I might fit more into “liberalism” back then with the conservative views I hold today.

  • Wayne

    I don’t see this article showing this man to be that poilically liberal. He seems to believe in “just” war, he thought it important to teach Biblical truth in the schools, and he didn’t think a certain church denomination should be in charge of the government. How one would define “just” war is another story, but he certainly agreed with the Civil War. Would Spurgeon find the way our current government handles poverty just and effective, I don’t know.


    I love Spurgeon’s work. Thank you for enlightening me ON his background. The message God gives his messengers never become obsolete. They are always relevant. Spurgeon is proof of that.

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  • I think you have to define the term liberal and progressive in it’s historical context. Concerns about social issues is a concern of the Bible. Micah is a book about God’s judgment upon the wealthy who have oppressed the poor man and the religious leaders who were indifferent to the plight. Social justice is a concern of the Bible (cf. Micah 6:8), but it’s probably not meant by the modern term “Social Justice.” Is the covenant God of Israel really going to defend a women’s right to kill her unborn child (God condemns the infanticide of children to Molech) as a justice for women? No, quite the opposite actually. But does God want His church supporting and caring for the oppressed and the afflicted, like: the poor, the widow, and the orphan…very much so.

  • Jeff

    What I read in the article is that Spurgeon’s positions would be liberal by today’s standards – not the standards of the Victorian era. I don’t see how some of the commenters can claim that what are today conservative positions were liberal positions earlier in the 20th century. What I have observed is that the ideology of people who are descendants of progressives has changed from liberal or progressive to conservative. And we take pride in our ancestry and can’t accept the idea that our grandparents might have aligned their beliefs with those of the opposite position that we take today. Statements such as “unions once provided a purpose but are no longer necessary,” are such evidence of a shift in ideology. The switch in platform of the two political parties is further evidence. During the 19th century, Democrats were the party of states rights and the Republicans were for stronger national government. Today it is the other way around. The social platforms of the two parties have also switched. That doesn’t mean the same as what was once liberal is now conservative. Certainly, there are more complicated details that further contributed to the ideological shift. Perhaps the confusion lies in the reality that during its early days, the Republican party was the liberal party and southern Democrats were conservatives, but today that is reversed. The natural inclination is to assume that Republicans were always the conservative party and vice versa.

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  • VainSaints

    How about we finally ignore the fake Conservative vs. Liberal discourse? I have a feeling that if we compare popular beliefs amongst political Liberals and Conservatives in the 1940s and today, the results would look similar to what you’d expect from the output of a random belief generator.

    Of course, there are explanations for the various shifts. The rich have always wanted both to keep all their money and constantly get more (hence “fiscal conservativism”) and to spend it however they wish buying whores and concubines by the bushel (“social liberalism”). There are also reasons why the general public has been conned into going along with such a political progression that unequivocally serves the Super-Elite, chief amongst them being horrific education.

    But there really is nothing more boring to me than pointing out obvious things like this. If Spurgeon was a man of integrity and intellectual weight (and I believe he was) he would almost certainly be utterly repulsed by both parties.

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  • Bob Almond

    Strikes me, as a Brit, that you are seeking to force a British Baptist into a US set of categories. Political liberalism means something very different in the UK than it does in the US; and has little, if anything, to do with theological liberalism. That’s without even beginning to consider political shifts and theological categories since Victorian times.

    Add into that mix the tendency that commentators in this thread seem to have to conflate socialist and Marxist. In UK politics they are far from the same thing. Both our major political parties would, I suggest, be considered to be considerably more left-wing than either of the US parties.

    Support for the liberal party (and again, please remember that unlike the US, we have often worked with more than two major parties here) has indeed traditionally been strongly associated with non-conformist churches.

    Spurgeon’s political viewpoint merits close examination. But this article isn’t it – as it signally fails to make clear the different categories which are being confused.

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  • S. D. Johnson

    Thank you for your reference to Dochuk’s “From Bible Belt to Sun Belt” Based on summaries of the book, it seems as if it will explain a lot. I am an amateur Reformed theologian of the Baptist persuasion. I belong to the Baptist General Conference. I have never gotten anyone in my church to explain why being theologically conservative must mean being politically conservative. People got angry with me for trying to get them articulate from the Bible what the necessary connection was. I am looking forward to reading this book.

  • Kevin Daugherty

    How was he politically liberal? He was English and lived a century before American “liberalism” came to even manifest itself.

  • Liberalism is a term of relativity and did not emerge in the 20th century in America.

  • Very good comment…

  • As a Conservative Christian, and an avid fan of Spurgeon, and do disagree with the prof, at Southern Baptist Seminary in his ideology of liberalism and Spurgeon, … Spurgeon was first and Foremost a Christian, and as being so he was, as are Conservative Christians of today, about the poor, we are to do all that we can do to help them, nonetheless, Jesus never taught that it was the responsibility of the Roman Government, it was a personal responsibility of His followers, individually and collectively, and was not to become a way of life for the poor. I believe Spurgeon had it right, about the separation of Church and State, as then it was primarily the governing body mandating and obstruction. One thing about Southern Baptist Seminaries is that I can disagree with an opinion, Which is what we are talking about here.

  • Jay

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned his appreciation for fine tobacco.

    If memory serves, it was the above-mentioned Dr. Nettles who first related to me this story (quoted here from a source online at http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/cigars.htm as well as numerous other sites).

    While Mr. Spurgeon was living at Nightingale Lane, Clapham, an excursion was one day organised by one of the young men’s classes at the Tabernacle. The brake with the excursionists was to call for the President on their way to mid-Surrey.
    It was a beautiful early morning, and the men arrived in high spirits, pipes and cigars alight, and looking forward to a day of unrestrained enjoyment. Mr. Spurgeon was ready waiting at the gate. He jumped up to the box-seat reserved for him, and looking round with an expression of astonishment, exclaimed: “What, gentlemen! Are you not ashamed to be smoking so early?”
    Here was a damper! Dismay was on every face. Pipes and cigars one by one failed and dropped out of sight.
    When all had disappeared, out came the President’s cigar-case. He lit up and smoked away serenely.
    The men looked at him astonished. “I thought you said you objected to smoking, Mr. Spurgeon?” one ventured.
    “Oh no, I did not say I objected. I asked if they were not ashamed, and it appears they were, for they have all put their pipes away.”
    Amid laughter the pipes reappeared, and with puffs of smoke the party went on merrily.

  • Calvin, Luther, and like-minded Protestants were called “magisterial reformers” because they resorted to government force to promote their reformation. Protestant advancement of “public” (government-run) schools in the 1800’s was not due to the fact that illiteracy was pervasive (it wasn’t), but because the Catholics had their own schools. Similarly, Protestant politicization of charity was due not to the absence of charity, but the presence of Roman Catholic charity. Here’s libertarian author Tom Woods on charity in the Middle Ages (if you don’t like “catholic,” just substitute “Christian”):


    Before the “Protestant Work Ethic” created Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, “helping the poor” as we understand that today would have meant “helping everybody” because everybody was poor by today’s standards.