Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is rightly known today for his preaching. The pioneer mega-church pastor attracted weekly crowds numbering in the thousands to his Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England. His sermons were distributed all over the world with an estimated 100 million copies being sold by the time of his death. By all accounts, Spurgeon’s ministry stands as one of the most numerically fruitful in documented history. He reached thousands, and he did so without compromising his faithfulness to preaching the whole counsel of God as the 63 published volumes of his sermons bear witness.
However, we would be mistaken to assume that this “soul-winner” focused exclusively on winning souls. He did not, as so many do, draw a sharp line of separation between the important work of evangelism and attention to the social injustices of his day. While he most certainly believed that the primary purpose of his preaching was to declare the gracious salvation that can be found only in Christ Jesus, he also understood that the gospel of Christ— the very gospel that eternally saves souls—comes with temporal social implications. Spurgeon believed that followers of Christ were obligated to “be on the side of peace and of justice…on the side of everything that is according to the mind of God, and according to the law of love.” 1
I feel that the best way to lift up the lost and degraded from the horrible pit and the miry clay, in a spiritual sense, is to preach to them Jesus Christ and Him crucified; but this need not prevent me from using all measures possible to promote social reform; and I firmly believe that lectures upon useful and scientific subjects, in which a lecturer is able to throw out hints about dress, cookery, children, cleanliness, economy, temperance, and the duties of the household, or to exclaim against the tally system, the pot-house, begging, and puffery, may be very useful.”2
Spurgeon’s championing of social justice causes can certainly be seen in his sermons, but we see it most clearly in his personal life. Here is a man who powerfully practiced what he preached. Here is a hero who, despite pastoring a mega-church, preaching several times per week, and publishing hundreds of books, found the time and energy to support dozens of ministries whose purpose was to alleviate suffering in a cultural context where thousands of people were suffering. Spurgeon personally established and funded orphanages, a college to train the poor for Christian ministry, a book distribution society for London’s working class, and worked tirelessly to alleviate poverty. He also found time to campaign against what he perceived to be one of the grossest injustices in history: human slavery.
Slavery had been abolished in England since 1833, but it was still going strong in America in Spurgeon’s day, thanks largely to slave-holding Christians defending the wicked institution through deplorable methods of biblical interpretation. Spurgeon saw this as a travesty and made it known early on in a sermon called “Separating the Precious from the Vile” (1860):
By what means think you were the fetters riveted on the wrist of our friend who sits there, a man like ourselves, though of a black skin? It is the Church of Christ that keeps his brethren under bondage; if it were not for that Church, the system of slavery would go back to the hell from which it sprung…But what does the slaveholder say when you tell him that to hold our fellow creatures in bondage is a sin, and a damnable one, inconsistent with grace? He replies, “I do not believe your slanders; look at the Bishop of So-and-so, or the minister of such-and-such place, is he not a good man, and does not he whine out ‘Cursed be Canaan?’ Does not he quote Philemon and Onesimus? Does he not go and talk Bible, and tell his slaves that they ought to feel very grateful for being his slaves, for God Almighty made them on purpose that they might enjoy the rare privilege of being cowhided by a Christian master? Don’t tell me,” he says, “if the thing were wrong, it would not have the Church on its side.” And so Christ’s free Church, bought with his blood, must bear the shame of cursing Africa, and keeping her sons in bondage.3
This theme of boldly speaking out against the wicked institution of racism-fueled slavery continued throughout Spurgeon’s ministry and predictably won him many enemies, particularly among fellow Baptists “across the pond” in America. As a matter of fact, Spurgeon’s courageous opposition to this injustice led to slanderous attacks on his character, book burnings of Spurgeon’s works, and even death threats.4 Lewis A. Drummond concludes, “Almost unparalleled in church history, the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon epitomized the perfect blending of evangelistic fervency and deep social concern. . . .There seemed to be no end to the variety of social ministries the Metropolitan Tabernacle undertook.”5
We live in an age when many theologically-minded brothers and sisters justify ignoring social injustices in the name of focusing on evangelism. Spurgeon heroically models for us that it’s not a matter of either/or, but both/and. The gospel calls us out of darkness and into the light of Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace. As we continue to tell sinners that they can find salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, may we follow Spurgeon’s lead in opposing injustice, unrighteousness, and sin wherever we find it. God calls his people to “seek the welfare of the city” where we dwell (Jer. 29:7). Spurgeon, commenting on this passage, says, “You are part and parcel of this nation, for you share in its protection and privileges, and it is yours as Christian men to feel that you are bound in return to do all you can to promote truth and righteousness.”6
Was Spurgeon a social justice warrior (SJW)? It depends on who is defining the term as it has become little more than a political slur. He was most certainly a gospel warrior who believed the gospel had social implications. He asserted, “Because we fear God, and desire his glory, we must be political—it is a part of our piety to be so”7 and “It is part of my religion to desire justice and freedom for all.”8
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Present Crisis” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 25 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1972), 391.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, C. H. (1899). C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from his diary, letters, and records, by his wife and his private secretary, 1856-1878, Vol. 3 (Cincinnati; Chicago; St. Louis: Curts & Jennings, 1899), 53.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 155.
- This reaction is documented well by Christian T. George, The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon, vol. 1 (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2016), xvii-xxiv.
- Lewis A. Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1992), 398,438.
- Spurgeon, “The Present Crisis,” 391.
- Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from his diary, letters, and records, by his wife and his private secretary, 1878–1892, Vol. 4, 132.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 1873 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1873), 255.