By Alex DiPrima
Summarizing Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s views on what is commonly referred to today as “social justice” is not an easy task. In fact, to do so is almost impossible for at least two reasons. First, no one published more words in English than C. H. Spurgeon, and within his massive canon, traces of his thought on any given subject can be found almost anywhere. To date, his theology (let alone his social thought) has never been adequately systematized. The second reason is that Spurgeon never used the term social justice, and was a stranger to the concept as it is discussed in contemporary American public life today. Efforts to insert Spurgeon into contemporary debates on social justice can run the risk of being painfully anachronistic.
Nonetheless, though it is challenging to summarize Spurgeon’s perspectives on this notoriously fraught subject, at least five key points can be clearly affirmed.
Spurgeon believed each individual Christian was called to engage in works of benevolence and to minister to the most vulnerable.
1. Spurgeon encouraged evangelical activism.
Spurgeon was an energetic proponent of the sort of evangelical activism that prevailed in the Victorian era. This activism was characterized by what David Bebbington has called an “eagerness to be up and doing.” Such activism came to expression in earnest efforts to spread the faith, plant new churches, send missionaries, organize philanthropy and minister to the poor and the needy on a largely individualistic and practical basis. Spurgeon was arguably one of the foremost exemplars of evangelical activism in his day.
2. Spurgeon advocated for the oppressed.
Spurgeon was an outspoken advocate for the oppressed, the poor and the disenfranchised of almost every conceivable variety in 19th century Britain. By 1884, Spurgeon had pioneered 66 benevolent ministries through his local church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, located in the heart of south London. These ministries included, among others, a pastor’s training college, two orphanages, a ministry to needy widows, a clothing bank, a ministry to policemen, an outreach to prostitutes, a ministry to the blind and a host of children’s ministries. Spurgeon’s close friend, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who was arguably the greatest social reformer of the age, said that these ministries “instituted by [Spurgeon’s] genius, and superintended by his care, were more than enough to occupy the minds and hearts of fifty ordinary men.”
Spurgeon proactively sought to provide aid and relief for orphans and widows, for the sick and infirm and for the extreme poor of London. He advocated for London’s lower classes, for the uneducated and the illiterate and even for slaves in the American South. Spurgeon believed each individual Christian was called to engage in works of benevolence and to minister to the most vulnerable. In an 1862 sermon, Spurgeon said,
- “To me, a follower of Jesus means a friend of man. A Christian is a philanthropist by profession, and generous by force of grace; wide as the reign of sorrow is the stretch of his love, and where he cannot help he pities still.“
3. Spurgeon was rarely political in the pulpit.
Spurgeon’s involvement in political affairs was only occasional and limited. He was decidedly opposed to speaking to politics in the pulpit and warned his students against doing so. Nonetheless, he was willing to speak to such issues through other mediums, such as his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. His commentary on political issues was generally limited to matters that touched upon religious concerns such as the disestablishment of the state church (which he supported), the question of Irish Home Rule (which he opposed) and British foreign policy (Spurgeon was not a pure pacifist, but was extremely negative about war). Spurgeon encouraged his members to vote in elections and was open about his own allegiance to the Liberal Party (not to be confused with the Democratic party in America today).
4. Spurgeon opposed socialism.
Spurgeon was an opponent of the emerging Christian socialist movement which dawned in Britain in the mid-to-late 19th century. The movement promoted the merging of Christian ethics with socialist economic and political thought. Every single reference to socialism in Spurgeon’s writings is negative. He told his congregation in 1889, “I would not have you exchange the gold of individual Christianity for the base metal of Christian socialism.” In 1891, he said, “Great schemes of socialism have been tried and found wanting; let us look to regeneration by the Son of God, and we shall not look in vain.” Spurgeon repudiated socialism and believed a preoccupation with seeking to address the world’s problems through large scale social and structural reforms was mostly futile.
5. Spurgeon’s approach to social reform was individualistic.
Spurgeon’s efforts at social reform were profoundly individualistic. He believed that the world would ultimately be changed, not by large scale systemic reforms, but by individual men and women coming to faith in Jesus Christ who would in turn begin to live lives in accord with God’s law. If society were to be improved, it would only come as the result of revival. In an 1872 article in The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon said,
- “We believe that national peace, and the security of our great cities, can only be guaranteed for a long future, by the recognition of the religion of Jesus Christ, and the wider spread of its principles…. Let the spirit, the essence, the governing power of our holy faith predominate, and the work is done.”
Every single reference to socialism in Spurgeon’s writings is negative.
What Would Spurgeon Think Today?
Speculating about how Spurgeon would contribute to debates among evangelicals today surrounding social justice is problematic for many reasons. Historians, theologians and pastors should labor to understand Spurgeon in his own context before introducing him into debates he neither lived through or anticipated.
With due historical caution and sensitivity, it can be suggested that Spurgeon would likely grieve many social injustices today, use his platform to advocate for the oppressed and seek to provide help and aid on the local level where he believed he could make the most impact. At the same time, he would probably caution evangelicals against over-politicizing current cultural events, preaching a social gospel and placing too much confidence in social reform via the state.