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A Christmas Story From ‘the Prince of Preachers’

For Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, Christmas Eve sparkled with anticipation of the following day’s message. Every year on this day as he finalized what he would offer in his next sermon, he reveled in the spirit of the season. Philip Ort writes of his affection for the holiday:

“Spurgeon really, really loved Christmas—so much that he wished ‘there were twenty Christmas days in the year.’ For it was seldom that ‘young men can meet with their friends’ and distant relatives could be ‘united as happy families.’ Indeed, Christmas was ‘one of England’s brightest days,’ the ‘great Sabbath of the year,’ and a sacred ‘family institution.’”

More than 130 years after his death, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is still widely read and remembered all over the world. Known variously as “the quintessential Victorian Englishman,” “the pulpit’s most spellbinding orator,” “London’s most famous, beloved, and influential man of the cloth,” and “the Prince of Preachers,” he left behind volumes of sermons and articles (as well as an autobiography) almost too numerous to count. It is estimated that at least ten million people heard him speak in person.

Born east of London in the county of Essex, he didn’t always get along with the established Church of England. He was a Reformed Baptist. For nearly 40 years, he pastored a huge congregation at London’s venerable Metropolitan Tabernacle. He also founded an almshouse, a college for training pastors, and an orphanage. A voracious reader, his personal 12,000-volume library included more than a thousand books that pre-dated the year 1700. He was so active that it seemed to many when he died at the age of 57 that he had lived not one but several lives.

When he dabbled in political matters, Charles did so as a champion of William Ewart Gladstone and his Liberal Party. Gladstone, four times Prime Minister, cut taxes and government spending and opposed foreign adventurism. The two men parted ways on the issue of Ireland, with Gladstone favoring home rule for the Irish and Spurgeon opposing it. On that matter, I think Gladstone was in the right but neither man allowed the matter to weaken their decades-long friendship.

Biographers note that Charles Spurgeon did far more than give lip service to Christmas. He kept its message deep in his heart, allowing it to help him make decisions big and small. He lived Christmas 365 days of the year. One moving story that illustrates this is his relationship with a former American slave, Thomas Johnson. It is beautifully told in the 2017 book by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey, Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom. Allow me to condense it here:

Thomas Johnson was born a slave in Virginia in 1836 and lived in bondage for twenty-eight years until the conclusion of the Civil War. Along the way, he became a Christian and dreamed of freedom. He first learned of Charles Spurgeon when he traveled with his slave master and a local pastor to a huge, public bonfire in Richmond. The English pastor whose works were being burned had spoken out against the evils of slavery. Bonfires of his books and sermons blazed all over the American South. Carter and Ivey write,

Thomas was truly astonished that a preacher could cause such an outrage from so far away. His sermons were bold enough to spark a two-story fire in the middle of the town square in Richmond, Virginia. His written words were provocative enough to stoke the anger of a hundred townspeople in the late hours of a holiday evening. The ink of his pen was mighty enough to fill books, newspapers, articles, sermons, and pamphlets. Thomas couldn’t believe that this preacher’s message of freedom—physical freedom from institutional bondage—made it all the way from Spurgeon’s desk in England to Thomas’s cold hands in Richmond, Virginia. “Throw it in, Thomas,” said Mr. Bennett, shoving the newspaper article back into Thomas’s hands. Mr. Bennett and Rev. Kuber watched Thomas crumple up the newspaper article and toss it into the raging bonfire. The paper erupted into flames, and almost immediately turned to ash. Filled to the brim with gratitude, Thomas silently thanked the Lord for the white preacher who had the audacity to confront slavery from the other side of the world.

In 1875, ten years after emancipation, Thomas was pastoring Providence Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. A friend suggested he pursue formal training at a college in London. When the friend explained that the school he had in mind was connected to a church called Metropolitan Tabernacle, Thomas immediately blurted out, “Charles Spurgeon!”

To study at the seminary founded by his hero seemed to be beyond reach to Thomas. Even if he would be accepted, how could a poor black man even afford the journey, let alone two years of tuition, room and board? Thomas’s friend offered to write a letter of inquiry to see if Spurgeon could help.

The letter moved Charles deeply. Here was a former slave, now a preacher hoping to eventually become a missionary in Africa, desiring entry into his college. Charles immediately authorized a full scholarship for Thomas, who arrived in London with his wife Henrietta in 1876. A close friendship ensued, one that lasted to the very moment of Charles’s death sixteen years later. The two spent endless hours together during the time Thomas attended classes at Spurgeon’s college.

It was two years after they first met, and many meetings and conversations later that Johnson finally told Spurgeon how and when he had first heard his name (at the book burning). Astonished, Charles asked,

“How did you come to know that it was my writings?” “Because that old, fat preacher I told you about—he pushed me close to the fire, handed me a newspaper article, and told me some English preacher had written that no Christian man oughta own another man. So—right before I threw that paper into the fire—a big ol’ smile crept up on my face and I thought—‘I sure would like to hear that man preach one day!’”…Charles reeled with delight, amused by the Lord’s sense of humor.

Thomas and Henrietta Johnson departed Britain for Africa in November 1879. He would be the very first African-American missionary ever to carry the message of Christ and Christmas to the people of Cameroon.

Johnson and Spurgeon wrote often to each other, both during the time Thomas was in Africa and later when he returned to America. Carter and Ivey report that “Charles savored and kept each letter in a neat stack in the bottom drawer of his study desk.” When Charles died in 1892, Thomas, in tears, was at his bedside. London descended into passionate mourning of a man the capital city had come to love as much as Thomas Johnson did. Writing in Christianity Today, Patricia Stallings Kruppa reveals,

Sixty thousand people came to pay homage during the three days his body lay in state at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. A funeral parade two miles long followed his hearse from the Tabernacle to the cemetery at Upper Norwood. One hundred thousand people stood along the way, flags flew at half-mast, shops and pubs were closed. It was a remarkable demonstration of affection and respect, even in an era when people were scrupulous in observing the rituals that accompanied death.

As a preacher and theologian, Spurgeon opined on spiritual matters every day. But he also offered much good advice that Christians and non-Christians alike can appreciate. I close with the following small sample and a hearty wish to you and yours for a very Merry Christmas!

“The truest lengthening of life is to live while we live, wasting no time but using every hour for the highest ends. So be it this day.”

“Mind your till, and till your mind.”

“Wisdom is, I suppose, the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”

“I would not have you exchange the gold of individual Christianity for the base metal of Christian Socialism.”

“Is it not proven beyond all dispute that there is no limit to the enormities which men will commit when they are once persuaded that they are keepers of other men’s consciences? To spread religion by any means, and to crush heresy by all means is the practical inference from the doctrine that one man may control another’s religion…To prevent forever the possibility of Papists roasting Protestants, Anglicans hanging Romish priests, and Puritans flogging Quakers, let every form of state-churchism be utterly abolished, and the remembrance of the long curse which it has cast upon the world be blotted out forever.”

For Additional Information, See:

Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey

Thomas Johnson: How a Slave Became the First Black Student at Spurgeon’s College by Philip McCormack

Spurgeon’s Guidance on Celebrating Christmas by Matthew Perry

The Life and Times of Charles H. Spurgeon by Patricia Stallings Kruppa

Merry Christmas from C. H. Spurgeon by Philip Ort

C. H. Spurgeon: The People’s Preacher (movie)

Through the Eyes of Spurgeon (video documentary)

Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon by Thomas Breimaier

Spurgeon: A Biography by Arnold A. Dallimore

Twenty-Eight Years a Slave: An Autobiography by Thomas Johnson

Science is Affirming Creation, Not Accident by Lawrence W. Reed

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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