Article Dec 17, 2015

How would Spurgeon vote?

Charles Spurgeon awoke one morning during a general election to find his house vandalized. During the night, hoodlums had painted his front gate and walls blue—the color of the Conservative (Tory) party. That evening, Spurgeon addressed the defacing of his estate in a sermon: “It is notorious that I am no Tory, so I shall not trouble to remove the paint; perhaps those who put it on will take it off when it has been there long enough to please them.”

As the battle between the red and blue states unfolds with the fifth and final GOP debate this week, one wonders if Spurgeon will again be cast in this color. In a post entitled, “Spurgeon: How the politically liberal preacher became a conservative Christian paragon,” Jonathan Merritt cites Tom Nettles that “Spurgeon was basically a left winger politically” and concludes, “It’s not difficult to imagine that Spurgeon would have opposed the political positions of many conservative Christians today.”

There is merit to his claim. “I am as good a Liberal as any man living,” said Spurgeon. As such, he (usually) sided with the progressive politics of Prime Minister William Gladstone over those of Benjamin Disraeli. Spurgeon opposed Disraeli’s Machiavellian maneuvers in Afghanistan and equated military expansion with national sin. Spurgeon believed in civil rights for minorities and even funded the safe passage, education and life-long missionary work of Thomas L. Johnson—a former slave from Virginia. Spurgeon opposed the elite aristocracy of the Conservative Party, and in the election of 1880 distributed so many political leaflets in South London that he single-handedly swung the election in favor of the Liberals.

On some issues, though, the famous pastor at Elephant & Castle does appear to take a Republican shape. Spurgeon was pro-life at every stage of human development. He spoke harshly against the evils of infanticide. He believed that God blesses a nation committed to Christian principles. He supported Bible reading in public schools and upheld the separation, not of church and state, but of Anglican Church and state, where England was God’s “chosen nation,” and as such, public employees should be required to pass a “theistic” test. Spurgeon was also pro-gun, hunting fox and pheasants with his friend James Toller in Cambridgeshire.      

Martin Luther claimed that Scripture has a wax nose and can be twisted in any direction you like. The same may be said of Spurgeon’s politics. Keith Miller even argues that Spurgeon was a “proto-Tea Partier” who, in an age when the sun never set on the British Empire, models a foreign policy similar to the “non-interventionism of Rand Paul.”

Yet at the end of the day, it is impossible—not to mention historically irresponsible—to simply deracinate Spurgeon from his 19th-century context and implant him into our own. Although the Victorians faced many of the challenges that we do, such as the threat of terrorism in the Middle East, issues of racial tension, and the ethics of a super-power policing the world, a straight line cannot be drawn across a century and an ocean from the “liberals” and “conservatives” of Victorian Britain to the Democrats and Republicans of today. To force Spurgeon into our modern mold is as misleading as it is anachronistic.  

Yet, if there are any political lessons we may learn from Spurgeon, perhaps they are these:

1. Christians must vote. Spurgeon believed voting was a God-given duty for the Christian. He wrote, “We are now called upon to exercise one of the privileges and duties which go with liberty, let no man be neglectful in it. Every God fearing man should give his vote with as much devotion as he prays.” For Spurgeon, whose personal books on politics can be read in The Spurgeon Library, the option not to vote was not an option.  

2. Vote on moral and biblical principles, not on partisan allegiances. Though Spurgeon sided with liberal politician William Gladstone to such a degree that many dubbed them “the two prime ministers,” Spurgeon voted against Gladstone when his conscience required him to do so (i.e., the vote for the Home Rule Bill of 1886). Spurgeon voted instead “as unto the Lord.” He wrote, “Do not give yourselves up to party spirit. It is a pity when a man cares only for politics, when the one grand thing he lives for is to return a Liberal for Parliament, or to get in a Radical, or to lift a Tory to the top of the poll. To live for a political party is unworthy of a man who professes to be a Christian.” Fidelity to Scripture must always undergird a Christian’s political activism.

Like the hoodlums who eventually returned to Spurgeon’s estate to scrape the blue paint from his property, so must we. And in doing so, we can replace the question “How would Spurgeon vote?” with a better one: How should we vote?

ERLC2018