Monday, March 12, 2007

Spurgeon on imperialism and the gospel

Following a friendly exchange with Michael Westmorland White in the comments on this post, here is an extract from one of Spurgeon's sermons on Zechariah 4:6. The great Victorian preacher argues that imperialism is no friend of the gospel.
First, let us consider that collected might to represent human armies. The church, we affirm, can neither be preserved nor can its interests be promoted by human armies. We have all thought otherwise in our time, and have foolishly said when a fresh territory was annexed to our empire, "Ah! what a providence that England has annexed Oude,"—or taken to itself some other territory—"Now a door is opened for the Gospel. A Christian power will necessarily encourage Christianity, and seeing that a Christian power is at the head of the Government, it will be likely that the natives will be induced to search into the authenticity of our revelation, and so great results will follow. Who can tell but that, at the point of the British bayonet, the Gospel will be carried, and that, by the edge of the true sword of valiant men, Christ's Gospel will be proclaimed?" I have said so myself; and now I know I am a fool for my pains, and that 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, and that the spread of our empire, so far from being advantageous to the Gospel, I will hold, and this day proclaim, hath been hostile to it.
We will just confine our attention for a moment or two to India. I believe that British rule there, has been useful in many ways. I shall not deny the civilizing influence of European society; or that great things have been done for humanity; but I do assert, and can prove it, that there would have been greater probability of the Gospel spreading in India if it had been let alone, than there has been ever since the domination of Great Britain. Ye thought that when Christians, as ye called them, had the land, they would favor religion. Now I will state a fact which ought to go through the length and breadth of the land; it does not rest on hearsay, I was informed of it a little while ago by a clergyman, upon whose memory the fact is vividly impressed. A Sepoy in a certain regiment was converted to God by a missionary. He proposed to be baptized, and become a Christian. Mark, not a Christian after our way and fashion, as a Baptist, or an Independent or a Methodist; but a Christian according to the fashion of the Episcopalian church established in this realm. He was seen by the chaplain, and was received as a Christian. What think you became of that Sepoy? Let the East India Company blush for ever, he was stripped of his regimentals, dismissed the service and sent home, because he had become a Christian! Ah! we dreamed that if the; had the power they would help us. Alas! the policy of greed cannot easily be made to assist the Kingdom of Christ.
But I have another string to my bow, I believe that the help of Government would have been far worse than its opposition, I do regret that the Company sometimes discourages missionary enterprise; but I believe that, had they encouraged it, it would have been far worse still, for their encouragement would have been the greatest hindrance we could receive. If I had to-morrow to go to India to preach the Gospel, I should pray to God, if such a thing could be, that he would give me a black face and make me like a Hindoo; for otherwise I should feel that when I preached I should be regarded as one of the lords—one of the oppressors it may sometime be added—and I should not expect my congregation to listen to me as a man speaking to men, a brother to brother, a Christian full of love, but they would hear me, and only cavil at me, because even my white face would give me some appearance of superiority. Why in England, our missionaries and our clergymen have assumed a kind of superiority and dignity over the people; they have called themselves clergy, and the people laity; and the result has been that they have weakened their influence. I have thought it right to come amongst my fellow men, and be a man amongst men, just one of themselves, their equal and their friend; and they have rallied around me, and not refused to love me. And I should not expect to be successful in preaching the gospel, unless I might stand and feel that I am a brother, bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh. If I cannot stand before them thus, I cannot get at their hearts. Send me, then, to India as one of the dominant ruling race, and you give me a work I cannot accomplish when you tell me to evangelise its inhabitants.
In that day when John Williams fell in Erromanga, ye wept, but it was a more hopeful day for Erromanga than the day when our missionaries in India first landed there. I had rather go to preach to the greatest savages that live, than I would go to preach in the place that is under British rule. Not for the fault of Britain, but simply because I, as a Briton, would be looked upon as one of the superiors, one of the lords, and that would take away much of my power to do good. Now, will you just cast your eye upon the wide world? Did you ever hear of a nation under British rule being converted to God? Mr. Moffat and our great friend Dr. Livingstone have been laboring in Africa with great success, and many have been converted. Did you ever hear of Kaffir tribes protected by England, ever being converted? It is only a people that have been left to themselves, and preached to by men as men, that have been brought to God. For my part, I conceive, that when an enterprise begins in martyrdom, it is none the less likely to succeed, but when conquerors begin to preach the gospel to those they have conquered, it will not succeed, God will teach us that it is not by might. All swords that have ever flashed from scabbards have not aided Christ a single grain. Mahommedans' religion might be sustained by scimitars, but Christians' religion must be sustained by love.
The great crime of war can never promote the religion of peace. The battle, and the garment rolled in blood, are not a fitting prelude to "peace on earth, goodwill to men." And I do firmly hold, that the slaughter of men, that bayonets, and swords, and guns, have never yet been, and never can be, promoters of the gospel. The gospel will proceed without them, but never through them. "Not by might." Now don't be be fooled again, if you hear of the English conquering in China, don't go down on your knees and thank God for it, and say it's such a heavenly thing for the spread of the gospel—it just is not. Experience teaches you that, and if you look upon the map you will find I have stated only the truth, that where our arms have been victorious, the gospel has been hindered rather than not; so that where South Sea Islanders have bowed their knees and cast their idols to the bats, British Hindoos have kept their idols, and where Bechuanas and Bushmen have turned unto the Lord, British Affairs have not been converted, not perhaps because they were British, but because the very fact of the missionary being a Briton, put him above them, and weakened their influence.
Hush thy trump, O war; put away thy gaudy trappings and thy bloodstained drapery, if thou thinkest that the cannon with the cross upon it is really sanctified, and if thou imaginest that thy banner hath become holy, thou dreamest of a lie. God wanteth not thee to help his cause. "It is not by armies, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord."
Preached on Sunday 31st August 1857, Sermon no. 149 (here)


John said...

It would be my opinion wouldn't it, Guy, that the most important part of this opinion is the place where imperialism is linked to cleresy. Mr. Spurgeon is well noted for not even taking the term Reverend to deny its exclusive use by clerics and one wonders what would happen if we likewise were to get down with those being baptised for repentance in the Jordan instead of standing with Pharisees on the banks.

Exiled Preacher said...

Yes, CHS was a very anti-clerical cleric.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

In fact, Spurgeon referred to ordination as "sweaty hands on empty heads."

This was a good post. I do not argue that Spurgeon was a pacifist. His scattered quotes on the subject are too ambiguously phrased. He is clearly anti-imperialist. His opposition to the Crimean War (which I noted on my blog) caused him to be threatened by the Crown with charges of treason--but the Crown's prosecutors never followed through.

Exiled Preacher claimed to be a "gospel pacifist" (which he seemed to restrict to the claim that the gospel cannot be advanced militarily), but also believe (ref. to Rom. 13) that "governments do not wield the sword in vain." Fair enough. Several questions follow: 1) What does it mean for the governing authorities to "bear the sword?" See Yoder's chapter on Romans in The Politics of Jesus, Klaus Wengst, The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ. 2) Even if the meaning of "bearing the sword" is, as Guy seems to hold, that governments are allowed to make war, the question then follows, "Are Christians allowed to be part of this?" That is not at all obvious from reading Romans--where Paul is arguing for suffering obedience to an oppressive regime. It is also far from obvious from reading Jesus and the Gospels, the Book of James, or the Revelation (in which the followers of the Lamb conquer only through their testimony and the Blood of the Lamb). Just as there can be no "Christian brothel keepers," shall we not even entertain the possibility that "Christian soldier" is an oxymoron? Spurgeon, while probably not a complete pacifist, was certainly willing to entertain that possibility and praised the peace witness of George Fox (and the number of times that a Calvinist praised Fox can probably be counted on one hand!).

I contend that Spurgeon is not alone, either. Although Baptists have not been as consistently pacifist as Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren, Baptists have often been far more active in pursuing peace with justice than they are currently. While producing some famous pacifists (Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Muriel Lester, etc.), we have more often produced near-pacifist champions of peace and human rights--and they have come from many different strands of Baptist life: conservatives and liberals, Calvinists and Arminians, missionaries, biblical scholars, evangelists, theologians, laypersons, etc.
I want us to recover that legacy and strengthen it. I think Spurgeon would have approved--so would have Robert Hall and many others.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Also remarkable is Spurgeon's clear awareness and repudiation of the racism which dominated European and American policies, INCLUDING the attitudes of most mission boards of the time. If Spurgeon's views on this matter had prevailed, history might have been better and the Kingdom better served.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for you comments, MWW.

But there were believing soldiers in the NT. The centurion at whose faith Jesus marvelled and Cornelius for example. It does not seem to me that the NT disapproves of Christian soldiering and it might disapprove of "Christian" brothel keeping.

Many early Church Christians did not engage in military service because of widespread Mithraism in the Roman army. But it is also reckoned that Christian soldiers actively spread the gospel throughout the Empire during their tours of duty.

I admit Romans 13 was not exactly written to recruit Christians to the Roman Legions, but if God has sanctioned the use of force then maybe it isn't wrong for Christians to wage just wars.

My "gospel pacifist" position is part of the Baptist heritage too and is enshrined in the good 'ol 1689:

2. It is lawful for Christians to Accept, and Execute the Office of a Magistrate when called thereunto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain Justice, and Peace, according to the wholsome Laws of each Kingdome, and Commonwealth: so for that end they may lawfully now under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasions. (XXIV:2)

I applaud Spurgeon's noble anti-racist views. Would that they had prevailed in the Church all the sooner!

I think we've crossed strictly metaphorical swords over the Baptist peacenik/warmonger issue on other occasions and I welcome your input.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I'll say more on this another time. The 1689 confession (more often known in the U.S. as the Second London Confession) was modeled on the Westminster Confession--and Westminster made JWT a matter of dogma which it was not in previous church history. This is missing from the 1st London Confession. Baptists have not generally taken confessional statements as inerrant--but as open to revision.
Jesus trumps anything written in 1689, in other words, or biblical authority has no meaning.

But I will reserve further comment for another time since I believe the entire just war tradition to be apostasy from the NT and the early church. The question of soldiers in the NT is grasping at straws--Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, not his occupation. It was VERY difficult for soldiers in the Roman army to leave--many who converted to Christ tried and were martyred. The early church commanded those who were in the army not to kill-even if ordered to do so--and forbade baptising any catechumen not already in the Roman army who wanted to join. They continually cited Jesus' teachings as rationale.

The early church gave as its reasons for opposing military service BOTH the temptations to idolatry AND the possibility that they would be asked to kill. I have read the Ante-Nicene Fathers rather thoroughly on this point.

Exiled Preacher said...


I'm aware of the 1689's dependence on the WCF. Of course no creed or confession is above the scrutiny of Scripture.

Athanasius wrote in favour of the JWT as of course did Augustine.

I think that there is more to the positive portrayal of the faith of soldiers in the NT than you are willing to concede.

You wrote,

"I believe the entire just war tradition to be apostasy from the NT and the early church."

That's bit fundy for a peacenik with a female pastor.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Athanasius had some strong pacifist statements, too. Both he and Augustine were post-Constantine, of course.

My female pastor has nothing to do with whether or not JWT is apostasy. I am not claiming inerrancy, so I am not counting up verses. Nonviolence is the Christian norm from Matthew to Revelation.

I won't get sidetracked on the question of women in ministry--you have doubtless read all the debates, including the exegetical debates, on all sides. If not, they are easily available and I am not needed as a source to defend women in ministry.

But my pacifism is one of my most CONSERVATIVE theological views. It's the JWT types who depart from Jesus and the NT. This is so obvious that it is one of the reasons I do not take inerrantists seriously: if they really believed in inerrancy, they would be pacifists.

Exiled Preacher said...

Hey Michael, the fundy remarks at the end of my last comments were a cheap quip. No need to do a tirade. Chill out, man.

What's inerrancy got to do with it anyway? I'm not saying that I believe in JWT in the face of the Bible's misguided pacifist teaching. I'm just not convinced that Scripture taken as a whole (including the OT) is totally anti-war. In fact one of my problems with the pacifist stance is the tendency to take an almost Marcionite view of the OT teaching on war.

For me, pacifism/JWT is an issue on which Christians may legitimately disagree. Holding either view is not tantamount to apostasy.

tony garrood said...

Its not just Spurgeon amongst 19th century baptists who was dubious about christians and war. Mr Philpot wrote in answer to an inquiry in 1857 in the Gospel Standard 'Beyond all question war, viewed in itself, is inconsistent with the gospel of peace and righteousness, and there is necessarily in the very profession of a soldier that which must shock every truely Christian herat. ... It is surely one thing, being a Christian to go into the army and another, being a Christian, to continue in the army. We can hardly think that any man possessed of a tender conscience and the life of God in his soul would deliberately enlist...' He ends, writing at the same time as Spurgeon about the fighting in India that 'there are a few who fear God in our Indian Army'.

I wonder when Calvinistic Baptists became more favourably disposed to warfare - certainly you do not get a sense in reading the lifes in the GS today that partaking in the wars of the 20th century was a problem for the conscience of those SB's who fought in them.

He mentions the Centurion. His point, with which I could answer you Guy, is that it is one thing to be something when one is converted, another thing to search out a particularly way of life once converted. The person who marries again and is then converted is a divorced and remarried Christian, something I would say our Lord warns against (to say the least), but that person is not that as a Christian but was that when they became a Christian. its the same with the NT examples of soldiers. They were soldiers when they met with Christ and the apostles. This ways nothing about whether a believer should be a soldier.