top of page
  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Who was America's Spurgeon?

When German Reformed theologian Philip Schaff described the United States to his fellow Europeans in 1855, he could not help but marvel at the oratorical power in the adolescent nation. “I doubt whether any country,” Schaff speculated, “not even England excepted, can show, in proportion to its population, so great a number of good public speakers, debaters, and preachers, as the Anglo-Saxon Republic.”[1] With names like Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Douglass, Finney, and Beecher, the antebellum period has been called “The Golden Age of American Oratory” for good reason.[2]However, after the Civil War, it was in fact a British preacher, not an American, who was famously dubbed the “Prince of Preachers.” From his first Sunday at Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) drew an average of 6000 people in both morning and evening services for the next thirty years. With a prolific publishing career and a Pastor’s College where he trained almost 900 men, Spurgeon’s pulpit reached heights that transcended any of his American counterparts. Across the Atlantic, evangelicals generally recognized Spurgeon as one of, if not the, greatest living preacher. Fellow Baptist Francis Wayland, president of Brown University and one of the leading ethicists of his generation, praised “the manifest truthfulness of the man, arising from his perfect belief in all that he says. The truths of religion are as much a verity to him as his own existence.”[3] Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody compared Spurgeon to Martin Luther, John Wesley, and George Whitefield.[4]

Yet, for all of Spurgeon’s accomplishments and ability, America itself had no lack of great preaching. Evangelicals did not have to go far to encounter pastors and revivalists who could rightly divide the Scriptures. The itinerant Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright (and early political rival of Abraham Lincoln) dismissed the notion of reading sermons. “The great mass of our Western people wanted a preacher that could mount a stump, a block, or old log, or stand in the bed of a waggon, and, without note or manuscript, quote, expound, and apply the the word of God to the hearts and consciences of the people.”[5] The preaching culture of Victorian London seemed like a world away from the hinterlands of the Midwest. Furthermore, as historians have shown, in the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South, the anti-slavery Spurgeon was not beloved.[6] For many, Spurgeon’s title as the “Prince of Preachers” was specious.

In the late nineteenth century, much like the twenty-first, Americans were very particular about their preaching. Since the Great Awakening, evangelicals had developed a strong aversion to cold, lifeless clergymen devoid of biblical conviction. However, also like today, Americans’ definition of good preaching was as diverse as American religion itself. As a result, there was never just one prince in the American evangelical preaching kingdom. Instead, there were several. Each man garnered his own comparisons with Spurgeon, but for different reasons.

For many, Spurgeon’s counterpart in America was the man whom Spurgeon himself had honored above all other preachers of their generation. John Albert Broadus (1827–1895), the second president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was recognized as “a master of the pulpit and a great teacher of homiletics.”[7] His classic preaching text, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, drawn from lectures that he gave to a blind student, remains in print to this day. Although a popular preacher among Confederate soldiers during the war, the Virginian was celebrated in the North after the war. In 1889, he was invited to deliver the influential Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School. Historian Albert Henry Newman called Broadus “perhaps the greatest man the Baptists have produced.”[8] So renowned was Broaddus for his biblical exposition and his knowledge of biblical languages that Charles Spurgeon, who Broaddus heard preach on several occasions, called the Southern Baptist “the greatest of living preachers.” Surely, no American preacher received a greater commendation in the late nineteenth century. (Although Spurgeon did call English Baptist Andrew Fuller the “greatest theologian” of the nineteenth century.[9]) Still, as many evangelicals noted, Spurgeon’s style was not as formulaic and meticulous as homileticians like Broadus. Moreover, Broadus’s former ownership of slaves and his support for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War ensured that Broadus was not highly regarded in every corner of the republic.

After the Civil War, if a straw poll had been taken to ascertain the man who most Americans regarded as the nation’s best preacher, Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) would almost certainly have been the fan favorite. The son of the famous revivalist Lyman Beecher was dubbed “the most famous man in America” for his ability to captivate audiences at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, which seated a standing-room only crowd of 3000 people twice on Sundays.[10] Raised in New England and trained on the frontier with his father, Beecher combined Puritan intellect with the energy and revivalism of the West. The Sunday ferries that shipped Manhanittes across the river to Brooklyn were called “Beecher Boats.” The heterodox Beecher was, in many ways, the exact opposite of John Broadus, evading points of doctrine and becoming the moral voice of the North during the war. After Appomattox, at the raising of the United States flag over Fort Sumter, Beecher was invited by President Lincoln to deliver the first official speech on Southern soil by a Union man. “We had better send Beecher down to address on the occasion of the raising of the flag because if it had not been for Beecher there would have been no flag to raise.”[11] Despite being plagued by a sex scandal in the 1870s, and despite being one of the most hated men in the South, Beecher was bold enough to make a Southern tour in 1883. Not only did Beecher pack out auditoriums, but the day before he preached in Augusta, Georgia (the site of the first Southern Baptist Convention), the Chronicle and Constitutionalist urged locals to take advantage of the opportunity “of a lifetime” to hear the man who “stands foremost as the greatest living pulpit orator, with the possible exception of the English divine, Mr. Spurgeon.”[12] Evidently, the Prince of Preachers was not hated in every corner of the American South. With time, Spurgeon was no longer anathemized in Dixie. Nevertheless, Spurgeon did not relish comparisons with the Brooklyn preacher.[13]

While the Southerner John Broadus garnered comparisons with Spurgeon for his Calvinism and his commitment to orthodoxy, and the Northerner Beecher did so because of a similar extemporaneous and energetic style that mesmerized audiences, in the West, Chicago revivalist Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) was likened to Spurgeon due to his ability to convert the lost. Moody was a deep admirer of Spurgeon for his evangelical ministry and his various social and moral causes in the city of London. He even arranged to meet Spurgeon on his visit to Britain in 1872, and Spurgeon acknowledged to his congregation the international influence of Moody and Ira Sankey, Moody’s famous music minister. So prolific was Moody’s revivalistic ministry that one churchgoer believed he was indeed America’s Spurgeon. “Of one thing I feel sure, and that is, if another book of the Acts of Christ’s faithful Apostles were to be written, probably the largest space in the record of the nineteenth century would be given to the soul-saving work of Charles H. Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody.”[14] In seemingly every corner of America, the next Charles Spurgeon had been found.

That the “Prince of Preachers” could be compared with such a variety of evangelical orators ultimately attests to the versatility of Spurgeon’s preaching. He was orthodox, engaging, and evangelistic. His sermons were biblical, relatable, and convicting. For this reason, American evangelicals naturally viewed their favorite preachers in the light of his dynamic ministry. There was something of Spurgeon in a range of denominations and churches. By the same token, that Spurgeon could be placed alongside such different personalities and styles is confirmation that the ideal of “greatest” has always been a very subjective concept in the American church. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the democratized kingdom of American evangelicalism, an undisputed “Prince of Preachers” has never been coronated.

[1] Philip Schaff, America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character, 68. [2] Edwin Griffin Parker, Golden Age of American Oratory [3] Francis Wayland, Heman Lincoln Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, Vol. 2 [4] Dwight L. Moody, “Thou Fool!” And Eleven Other Sermons Never Before Published, 36. [5] Peter Cartwright, The Backwoods Preacher, 208. [6] Christian George, “Why the American South Would Have Killed Charles Spurgeon”

[7] Timothy George, “Introduction,” John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, 5. [8] Quoted in A. T. Robertson, Life and Letters John Albert Broadus, 10. [9] Michael A. G. Haykin, “Andrew Fuller and the Cross,” The Gospel Coalition, December 8, 2017. [10] Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America [11] Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America [12] Doris Lanier, “Henry Ward Beecher: A Lecture Tour of Georgia in 1883,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly Vol. 68, No. 3 (Fall 1984): 348. [13] The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, Vol. IV: 1878–1892 [14] William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, 258.

126 views0 comments


bottom of page