“Dumb Dogs” in the Pulpit: Spurgeon on Borrowed Sermons

Geoff Chang July 5, 2021

Iain Murray once observed that Spurgeon wrote and preached so much that people can basically cherry-pick quotes from his works to support virtually any position, even those he would’ve adamantly opposed. Such has been the case with the topic of plagiarizing sermons recently. Every few years, this controversy resurfaces. Some are quick to condemn it, while others attempt to provide a more nuanced response. Sometimes, the latter will point to examples in church history of those who plagiarized sermons, and among those listed is Spurgeon. Did Spurgeon support preaching borrowed sermons?

Spurgeon repudiated plagiarism in the pulpit

Spurgeon was a remarkably original preacher. While ministers in the Church of England still read sermons from the book of homilies, Spurgeon believed that the preacher should depend not on pre-written sermons but the Holy Spirit. This dependence took place not only while preaching but even in sermon preparation. At the heart of Spurgeon’s rejection of plagiarism was his deep conviction that preaching should be led by the Spirit.

Amid a full ministry schedule during the week, Spurgeon carved out time late into the night on Saturdays to work on his sermons. In his lectures to his students, we see that prayerful dependence was at the heart of his preparations.

To me still, I must confess, my text selection is a very great embarrassment— embarras de richesses, as the French say—an embarrassment of riches, very different from the bewilderment of poverty—the anxiety of attending to the most pressing of so many truths, all clamoring for a hearing, so many duties all needing enforcing, and so many spiritual needs of the people all demanding supply. I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study. (Lectures 1:88)

Spurgeon would spend much of the night studying the Scriptures, trying out different “skeletons” (sermon outlines), and praying for the Spirit to guide him in preparing the sermon. During his study, Spurgeon consulted commentaries and other writers, but never as a substitute for the Spirit’s leading. In the end, he looked for spiritual guidance. “Many ministers appear to think that they are to choose the text; they are to discover its teaching; they are to find a discourse in it. We do not think so.”

How different was Spurgeon’s approach from those who simply borrowed another’s sermon!  Spurgeon often rebuked preachers of his day for reading other’s sermons as their own, rather than prayerfully preparing one for their people. To do so was to forego the Spirit’s work in the preacher. Spurgeon clearly repudiated such a practice, and he spoke about it clearly.[1]

Spurgeon believed that those who preached borrowed sermons did so for their own ease and convenience.

There are still plenty who hardly know anything about the gospel. They preach about a great many things, but little or nothing about Jesus Christ. They buy their sermons cheaply, and preach them at their ease; they ask God to teach them what to say, and then pull their manuscripts out of their pockets! We have had to mourn, especially in years gone by, that we could look from parish to parish, and find only “dumb dogs” in the pulpits. And some men, who might have spoken with a little earnestness, if they had liked, let the people slumber under them, instead of preaching the Word with true fidelity, remembering that they will have to give account to God at the last. (MTP 45; Sermon No. 2625)

It is no use for a man simply to have a curacy or something of that sort, buy his manuscripts cheap, come up and read off two sermons twenty minutes long, go home with a good conscience that he has done duty twice, and then say, “Let the whole earth be filled with his glory.” … But you shut yourself up in your study, or what is ten times worse, you do nothing at all, but just take it easy all the week till the Sunday comes, and then borrow a sermon out of an old magazine, or buy one of the helps for ministers, or take down one of Charles Simeon’s skeletons and preach it. My good man, you cannot pray in that fashion. (NPSP 3: Sermon No. 129)

Such preachers asked God for help in their preaching, but their use of bought sermons contradicted their prayers. Their concern was more for their convenience rather than the glory of God, and as a result, the sermons they preached were usually poor and lacking Christ.

Preaching borrowed sermons robs the congregation of a minister who has known the truth of God’s Word firsthand.

In order that you may impress the Word upon those to whom you preach, remember that it must be impressed upon yourself first. You must feel it yourself, and speak as a man who feels it, not as if you feel it, but because you feel it, otherwise you will not make it felt by others. I wonder what it must be to go up into the pulpit, and read somebody else’s sermon to the congregation. We read in the Bible of one thing that was borrowed, and the head of that came off; and I am afraid that the same thing often happens with borrowed sermons – the heads come off. Men who read borrowed sermons positively do not know anything about our troubles of mind in preparing for the pulpit, or our joy in preaching with the aid of only brief notes. (Soul Winner, 92)

Borrowed sermons — pages of other people’s experience — fragments pulled from old or new divines — nothing of their own, nothing that God ever said to them, nothing that ever thrilled their hearts or swayed their souls, — God will not own such teaching as this. (MTP 42; Sermon No. 2460).

A borrowed sermon may have someone else’s experience.  But it doesn’t have the preacher’s experience. Those truths have not been impressed on the preacher. He can only preach “as if” he feels it, not “because” he feels it. As a result, the congregation suffers, and “God will not own such teaching as this.”

God will call preachers to account for preaching Christ-less, borrowed sermons.

Oh the curse on the other hand, that shall rest on a man who, in his last moments, shall have to reflect – “I preached other men’s sermons, and talked of anything but Christ; I lifted up anything but the Lord!” (MTP 8:461)

For such preachers, it won’t matter that these sermons were not their sermons. “They will have to give account to God at the last” for their laziness and for every word of these borrowed sermons.

As one who preached at least four times a week, Spurgeon could easily have lightened his load by preaching borrowed sermons. Even more, as one who often preached away, he could’ve lightened his load by taking old sermons and re-preaching them (though this would’ve likely been detected, given how popular his printed sermons were!). But whether in his own pulpit or away, Spurgeon did not want to rob himself of an opportunity for prayerful dependence on the Spirit. Similarly, Spurgeon encouraged the preachers of his day to repudiate plagiarism and to preach their own sermons.

Spurgeon commended the proper use of printed sermons

Having said all that, Spurgeon lived during the age of printed sermons, and he himself published and sold hundreds of thousands of sermons. Certainly, he believed that there were exceptions where a preacher may read a printed sermon in the pulpit appropriately. People have cited these instances as Spurgeon’s support for plagiarizing sermons, but in fact, these would only be exceptions to the rule.

One exception of this is for those who are just starting in their preaching. Early in his preaching career, when he was seventeen, Spurgeon discovered how instructive it was for him to borrow sermon outlines from preachers like John Gill, Charles Simeon, and others. Spurgeon drew heavily from these sources to fill out his preaching outline, but in the end, given that his outline was only a few pages long, he likely still had to fill out his sermon with much of his own extemporaneous insights and comments. As a young teenager learning to preach, these pre-written sermon outlines provided a helpful starting point. By the time he began pastoring in London, he had preached nearly 700 sermons, and though he was still only nineteen, he no longer needed to rely on Gill and others as he did in his early years.

This would be a practice that he later supported also. In 1877, he visited Bristol College and donated a set of his sermons to the college. One person records the event,

He thought the books he gave would be useful to students, as most of them were sermons; “and if any brother would like to preach them (continued Mr. Spurgeon) I hereby decree he shall not be guilty of plagiarism, as I hand them over to be the property of the college.” (Speeches at Home and Abroad, “Earnest Students”)

Note that Spurgeon here makes an exception. Typically, a preacher preaching another’s sermon would be “guilty of plagiarism.” But in this case, because these are students who are learning to preach, he was happy to grant an exception. Eventually, however, Spurgeon insisted that his own students learn to prepare and preach their own sermons. During their studies at the Pastors’ College, students had to prepare and deliver at least one original sermon for critique. On one occasion, a student attempted to plagiarize his sermon.

It has long been our rule that each brother should read in the College at least one discourse which he has himself composed, and which his comrades are expected to criticize. Any attempt at plagiarism would, therefore, be manifestly unfair; and, if detected, would meet with well-merited condemnation. One man, when it came to his turn, was actually reckless and foolish enough to take one of my printed sermons, — I suppose condensed, — and to read it as though it had been his own composition; and he had to thank his brethren that he was not instantly expelled from the Institution, Several of them at once recognized the discourse; and, as soon as the time for criticism arrived, proceeded to pull it to pieces most mercilessly.

They found fault with the introduction, the divisions, the subdivisions, the illustrations, the application, — with everything, in fact, except the doctrine; — I think that was all right! I was so pleased with the critical acumen displayed that I forgave the offender; but I let it be distinctly understood that, for the future, any student repeating the offense, whether with my sermon or anyone else’s, would be forthwith dismissed in disgrace. (Autobiography 3:148)

Spurgeon dealt graciously with this student but also made it clear that such future action would result in expulsion “in disgrace.”

Another story has been raised concerning Spurgeon’s students and plagiarism. Lloyd Jones tells the story of another student who was caught plagiarizing a sermon, which was thought to belong to Spurgeon. As it turns out, it belonged to William Jay of Bath, but the headings and content matched Spurgeon’s!

“’Wait a minute,’ said Spurgeon, and turning to his library, he pulled out one of the volumes and there was the sermon, the exact sermon-the same text, the same headings, the same everything! What had happened? The fact was that Mr. Spurgeon had also preached William Jay’s sermon and had actually put it into print with other sermons of his. Mr. Spurgeon’s only explanation was that it was many years since he had read the two volumes of Jay’s sermons and that he had forgotten all about it. He could say quite honestly that he was not aware of the fact that when he had preached that sermon he was preaching one the sermons of William Jay. It had registered unconsciously in his memory. The student was absolved of the charge of preaching one of Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, but was still guilty of theft!” (Preaching & Preachers, 294)

I haven’t been able to track down the source of this anecdote, so it’s not clear how accurate it is. Even so, it’s worth observing that Spurgeon firmly opposes plagiarism even in this story. First, the student who consciously used Jay’s sermon was still “guilty of theft.” Second, Spurgeon did not consciously plagiarize Jay, which is why he tried to explain it. Somehow, through his own sermon preparation, Spurgeon had arrived at the same sermon outline as Jay, and in his delivery, he extemporaneously delivered much of the same content. All this happened, remarkably, from being unconsciously influenced by reading Jay’s sermon many years ago. This raises the related but separate issue of unconscious plagiarism… if you have a photographic memory like Spurgeon, watch out! Had he known, Spurgeon would not have done it. But as it is, he unintentionally erred. In the end, it’s clear that Spurgeon did not intend to copy Jay and would still charge sermon plagiarism as theft.

The other exception that Spurgeon might have allowed was on occasions where an inexperienced deacon or layperson read a printed sermon at a Christian gathering because a preacher is unavailable. The stories abound of sailors reading Spurgeon sermons on the high seas or miners gathering in Colorado on a Sunday to hear a Spurgeon sermon. Many were converted on such occasions, and Spurgeon was always glad to hear these stories. Even in such cases, however, the preacher or reader should have made it clear that this was a printed sermon, rather than original to the preacher (which would’ve been obvious in the case of miners and sailors). But on one occasion, he was willing to excuse a lay preacher who clearly passed off one of Spurgeon’s sermons as his own.

I remember once feeling many questions as to whether I was a child of God or not. I went into a little chapel, and I heard a good man preach. He was a simple workingman. I heard him preach, and I made my handkerchief sodden with my tears as I heard him talk about Christ, and the precious blood. When I was preaching the same things to others I was wondering whether this truth was mine, but while I was hearing for myself I knew it was mine, for my very soul lived upon it. I went to that good man, and thanked him for the sermon. He asked me who I was. When I told him, he turned all manner of colors. “Why,” he said, “Sir, that was your own sermon.” I said, “Yes, I knew it was, and it was good of the Lord to feed me with food that I had prepared for others.” (MTP 32, Sermon No. 1877)

Spurgeon loved Jesus. And he understood that God could use even a borrowed sermon to glorify His Son. Such was the case in the story above. The “simple workingman” had plagiarized his sermon (and was clearly embarrassed by it). Spurgeon did not commend the practice but humbly thanked him for the sermon and praised God for using it for his encouragement.

But Spurgeon was no pragmatist. Though God could work through a plagiarizing preacher, He did so despite the preacher’s dishonesty and laziness. For himself, he sought to maintain a prayerful dependence on God by only preaching his own sermons, and he urged his students and other pastors to do the same.

[1] Many thanks to Phil Johnson, a friend of the Spurgeon Library, for compiling these and many other quotes.