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John Ploughman: Wisdom for the Everyman

Aaron Day October 12, 2021

Charles Spurgeon was a man and minister of the people. In a day in which people would often leave church more addled than edified, he spoke at the level of comprehension to where men and women from all walks of life would be able to clearly hear the call of Jesus Christ. He decried preaching that was so muddled with ivory tower language that it “require[d] a dictionary rather than a Bible to explain it.” This commitment to using plain words followed his writing ministry as well. Perhaps the greatest example of Spurgeon’s plainness in his speech comes through the character of John Ploughman.

Spurgeon, Ploughman, and Plain Sayings

John Ploughman was Spurgeon’s archetype of the ordinary man. The character of Ploughman first spoke to people through the pages of a monthly almanac that offered a proverb per day. He gave practical advice in the matters of, “temperance, thrift, kindness to animals, and a regard for religion, among working people,” (SC: Preface). The proverbs in the almanac were pithy and memorable; so much so that an Anglican magazine began to take these proverbs and publish them as the magazine’s own work. Spurgeon wrote the magazine asking for them to properly credit him as the author. If they would be too ashamed to associate with a Baptist, the magazine could continue utilizing the proverbs while attributing credit to Mr. John Ploughman, (Lectures 2: Cyclopedias of Anecdotes). These proverbial sayings were eventually compiled into a two-volume collection known as The Salt-Cellars. But these were not all that John Ploughman had to say.

At a quintessential gathering place for ordinary Englishmen, The Red Lion at Ockley (now The Inn on the Green), Spurgeon placed pen to paper and began writing “strong proverbial expressions and homely phrases,” (John Ploughman’s Talk: Preface). His goal was to, “[deal] blows at the vices of the masses, and [attempt] to inculcate those moral virtues without which men are degraded and miserable.” Spurgeon desired to see the masses lead moral, peaceable, and cheerful lives. And though his primary calling was the pulpit, Spurgeon acknowledged that some things needed to be said by means of practicality and plainness and “would not suit well the pulpit and the Sabbath.” He wanted the words of John Ploughman to permeate cottages and workshops. Seeing the necessity of bare bones language for a broad readership, Spurgeon declared, “I shall not repent the adoption of the rustic style.”

John Ploughman’s Talk or Plain Advice for Plain People was a runaway hit for Spurgeon’s writing ministry. This proved to be a great encouragement for Spurgeon’s earthy writing style as he says, “That I have written in a semi-humorous vein needs no apology, since thereby sound moral teaching has gained a hearing from at least 300,000 persons. There is no particular virtue being seriously unreadable.” The success of John Ploughman’s Talk prompted Spurgeon once again to put his hand to the plow in a second book John Ploughman’s Pictures or More of His Plain Talk for Plain People. John Ploughman’s Pictures was a continuation of ordinary wisdom given to ordinary folks with a witty edge. On this note Spurgeon says, “I have somewhat indulged the mirthful vein, but ever with so serious a purpose that I ask no forgiveness. Those who see a virtue in dulness have full permission to condemn, for a sufficient number will approve.”

It may still seem odd for a minister to be concerned with the plain matters of life to such an extent that he is compelled to write four volumes of pithy statements that do not have a great religious tone. But an introductory remark of Spurgeon’s to John Ploughman’s Pictures shows a greater purpose of these proverbs, “Although its tone is rather moral than religious, it has led many to take the first step by which men climb to better things…I have continued to use the simplest form of our mother tongue…To smite evil…has been my earnest endeavor, and assuredly there is need.” Spurgeon was not writing in an earthy manner for an earthly sake. Rather, he wanted to heartily provide ordinary people with the tools necessary to live a good, moral life that their eyes might be raised to the One Who gives that life.

Ploughman’s Greatest Hits

Here is a compilation of six outstanding excerpts of John Ploughman’s body of work:

“Advice to a thirsty soul. Try coffee. Advice to persons about to fight. Don’t! Advice when most needed is least heeded. Persons usually come for it when their minds are made up, and some even think you their enemy if you suggest that their way is not the best…So is it, that people take only such advice as suits their inclinations,” The Salt-Cellars

“He who basely runs away, will not fight another day. Of course he will not. There is no fight in him. In him prudence is the only form of valor; and it runs into his feet.

He who beats a donkey is worse than a donkey. Cruelty to animals is utterly senseless.

He who begins many things finishes few.

He who blabs about others will blab about me. Those who fetch will carry. He who finds fault with my neighbors to me will in turn find fault with me to my neighbors,” The Salt-Cellars

“Idleness is the key of beggary, and the root of all evil. Fellows have two stomachs for eating and drinking when they have no stomach for work. That little hole just under their nose swallows up in idle hours that money which should put clothes on the children’s backs and bread on the cottage table…loose habits grow out of lazy hours.” John Ploughman’s Talk

“Show me a loving husband, a worthy wife, and good children, and no pair of horses that ever flew along road could take me in a year where I could see a more pleasing sight. Home is the grandest of all institutions. Talk about parliament, but give me a quiet little parlor. Boast about voting and the Reform Bill if you like, but I go in for weeding the little garden and teaching the children their hymns,” John Ploughman’s Talk

“There are difficulties in everything except in eating pancakes, and nobody ought to be expected to untie all the knots in a net, or to make that straight which God has made crooked. He is the greatest fool of all who pretends to explain everything, and says he will not believe what he cannot understand,” John Ploughman’s Pictures

“Is not a man better than a beast? Then, depend upon it, what is good for the ploughing horse is good for the ploughing boy: a belly full of plain food is a wonderful help to a laboring man. A starving workman is a dear servant. If you don’t pay your men, they pay themselves, or else they shirk their work. He who labors well should be fed well, especially a ploughman,” John Ploughman’s Pictures

Banner of Truth has reprinted John Ploughman’s Talk and John Ploughman’s Pictures in one volume, entitled Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom: Plain Advice for Plain People. You can purchase a copy here.