Young ministers would do well to remember that for purposes of teaching there are two fields of usefulness open to them, and that both deserve to be cultivated. The utterance of truth with the living voice is their main business, and for many reasons this deserves their chief attention; but the publishing of the same truth by means of the press is barely second in importance and should be used to the full measure of each man’s ability.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon urged preachers to employ the pulpit and the pen for useful purposes. His exhortation applies today as it did in 1871 when first issued. Listening to Spurgeon will help all who heed his counsel to write clearly, powerfully, and effectively.
[Write], brother, not because it is easy but because it is worth doing.
Treatments of Spurgeon focus on his preaching more than his writing, and rightly so. He is remembered as the “Prince of Preachers” for a reason. His sermons were powerful, gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, and were used by God to the saving of souls. But Spurgeon was an author before he was a preacher. Prior to 15 years old, he produced “papers” or “magazines” read mainly by family and a few locals at Colchester. At age 15, prior to his conversion, he penned an almost 300-page essay, Anti-Christ, and Her Brood; or, Popery Unmasked. This “essay” was written in November and December 1849—2 months, 300 pages. It was an amazing feat for anyone, more so for a teenager. Spurgeon’s essay foreshadowed an almost unprecedented publishing career that lay before him.
Spurgeon’s writing continued from ages 17 to 19 while pastor of Waterbeach Baptist Chapel (1851–1853). During his London years, 1854–1892, his literary output rivaled that of the greatest English writers from all of history. His printed sermons and books traveled around the globe and found their way to Russia, America, South Africa, Holland, France, and essentially everywhere else. It was common to find a copy of a Spurgeon sermon beside a Bible in pious homes worldwide.
Spurgeon discovered books as a boy and was unwilling to lay them aside for athletics or rabbit-tending. If his mother wanted him to ride to a shop with her, she had to first get his attention and then unshackle him from his books. During the years he lived with his grandparents, he sometimes ignored them when they cried out “Charles, Charles,” because he was hidden away reading books. He read Crusoe, Boswell, Brooks, Raleigh, Baxter, Bunyan, and more. He reviewed books, recommended books, and distributed books. It is impossible to understand Spurgeon apart from books. It was from his reading that his writing sprung.
What can we learn from Spurgeon about writing?
Writing is Hard Work
Spurgeon entertained no romantic notions about writing. Early in his career, he lamented, “Writing is the work of a slave.” His greater joy was talking out his thoughts, but he said, “It is poor drudgery to sit still and groan for thoughts and words without succeeding in obtaining them.” He mused, “Well may a man’s books be called his ‘works,’ for, if every mind were constituted as mine, it would be work indeed to produce a quarto volume.” On the other hand, he admitted to delighting in his pen, “I, at times, so enjoyed the meditation which my writing has induced, that I would not discontinue the labor were it ten times more irksome: and moreover, I have some hopes that it might yet be a pleasure to me to serve God with the pen as well as the lip.”
Little did Spurgeon know the extent to which he would serve God via his writings. From his pen arose 135 books, 63 volumes of sermons, plus other writings of various sorts: book reviews, articles, lectures, and tracts. Spurgeon became one of the most prolific English authors of all time. More than 130 years after his death, Spurgeon’s books are still sold in bookstores; his devotional, Morning and Evening, is especially popular.
A Sentence Might Reach the World
A book, tract, magazine, or printed sermon might travel the world and touch multitudes. It might also step into a time portal and reach people for hundreds or thousands of years into the future. Spurgeon believed in the global possibilities of writing.
“It is a surprising thought that what is written today in our study may in a few weeks be read beyond the Alleghanies, and before long may lift its voice at the Antipodes. And as space is thus overleaped, so also is time; for if the world should last another five hundred years, the author of an immortal sentence will continue still to speak from the glowing page.”
Writing has the possibility of doing good to the souls of men.
“The possibility of doing good to the souls of men is a grand incentive which needs no other to supplement it, and such a possibility beyond all question exists when warm-hearted thought is expressed in telling language, and scattered broadcast in type among the masses.”
What Advice Did Spurgeon Give to Writers?
Wait until you have something to write before you write.
Meditate over your themes, consider them carefully, and then take up the pen.
Practice what you write until you can express your meaning plainly and forcibly.
Take your time, he said, and “revise and revise.”
Aim at being interesting.
Love your readers well by providing them with interesting and provoking thoughts that spare them boredom.
Write under the impulse of a holy zeal, burning to accomplish a real and worthy end.
Write with passion and with purpose. Write to serve God and to help His people. Write out of a sense of calling. Write because you cannot not write. Write for your readers. Write for their eternal good.
I think that Spurgeon would have been a fan of good blogging. He didn’t think that the minister should only aspire to be published by a high-powered publisher. His advice was to write for the paper, for magazines, and for other periodicals. Publish wherever you can.
Write less and write better. Easy writing is usually hard reading.
This was Spurgeon’s way of saying, “value quality over quantity.” Take your time, and let your thoughts steep like tea leaves beneath boiling water until your words are seasoned, favorable, and lively enough to be published. He reminds ministers that good writing is hard work.
If you have any power of the pen, cultivate it. Do your best every time you compose. Never offer to God that which cost you nothing.
Most ministers have some ability to write. Spurgeon said, “Cultivate it.” “Do your best every time you compose.” He wanted writers to see their work as an act of worship, an offering to God.
Read the great authors so that you may know what English is.
Herein is a primary way to cultivate good writing: read the masters. Learn from them, imitate them, and consider how they turn words and phrases. Ponder how they construct sentences and paragraphs. Grow your vocabulary through reading. The quality of your writing is directly connected with the quality of your reading.
Write in transparent words, such as bear your meaning upon their forefront, and let them be well chosen, correctly arranged, and attractively ordered.
Spurgeon had read plenty of convoluted sentences from well-intentioned authors. He urged ministers to write clearly. Clarity is facilitated by using “well chosen, correctly arranged, and attractively ordered” words and sentences.
Make up your mind to excel. Aim high, and evermore push on, believing that your best efforts should only be steppingstones to something better.
Determination, vision, repetition, and perseverance are essential writing qualities. Temptations to quit are frequent and powerful. Discouragement is ever at the door. There are always those who diminish writing as not “real work.” The mind may fall into depression, and the body slump beneath weariness. Press on!
Ask for a blessing on what you compose, and never pen a sentence you will on your dying bed desire to blot.
Spurgeon was a praying man—he brought all things, great and small, to God in prayer, typically in short spontaneous bursts of prayer. The author needs help from above to write well, wisely, accurately, and purposefully.
More important than your composition is your matter.
Spurgeon urged ministers: “Tell us something worth knowing when you write. It is folly to open your mouth merely to show your teeth. Have something to say or speak not at all: ink is better in the bottle than on the paper, if you have nothing to communicate. Instruct us, impress us, interest, and improve us, or at least try to do so. Try, brother, not because it is easy but because it is worth doing. Write until you can write; burn half a ton of paper in the attempt, it will be far better in the flames than at the printer’s; but labor on till you succeed.”
Should all ministers really write?
Spurgeon anticipated protests to his urging of ministers to write and to publish. He accepted such push-back. He had personally groaned beneath the mass of poor literature served to the populace. He was up to his “neck in a stagnant pool of printed dullness.” He said that he “almost caught a literary cramp,” He especially lamented much of the poetry sent to him, calling many poems “an everlasting ding-dong, ding-dong of commonplaces and pretty phrases, all meaning nothing at all.” He criticized some sermons that were published. “The good man who issues them declares that he did it in deference to the wish of his hearers (a very common excuse, by the way). He might well have prayed, ‘Save me from my friends.’”
The nation, Spurgeon acknowledged, was “press-ridden,” and it groaned “beneath tons of nonsense and platitudes and needs no addition to the enormous burden.” “Use the pen,” Spurgeon advised, but do not abuse it in the myriad ways it was employed in his day. Away with nonsense, platitudes, empty poetry, and ill-thought-through sermons!
Nevertheless, Spurgeon’s advice to ministers was still, “Use the pen.”
(I might add here that for a minister to write well, it is important for his wife and his church to embrace him as a preacher and a writer and to embrace a vision of writing as an important and potentially powerful aspect of his ministry. A faithful pastor serves his church by writing well.)
Ray Rhodes, Jr. is the author of Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon and Yours, till Heaven; the Untold Love Story of Charles and Susie Spurgeon from Moody Publishers. He is presently working on a full biography of Charles Haddon Spurgeon for B&H Academic.