A lesson from a Victorian preface

Acquaintances a while ago gave me a Victorian volume that had seen better days. One of the cheap printings that characterized that era, with poor paper and even poorer illustrations, and now with the cover quite dishevelled and the binding coming loose, they could have easily decided to toss the book. But I am glad they did not. Entitled The Four Great Preachers: A Collection of Choice Sermons by Spurgeon, Moody, Talmage and Beecher the book contains a number of sermons by each of these well-known Victorian preachers along with brief biographical sketches of the four. But what I found valuable in the book was not so much the sermons, all of which can be found elsewhere in much sturdier collections. No, what I found quite illuminating was the two-page “Preface,” which was written by an unnamed Canadian editor who lived in Toronto and is dated April 10, 1885. He may well have been J.S. Robertson, the name of the Toronto publisher on the title-page. But whoever he was, his words bear a lesson for contemporary Evangelicalism.

The “Preface” begins by noting that it has been said that ‘nobody reads sermons’ any more. The editor admits that there may be some truth in this statement, but he says, ‘there are sermons and sermons’. Few, he thinks, are interested in the older style of sermons, what he calls ‘the dry type of doctrinal discourses that was once common in the pulpit’. Such sermons have been replaced by ones that are ‘more interesting’ and that contain ‘more enlivening appeals to the human heart and conscience’. There is no doubt that the author of these lines considers himself an Evangelical as the next sentence bears witness. ‘The Church,’ the editor writes, ‘as it has dropped dogma, has in large degree returned to its first work of evangelizing the world by the spirit and power of the Gospel; and in the true missionary spirit, it is going again into the highways and byways to reclaim the world to Christ, and to bring the prodigal back to the Father’.

What should forcefully strike any reader of these lines is that ‘dogma’—Christian doctrine and theology—is set over against evangelism and missions, as if the two were mutually exclusive. That winning the lost can somehow be done without a concern for theology. To be sure, there have been individuals in the history of the church who allowed have themselves to become so wrapped up in theology and its tomes that they gave nary a thought to evangelism. But such are aberrations. More exemplary is Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), the Baptist pastor and theologian, whose wrestling with the theology of the free offer of the gospel was accompanied by a deepening zeal for evangelism. Or, more authoritatively, there is the example of the Apostle Paul. Some of the Apostle’s most powerful statements on evangelism occur in his letter to the Romans (see, e.g. Romans 9:1-3; 10:9-21; 15:18-29) in the midst of some of the richest doctrinal material—‘dogma’—in the New Testament. Theology, if rightly pursued, should issue in a life of concern for the lost.

The dislike for doctrine in this Victorian “Preface” may also help us understand how sectors of late Victorian Evangelicalism helped prepare the way for the coming of Liberalism. The author of this “Preface” is certainly not a liberal. But his easy dismissal of doctrine in favour of evangelism helps explain why certain sectors of Victorian Evangelicalism found themselves without any adequate response in the face of the liberal assault on Christian orthodoxy at the end of nineteenth century and at the start of the twentieth.

One wonders if a copy of the volume was sent to each of the four respective preachers, whose sermons were reprinted in the book. If one did reach the hands of C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), and he did happen to read the “Preface,” he would have been surely struck by the folly of trying to separate a passion for theological truth from Christian missions. As he well knew and affirmed, it is only when the coals of Christian orthodoxy are hot and blazing that a zeal for the conversion of others can be properly sustained.