I am honored to lead the Resources Division at LifeWay and serve with a team of leaders who are passionate to serve the Church in her mission of making disciples. Each Wednesday, I share the heart behind one of the resources our team has developed and give an opportunity for you to register to win a free copy of the resource.
What I normally do on my Wednesday posts is include an original post, but this week I believe you need to encounter the story yourself. Below is a piece I recently read from Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom by my friends Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey. We recently visited England together and explored some sites crucial to understanding Charles Spurgeon, including his college where he preached his first sermon, and more. I am excited about this book because it explores Spurgeon and his friend Thomas Johnson—a former African American slave who attended Spurgeon’s pastors’ college. Below is a taste of the book from Johnson’s perspective.
It was a fifteen-minute carriage ride to the center of town, and as soon as Thomas turned the corner of the square, the blazing brightness of the fire warmed his face and caused his eyes to squint. There in the center of the town square, a bonfire was built on the public lawn that sprawled between the courthouse and the city jail. Nearly as tall as the two-story courthouse, the fire raged and soared relentlessly. Several hundred men, women, and children stood around the edge of the lawn, their shadows prancing like turkeys as the blazing fire continued to erupt. All the buildings that surrounded the lawn were brightened by the bonfire. As Mr. Bennett and Rev. Kuber exited the carriage, they, too, were lit with an orange radiance.
“What is this, Kuber?” asked Mr. Bennett with wide eyes. Thomas, who had just slid from the top of the carriage, also stood with wide eyes towards the fire.
“This? This . . . is what we do with European propaganda that tells good Christian-folk they can’t own a slave.” Rev. Kuber held Thomas by the elbow and whispered into his ear, “You’ll probably need to see this too. Come with us.”
The three men slowly walked across the street towards the bonfire in the center of the public lawn, as the horse and carriage fell into the darkened Virginia night behind them. Once closer, Thomas noticed the townspeople were not merely watching the bonfire, but they were throwing things into the fire. Men carried stacks of newspapers, then hurled them to the fire, and shouted with joy. Women carried pamphlets and flyers, along with books and other publications, and threw them into the fire as well. The crowd cheered every time another stack of papers and books ignited in the bonfire.
They continued to walk all the way to the edge of the fire, then stood just a few feet from its edge. The warmth scorched their faces, and they cowered their heads from the heat. An anxious knot grew in Thomas’s gut as he stood between his master and Rev. Kuber, only a few feet from an intensely raging fire. In earlier years, Thomas may have taken the opportunity to push Mr. Bennett into the fire. But since the peace of Jesus had overtaken him, the ugly thought merely crossed his mind and quickly fell aside. He wondered if the men had brought him there to push him into the fire. Perhaps this was their plan the whole time. Thomas took a deep breath and stared into the leaping flames in front of him.
“You brought me to a book burning?” Mr. Bennett asked Kuber.
“A Charles Spurgeon book burning!” Kuber laughed and smiled with satisfaction. “They are happening all over the South. On plantations, outside of courthouses, in front of schools. Many of us have had enough! His writing is no longer welcome here. And we’re not just burning books. We’re burning anything that he’s ever written.” He pulled a newspaper clipping from the inner pocket of his coat, then turned to Thomas and asked politely, “What’s your name, boy?”
“Johnson. Thomas Johnson, sir.”
“Well, Thomas Johnson. I believe you should have the honor.”
Kuber slid the folded newspaper article into Thomas’s hand and nudged him towards the fire. Sweat began to seep through Thomas’s coat, as he was only a few feet from the raging flames. “Go on, boy. Read it. Then, toss it into the fire with the rest of them.”
“He can’t read!” said Mr. Bennett with disgust. “Give me that, boy.” He pulled the article from Thomas’s hand, unfolded it, then read aloud the heading in big black print. “The Rev. Charles Spurgeon,” he yelled over the volume of the fire and the cheering crowd, “condemns American Christians for tolerating slavery in the southern states.”
Thomas was truly astonished that a preacher could cause such an outrage from so far away. His sermons were bold enough to spark a two-story fire in the middle of the town square in Richmond, Virginia. His written words were provocative enough to stoke the anger of a hundred townspeople in the late hours of a holiday evening. The ink of his pen was mighty enough to fill books, newspapers, articles, sermons, and pamphlets. Thomas couldn’t believe that this preacher’s message of freedom—physical freedom from institutional bondage—made it all the way from Spurgeon’s desk in England to Thomas’s cold hands in Richmond, Virginia.
“Throw it in, Thomas,” said Mr. Bennett, shoving the newspaper article back into Thomas’s hands.
Mr. Bennett and Rev. Kuber watched Thomas crumple up the newspaper article and toss it into the raging bonfire. The paper erupted into flames, and almost immediately turned to ash. Filled to the brim with gratitude, Thomas silently thanked the Lord for the white preacher who had the audacity to confront slavery from the other side of the world.
The crowd continued to throw sermons and books into the fire, pausing only to warm their hands with its comfortable heat. The three men turned away from the fire, silently making their way back to the horse and carriage, and as Thomas turned to look at the bonfire once more, he realized the profound beauty of a cold Thanksgiving night brightly lit and tenderly warmed by sermons on fire.
Enter here or in the form below by 11:59pm tonight, Wednesday, August 30, 2017 for your chance to win one of 10 copies of Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey. Winners will be notified by email within a couple of days.