Those who advocate drinking and smoking in the Southern Baptist Convention today enjoy knowing that one of our Baptist heroes would seem to have been on their side. You don’t have to visit blogs for long to notice how Baptists who like their beer often trot out Spurgeon as the token saint of drinking.
The stories make for great internet fodder, even today. Who can forget Dr. Pentecost’s public chiding of Spurgeon’s habit from Spurgeon’s own pulpit in 1874? Newspapers record Spurgeon announcing to the crowd that he did not consider smoking a sin, he intended on “smoking a cigar before retiring to bed” that night, and that he would continue to smoke “to the glory of God.”
Many of the Baptists of my own generation have seized stories like this and used them to justify social drinking and smoking today. Spurgeon has become a hero to many of the drinking Baptists.
But there’s more to Spurgeon’s story. And what often gets left out is the conclusion that Spurgeon came to later on in life.
After Spurgeon’s pronouncement of his “smoking to the glory of God,” English businessmen began to market the cigars that Spurgeon smoked. Spurgeon once entered a store and saw a sign that said, “Spurgeon smokes!” He also heard complaints from parents who were encouraging their children not to drink alcohol or smoke, only to receive the reply, “But Spurgeon does…”
By the 1880’s, Spurgeon’s health was failing, and so the preacher who had once justified his cigar-smoking by claiming a doctor had prescribed it as a relaxant, realized that smoking was doing more harm than good to his body. So, he gave it up.
At the same time, the temperance movement was growing rapidly in England as a response to the widespread problems associated with increasing rates of alcoholism. As Spurgeon dealt with the ravages of alcohol abuse, he began to rethink his stance on drinking.
In one service, he said: “I neither said nor implied that it was sinful to drink wine; nay, I said that, in and by itself, this might be done without blame. But I remarked that, if I knew that another would be led to take it by my example, and this would lead them on to further drinking, and even to intoxication, then I would not touch it.”
So Spurgeon admitted he would give up his Christian liberty in order to avoid leading another astray. And eventually, in the last few years of his life, that’s precisely what he did. Spurgeon became a total abstainer.
“I abstain myself from alcoholic drink in every form, and I think others would be wise
to do the same; but of this each one must be a guide unto himself.”
Interestingly enough, Spurgeon never condemned alcohol as inherently evil. He would have been the first to admit that he enjoyed wine as one of God’s gifts. I’m sure he would never have seen cigar smoking as a sin either. But as alcoholism destroyed families and neighborhoods in England during the late 1800’s, Spurgeon decided that total abstinence was the wisest practice for the cultural context in which he found himself.
And that is why I abstain from alcohol consumption as well. It is not because I believe drinking in moderation to be a sin. I do not. It is not because the Bible commands me to abstain. It does not.
There are two reasons I have chosen to abstain from alcohol. The first is that in the Southern Baptist Convention, drinking alcohol almost automatically disqualifies one from service and leadership. I’m not willing to forsake potential ministry opportunities within the SBC for a beer. That’s not a hill on which I choose to die. Secondly, I believe that in the cultural context in which we live, abstinence is the wisest way.
I do not condemn my brothers and sisters who disagree with me on this issue. But I do ask to receive the same respect. My conviction is not one born out of legalism or mindless acceptance of tradition. I believe my conviction comes from the same place that Spurgeon’s did – a pastor’s heart sensitive to the needs of those around him and ready to contextualize in order to most effectively preach the Gospel in the world where God has placed us.