Spurgeon believed that the preacher should depend not on pre-written sermons but the Holy Spirit. This dependence took place not only while preaching but even in sermon preparation.
Iain Murray once observed that Spurgeon wrote and preached so much that people can basically cherry-pick quotes from his works to support virtually any position, even those he would’ve adamantly opposed. Such has been the case with the topic of plagiarizing sermons recently. Every few years, this controversy resurfaces. Some are quick to condemn it, while others attempt to provide a more nuanced response. Sometimes, the latter will point to examples in church history of those who plagiarized sermons, and among those listed is Spurgeon. Did Spurgeon support preaching borrowed sermons?
Spurgeon repudiated plagiarism in the pulpit.
Spurgeon was a remarkably original preacher. While ministers in the Church of England still read sermons from the book of homilies, Spurgeon believed that the preacher should depend not on pre-written sermons but the Holy Spirit. This dependence took place not only while preaching but even in sermon preparation. At the heart of Spurgeon’s rejection of plagiarism was his deep conviction that preaching should be led by the Spirit.
Amid a full ministry schedule during the week, Spurgeon carved out time late into the night on Saturdays to work on his sermons. In his lectures to his students, we see that prayerful dependence was at the heart of his preparations.
To me still, I must confess, my text selection is a very great embarrassment— embarras de richesses, as the French say—an embarrassment of riches, very different from the bewilderment of poverty—the anxiety of attending to the most pressing of so many truths, all clamoring for a hearing, so many duties all needing enforcing, and so many spiritual needs of the people all demanding supply. I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study. (Lectures 1:88)
Spurgeon would spend much of the night studying the Scriptures, trying out different “skeletons” (sermon outlines), and praying for the Spirit to guide him in preparing the sermon. During his study, Spurgeon consulted commentaries and other writers, but never as a substitute for the Spirit’s leading. In the end, he looked for spiritual guidance. “Many ministers appear to think that they are to choose the text; they are to discover its teaching; they are to find a discourse in it. We do not think so.”
How different was Spurgeon’s approach from those who simply borrowed another’s sermon! Spurgeon often rebuked preachers of his day for reading other’s sermons as their own, rather than prayerfully preparing one for their people. To do so was to forego the Spirit’s work in the preacher. Spurgeon clearly repudiated such a practice, and he spoke about it clearly.
Spurgeon believed that those who preached borrowed sermons did so for their own ease and convenience.
There are still plenty who hardly know anything about the gospel. They preach about a great many things, but little or nothing about Jesus Christ. They buy their sermons cheaply, and preach them at their ease; they ask God to teach them what to say, and then pull their manuscripts out of their pockets! We have had to mourn, especially in years gone by, that we could look from parish to parish, and find only “dumb dogs” in the pulpits. And some men, who might have spoken with a little earnestness, if they had liked, let the people slumber under them, instead of preaching the Word with true fidelity, remembering that they will have to give account to God at the last. (MTP 45; Sermon No. 2625)
It is no use for a man simply to have a curacy or something of that sort, buy his manuscripts cheap, come up and read off two sermons twenty minutes long, go home with a good conscience that he has done duty twice, and then say, “Let the whole earth be filled with his glory.” … But you shut yourself up in your study, or what is ten times worse, you do nothing at all, but just take it easy all the week till the Sunday comes, and then borrow a sermon out of an old magazine, or buy one of the helps for ministers, or take down one of Charles Simeon’s skeletons and preach it. My good man, you cannot pray in that fashion. (NPSP 3: Sermon No. 129)
Such preachers asked God for help in their preaching, but their use of bought sermons contradicted their prayers. Their concern was more for their convenience rather than the glory of God, and as a result, the sermons they preached were usually poor and lacking Christ.
Preaching borrowed sermons robs the congregation of a minister who has known the truth of God’s Word firsthand.
In order that you may impress the Word upon those to whom you preach, remember that it must be impressed upon yourself first. You must feel it yourself, and speak as a man who feels it, not as if you feel it, but because you feel it, otherwise you will not make it felt by others. I wonder what it must be to go up into the pulpit, and read somebody else’s sermon to the congregation. We read in the Bible of one thing that was borrowed, and the head of that came off; and I am afraid that the same thing often happens with borrowed sermons – the heads come off. Men who read borrowed sermons positively do not know anything about our troubles of mind in preparing for the pulpit, or our joy in preaching with the aid of only brief notes. (Soul Winner, 92)
Borrowed sermons — pages of other people’s experience — fragments pulled from old or new divines — nothing of their own, nothing that God ever said to them, nothing that ever thrilled their hearts or swayed their souls, — God will not own such teaching as this. (MTP 42; Sermon No. 2460).
A borrowed sermon may have someone else’s experience. But it doesn’t have the preacher’s experience. Those truths have not been impressed on the preacher. He can only preach “as if” he feels it, not “because” he feels it. As a result, the congregation suffers, and “God will not own such teaching as this.”