Charles Spurgeon and Humor in Preaching

As far as American preaching goes, I suspect that more humor per square yard is found today than at virtually any time in the history of preaching. This is especially true in Charismatic circles, with people like Jesse Duplantis, and in mega-church circles, with pastors like Ed Young, Jr., Andy Stanley, and Perry Noble, just to name three.

I have always believed that humor plays a role in preaching. So did that prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s prolific pen is well known. Today, he still holds the record for the most books in print by any author living or dead.

Spurgeon was barraged with requests to write prefaces for other authors during his lifetime. He refused to do so, as far as I know, with only one exception. Vernon Charlesworth published Rowland Hill: His Life, Anecdotes and Pulpit Sayings in 1879. For many years, Charlesworth lived in the Surrey Chapel parsonage, where Rowland Hill (1744-1833) once lived and ministered.

Here is part of Spurgeon’s “Introduction”[1] to this interesting volume, not without example of his own well-known wit and humor:

Now I, C.H. Spurgeon, have promised and vowed to write no prefaces for anybody, and therefore not for the Rev. V. J. Charlesworth; but WE the Editor of the “Sword and Trowel,” have often received contribution from the Master of the Stockwell Orphanage; therefore, being indebted to him very greatly in our Editorial capacity, we write this, and use the dignity of the plural pronoun. Take note, however, good friends all, that it will be of no use to worry either me or us, for neither I nor we will write a prologue for you.

The majority of persons who know anything of Mr. Hill, associate his name with humor in the pulpit. Few judge him for using that faculty; but it is gravely questioned whether anyone now living may do so without sin. It is taken for granted that wit is wicked, and humor sinful; dullness, of course, is holy, and solemn stupidity is full of grace. We confess we have our doubts about both propositions. If dullness were a divine power, the world would have been converted by now, for the pulpit has never been without a superabundant supply of it, and if mother wit be indeed a contraband commodity in the ministry, it is no small marvel that many of those who possessed it have taken highest rank for usefulness.

Mr. Hill was humorous, but he was a great deal more. … He loved his Lord and the souls of men, and he threw all his might into the pursuit of doing good. Surely no man was ever more unselfish, or less self-conscious. Men called him eccentric because they themselves were out of center; he with his great heart, calm soul, wise mind, and loving nature had learned to wait upon his Lord, and so had found the right center and true orbit for his being. At first the press had its sneers for him, but it could not lessen the respect in which he was held, and in due time it turned round and joined in the chorus of his praise. His riper years were full of honor, and, like his younger days, full of fruit unto God.

In Spurgeon’s book Eccentric Preachers (1879, the same year as Charlesworth’s volume), one of the subjects is Rowland Hill. Here again Spurgeon mentions Hill’s wit and humor:

Our friend Mr. Charlesworth, of the Stockwell Orphanage, has written a life of Rowland Hill. … It is clear from many remarks made by contemporary writers, and especially from the way in which one of his biographers has tried to take the very soul out of him by toning down his wit, that he was regarded by many serious people as a good brother whose infirmity was to be endured, but to be quietly censured. Now, we are not at all of this mind. Mr. Hill may have allowed his humor too much liberty, perhaps he did, but this was better than smothering it and all his other faculties, as many do, beneath a huge feather-bed of stupid formalism.

Finally, there is this gem from Spurgeon concerning a comment by Hill on preachers: “He once said of a man who knew the Gospel but seemed afraid to preach it, ‘He preaches the truth as a donkey munches a thistle—very cautiously:’ this was exactly the opposite of his own way of doing it.”

Spurgeon himself was often accused of overly employing humor in his preaching. William Williams was a fellow pastor and friend of Spurgeon. Concerning Spurgeon’s humor, he wrote:

What a bubbling fountain of humor Mr. Spurgeon had! I laughed more, I verily believe, when in his company than during all the rest of my life besides. He had the most fascinating gift of laughter … and he had also the greatest ability for making all who heard him laugh with him. When someone blamed him for saying humorous things in his sermons, he said, “He would not blame me if he only knew how many of them I keep back.”

So take it from the prince of preachers himself: humor can be an effective preaching tool … but use it cautiously!


[1] Some spelling modernized.

David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, and Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Allen serves as a Professor of Preaching and Dean of the School of Theology. He has served as a senior pastor of two churches for 21 years, as well as several interim pastorates. He was recently elected as the new Dean of the new School of Preaching.
Twitter: @DrDavidLAllen
David Allen

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