Spurgeon’s Purple Pen

spurgeon_chairLast night I was talking with a pastor friend.  We were discussing the technology we have at our disposal and how the Internet has changed the way we communicate.

Preachers have always looked for ways to disseminate their message: hand-written letters, dictated epistles, printing-press flyers, books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, cassettes, CD, DVD, and now the worldwide web.  Who knows what’s around the corner?

I asked my friend why his messages — good, solid sovereign grace sermons — weren’t more readily available.  He replied that he does occasionally allow himself to be recorded, but the copies are distributed via CD to local members and friends.  “Why not on the web?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “I worry because I don’t speak perfectly — I don’t cite every source, I might misquote a verse, I get something jumbled and have to correct myself.  So, I’m insecure about my messages.”

That’s the concern of every self-aware preacher.  We know we’re handling God’s word and we want to get it right.  But, we are faulty, frail humans and we make very natural, common mistakes.  What’s the solution?  Well, in my case, digital editing.

I reminded my friend that I listen to every message I preach and make sure to remove or fix obvious errors before they become part of the “permanent record” on our website.  I make no secret of that fact.  I consider it part of my job as a teacher of the gospel.  I want to do it to the best of my ability and my responsibility does not end at the point of saying something out loud.  If I can make it better before our listeners hear it, then I do that.

That admission led to a conversation about great preachers of the past and how meticulous they had to be since they only had one shot at their sermons and could not edit their words after the fact …

Except that they did.

I was recently given a wonderful gift.  It was a black binder containing a page of hand-written notes from Charles Hadden Spurgeon.  I am a Spurgeon fan.  It’s not for nothing that he’s referred to as “the prince of preachers.”  His way with words was magnificent and his ability to find the perfect turn of a phrase is something to behold.  Add to that the fact that he spoke in an extemporaneous fashion from mere bullet points and his verbal dexterity is nearly miraculous …

Except that it isn’t.

It turns out that Spurgeon edited his sermons before they were sent to the printer for publication in local newspapers and his magazine, “The Sword and Trowel.”  As he was speaking, his secretaries transcribed his spoken words and presented their handwritten copies to him each Sunday evening.  Spurgeon went through these handwritten copies and made corrections with his purple pen.  Spurgeon said that the purple ink commemorated the royalty of Christ.

The copies of Spurgeon’s sermons we have today are the edited, re-worked, cleaned-up versions of what he actually said.  Pauses, stammers, missed points, etc. were fixed in the editing … rather like I do when I run my sermons through my digital audio editor.

The explanation of “Spurgeon’s Sermon Publication Process” from Spurgeon College in London (who also certified and validated the authenticity of the transcript) explains, “This was no mere correction of minor detail, but involved extensive amendment. Thus, not only words are replaced, but sentences, paragraphs, and even pages. His wife characterized it as ‘always a labour of love, yet… a labour.'”

Anyway, I now have in my possession a page of notes, written by one of Spurgeon’s secretaries, hand-corrected by the preacher himself.  It’s a reminder that none of us is perfect.  And we all, as preachers, have a responsibility to do our jobs and communicate God’s truths to the best of our ability.

The page is from the sermon “God’s Thoughts of Peace, and Our Expected End.” It was delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington on May 29, 1887.  It is based on Jeremiah 19:11 – “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”

I am ever-so-grateful for the gift.  I’m humbled that anyone thought to find, purchase, and present such a thing to me.  And I’ll cherish it not only because it’s a touchstone from a great preacher of God’s sovereign grace 126 years ago, but it’s a reminder that Spurgeon and I treat our sermons the same way.  We just use different tools.

Now, how do I learn to edit in purple?

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