Book Review: Steal Away Home

Steal Away Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey is a fictional book based on facts. It parallels lifelines of two men growing up in very different circumstances and their eventual meeting and friendship.

The two men in question are Charles Haddon Spurgeon, famous and oft-quoted English preacher in the 1800s, and Thomas Johnson, a Southern slave who was freed after the Civil War, became a pastor, and eventually became a missionary to Africa. “In 1879, there were only two Christian missionaries in the entire country, and Thomas Johnson would be the very first African-American missionary to ever step foot on Cameroon soil as an ambassador for the Good News.”

It’s unlikely that two men from such different lives would cross paths. But a member of Johnson’s congregation knew Spurgeon, knew that Johnson lamented his lack of education, and knew there were funds for students who needed them to go to Spurgeon’s college, so he recommended Johnson to Spurgeon. The story has Johnson hearing of Spurgeon while still a slave, when slave owners were burning Spurgeon’s books and papers because of his stance against slavery. So meeting Spurgeon had special meaning for Johnson. They became friends after their first meeting, even to the point of Johnson traveling with Spurgeon for a retreat and being present at Spurgeon’s death.

Though this tells the story of both men, it’s not a full biography of either. It mainly tells their stories as they relate to each other.

And because the book is fictional, we don’t know what’s real and what’s made up. I would have preferred a realistic account.

I’ve read two biographies of Susannah, Charles’ wife, and several accounts of his life. I know he suffered from depression. Most accounts portray him as joyful with occasional bouts of depression: this book characterizes him as mostly depressed with occasional bouts of joy.  The truth is probably somewhere in-between. Probably depression affected him much more than anyone knew. I knew he had gout as well, but didn’t know just how extensive the pain from that could be. But the authors seemed to play up the negative physical and spiritual effects of both Susannah and Charles.

I did not know anything about Johnson, so of course I can’t compare what was said of him. I did learn that he wrote his autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, or the Story of My Life in Three Continents. I would love to read that some time.

In a fictionalized story, naturally we expect there will be a few made-up scenes – conversations that did not happen yet reflect events or characteristics of the person’s life, etc. But according to this and this review, some scenes were revised, even the details in the account of Thomas’ conversion. If that’s true, I am very disappointed that the authors would make such revisions. The authors themselves say the book is “not a biography, and it’s not a history book, but a story, based on real events that occurred in history. Many passages in the book are word-for-word quotations from Spurgeon’s or Johnson’s own writing.” They were inspired by another historical book written as fiction that brought the characters and situations to life an wanted to do the same with this book. They admit that they “take literary license, and deviate slightly from the historical record,” but assert that “the overwhelming majority of the persons, places, dates, and even the dialogue of this book are based on real events.”

But aside from those quibbles, I did enjoy learning the relationship between these two men. I felt the hopelessness of Johnson’s situation as a slave, the palpable fear as the slaves met privately late at night to quietly worship together, the long road he had to face even after freedom was granted. I appreciated that Spurgeon was a leading voice against slavery and in treating people of all colors as equals. And though I think the authors over-emphasized Spurgeon’s suffering (they often portray him as incapacitated and don’t show much of the productive aspects of his life), I did appreciate the window into what his down times might have been like.

The title, Steal Away Home, comes from an old spiritual which is referred to often throughout the book. It’s sung here by Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon

SusieSusie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon is a new biography by Ray Rhodes, Jr. Susannah’s life can’t be told apart from apart from her husband’s, but Rhodes doesn’t describe her just in relation to Charles. He tells her own story fully.

Susie, as she was called because her mother and an aunt were also Susannah, “shared a lifetime” with Queen Victoria. “Susie was five when Victoria was crowned, and she died two years after Victoria’s death.” She was a city girl, living in London all her life and traveling often to Paris.

She became a Christian at about age 21, but experienced a lot of doubts for a while thereafter. She was not impressed with Pastor Spurgeon at first. He came from a rural background, and:

Charles violated her preconceived notions of what was appropriate for a polite young man in Victorian times, and a preacher at that. Susie found Charles’s hair, suit, mannerisms, and his provocative preaching style offensive. Later, reflecting on her earlier sentiments, she wrote:

Ah! How little I then thought that my eyes looked on him who was to be my life’s beloved; how little I dreamed of the honour God was preparing for me in the near future! It is a mercy that our lives are not left for us to plan, but that our Father chooses for us; else we might sometimes turn away from our best blessings and put from us the choicest and loveliest gifts of His providence.

Charles’ counsel and gift of Pilgrim’s Progress helped Susie. It wasn’t long before his pastoral concern turned romantic. The sections about their courtship are sweet, but Susie had a cold splash of reality one day. Charles was asked to preach somewhere and Susie accompanied him. They got separated in the crowd, but Charles never noticed. Lost, alone, and upset, Susie went home. Her mother “wisely reasoned that my chosen husband was no ordinary man, that his whole life was absolutely dedicated to God and His service, and that I must never, never hinder him by trying to put myself first in his heart.”

Charles and Susie married and enjoyed home life, travel, and togetherness. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. But both Charles and Susie developed health problems. He suffered from gout, kidney problems, and depression. It’s not known exactly what Susie’s health issues were, but severe endometriosis is suspected. She had surgery at one point but spent much of her life in pain. Sadly, she usually could not accompany Charles to places he was advised to go for his health. But he wrote to her every day, and their letters to each other are often delightful. In one of his letters from before they were married, Charles wrote:

I shall feel deeply indebted to you if you will pray very earnestly for me. I fear I am not so full of love to God as I used to be. I lament my sad decline in spiritual things. You and others have not observed it but I am now conscious of it; and a sense thereof has put bitterness in my cup of joy. Oh! what is it to be popular, to be successful, to have abundance, even to have love so sweet as yours, if I should be left of God to fall and to depart from His ways? I tremble at the giddy height on which I stand, and could wish myself unknown, for indeed, I am unworthy of all my honors and my fame. I trust I shall now commence anew and wear no longer the linsey-woolsey garment; but, I beseech you, blend your hearty prayers with mine, that two of us may be agreed, and thus will you promote the usefulness and holiness and happiness of one whom you love.

Once Susie wished aloud that one of Charles’s books could be sent to poor pastors who could not afford a much-needed library. Charles said, not in these words but to this effect, “What are you going to do about it?” That was the beginning of Susie’s book fund, which grew far beyond what she envisioned at the beginning. In one particular month, Feb. 1883, Susie received 657 letters. In 1886 she distributed 9,941 volumes. Correspondence as well as packaging, sending books, and seeking donations was a blessed ministry yet took time and energy. This ministry spawned others, like a pastor’s aid society for sending money and clothes, an auxiliary book club for lay preachers, and the Home and Foreign Sermon distribution. She said, “It is the joy of my life thus to serve the servants of my master.” She felt that the confinement necessitated by her illness enabled her to minister in these ways.

Though Susie knew some congregations were themselves poor and could not provide for their pastors, she encouraged those who could to do so in her book Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund:

Keep your minister’s table well provided, and you shall be fed with the finest of the wheat; see that his earthly cares do not press on him painfully, and your own hearts’ burdens will be lifted by his heavenly teachings; supply him with this world’s needful comforts, and he will not fail to bring you solace and consolation in the time of your extremity. If he has sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if he shall reap your carnal things?

Susie did a fair amount of her own writing, and, after Charles’s death, was instrumental in planting a church and edited The Sword and the Trowel magazine.

I’ve read Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray several times, and this book draws heavily from that one. But Ray’s book was written in 1903, not long after Susie’s death. I’m sure more resources were available to Rhodes than Ray might have had, plus over 100 years of perspective adds to Rhodes’ book.

I did get just a bit frustrated at times with how the book was laid out. Though Susie’s life is covered chronologically, at each point Rhodes goes backward and forward in time to pull details about that point. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth and repetition. It helped to think of the book as a documentary. I listened to the audiobook, but I think this book would be better read than listened to.

Nonetheless, this is a great resource. I enjoyed so much hearing again the parts of Susie’s life that I knew and learning what I did not know. I appreciated the historical context, something Ray’s book could not have given as effectively since it was written in the same era. I especially enjoyed both Charles and Susie’s letters. And I was blessed by her heart and her walk with God. One phrase that stood out in many of her writings was “the glory of God.” Everything she did was ultimately for His glory.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)