“Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon & Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom” by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey
2017 Reading Challenge — Book 37: A book about race or racial issues
It’s been a long time since a book made me weep as I did in the final pages of Steal Away Home. There is so much beauty in this story, in the writing of it, and—most of all—in the Gospel which saturates it, that there really was no other way to respond but through tears of joy for God’s victory over sin and death, mingled with tears of sorrow for the brokenness which still mars our world until Christ returns to consummate that victory.
I have read a lot of books by and about Charles Haddon Spurgeon. But I can truthfully say I’ve never encountered anything like this book, both in its scope and style.
The book’s authors, Matt Carter & Aaron Ivey, are two of the elders at The Austin Stone Community Church, a church whose ministry has often encouraged and inspired me. While visiting the Stone last May for a Worship Pastor Intensive, Aaron shared with us about how co-writing this book had been such a blessing in his life; I pre-ordered it on the spot.
While the book is somewhat biographical, its genre is difficult to identify due to its unique nature. In the introduction, Carter states that the book’s style was inspired by Michael Shaara’s excellent book The Killer Angels, a novelized story of the Civil War focusing on the lives of several historical figures. Steal Away Home is written as a novel in which the main characters are the 19th century preachers Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson.
If you’re like me, you’re reading that second name and saying, “Who?”
The fact that Johnson’s name is relatively unknown is a real tragedy! His story is truly fascinating, and the impact he had on the Kingdom of God is immense, both as a missionary to Cameroon and as a much-needed encourager and friend to the “prince of preachers.”
Thomas Johnson had been a slave for 28 years in Virginia when the end of the Civil War brought about his emancipation. Though he had heard the name “Charles Haddon Spurgeon” (when he was forced to accompany his master and a Baptist preacher to a book burning in which the works of Spurgeon—an outspoken abolitionist who openly challenged slave-holding “Christians” in the American South—were read to slaves before being thrown into the fire), he never dreamed he would have the opportunity to meet with him, much less become his friend.
Providentially, God allowed Johnson to be sponsored to attend Spurgeon’s Pastor’s College in London, to be trained and commissioned as a missionary to Africa. During his time in London, and for decades later, Johnson became one of Spurgeon’s closest friends and confidants. Spurgeon’s lifelong struggle with depression and physical ailments are well known. But the way Johnson spoke truth into Spurgeon’s life, teaching him about true freedom in Christ, has remained mostly obscured from history until now. I’m so grateful to Carter & Ivey for telling his story!
While the narrative and much of the dialogue for this book required some “artistic license” from the authors, as often as possible the words and “voice” of the characters come from their own writing, primarily their frequent correspondence (Spurgeon kept all of Johnson’s letters in the desk in his study), and from Johnson’s own autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave. The book was thoroughly researched at the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the fact that so many prominent Spurgeon scholars have endorsed the book lends a lot of credibility to the historicity of the story.
I can’t imagine more capable hands for the telling of this story than Carter and Ivey. I know of no other ministry so invested in story-telling as Austin Stone (learning more about their Story Team is one of the main reasons I attended the Intensive in the Spring). The story is beautifully told, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you. Get your copy here.