03 December 2008

Spurgeon searching for stripes — apocryphal? Sourcable?

by Dan Phillips


Over at my place, we've fruitlessly tried to source the famous... story? ...quotation? of Spurgeon on the relation of election to evangelism.

You know the one: Spurgeon (supposedly) said something like: "If God had painted a yellow stripe up the backs of the elect, I'd go through London lifting up coats and preaching only to them. As it is, He has not, so I preach the Gospel to all, and God brings his sheep."

But so far none of us has found a primary source for this story. One commenter (Michelle) came close, but none has hit the ten-ring yet.

Can you? Post it here, or there.

Dan Phillips's signature


Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

"You are only to preach to God's dear people, if you go into that pulpit," said a deacon once to a minister. Said the minister, "Have you marked them all on the back, that I may know them?" What is the good of this large chapel if I am only to preach to God's dear people? They are few enough. God's dear people might be held in the vestry. We have many more here besides God's dear people, and how am I to be sure, if I am told to preach only to God's dear people, that somebody else wont take it to himself?

This is from A Sermon
(No. 34)

Delivered on Sabbath Morning, August 5, 1855, by the
REV. C. H. Spurgeon
At New Park Street Chapel, Southwark.

DJP said...

Thanks, Brian. That's the one Michelle found, that's close but not quite as commonly quoted. Could be that's the source.

If so, if that's it, we should revise how we report it. But if you Google it, you'll see the story cited about as I do on dozens of sites... without a primary source.

Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

Well, I tried. I can't find anything else remotely close to the quote about painted yellow stripes.

You would think such a statement, if made by Spurgeon, would be easily located.

DJP said...

Yeah, and I appreciate it! You and Michelle both did better than I.

It's one of those stories that's so great, you want it to be true. And it sounds very Spurgeonian.

But I've got this thing about not perpetuating myths in my sermons. One longs for the day when "preacher's story" means "absolutely 100% reliable narrative, with a punch."

Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

Some perpetuate myths out of ignorance (still no excuse), some to be purposefully deceptive and puff themselves up.

My parents were sitting in their large mega SBC church not too long ago, when their pastor - to make a point - began to tell a story that happened to "himself", only to realize they had read that VERY same narrative in a book of a well-known Christian author!

Needless to say, they had a difficult time trusting him after that. I thought they should have confronted him about it.

Glad to hear you want to be careful to proclaim only truth in the pulpit...even down to the least little quote!

Hugh McBryde said...

Clearly it is effective to preach the Gospel to the lost. So that they will become saved? Of course not. So that if they could become saved, they would, in a theoretical sense.

The preaching of the Gospel to the lost deprives them of excuse and more thoroughly underlines their richly deserved fate, that there but for grace we would all go.

Stefan Ewing said...

So, Dan, the next question is that if this is purely apocryphal (at least in its current form), who first popularized the story? That might be even harder to nail down than establishing that it did not come from Spurgeon himself.

Stefan Ewing said...

The Pharisee:

Among those lost are some who are of the elect, whom God has not yet brought to salvation. Through the faithful preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit gives some hearers the ears to hear the effectual call of the Gospel, to which they respond in repentance.

Before God graciously regenerated us, we were all among the lost—albeit only temporarily lost sheep, perhaps, and not eternally lost to perdition, and lost nonetheless.

The primary reason for preaching to the lost is because some among them will be found.

Stefan Ewing said...

"and lost nonetheless" should be "but lost nonetheless."

Hugh McBryde said...

The Word of God never returns void. Hypothetically, if you are preaching to a crowd of the lost, and an atom bomb drops. Does the word return void? No.

Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...


If you are preaching to a group of lost people, and an atom bomb does NOT drop, and no one gets saved, the Word has STILL not returned void.

Hugh McBryde said...

True, but I thought the Atom Bomb was a nice touch.

Anonymous said...

Along the same vein as the Spurgeon quote, I recall a story making the rounds in the '80's about Russian Scientists drilling a hole into the centre of the earth.
The story, as I heard it in several sermons, and read in at least one tract, was that the further down they got the hotter it was until, eventually they began to hear noises. As the continued to drill, they recognised the noises as the screams of people burning...at that point, as the story went, they got out of the hole, fast.

Of course, the story was used to prove the existence of a real hell. Trouble is, it was invented by a Swedish journalist in an effort to see if Christians would check their sources...

If I remember right, I first heard the story, pretty close to 10 years after the experiment commenced.

Needless to say, I applaud your effort (and that of the other Pyro's) to avoid stories and quotes that you can't locate in an original source.

DJP said...

Something like an atom bomb has happened to the course of this meta.


Anonymous said...


Mark B. Hanson said...

Douglas Wilson quotes Spurgeon thus in Issue 2-1 of Credenda Agenda:

"If God would have painted a yellow stripe on the backs of the elect I would go around lifting shirts. But since He didn't I must preach `whosoever will' and when `whosoever' believes I know he is one of the elect."

Unfortunately, he provides no citation.

DJP said...

Yes, of secondary sources (even with splendid pedigree) there is no shortage.

Anonymous said...

So why does it have to be yellow stripes? Just wondering. Is there some signifance to yellow?

There, atom bomb released...

Barbara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

A mark on the forehead would be easier to spot, and you wouldn't have to risk offending people by lifting up their shirts!

Nate B. said...

FWIW, according to this site, Chuck Swindoll recounts the story using white stripes, not yellow stripes (in his book “The Mystery of God’s Will,” W Publishing Group, Nashville, 1999, 27).

Daniel said...

Neil Young did not write or record the song "Horse with no name" - that was a song recorded by a band called America.

Yet because the mistake was made early, and propogated widely before corrected, to this day any search for Neil Young lyrics will also return the errant result...

I mention that as an example of how one of the internet's great strengths (the instant propogation of information), is likewise a weakness - the longer misinformation has been around, the more you have to sift through.

In the context of this quote, the more secondary sources there are, the more people will repeat those secondary quotes causing a search for primary sources to be congested and hindered by the abundance of more recent secondary sources.

Wouldn't it be sweet if google had a feature that allowed a user to find the "first internet occurance" for whatever it was we were searching for? I expect it would make such searches much easier.

Notwithstanding, the earliest "printed" source I could find for the quote was from a massive, multi-volume publication (1983) by John Vernon Mcgee called "Thru The Bible" - but even that is touch and go.

I found a reference on an old cache of a Baptist Board discussion on the proper exposition of John 6. One of the users quoted Spurgeon as quoted in a tome by JV McGee, listing the page number as 405.

I checked the catelog, as it were, of books by McGee that might fit the bill (something expositing John with more than 400 pages), and found a multi-volumne handling of the whole bible ("Thru the bible with John Vernon McGee"), and expect that the book in question is likely the volume entitled "Matthew through Romans" (ISBN: 0840749767, 768 pages).

I should like to have a peek at page 405 of this volume, and (assuming it is the right book and page) look for a proper citation.

Notwithstanding, I haven't found anything in Spurgeon's writings directly.

Nate B. said...


Good find. I went over to our library (here at TMS) and checked out the source. Here's what McGee had to say:

Source: J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. 4 (Pasadena, CA: Thru the Bible Radio, 1983), 405. Commenting on John 6:36-37:


Because Spurgeon preached a "whosoever will" gospel, someone said to him, "If I believed like you do about election, I wouldn't preach like you do." Spurgeon's answer was something like this, "If the Lord had put a yellow stripe down the backs of the elect, I'd go up and down the street lifting up shirt tails, finding out who had the yellow stripe, and then I'd give them the gospel. But God didn't do it that way. He told me to preach the gospel to every creature that 'whosoever will may come.'" Jesus says, "and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." So, my friend, you can argue about election all you want to, but you can come. And if you come, He'll not cast you out.

DJP said...

So, what's our secondary-source count up to now?

Maybe we can come up with a standard — you know, fourteen secondary sources = one pirmary source?


Nate B. said...



I double-checked the Swindoll book to make sure he actually did say "white stripes" ... and he did. (In case I was to be accused of using a secondary source of a secondary source.)

On the McGee quote, I included it primarily for Daniel's sake ... and because I think McGee's material could very well be the basis for the varied accounts that abound in cyberspace.

I think it's important to note that McGee qualified his account by saying Spurgeon said "something like" what follows.

It's probable that McGee was paraphrasing Spurgeon's account from sermon 34 (noted above by Brian) ... and that since then McGee's rendition of the account has been replicated without the necessary qualification.

Just a guess ... since neither Swindoll nor McGee provide any source material for their accounts.

In any case, I did not mean to imply that McGee's secondary source material validates the historical account. Instead, I was trying to retrace the steps as to where the story might have originated.

- NB

DJP said...

OK, I'm tracking with you now. So it may be that McGee is the ad fontes for the popular story, while the Spurgeon sermon may be the ad fontes for the McGeeitized version. Spurgeon said A, McGee muffed it over into B, and everyone has been paraphrasing B.


Golly, this is like... like Pyro-goes-CSI.


Stefan Ewing said...

By the way, a search just for the words "spurgeon stripe back" without the quotes (either in Google, or in Google Books) yields a number of quotations from his sermons and writings on the Crucifixion of Christ (Isaiah 53, etc.).

It's good that God can be glorified through snippets of the Gospel in search results, in the midst of an otherwise fruitless web search.

Nate B. said...


Since I seemingly can't let this go ... I also found a similar illustration in one of S. Lewis Johnson's sermons.



DJP said...

Yep, and once more the dreaded "something like this."

Think Spurgeon, McGee and Johnson are all cracking up and elbowing each other?

(That's a joke; I'm full aware they have literally infinitely better employment.)

But I like you better and better, kid; you're no stranger to getting a bug in your bonnet. I don't know how many times I went over my library yesterday, looking for Thielicke's book on Spurgeon.


Strong Tower said...


You had fun with that one. What's a sour cable?

DJP said...

You totally had me going on that, you rascal.

FX Turk said...


It's not Spurgeon. I seached 5 volumes of Spurgeon in PDF format, and I got nothing which says that Spuregon would rather only preach to the elect -- let alone anything about a painted stripe of any color.

If someone has a primary source for the Spurgy quote, I'd love to see it. I think I can find 10 quotes, however, where he speaks of a God of mercy to the just and unjust who makes a good-faith offer of salvation for repentance to sinners.

CR said...

Sorry, this was put on my backburner. I believe this is a quote from CHS because he was so passionate on evangelism. I'll try to find a primary source. Here's another secondary source to add to your list.


CR said...

Actually, Dan, now that I think of it, you will not find a "primary source", since it is not something that Spurgeon preached, but something that someone asked. By primary source - i.e. cite this source "in Spurgeon." Someone asked him so, I don't think it's something he penned down.

Shaun Marksbury said...

The quote I heard was that since he could *not* find the magic "E" for elect, he would preach to *everybody*. Kinda from the other angle. I thought I read it in his "Lectures to My Students," but I can't find it...

Susan said...

(Aside: I can TOTALLY hear Dr. J. Vernon McGee's twang in that Spurgeon [or not-quite-Spurgeon] quote....)

Phil Johnson said...

I'll weigh in.

Personally, I don't think the yellow-stripe version sounds authentically Spurgeonic at all. No proper Victorian would (in mixed company) invoke the imagery of lifting up someone's shirt to examine his bare-skinned back.

I think the yellow-stripe illustration is like the famous boiler-room-in-the-basement tale that is also frequently ascribed to Spurgeon: You'll discover that it is missing from every obvious source that was actually contemporary with Spurgeon, but almost ubiquitous after 1940 or so. So I would not be surprised to learn that the yellow-stripe story originated in the early 20th century.

It has every appearance of being an embellishment of the line Brian quoted in the first comment. Notice in the documentable version, Spurgeon isn't talking about an identifying tattoo or stripe on the skin of the back; he is challenging his imaginary hyper-Calvinist interlocutor: "Have YOU marked them all on the back?"--i.e., with a chalk mark or scarlet letter or bumper sticker. No proper Victorian would be expected to imagine Spurgeon was talking about a bare-skinned back. That has to be a twentieth-century gloss.

Incidentally, while we are debunking some of the most popular bromides of evangelical mythology, the famous tale about James Bartley, who supposedly survived a swallowing by a whale, seems to be false, too.

Pedro Jiménez said...

"Our Savior has bidden us to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). He has not said, "Preach it only to the elect," and though that might seem to be the most logical thing for us to do, yet since he has not been pleased to stamp the elect in their foreheads or put any distinctive mark upon them, it would be an impossible task to us to perform. When we preach the gospel to every creature, the gospel makes its own division, and Christ's sheep hear his voice, and follow him."

Charles H. Spurgeon

From the book "2,200 Quotations from the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon", compiled by Tom Carter

DJP said...

Aigh! Still no source!

Nate B. said...


That quote reportedly comes from Spurgeon's sermon #2937 ("Too Little for the Lamb") on page 262 of the 1905 Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. I'll try to verify this tomorrow when I have access to that volume.

- NB

Phil Johnson said...

That's correct. "Too Little for the Lamb" (Sermon 2937) is online at Spurgeon Gems.

Pedro Jiménez said...

Volume 51, page 262 of Spurgeon's original sermon series.

From the sixty-three volumes of sermons corresponding to the years 1855 trough 1917.

Volume 51 was published as the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit in 1905.

Pedro Jiménez said...

Thanks Nate B.

Nate B. said...

This is slightly off topic, but I just found an interesting quote from Rowland Hill, an English preacher who lived from 1744-1833.

On page 34 of his biography, we read this:

"Rowland Hill was as severely blamed by the high doctrinalists for not preaching to the elect only, as he was by the Armimans for preaching too much Calvinism. When someone complained that he did not preach to the elect only, he said, 'I don't know them, or I would preach to them. Have the goodness to mark them with a bit of chalk, and then I'll talk to them!'"

Though Hill died the year before Spurgeon was born, it's likely his comments influenced Spurgeon's later thinking on the subject.

In fact, Spurgeon wrote the introduction to his biography.

Anyway, FWIW.

Nate B. said...

Okay ... did a bit more research.

Spurgeon openly says that he was influenced by Rowland Hill on this topic. In his sermons, he says:

"He [a certain hyper-calvinist] was not half so discreet as Rowland Hill, who, when he was advised to preach to none but the elect, said, 'He would certainly do so if some one would chalk them all on the back first.' That was never attempted by anybody ; so Rowland Hill went on preaching the gospel to every creature, as I desire to do."

Nate B. said...

Spurgeon referenced Rowland Hill's comment in several sermons--a number of which can be found with a quick Google search. Here is another one (from SpurgeonGems):

"I remember Rowland Hill’s reply, when somebody said that he ought to preach only to the elect. “Very well,” he said, “next Sunday morning, chalk them all on the back and when you have done that, I will preach to them.” But the chalking of them on the back is the difficulty—we cannot do that and, as we cannot do that, the best way is for us to leave our God to carry out the purposes of His distinguishing Grace in His own effectual way and not attempt to do what we certainly can never accomplish!"

CR said...

Okay, this assignment is really fun. I believe the correct quote is: God has called me to preach His word and if I knew that all the elect had a yellow stripe painted down their backs, then I would GIVE UP preaching the gospel and go lift up shirt tails. Working on giving you a primary source, but may send a secondary source, very soon.

CR said...

Oh, and by the way, Spurgeon's "quote" is a response to someone who said that if he believed like Spurgeon did and God saved some and passed by others, that he would give up preaching.

CR said...

Okay, well, here's another source. It doesn't qualify as "primary." But I think it's important to have the right quote and if you put in the exact quote in the google search, you'll get a few links and this is one them.



Stefan Ewing said...

To find the origination
Of these colourful citations,
I wish I could splurge on
The collected works of Spurgeon.

Stefan Ewing said...

"Quotations" works better than "citations."

Johnson and McGee
Preached that Christ died for thee.
For this we give praise
For preaching what God says;
But they should have curtailed
The myth about shirt tails.

(Okay, it's not John Donne, that's for sure, or even Ogden Nash.)

Daniel said...

I think Nate nailed it as close as its going to get. Great job Nate.

Jeff said...

I, too thought "Too Little For The Lamb" Sermon #2937. Looks like someone posted it before me.