The superhero film genre shows no signs of slowing down. Every month a new DC or Marvel film tries to quench our thirst for heroes. We were made for heroes. We need them. The problem is we lack authentic, relatable, real-life heroes who show us what a life of passion, love, virtue, courage looks like in a flesh-and-blood human being. Superman and Wonder Woman might leave us looking for someone to save us, but they are so fundamentally unlike us that they fail to provide fallen human heroes we can emulate.
In Steal Away Home we’re given two such heroes. These unlikely friends are united by their own forms of slavery. For twenty-eight years Thomas Johnson was a slave in the South. Before emancipation and before the war ended, he found true freedom through faith in Jesus. While his bondage was of a different sort, Charles Spurgeon fought a lifelong battle against the oppressive chains of depression.
While Charles Spurgeon seems to favorably make his way into so many sermons today and belongs to Protestantism’s hall of faith, his outspoken hostility towards human slavery made him quite the enemy in the American South during theCivil War. It was at a Spurgeon book burning that Thomas Johnson (still a slave in Virginia) first heard the name of Charles Spurgeon. From that providential moment in time, we see two men’s stories sewn together in a beautiful and sovereign way. It’s a God-sized story lived out among two men. Johnson would eventually attend Spurgeon’s Pastors College where their ministries and lives would forever be linked. The freedom Johnson experienced from physical slavery became the life-shaping experience enabling him to comfort his friend Charles in the midst of his darkest days.
While short biographies and books have introduced us in the past to Spurgeon’s sorrows, and how we might learn from him through them, this story based on historical research brings Spurgeon’s battles with failing health and crippling depression to life in a whole new way. After getting to know the man rather than the myth through Steal Away Home, Spurgeon quotes might never seem the same. Through the power of narrative, you feel his pain and your heart breaks with him. He becomes a friend. You weep and rejoice when he ultimately dies. For all those who love the sermons and writings of the “prince of preachers”, this book personalizes him in a profound way.
It also introduces us to the man behind the out of publication autobiography Twenty-Eight Years a Slave. Through Thomas Johnson’s story, we’re reminded of the horrors of slavery. Not just in general, but as seen in a particular person’s life. And yet, in the terrible darkness of a southern plantation, the light of the gospel still breaks in. The Devil’s intentions and man’s worst deeds cannot stop the power and purposes of God.
In the quiet, whispering songs of those who are slaves to men but free in Christ, Johnson sees what it means to find a freedom no one can take from you. He becomes a changed man even while remaining a chained man. From slavery to becoming a pastor in Chicago, to training in London, to arriving as a missionary in Africa, we find a new and needed heroes in Thomas Johnson. His story is gut-wrenching and hope-giving, and Steal Away Home delicately helps us see God’s goodness through it all.
This book was a great way to start the year. As a reader, we benefit from the tale of two friends, seeing the God-given value of such friendships. We’re blessed through God’s faithfulness in their lives through mountains and valleys, bondage and freedom, temporal loss and eternal gain. We learn the hard lesson of God’s goodness when pain doesn’t go away and sorrows mount. Johnson and Spurgeon are people like us in that they ordinary, fallen, weak men. And yet, they are men with enduring faith in Jesus who embody the kind of God-centered life worth emulating. I’m thankful to authors Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey for bringing this tale to light, not just so an important part of history isn’t lost but so the Church can be encouraged and exhorted through two lives that began so far apart and ended so close together. In a culture that often seems void of true heroes, this story from the Church’s history steps into the gap.
My only unease or qualm with the book relates to it being a dramatized work of historical narrative. While the authors tried to take as much of the book as possible directly from journals, recorded dialogues, sermons, and autobiographies, they admit in the Introduction that at times they have to “fill in the blanks” (p. 3). While the nature of this book as a story makes it compelling, and while footnotes would have bogged it down, I still found myself at times wanting to know exactly when and where the “artistic license” was used. Which scenes, dialogues, and words come from recorded history and which were the author’s best guess or creative representation of that history? This small apprehension about not knowing exactly which parts were filling in the blanks and which parts were taken directly from history does not ultimately distract from the book’s power and beauty. I highly recommend it and foresee it becoming a permanent fixture in the corpus of “must read” Charles Spurgeon related works.