Making the Gospel Known: Ichabod Spencer

by Dustin Benge

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at dustinbenge.com in January of 201and is used by permission.

As Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to make the gospel known. Christ’s command to his disciples, “Go ye…and make disciples…” (Mt 28:19) was not exclusively for the crowd to whom Jesus was then speaking, but to the whole church. It is the responsibility of every Christian to share the gospel message and “make disciples.” Therefore, every child of God must ask themselves continually if they are doing all they can to share the good news of the gospel.  In order to be the most effective, there must be a clear strategy to the way in which we go about obeying the command to evangelize the world.

One example of an effective strategy to evangelism was the 19th century preacher and author, Ichabod Spencer (1798–1854).  Spencer was born in Vermont and converted in Granville, New York.  He became a school teacher in his early years but moved on to fulfill a strong calling to preach the gospel.  He began his ministry in the very church in which Jonathan Edwards made famous in Northampton, Massachusetts.  His ministry there from 1828–1832 was remarkably blessed with more than 250 who came to Christ during those years. Later, he became the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. During his laborious pastorate in Brooklyn he resolved to make personal frequent pastoral visits to those in his congregation. After each visit he would carefully note the spiritual conversation of which they were engaged. After 25 years of pastoral ministry he had over 20,000 accounts of these personal conversations. It is no wonder he came to be known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.”

Spencer was a faithful pastor who was committed to the doctrines of grace and preached these themes both publicly and from house to house. After many years of decision and contemplation he finally decided to release his first series of A Pastor’s Sketches, which contain 77 visitation accounts in two volumes taken from over the 20,000 that were available from him. These two volumes spread like wild fire giving readers an intense passion for evangelism. There is much Christians can learn from Ichabod Spencer in regard to their own evangelistic efforts. Much of his thought and practice should be emulated and put into practice within one’s own Christian life. 

It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint Spencer’s strategy of evangelism because there is no one single method he used in his presentation of the gospel. In A Pastor’s Sketches, it is clear that he uses various methods and arguments to present the gospel in an effective manner. In other words, Spencer is not a “cookie-cutter” evangelist and adapts to all situations and people. The overarching theme of Spencer’s life and evangelistic approach is love. He began all of his evangelistic efforts with love for people. This expression of love is seen in his great desire to spend as much time with people as they needed. In one account, he says to a woman of whom he is helping to think through the issues of having the Holy Spirit, “Certainly, certainly, madam; I can talk with you as long as you please to favor me with your company.” To another women he said, “Mrs. K -, I have been very anxious about you for a long time. I love and respect you.” 

Spencer would purposefully make appointments with people he wanted to talk with and was under great pains to make those appointments as meaningful as possible. He would often begin his conversation by expressing how much he deeply cared and loved the individual to whom he was speaking. It is clear throughout the numerous accounts that Spencer had genuine compassion for their souls and cared about where they would spend eternity.

Spencer’s strategy of evangelism also centers on the truth of Scripture as containing the message that would inevitably change lives. The biblical revelation was at the heart of his message. It was only from Scripture that he would argue his case and point people to Christ. He would often begin his conversations with individuals by discerning the spiritual state of the person. After investigating and making initial observations of their spiritual position, he would decide on the best course of action. In the first sketch, for example, he talks with a young Irishman with whom he realizes, early on, that he must provide a defense for the existence of God. He does not usually employ such an apologetic for those whom he already believes in God. However, with this young man he quickly realizes he must approach him as one who needs a believing foundation upon which to present the claims of Christ. In other words, he could not begin the conversation by saying “Turn to God” or “Trust in Christ” if the listener does not believe in God.  He says to a doubting lady, “I may be wrong; but the Word of God is right.” His confidence did not lie in his ability to persuade people in his own knowledge but with love and the very words of the truth of God.

In Sketches, Spencer speaks with people in all walks of life who have varying backgrounds and stories. One true strength of his evangelism is his ability to engage people on a number of intellectual levels. In some conversations Spencer very carefully crafts his argument to suit the intellect of the person to whom he is speaking. While at other times, he simplifies the message for those who are less knowledgeable about spiritual matters. In other words, there is not one particular group to whom Spencer speaks and leaves the rest to themselves. He engages people at all levels. The conversation, while suited differently to each particular situation, has the same goal in mind. This goal is not intellectual assent to the gospel but has a clear focus on the heart. He says, “You must have more. You must trust him. You must receive him as your own Savior, and give yourself to him.”

Throughout these sketches it is evident that Spencer discovered a great reliance upon the power and sovereign control of the Holy Spirit. The difference between Spencer and most people today in regard to our evangelistic efforts is that he greatly expected to see genuine conviction and conversion in the life of a sinner. This was not due to any particular gift or persuasive tactic he used, but completely in reliance on the Holy Spirit to bring about the conversion of the soul. He said, “No man can preach so powerfully as the Holy Spirit. It is vastly important to know when to stop.” In this clear reliance upon the power of the Spirit in the gospel is also a reliance of the Spirit to bring about that conversion. Spencer does not walk away from these conversations in a downcast demeanor when the response is not what he desired. He takes very seriously the biblical injunction that the seed sown is cultivated, watered, and brings fruit under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Leading a woman through Scripture explaining how she might be saved he said, “We need the aid of the Holy Spirit to renew our hearts, and bring us to faith and repentance.” Not only did Spencer depend upon the Holy Spirit in sharing the gospel but he pointed others to depend upon the Spirit in their conversion.

Ichabod Spencer stands as an example of how Christians should engage others, speak to them the Word of God, and then rely upon the Holy Spirit to transform the heart. I highly recommend A Pastor’s Sketches as a manual for biblical evangelism that a new generation of men and women would be emboldened to punch holes in the darkness with the light of the gospel of Christ.