By admin | July 9, 2008
Do you know Spencer Cone?
John Thornbury, A Pastor in New York: The Life and Times of Spencer Houghton Cone (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004). Reviewed by James M. Renihan
Written church history is generally a record of movers and shakers. The most famous names and the greatest men are the objects of study and knowledge. While this method is rightly criticized for its neglect of the common person, it may also be criticized for neglecting some of the most influential, who for one reason or another have not been given the prominence in the historical record they rightly deserve. The subject of this popular biography, Spencer H. Cone, is just such a man, especially for Baptists. He is forgotten among the churches he served-a circumstance that probably would have dumbfounded his contemporaries.
Born near Princeton, NJ in 1785, dying just over 70 years later in New York City, Cone was a man of stature and reputation in his lifetime. His story is full of interest. Born into a godly family of old New England Puritan stock, and raised in a Baptist home, he heard the gospel from childhood. Due to a breakdown in his father’s health, leadership of the family was thrust upon him at age 14, forcing him into to the world of employment. At various times he was a teacher, a very popular actor, and a soldier, his natural abilities evident in each task he took. When he was 28, he came to faith in Christ, and sensed soon a call to preach Christ’s gospel. Opportunities came, and he settled in as minister of a small church in Alexandria, Virginia. Cone’s gifts were such that the church quickly grew, and he was invited to serve as chaplain to the US Congress. In 1823 he received a call to the Oliver Street Baptist Church of New York where he served until 1841, when he moved across the city to the pastorate of the First Baptist Church, where he remained until his death. Such a brief outline does no justice to the energy and blessedness of his life and work. Virtually every denominational position of leadership or honor was given to him.
Those familiar with Baptist History early in the Nineteenth Century know of the great movements and conflicts thrust upon the churches during those decades, and Cone was deeply involved in all of them. He was an early and fervent advocate of the cause of missions (both foreign and domestic-as the nation expanded westward), a participant in the furor over slavery and missions, and a founder of three Bible societies. Perhaps his greatest controversy, and most difficult defeat, arose from the attempt to amend the Authorized Version of the Bible, specifically so that the word rendered “baptize” would be translated “immerse.” His view of translation was, sadly, too advanced for his day.
John Thornbury’s biography of Cone is sympathetically written and should be well received by its readers. While not a critical work, that is not its purpose. It is a popular treatment, intended to bring this good man’s name back to recognition among his spiritual heirs. Cone is portrayed in the best light, and one does wonder if the book perhaps tends to hide the warts of his life and character. Christian biography, even in popular form, should not become hagiography, and at times, this book comes close. I am not sure that we see Spencer Cone the man as he really was; we see more of Spencer Cone the hero. The brief glances at his struggles, as for example after the death of his beloved wife, help us to glimpse his humanity. Without them, he can appear as an unrealistic figure. There are several typographical errors in the book; one would hope that they will be corrected for the next printing. A strange feature of the book is the inclusion of a photo of a painting of John Gano baptizing George Washington. This incident is only related to the subject of the book in the most tangential way (Gano was an earlier pastor of First Baptist, New York), and is almost certainly apocryphal. One wonders why it was included at all.
On the whole, this biography is well worth reading. It delivers just what the subtitle promises-a study of Spencer Cone and his times.
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