A Camaraderie of Confidence is John Piper’s seventh book in The Swans Are Not Silent series of biographical vignettes. This entry focuses on three well-known evangelical leaders from the Victorian Era: Charles Spurgeon, the famous Prince of Preachers; George Müller, the man of prayer and faith who cared for thousands of orphans in Bristol, England; and Hudson Taylor, a pioneer missionary to the interior of China and the founder of the China Inland Mission. What many readers may not know is that Spurgeon, Müller, and Taylor were contemporaries who knew, admired, and encouraged one another.
In his Introduction, Piper draws out the interesting connections between the three men and sketches the historical context in which they lived and worked. As heirs of the evangelical awakenings, they were gospel men with hearts for the poor and the lost. As practical men with a zeal for a working faith, they were “modern mavericks,” willing “to adjust inherited ways and traditions to put personal biblical convictions to practical use” (p. 22). In a great summary statement, Piper says, “Their activism and individualism and pragmatism and resistance to elite privilege and identification with the common man (none of them had a theological degree) made them men of their age. Nevertheless, they were radically different from the unbelieving masses of their day” (p. 30).
The subtitle of the book discloses its unifying theme: “The Fruit of Unfailing Faith in the Lives of Charles Spurgeon, George Müller, and Hudson Taylor.” Faith in God’s sovereign goodness and his faithfulness to the promises of Scripture was a thread woven through their shared stories. This theme is most prominent in the book’s Introduction, Conclusion, and chapter on Müller. The chapters on Spurgeon and Taylor, however, follow a slightly different orbit, each with their own distinct center of gravity.
The subtitle to Spurgeon’s chapter is “Preaching through Adversity” (p. 33); this chapter is easily the longest in the book. Piper describes seven features of Spurgeon’s preaching ministry, including his suffering, which is divided into another five subheadings. This leads straight to the crucial question on which the chapter hinges: “how did he persevere and preach through this adversity?” (p. 48). Piper answers with six “strategies of grace” (p. 49) that supported and sustained Spurgeon’s perseverance through the pressures, criticisms, and physical afflictions that marked his life and ministry. Among these strategies were Spurgeon’s practices of prayer and meditation and his deep confidence in the sovereignty of God.
The second chapter takes up George Müller and his “Strategy for Showing God— Simple Faith, Sacred Scripture, Satisfaction in God” (p. 63). After briefly recounting the details of his life, Piper devotes several pages to Müller’s distinction between the gift of faith and the grace of faith (pp. 69–72). Müller insisted that he did not have the spiritual gift of faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:9), but rather that he had built his life and ministry by exercising the grace of faith that should characterize all believers. This, in Piper’s view, is the key to understanding Müller’s life. The chapter also explores Müller’s Calvinistic theology and his devotional use of Scripture.
The chapter on Taylor is focused on his experience of union with Christ and devotes considerable space to his affiliation with the higher life teaching of the Keswick convention. While Piper is critical of the Keswick Movement and even contends that “its views of sanctification . . . in the worst exponents, are seriously flawed,” he also concludes “that Taylor was not one of those worst exponents, and that he was protected from Keswick’s worst flaws by his allegiance to the Bible, his experience of lifelong suffering and sorrow, and his belief in the sovereignty of God” (p. 85). The book’s Conclusion highlights the “uniting thread in the interwoven lives” of Spurgeon, Müller, and Taylor, namely, “their great confidence that God could and would fulfill all his promises to care for each of his children” (p. 105).
I will offer two moderate criticisms of A Camaraderie of Confidence. First (and this criticism applies not only this book, but to the Swans series as a whole), while Piper’s treatment of these men is inspiring, one is left feeling that Spurgeon, Müller, and Taylor were larger than life. Missing from these chapters is the kind of critical engagement with the subject’s less admirable traits that one hopes for in a longer, more critical biography. While readers will walk away admiring Spurgeon and company’s faith in the face of suffering, they will know little of their faults, failures, weaknesses, and sins. One must recognize, of course, the limitations of this series and this particular kind of biography. These are really biographical sketches aimed for the edification of readers (these chapters originated as sermonic biographical lectures to pastors, delivered in a conference setting). And while they fulfill that aim admirably, an element of hagiography remains nonetheless. The second criticism concerns Piper’s treatment of the relationships between Spurgeon, Müller, and Taylor—the “camaraderie” of these three men. While readers can be grateful that Piper pointed out these connections, I wonder if more could have been said about these partnerships and the importance of such collaboration in ministry today.
There are also several strengths to this book. First, Piper succeeds in condensing the most crucial details of these three lives into accessible, interesting chapters. Second, he draws specific attention to the work God accomplished through each man, as well as the unique trials they each suffered in their particular contexts. Finally, Piper not only highlights their unfailing faith in God, but he also explores the theological and practical dimensions of their faith, with special emphasis on their trust in God’s sovereignty and their personal practices of prayerful communion with God through meditation on Scripture.