From Fratricide to Revival: Forgetting the Origin of an Evangelical Saying, 1642–1889
After more than thirty years of preaching, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) published The Salt-Cellars (1889), a collection of witty and memorable sayings. This eminent Baptist minister included the following: ‘The less of man, the more of God’. It is unlikely that he, or anyone who used the phrase, remembered the origin of this evangelical saying.
Birthed in war, the application of this phrase evolved from combat to conversion; from fratricide to revival. Linguistic demilitarisation took less than two decades.
This case study illustrates the fluid nature of language. An earlier post (From Witness to Warrior: Remembering the Red Sea in British Warfare, 1560–1660) explained how a scriptural exhortation to patience and passivity (Exodus 14:13–14) transformed into a justification for war from 1560 to 1643. This post covers 1642 to 1889, but the transition works the other way. It shows how a military saying decoupled from its violent origins.
Spurgeon’s phrase dates to the First English Civil War between Parliament and Charles I. It was a time when many sought to ‘reform the Reformation it self’, to borrow from Edmund Calamy’s 1641 sermon. The first major battle of the war took place between Edgehill and a small town called Kineton in Warwickshire (22 October 1642). Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, commanded Parliament’s forces. It was Essex who, after Edgehill, uttered the phrase used by Spurgeon.
According to a publication dated 29 October 1642 by J. B. (possibly the Congregationalist, Jeremiah Burroughs), Stephen Marshall spoke ‘of the successe’ at Edgehill. Essex interrupted Marshall’s battlefield reflections: ‘his excellency replyed twice together, that he never saw lesse of man in any thnig [sic], nor more of God, which pious expression of a Generalls heart deserves a due Emblazon of praise’. Essex’ interjection, repeated twice, landed on a receptive audience.
Essex saw this recent deliverance as unparalleled in his experience (note the use of ‘never saw’). Those appropriating his phase applied it to new divine acts. The proliferation of unprecedented events says much about how partisans remembered recent deliverances and altered the memory of distant ones.
Essex' comment was memorable and unremarkable. It was possibly a compilation of scriptural events (e.g. Exodus from Egypt, Gideon and the Midianites) and theological themes (e.g. John 3:30, Rom 8:31, I Cor 1:27–31). There is little evidence of a similar phrase in English before. After Edgehill, a steady stream stretches for centuries.
Essex’ expression quickly spread. A letter from Stephen Marshall (25 October 1642) and the diary of Sir John Rous associated it with Edgehill. It appeared in the writings of Samuel Turner (defence of Henley-upon-Thames, 1643), John Dorney (protection at Gloucester, 1644) and John Bingham (protection at Weymouth, 1644). Several works dedicated to Essex featured the phrase, notably Jeremiah Burroughs’ sermon, The glorious name of God, The Lord of Hosts (1643). Ezekias Woodward’s 1643 work applied the expression retroactively to Jehoshaphat’s war in 2 Chronicles 20, where God promised victory without human agency (a parallel to Exodus 14:13–14). The comment gained a wider audience in Stephen Marshall’s sermons before and after the battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). The expression then appeared in 1646 publications by Nehemiah Barnett, Nathanael Lancaster, Hugh Peter and John Vicars.
After the execution of Charles I (20 January 1649), William Cooper used the phrase to celebrate victory at Rathmines in Ireland (2 August 1649), and Gilbert Ker (a Scottish Covenanter Colonel) used it against royalist rebels in northern Scotland (1649). In a 1650 sermon, Henry Walker turned the phrase on the Covenanters. After victory over Covenanters at Dunbar (3 September 1650), an anonymous letter in Henry Walker’s Perfect passages claimed ‘there never was seen in all the battels in England nor Ireland so much of God, and less of man’. Several persons then used the expression to legitimate governance without a monarch or to support Oliver Cromwell’s leadership (e.g. Samuel Richardson  and John Moore ). Essex’ phrase, like God’s favour, soon extended beyond the British Isles as the godly fought the Dutch (Richard Badiley ), Spanish (Joseph Caryl ) and Native Americans (William Hubbard ).
Another applicational strand also developed. God’s agency in war was akin to God’s agency in general. This generic theological strand survived for centuries. Several authors, like Samuel Gibson (1645), John Trapp (1654) and William Troughton (1656), blended martial with theological uses. Others used Essex’ words in discussions of scriptural inspiration, justification or ecclesiology (e.g. Richard Baxter , Thomas Blake  and Richard Gilpin ). Essex’ saying, unattributed, also featured in Ralph Venning’s Canaans Flowings, a 1653 compilation of godly sayings. Aphorism 245 reads ‘The lesse of man, the more of God’—the exact wording used by Charles Spurgeon over two centuries later.
A few royalists used the phrase after the Restoration (1660). However, one final parliamentarian use problematised political application. Major-General Thomas Harrison was tried and executed after the Restoration. He promoted the execution of Charles I and was known for zealous apocalypticism. ‘As to the Blood of the King’, he protested, God ‘confirmed that the thing was more of God then of men’. This divine instrument spoke confidently from the gallows as if God would immediately and visibly vindicate his cause: ‘Yet I believe ere it be long the Lord will make it known from Heaven that there was more of God in it then men are now aware of’. It was the crowd, not the condemned, who would soon have their beliefs altered.
Admirers and detractors reproduced Harrison’s speech for well over a century. It linked Essex’ expression with regicide. After the Restoration, many wanted to forget this link. The Restoration, to borrow a phrase from Wayne P. Te Brake’s Religious War and Religious Peace, required both ‘amnesia and amnesty. Forgiving and forgetting is a recurrent... theme in the history of peacemaking’. It is not surprising, then, that the language of war underwent revision.
Those trampled under this pious expression likely found it unsavoury. However, more than a decade before the Restoration, the phrase began entrenching itself in generic theological discussions. Uprooted from its fratricidal origin, the phrase found fertile ground in the Protestant discourse of conversion. From the Restoration of the Stuarts to the present, the pairing of ‘less of man’ with ‘more of God’ almost exclusively described God’s spiritual work—usually in the context of regeneration or sanctification.
The meaning of phrases and symbols migrates, as aptly described by the sociologist David Martin in Does Christianity Cause War? He notes how the ‘symbolic logic of Christianity’ can be ‘transformed under social pressure’. This article described a similar migration from physical to spiritual deliverance from 1642 to 1660 to 1889. Although the saying was too memorable to forget, its origin became too controversial to remember.