Charles Haddon Spurgeon
June 19, 1834 - January 31, 1892
“There are times when solitude is better than society, and silence is wiser than speech. We should be better Christians if we were more alone, waiting upon God, and gathering through meditation on His Word spiritual strength for labour in his service. We ought to muse upon the things of God, because we thus get the real nutriment out of them. . . . Why is it that some Christians, although they hear many sermons, make but slow advances in the divine life? Because they neglect their closets, and do not thoughtfully meditate on God's Word. They love the wheat, but they do not grind it; they would have the corn, but they will not go forth into the fields to gather it; the fruit hangs upon the tree, but they will not pluck it; the water flows at their feet, but they will not stoop to drink it. From such folly deliver us, O Lord. . . .”
Charles H Spurgeon was a man with such great insight and wisdom to the spirit, it could almost rival King Solomon himself. With a voice that could captivate thousands, an innate ability of eloquent and dynamic speech, Charles Spurgeon’s preaching brought understanding and freshness to the word of God for everyday people in nineteenth century London. Spurgeon’s dedication to preaching and ministering to the common masses made him a servant unlike other ministers in his day. While some called his style “vulgar and theatrical,” Spurgeon maintained that there was value in speaking to people in language relevant to them. He was aflame with a passion to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and a draw to everyone into faith. Even as he battled harsh criticism, bad health, and chronic depression, Spurgeon remained faithful to his calling to become one of the most compelling preachers of his time, and to this day has more material in print than any other Christian author. With that being said, Spurgeon remains highly influential among Christians of various denominations, among whom he is known as the "Prince of Preachers". With a lifetime pursuit of Jesus and a fiery passion for spiritual truth, we name Charles H Spurgeon as one of God’s Great Generals.
History: Born in 1834 in Kelvedon, Essex, to a family of Independent ministers, Spurgeon grew up listening to sermons, singing hymns, and reading Christian works. Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were among his favorites and remained an influence on his understanding of spiritual life. Despite being surrounded by the spirit from birth, young Spurgeon continued in quest of Christ for five years—from the time when he was between ten and eleven years old until he was between fifteen and sixteen. Into those years was crowded a world of experience which enabled him in his subsequent ministry to probe the secrets of many hearts. He learned more of the things that matter in those years than most men learn in a lifetime.
That one so young, so sheltered, trained from his babyhood in the ways of God, could have felt so much and have had such exercises of soul may seem impossible, his own account of his darkness and despair may appear exaggerated; but those who are versed in the ways of God will understand. "To make a man a saint," says Pascal, "grace is absolutely necessary, and whoever doubts it, does not know what a saint is or what a man is." Spurgeon early learned to know both. He arrived at some knowledge of his own heart and some knowledge of God's heart. By his very wanderings he was assured that grace was seeking him all the while.
"I must confess," he says, "that I never would have been saved if I could have helped it. As long as ever I could, I rebelled, and revolted, and struggled against God. When He would have me pray, I would not pray, and when He would have me listen to the sound of the ministry, I would not. And when I heard, and the tear rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away and defied Him to melt my soul. But long before I began with Christ, He began with me." It was to his mother he owed his first awakening. Her prayers, no less than her exhortations, aroused him to concern of soul. Spurgeon was fifteen in the winter of 1850 when he decided to breach his family’s religious tradition and become a Baptist. He’d been traveling when a snowstorm diverted his trip and he found himself in a Primitive Methodist chapel where “God opened his heart to the salvation message.” This “accident” helped strengthen Spurgeon’s resolve “…that the truth was more likely to be found among the poor and humble than among the overeducated and refined. The Holy Spirit did a huge work in his heart that day, and the spirit filled word that moved him was Isaiah 45:22 – "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else." Later that year on 4 April 1850, he was admitted to the church at Newmarket.
His baptism followed on 3 May in the river Lark, at Isleham. Later that same year he moved to Cambridge, where he later became a Sunday school teacher. He preached his first sermon in the winter of 1850–51 in a cottage at Teversham while filling in for a friend. In 1852 he became the pastor of a small Baptist church in rural Cambridgeshire, where he became known for his preaching, which most considered above average. Spurgeon’s reputation soon spread and led him out of Cambridgeshire and into London where he was called to the pastorate at New Park Street Chapel, London’s historic Baptist church.
Spurgeon’s youth, dramatic style, and paradoxical beliefs blending Calvinism and Arminianism quickly brought criticism from the press and his peers. His dramatic and emotional approach to preaching inspired some critics to compare him to popular circus entertainers, while others dismissed his style as mere sensationalism. And his conviction that infant baptism was unscriptural (developed when he as still a schoolboy) alienated many evangelicals of his time, who practiced it as a form of family initiation. Despite these attacks, God allowed Spurgeon’s ministry to flourish, and his congregation multiplied rapidly. In fact, so many thousands of people flocked to hear him that he began preaching in places like London’s Exeter Hall and the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall which were large enough to accommodate his audiences. His fame and power as a preacher were growing, but the weight of his ministry would only intensify.
Ministry and Impact: At the age of 19, in the early years of Spurgeon’s career, he preached in London and throughout the kingdom. No chapel seemed large enough to hold the people who wanted to hear him, and he moved into London’s great secular halls—Exeter Hall, Surrey Gardens Music Hall, the Agricultural Hall—where he preached to thousands. In 1861, his congregation moved to the new Metropolitan Tabernacle, and Spurgeon left London less frequently.
The period of Spurgeon’s early London ministry was a period of considerable economic and social distress in Britain. Cholera was a great scourge: Twenty thousand died in 1854, Spurgeon’s first year in London. Also in that year, the Crimean War broke out, the first war involving the major European powers since Waterloo. The mutiny of the Seypoys in India in 1857 provoked a tremendous outpouring of rage and grief, concluding in a National Day of Fast and Humiliation during which Spurgeon addressed the largest audience of his life: twenty-four thousand gathered in the Crystal Palace. These events, with the economic disruptions caused by the outbreak of the American Civil War, brought suffering and economic ruin to many, who sought religious solace in confused and troubled times. Not coincidentally, the 1850s ended with the “Great Revival,” which began in Ireland and Scotland and swept into England, igniting religious emotions in a fashion not seen in Britain since the days of Wesley and Whitefield. Spurgeon disdained the title of “revivalist,” but his ministry clearly benefited from the religious enthusiasm sparked by the events of 1859.
Some of Spurgeon’s popularity in the mid-Victorian years can also be attributed to the fact that going to church was one of the few Sabbath diversions permitted in an evangelical household. It is difficult to exaggerate the change for many evangelical families when the Sabbath dawned. Books and papers were put away, games were forbidden, and any secular amusement was out of the question. John Ruskin’s mother, for example, turned all of the pictures in the house face-to-the-wall. For many Victorians, attending a Sunday service—indeed, attending several Sunday services—was a satisfying way to fill the void. Although an evangelical would never attend a theater, he or she could have a theatrical experience by going to hear the young Spurgeon preaching before thousands in Exeter Hall.
And Spurgeon was a compelling, charismatic speaker—as his friend John Carlile remembered, “dramatic to his fingertips.” Photographs from this period show him assuming dramatic stances, and visitors’ accounts tell us he seemed to act out the parts, to assume the identity of the biblical characters he spoke of. Before age and gout slowed him down, Spurgeon paced the platform and even ran from side to side. His sermons were filled with sentimental stories that ordinary people could relate to: tales of dying children, grieving parents, repentant harlots, and servants wiser than their masters.
Spurgeon’s language was graphic, emotionally charged, occasionally maudlin and sentimental. But great actors, novelists, and preachers of the era appealed to emotions. People cried when Little Nell died and when Little Eva went to heaven. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel in nineteenth-century Britain. The evangelical appeal to emotions led to the abolition of the slave trade and brought the condition of the child factory worker to the attention of the public. Because of emotional appeals, lives were changed and desperate people were given hope.
Not everybody was supportive of the preacher with passion however. The dramatic devices employed by Spurgeon have become commonplace now. But they were novel in the mid-Victorian years, and many critics roundly condemned the young minister’s style, manner, and appearance. He was called “a clerical poltroon,” “the Exeter Hall demagogue,” and “the pulpit buffoon.” His ministry was dismissed as a nine days’ wonder, and he was compared to popular entertainers such as Tom Thumb, the clown at Astley’s Circus, the Living Skeleton, and a whole range of fire eaters, flying men, and tightrope walkers who briefly captured the attention of the fickle populace. Other ministers were openly contemptuous of his “sensationalism,” although many would eventually copy his style and even appropriate his sermons.
Spurgeon survived the hostile reviews and learned to live with the jealousies of his fellow ministers. He proved to his critics that he had staying power, and he earned the respect of those who had been quick to denounce “Spurgeonism” as a passing fad on a spiritual level with table rapping. In preaching, as in most things, nothing succeeds like success, and when Spurgeon moved his flock into the new Tabernacle in Southwark in 1861, it was fully paid for. The new building could seat six thousand people, and when Spurgeon stood on his platform—he hated conventional pulpits—he looked out at the largest Protestant congregation in the world. In the words of the title of his first biography, he had gone From the Usher’s Desk to the Tabernacle.
Spurgeon was sometimes called “the Pope at Newington Butts.” He did however rule over his congregation with a firm hand, at the same time, a loving heart. Although perhaps the best analogy would be to an enlightened despot rather than to the pope. Every person who joined his huge congregation was personally interviewed by Spurgeon, who wanted to be sure the candidate’s conversion was genuine. His deacons adored him to almost the point of idolatry. One, presumably speaking for all, declared that if the pastor ever encountered a ditch, they would fill the ditch with their bodies so that he could cross over. “That,” said Spurgeon, “was grand talk.”
Spurgeon’s congregation was not fashionable; most members were lower middle class, although comfortable enough and eminently respectable. In later days his congregation provided him with private rail cars and expense-paid vacations to Mentone, France, a favorite resort of affluent Victorians. His Tabernacle base was comfortable and secure, and he knew it. As one impressed reporter put it, “He spoke of his thousands as lightly as the Shah of Persia.”
“When our lives come to be written at last,” Spurgeon once wrote, “God grant that they be not only our sayings, but our sayings and doings.” A fair assessment of Spurgeon’s life must include both.
Though Charles may not have been the so called greatest of theologians in his time, he was led passionately and whole heartedly by the Holy Spirit, and the teaching hand of God. He was a preacher, and teacher taught of the spirit, for which in that role he was unsurpassed in his day and not often matched since. His originality as a preacher lay in his combination of old-fashioned doctrine and up-to-date delivery. He may have been an ordinary and conventional Victorian in many of his personal tastes and prejudices, but he had an uncanny ability to sense the pulse of his times, and to know, almost instinctively, how to reach out to ordinary and troubled people in a language which they could not resist. It was the language of the marketplace—pithy, pungent, often humorous, and at once commonsensical and compelling. The power of that language reached a worldwide audience and has kept the name and message of Spurgeon alive long after the embers of old controversies have died out. “I must and I will make the people listen,” the boy preacher said. None did it better.
Family Life: From all accounts, Spurgeon’s congregation was evenly divided between males and females, which was unusual in a century in which many congregations in Britain and the United States became increasingly female. Spurgeon exuded an air of comfortable masculinity, and women clearly found him attractive. Before his marriage he was deluged with hand-sewn slippers and requests for locks of hair.
In 1856, Spurgeon married Susannah Thompson, a member of his congregation and the daughter of a prosperous ribbon manufacturer. She was trim, pretty, and stylishly dressed in the crinolines and bonnets popular in the mid-Victorian years. By her account, it was not love at first sight. She thought the young preacher countrified. But he was a persistent suitor. The Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, had been recently dismantled and moved from Hyde Park to the London suburb of Sydenham. Susannah and Charles each bought season tickets. Here, in Paxton’s vast exhibit halls of iron and glass, the two wandered amid the stuffed elephants, monstrously ornate furniture, faux ruins, sewing machines, threshers, and other mechanical marvels and oddities that entranced visitors. It was a suitable Victorian backdrop for a courtship that had all the charm of an old-fashioned valentine.
They were married, went to Paris for a honeymoon, and within the year were the parents of twin sons, Charles and Thomas. The marriage was a source of strength and abiding comfort to both. Both suffered periodic illness and invalidism. The trim figures of youth became more ample in middle age, but they remained devoted lovers, each seeking the word or token that would lighten the burden of the other. The Spurgeons lived at a time when gender roles were clearly defined, and neither was of the temperament to challenge the prevailing view that man’s sphere was the world and woman was “the angel in the house.”