Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a giant among nineteenth century religious leaders, an orator whose sermons held listeners spellbound, a prolific author whose writings and sermons were translated into many languages and a man who never spent one day in seminary or any other institution of higher learning. He pastored the New Park Street Chapel, (later the Metropolitan Tabernacle) of London, what today would be called a mega church, for thirty-eight years.
To study Spurgeon’s life and refer to it as a story seems inadequate; rather it is a re-markable journey, especially because his fifty-six years were not one continuous record of uninterrupted great accomplishments. Indeed, when we consider the number of interruptions to his ministry due to physical and mental illnesses, we cannot help but wonder how in his rather short life his magnificent record of achievement seems to put his contemporaries to shame. Yet when we study this great man; it’s the only conclusion we can reach.
Some might think that Charles Spurgeon, had he paced himself, might not have had the myriad of problems that afflicted him. However, that would have not been Charles Spurgeon—like all great men, he had to be who he was. Perhaps a quote to the young men of his Pastor’s College might help to explain this spiritual giant. “Young men, I do not know what your ambitions may be; but I hope you do not wish to be in this world mere chips in the porridge, giving forth no flavor whatever. My ambition does not run in that line. I know that if I have no intense haters, I can have no intense lovers; I am prepared to have both.”
No matter the obstacles, Spurgeon was going to be first and foremost, a servant of Jesus Christ. He would begin his mission as a young boy.
Charles was not quite six when he went to live with his grandfather, probably because his mother was about to give birth to his brother. While rummaging through his grandfather’s attic one day, he stumbled upon a book, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He read it, again and again, mastering a text that adults found difficult. Approximately nine years later, fifteen year old Charles Haddon Spurgeon was walking to church on a bitterly cold, snowy Sunday morning, carrying the same burden of guilt he’d carried ever since he’d read Bunyan’s classic. Charles wanted to be saved, to accept Christ; he’d been visiting a lot of churches, trying to find answers. He suddenly realized that he’d never make it to the church he intended—but wait! Mother had told him about a small Methodist church not nearly as far—he’d stop there even though the Methodists were kind of loud. Charles entered quietly, making sure to sit away from the approximately fifteen congregants. A Layman was preaching, the regular pastor having been snowed in. His language was crude, his preaching worse, but Charles was taken by the text—LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH FOR I AM GOD AND THERE IS NONE ELSE—and became fixated on the word, “LOOK” as the substitute used it in one context after another. Charles looked as the clouds rolled away and the sun shone—in the words of an American southern gospel hymn, “something got hold” of Charles Haddon Spurgeon right there in that little Methodist church and he came to Christ.
It wasn’t as if Spurgeon had never heard the word; his father and grandfather had been independent ministers, but salvation is not handed down from one generation to another. The experience is personal and for a restless young man like Charles, so desperately wanting to be saved, everything had to come together in one glorious mo-ment. That happened on December 6, 1850. We cannot help but wonder how the few in attendance reacted to this young boy who was so enjoying his salvation experience. Perhaps there might have been a little envy by some whose experience was not nearly as exciting. We can also imagine someone saying, “And he’s not even a Methodist!”
Spurgeon began his climb to a worldwide reputation that very day. His baptism took place on May 3, 1851, and he became an usher in a school in Cambridge and later a member of the Lay Preachers Association, preaching his first sermon at the age of sixteen. This son and grandson of independents was a Methodist by conversion, Calvinistic by descent, Baptist by profession, and was sometimes referred to as “the last of the Puritans.” But, no matter, because Charles Haddon Spurgeon was an instant hit from the pulpit. He was a preacher, but also an orator, whose commanding voice mesmerized his congregations. His reputation grew, as did his audiences and he had to turn down many invitations, especially from America—at one point he was offered $25,000 to come to the U.S. and preach 25 sermons.
To say that the young preacher never got criticized would be a gigantic understatement. The fact that he’d never had any theological training grated on those who had and they were quick to point this out. Here, Spurgeon’s dynamic personality stood him in good stead, equipped as it was with a unique sense of humor that enabled him to parry every thrust by his critics. After arriving late for a speaking engagement, Spurgeon apologized explaining that he’d stopped to vote with his father. One of his hyper critics replied, “But my dear brother, I thought you were a citizen of the New Jerusalem!” “So I am,” replied Spurgeon, “but my old man is a citizen of this world.” “Ah, but you should mortify your old man,” the critic replied. “I did,” replied Spurgeon, “my old man is a Tory and I made him vote Liberal.” His critic was silenced.
There were times however, when the unkindest cuts deeply affected Spurgeon, especially when he was a young man. He would often write his father when some outrageous lie would find its way to the printed page and ask his father not to be offended by the untruths. As he got older, the iconic preacher could more easily cast aside even the deepest cuts.
In April of 1854, at the age of nineteen, Spurgeon was called to London to assume the pastorate of the New Park Street Chapel, which seated 1,200 but at the time had only 200 attendees. Although we can’t know what a Spurgeon sermon sounded like, we can read this description soon after his move to London: “His voice is clear and musical; his language plain; his style flowing but terse; his method lucid and orderly; his manner sound and suitable; his tone and spirit cordial; his remarks always pithy and pungent, sometimes familiar and colloquial, yet never light or coarse, much less profane.”
While Spurgeon was busy becoming known and growing attendance at the New Park Street Chapel, he was being observed by the daughter of two long time members, who’d lost interest in the church because of its declining attendance. Miss Susannah Thompson admitted she at first saw Charles as a “Country Bumpkin” whose hair made him look like a barber’s assistant. She also said she attended his first sermon out of politeness to the new pastor, since she knew attendance would be slim. But one cannot help but think she came to see the young preacher everyone was talking about; that her criticism was her way of resisting his charms. At any rate by August 2, 1854, she accepted his proposal of marriage. They no doubt shared a great love. When Charles had to leave for a speaking engagement in Pompeii, he wrote to her: “I send tons of love to you, hot as fresh lava,” a rather passionate statement considering the Victorian times they lived in. They were married on January 8, 1856, and on September 20, 1857, Susie gave birth to twin boys, Thomas and Charles, both of whom would become Baptist ministers. A rumor, perhaps spread by a Spurgeon detractor, said that Charles was away preaching at the time. Susie was quick to her husband’s defense, something she would always do, and say that, “my dear husband never left the house that day.” Charles and Susie would need each other’s undying support in the years to come, as they would fend off the criticisms from people, and the attacks of various illnesses, that afflicted them both.
Charles Spurgeon himself doubted as to his competence at age twenty to take on the pastorship of a church whose pulpit had seen a long line of famous pastors. But his earthy sermons appealed to ordinary people and attendance soared. It soon became obvious that a building program was needed. But no sooner was the New Park Street facility completed, then it was realized that it would not be enough, forcing the congregation to borrow public facilities to hold services. It was in one such facility, Surrey Music Hall that a tragedy occurred that would send Spurgeon into a severe depression. On Sunday evening, October 19, 1856, while the Hall was packed with ten thousand people, someone shouted fire, a false alarm, but in the ensuing panic, seven people were trampled to death. While some still argue that it was the beginning of his trials with the painful disease, gout, that brought on his depression, others insist it was the deaths of seven people; from then on he’d burst into tears for no apparent reason. This deadly incident was no doubt the catalyst for the ambitious building program that resulted in the name of The New Park Church being changed to The Metropolitan Tabernacle, which by 1891, had a membership of fifty five hundred and eleven. It all started with a self doubting twenty year old pastor.
Although Charles suffered from depression and admitted same, he always insisted that a depressed person did not mean a sinful person and that fits of depression come over all of us. He also believed that all great men of God suffered from depression at times, even though “he is but half a man who is a downcast man.”
Despite his physical and mental problems, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a contrasting man of moods, possessing a rich sense of humor. His one-liners endeared him to people who loved humor. He wasn’t fond of instrumental music in the church. After listening to one piece and being told that it was supposedly sung by David, he replied, “then I know why Saul threw his javelin at him.” And another: “When you preach on heaven have a face that reflects the sweetness of God—when you preach on hell, your normal face will do quite well.” He was also very open about some behaviors that brought criticism, especially from news media that were not Spurgeon fans. He liked cigars, especially in the evening after dinner. When listening to a contemporary criticize smokers, saying that the time should be spent in praising God, Charles replied: “I plan to praise God this evening with a good cigar.” Some clergy seemingly liked to boast about the time spent on their knees at prayer time, comparing the amounts. Spurgeon listened politely then said simply, “I cannot do that.” Charles Spurgeon might have added, ‘I spend that time doing God’s work.’ He had ample proof of his out of the pulpit contributions to his fellow humans.
Charles Spurgeon was not a theologically trained preacher, yet he saw the value and need of such men. For that reason he established The Pastor’s School in 1856. He did not name the school after himself, but today it’s known as the Spurgeon School. The Pastor’s school, like the orphanages to follow, was completely paid for before one student was accepted. It’s obvious that Charles Haddon Spurgeon did not believe in deficit spending. Nor was he able to say no to any project that he saw as necessary to advance God’s kingdom. As the years went by, he struggled more and more with exhaustion and illness which started when Spurgeon was in his thirties. His brother James became his Assistant Pastor in 1868 when Charles was thirty-four and apparently performed well, as stated by Charles. In 1879, when Charles was 45, he was in the pulpit only seven months, while convalescing for five months. James would later inflict a decidedly unkind cut on his older brother.
What Spurgeon yearned for, not just in London but all of Britain, was revival, which came in 1860. Revival was what he was laying the groundwork for when he journeyed to Ireland and Scotland in 1858, and while 1860 is generally considered the beginning, it was the Spirit-led people at New Park Church, as much as their young pastor, who deserve credit for revival. Their Monday night meetings which drew three thousand people while Spurgeon was away preaching contributed mightily. It was a movement which people not only wanted to join, but also for which they opened their pocketbooks. When the Metropolitan Tabernacle officially opened on March 31, 1861, it was debt free, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon was now establishing a worldwide reputation, while the revival he’d yearn-ed for seemingly had no end.
Spurgeon’s brand of Christianity was about not only saving souls but making the world he lived in a better place.
In September of 1866, Spurgeon received a letter from a Mrs. Hillyard who wanted to give him one hundred thousand dollars to start an orphanage for boys. He initially had reservations about adding such a monumental undertaking to his already exhausting schedule but then assented, knowing there was a need and knowing also that he had a great love for children. The donations poured in and by the end of the 1860s twenty-nine boys were in residence at the Stockwell Orphanage, and by 1877, 277 boys were in residence. Approximately eight years later the Stockwell orphanage for girls opened. The Stockwell orphanage is in existence today in a different location.
Of course, whatever Charles Spurgeon did his enemies would find something to criticize. This time they said that rather than build orphanages, why not change society so there would be no starving children—in other words, treat the disease instead of the symptoms. Charles could have answered, ‘And how many will starve while we’re changing society?’ Instead, Charles Haddon Spurgeon just kept on keeping on.
In 1865, Spurgeon had begun publishing a periodical, The Sword and the Trowel. In the 1887 August edition, he published an article on a subject that he would later say, “this issue is the one that will probably kill me.” Even James would not always side with him during the ensuing struggle.
For years Spurgeon had been concerned about the liberalization of evangelical churches, what he referred to as “the downward grade.” The issue came to be known as The Downgrade Controversy. Some say the problem started when Darwin published The Origin Of The Species, causing some Christian clergy to doubt the authenticity of the Scriptures and the divinity of Christ. Spurgeon reacted vehemently, saying that if the Bible is untrue in one part it can’t be relied on in any part—we will have the whole Bible or no Bible! His stand led to his censure by the Baptist Union, though time would prove him right, as the Union gradually abandoned its adherence to God’s word as infallible.
When Charles Spurgeon died in Mentor, France, on January 31, 1892, Bright’s Disease, a severe kidney malfunction, may have been listed as cause of death. But since he died sobbing, the cause of death may be for the reason he spoke of: the Downgrade Controversy, the attempted destruction of the Gospel he loved. Let’s hope, from his place in heaven, he can see that his view of Holy Scriptures as infallible is alive and well.
Don Haines is a retired Registered Nurse and freelance writer whose articles have appeared in hundreds of Christian and secular magazines.
Spurgeon, Prince of Preachers by Lewis A Drummond
The Full Harvest, Volume 2 by C.H. Spurgeon
The Early Years, Volume 1 by C.H. Spurgeon
Bright Days, Dark Nights: With Charles Spurgeon in Triumph over Emotional Pain by Elizabeth Ruth Skoglund
Life and Works of C.H. Spurgeon by Henry Davenport Northrop