CHARLES SPURGEON The Puritan Prince of Preachers

In an age of great preachers the greatest was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Both his father and his grandfather were independent congregational ministers. Charles was born in 1834 in Kelvedon, Essex, an area with a long tradition of Protestant resistance to Catholicism dating back to the persecutions of “Bloody Mary” in the 16th century.

A Son of the Manse
Charles was a “son of the manse.” His earliest childhood memories were of listening to sermons, learning Hymns and looking at the pictures in The Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Charles first read The Pilgrim’s Progress at age six and went on to read it over 100 times. He regarded Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as one of the most significant books he ever read. It vividly shaped his attitudes towards established religions, the tyranny of Rome and the glory of the Reformation. His childhood heroes were the brave Protestants who were burned at Smithfield, and the valiant Puritans such as John Bunyan, who were jailed for the Faith.

A Prophetic Word
When Charles was only ten years old, a visiting missionary, Rev. Richard Knill, was struck by how young Charles read the Bible with such emphasis. Richard Knill called the family together and said: “I do not know how, but I feel a solemn presentiment that this child will preach the Gospel to thousands and God will bless him to many souls. So sure am I of this that when my little man preaches in Surrey Music Hall, as he will do one day, I should like him to promise me that he will give out the Hymn commencing ‘God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.’”(This was fulfilled in 1856 when Charles was 21 years old.)

Converted to Christ
Charles’ formal education was minimal. However, he devoured his grandfather’s Puritan books and was well read. In 1849, when Charles was fifteen years old, under conviction of sin and anxious to know forgiveness, he was obliged to stop on the road due to a snow storm. He found himself in a Primitive Methodist chapel in Colchester. As the service progressed it appeared that the minister would not arrive. At last a very thin deacon came into the pulpit, opened his Bible and read: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Then, apparently looking straight at Charles Spurgeon, he declared: “Young man, you are in trouble! You will never get out of it unless you look to Christ!” He then lifted up his hands and exclaimed repeatedly: “Look! Look! Look!” Spurgeon later wrote: “I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard this word, ‘Look’ – what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh, I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away, and in Heaven I will look on still in my joy unutterable.”

Charles later wrote of the day of his conversion: “And as the snow fell on the road home from the little House of Prayer, I thought that every snowflake talked with me and told me of the pardon I had found, for I was white as the driven snow through the grace of God.” Upon his return home, his appearance caused his mother to exclaim: “Something wonderful has happened to you!”

Believer’s Baptism
For the next months Charles searched the Scriptures “to know more fully the value of the jewel which God had given me…I found that believers ought to be baptized.” And so, four months after his conversion, he was baptized by immersion in the River Lark, May 1850. He vowed to spend his life “in the extension of Christ’s cause, in whatsoever way He pleases.” His mother had often prayed: “Oh that my son might live for Thee.” However, she was shocked when, in what appeared to be youthful rebellion, Charles broke with the congregational tradition of his family and was baptized by full immersion in the River Lark in May 1850, joining a Baptist Church. His mother exclaimed “Charlie, I have often prayed that you might be saved, but never that you should become a Baptist.” To this Charles replied: “God has answered your prayer, Mother, with His usual bounty, and has given me more than you asked.”

Called to Preach
Charles preached his first sermon at the age of sixteen before a small congregation of farm laborers and their wives in a thatched chapel in Teversham. Then, moving to a school in Cambridge, he joined St. Andrews Street Baptist Church and became a village preacher. Waterbeach Baptist Chapel invited Charles to become their pastor. His very young appearance was in startling contrast to the maturity of his sermons.

An Heir to the Puritans
All the great Puritan books that he had devoured in his grandfather’s house came to the fore. He had a retentive memory, youthful energy and great oratorical skills. This made such an impact that people traveled to hear the “boy preacher.” Within eighteen months his reputation had spread to London and he was invited to preach at the historic New Park Street Chapel.

A Time of Crisis
Charles Spurgeon was 19 years old when he began his pastorate at the famous but rundown New Park Street Baptist Church in Southwark. It was March 1854 when Spurgeon begin his ministry in London. It was a time of tremendous economic and social upheaval. A plague of cholera hit London in 1854 and 20,000 people died in this epidemic. Also in that year the Crimean War broke out. This was followed by the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which provoked such a tremendous outpouring of grief and rage leading to a national day of fasting, prayer, repentance and humiliation before God, during which Charles Spurgeon was invited to address the largest audience of his life: almost 24,000 people gathered in the Crystal Palace. The disruptions and economic hardships caused by the American War Between the States in the 1860’s also brought much suffering and economic ruin to many in London.

A Calvinist Evangelist
Very conscious of his youth and inexperience, Charles Spurgeon prayed that “these may not hinder my usefulness.” Charles Spurgeon deliberately built upon the Calvinist teachings and Puritan Devotion of George Whitefield and he soon became the most popular preacher in London. When Spurgeon arrived at the New Park Street Baptist Church the congregation had 232 members. By the end of his pastorate, 38 years later, the membership had increased to 5,311. Altogether 14,460 people were added to the congregation during Spurgeon’s tenure. He built New Park into the largest independent congregation in the world.

Coinciding with such tumultuous international events and domestic distress in the greatest city in the world, his ministry immediately attracted huge excitement and attention. Soon it was necessary to extend the premises and for three months the church met at Exeter Hall in the Strand where crowds filled all 4,500 seats each Sunday. The meetings were switched to the Music Hall in Surrey Gardens while new church premises were built.

Innovative and Inspiring
Spurgeon was described as a compelling, charismatic speaker “dramatic to his fingertips.” He frequently acted the parts in Biblical stories, pacing the platform and even running from side to side. His sermons were filled with heart-rending stories that ordinary people could relate to: Spurgeon’s language was graphic, emotionally charged and compelling. The dramatic devices employed by Spurgeon have now become commonplace, but they were quite shocking for the mid-Victorian years. His many critics roundly condemned the young minister’s style, manner and appearance. Many ministers were openly contemptuous of his “sensationalism”, although it was later pointed out that many of them came to copy his style and even appropriate his sermons.

“Prove Me Now”
On the evening of 19 October 1856, Charles Spurgeon was to commence weekly services at the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall. That morning he preached at New Park Street Chapel on Malachi 3:10 “Prove Me now…” He declared “…I may be called to stand where the thunderclouds brew, where the lightnings play, and tempestuous winds are howling on the mountain top. Well then, I am born to prove the power and majesty of our God. Amidst dangers He will inspire me with courage; amidst toils He will make me strong…we shall be gathered together tonight where an unprecedented mass of people will assemble, perhaps from idle curiosity, to hear God’s Word; and a voice cries in my ears, ‘Prove Me now…’

Tragedy Strikes
That evening Surrey Hall, designed to hold up to 10,000, was overflowing with over 22,000 people. The service was underway when, during Spurgeon’s prayer, several malicious individuals shouted: “Fire! The galleries are giving way! Fire!” In the ensuing panic seven people died and twenty eight were hospitalized from the stampede to evacuate the building. This tragedy almost ended Spurgeon’s ministry. He had to be carried from the pulpit to a friend’s house where he remained for several days in deep, dark depression. He later remarked: “Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity, and yet came away unharmed.” Spurgeon later said that the panic at Surrey Gardens was “sufficient to shatter my reason” and “silence my ministry forever.”

The Metropolitan Tabernacle
At Spurgeon’s request the new church was to be in the Greek style, for “Greek is the sacred tongue” in which the New Testament had been revealed. When the Metropolitan Tabernacle was opened in March 1861 it was the first mega-church, seating over 5,000 people. Every person who joined his huge congregation was personally interviewed by Spurgeon who wanted to ensure that each candidate’s conversion was genuine.

Intense Opposition
During his early years in London, Spurgeon received intense slander and scorn. He wrote of a “devastating bitterness of soul.” He wavered between rejoicing in the persecutions he received and “being utterly crushed by it.” He wrote of being “the laughing stock of fools and the song of the drunkard.”

The Greatest Preacher of his Age
During his lifetime Spurgeon is estimated to have preached to 10 million people, face-to-face. The theme for Spurgeon’s Sunday morning sermon was usually not chosen until Saturday night, and the Sunday evening sermon was normally prepared on Sunday afternoon. He spoke at a rate of 140 words per minute for an average of 40 minutes. Including funerals, weddings, and other invitations, Spurgeon often preached ten times a week. Before he was 20 Charles had preached over 600 times. He typically read six books a week and could remember what he had read, and where, even years later. He built up an awesome personal library containing 12,000 volumes.

Spurgeon’s Sunday sermons were delivered extemporaneously, with seldom more than a one-page outline before him. These sermons were taken down in shorthand by a secretary appointed by the congregation and edited and revised by him on Monday mornings. These sermons were published every Thursday, translated into several languages, and even sold as far afield as Australia and America. In 1865 Spurgeon’s sermons were selling 25,000 copies every week. They were translated into more than 20 languages. By 1917 over 100 million copies of Spurgeon’s sermons had been sold.

The Most Prolific Christian Author of All Time
Throughout his ministry Spurgeon proved to be a prolific writer. He edited a monthly magazine Sword and Trowel, wrote several books and commentaries and produced sermon notes and lecture notes for his students. Charles Haddon Spurgeon is historically the most widely read preacher. Today there is more material available written by Charles Spurgeon than by any other Christian author.

Famous Contemporaries
Charles Spurgeon drew to his services the Prime Minister William Gladstone, reformer Lord Shaftesbury, members of the Royal Family, members of Parliament, Florence Nightingale, American evangelist D.L. Moody and missionary David Livingstone.

Hudson Taylor and George Müller
Spurgeon often met with China Inland Mission founder Hudson Taylor and the famous founder of orphanages, George Müller. Charles paid several visits to Ashley Down, Bristol, to talk with that “heavenly-minded man” George Müller. They often spent whole days together, stimulating one another’s Faith by discussing the unfailing promises of God.

D.L. Moody
On arriving in England for the first time in 1867, American evangelist D.L. Moody made straight for the Tabernacle and sat in the gallery. When back home he was asked if he had seen various tourist sites or cathedrals, Moody responded: “No, but I’ve heard Spurgeon!” D.L. Moody wrote that: “Heaven came down” on his soul and he returned to America “a better man.”

Pastor’s College
Although Charles Spurgeon trained many pastors, he himself had received no Theological training, believing that God had spoken to him: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!” Baptists had a long tradition of ordaining ministers, but Spurgeon managed to get his church to omit this step – he never was ordained. He campaigned arduously to do without the customary title, Reverend, and he eventually succeeded in replacing it with Pastor. To further the work of the Gospel, Spurgeon established a Pastor’s College. He made himself responsible for a weekly lecture there and published his notes in Lectures to My Students, which remains a major textbook in Baptist colleges to this day. Nearly 900 students were trained at Spurgeon’s college during his lifetime. Spurgeon’s College continues to this day.

The Stockwell Orphanage
In 1866, a gift of £20,000 enabled him to found an orphanage at Stockwell, providing a home and education for 500 homeless boys and girls.

Bibles for Britain
In the same year Spurgeon formed the Colportage Association to give country people the opportunity to buy Christian books and Bibles at low cost. In one year alone his 96 colporteurs sold 23,000 Bibles. His Book Fund provided multitudes of pastors with resources for Biblical preaching.

A Centre of Controversy
Charles Spurgeon was a man of strong convictions and was often the center of controversy. Although he was an eloquent and persuasive speaker, he was not a good debater and paid a heavy price, both emotionally and physically, for his involvement in theological and political controversies.

Theological Controversy
Spurgeon’s opposition to liberalism split the Baptist Union. Many people had written to Spurgeon urging him to do something about the deteriorating situation in the Baptist Union with the spirit of modern Biblical criticism and liberalism undermining the authority of the Scriptures and denying the Deity of Christ. Spurgeon wrote articles in The Sword and Trowel defending the Puritan position and attacking the “enemies of our Faith.” Spurgeon criticized those who were “giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture and casting slurs upon Justification by Faith.”

The Downgrade Controversy
The “Downgrade Controversy”, as it became known, pitted Baptist minister against Baptist minister and darkened Spurgeon’s last years. The Baptist Union censured the most famous Baptist minister in the world. At the Baptist Union assembly in 1888 a large majority voted a censure against Charles Spurgeon. Some observers considered that the Baptist Union had condemned “the greatest, noblest and grandest leader of the Faith.” However, Spurgeon rejected the suggestions that he form another denomination. The Downgrade Controversy took its toll on Spurgeon’s health. In his last years he suffered from a sense of isolation and declared: “Scarcely a Baptist minister of standing will know me.” However, multitudes came to hear him preach.

Charles Spurgeon never claimed to be a Theologian. He was a Gospel preacher and in that he was unsurpassed in his day and since. He combined old-fashioned Biblical doctrine and up-to-date preaching methods. He had an uncanny ability to sense the pulse of his times and he knew how to reach out to ordinary and troubled people in a way that they could understand and respond to. He spoke the language of the market place, humorously, with common sense and compelling power.

A Man of God
Charles Spurgeon was a man of God, a man of prayer and a man of the Word. He studied diligently and read avidly. He broke with traditions and conventions, becoming the greatest communicator of his age. Devoted to the Scriptures, to disciplined prayer, and to godly living, Spurgeon exemplified Christian commitment when he stood in the pulpit. This gave power to his preaching. Spurgeon wrote: “If ministers of the Gospel, instead of devoting so much time to literary and political pursuits, would preach the Word of God, and preach it as if they were pleading for their own lives, ah, then, my brethren, we might expect better success.”

The One Thing He Lacked
The one thing that Spurgeon lacked was good health. He constantly suffered from ailments and fell into serious depression at times. Yet he overcame physical limitations and relentless criticism to be established at the greatest preacher in an age of great preachers. Once while laid low by illness he declared: “It is a great trial to be unable to preach in the pulpit, but it is no small comfort to be able to preach through the press.”

Spurgeon’s Theology
Spurgeon’s theology was radically Biblical. “It has been my earnest endeavor ever since I’ve preached the Word, never to keep back a single doctrine which I have believed to be taught of God…if God teaches it, it is enough. If it is not in the Word, away with it!” It is well known that Charles Spurgeon was a Calvinist. He went against the contemporary trend of abandoning, and often denouncing, Calvinism. When the new Metropolitan Tabernacle was opened in 1861, his first series of sermons was on the Five Points of Calvinism.

The Puritan Hope
Charles Spurgeon shared the Puritans’ Post-millennial eschatology of hope, that the Great Commission would be fulfilled before the return of Christ.

Mere Christianity
When people asked him concerning his theology he responded that he would like to think of himself as a “mere Christian”, but then he would add “I’m never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist. I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist, but if I’m asked what my creed is, I reply, it is Jesus Christ!” Both of Charles Spurgeon’s sons grew up to be preachers. Thomas succeeded his father as pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle. Charles Jnr. took over the Stockwell Orphanage. “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His Kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” 2 Timothy 4: 1-2

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *