Charles H. Spurgeon
“I would go into the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary.”
With a voice that could captivate thousands, Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s eloquent and dynamic 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 draw 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.
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.
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.” A year later he preached his first sermon. 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.
Spurgeon was holding his first service in Surrey Hall in October 1856. The building could accommodate twelve thousand people, but an additional ten thousand had gathered in the gardens. While Spurgeon was praying, a prankster shouted, “Fire! The galleries are giving way!” There was widespread panic, and in the rush to evacuate the building and premises, seven people died and twenty-eight were hospitalized. Spurgeon was inconsolable and had to be carried away from the pulpit. His depression lasted for several days, and he would carry the burden of that night for the rest of his life. A close friend commented about the affair, “I cannot but think, from what I saw, that [Spurgeon’s] comparatively early death might be in some measure due to the furnace of mental suffering he endured on and after that fearful night.”
It wasn’t all darkness, though. That same year, Spurgeon married Susannah Thompson, a member of his congregation. Though she did not describe their relationship as “love at first sight,” Spurgeon was a determined suitor and finally won her heart. Before the year was out, Susannah gave birth to twin sons, Charles and Thomas. God blessed their marriage with steady and abiding love, and in Susannah, Spurgeon found comfort and consolation.
In 1861, Spurgeon’s congregation moved permanently to the newly built Metropolitan Tabernacle. The new building could seat five thousand people and left standing room for an additional thousand. Although this afforded him less travel time from London, he remained busy with the duties of caring for his sizeable flock. The anxiety Spurgeon harbored over his responsibilities probably only aggravated the illness he first saw signs of in 1858, but he refused to slow his pace. Spurgeon felt he was accountable to God for the people in his care, and he would only settle for giving his all. “We are all too much occupied with taking care of ourselves…,”Spurgeon wrote, “A minister of God is bound to spurn the suggestions of ignoble ease, it is his calling to labour; and if he destroys his constitutions, I, for one, only thank God that he permits us the high privilege of so making ourselves living sacrifices.”
The effects of his ministry were taking their toll on his body and mind. In 1869, Spurgeon was severely afflicted with gout and as well as periodic episodes with different illnesses that could incapacitate him for weeks or even months out of the year. With sinking spirits he battled depression, and tried to find God throughout his sufferings. However, Spurgeon’s assurance in God’s being in charge could not keep from letting the question, “why?” fall from his lips. The answer he seemed to receive was not an easy one, but one that he accepted with grace. “The way to stronger faith usually lies along the rough pathway of sorrow,” he said, “…I am afraid that all the grace that I have got out of my comfortable and easy fumes and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable…. Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.”
Spurgeon burned to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and bring people into relationship with God. His originality, energy, and charisma influenced countless lives as he reached into people’s hearts and spoke to them in a way that not many ministers were willing to do at the time. His resonant voice was a gift—before electronic amplification, Spurgeon’s voice could be heard by thousands who gathered to listen, and yet, he never seemed to be straining. When Spurgeon died in 1892, a funeral parade two miles long followed his hearse to the Upper Norwood, where his burial would take place. Along the way, a hundred thousand people lined the streets, and shops and pubs were closed. Despite his depression and illness, Spurgeon was steadfast and answered the call of God to bring the people into life with Jesus Christ. He was one of the greatest preachers of the Victorian age, and his witness still shines brightly for all to see.
1. Amundsen, Darrel W. “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” Christian History, 10,1 (1991).
2. Drummond, Lewis A. “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching,” Christian History, 10,1 (1991).
3. Kruppa, Patricia. “The Life and Times of Charles Spurgeon,” Christian History, 10,1 (1991).
4. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Spurgeon. Accessed April 17th, 2006.