Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Spurgeon's significance today

The contemporary significance of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1843-1892)

‘Spurgeon towered among nonconformists’ (1). He provides today’s evangelicals with proof that fidelity to Scripture and unfashionably strong evangelistic preaching need not produce an irrelevant or disengaged Christian church. His public stand for conservative evangelicalism inspired fellow Baptists – and also many from other denominations – to greater zeal and piety and a more active witness. Given the many differences between the 1850s and the 2000s, perhaps his greatest significance, if only we had the will and courage to grasp it, is in his character, showing us who a Christian leader needs to be.

“Prince of Preachers” is how he is generally remembered. Certainly his preaching was exceptionally powerful, in substance and in manner. He loved the doctrines of grace, clearly urged repentance and faith on all his hearers, and was a great orator. But, aware of the dangers of preaching anything more than Christ, and alert to the power of rhetoric and mannerism, he toned down this last aspect of his preaching in his later years, certainly from 1875 (2). There was no diminution in numbers who came to hear him, in invitations to preach elsewhere, nor in conversions. His ability to communicate with people from all walks of life is a rare gift, and one worth cultivating today, even if his commanding pulpit style is no longer be appropriate to our broader culture and most subcultures.

By Spurgeon’s example many other Baptists were inspired to be much more evangelistic in their sermons and church life, including some whose hypercalvinism or unnecessarily strict approach to fellowship and “the world” had stymied their outreach. His training of new preachers, evangelists and leaders was tireless – starting small, giving lectures in his home and chapel, this work grew to a college from which hundreds graduated to go and revitalize urban and village ministries and to plant new congregations. He was greatly moved by the suffering of the poor, undertaking many visits to the sick during various epidemics of Victorian London, at great personal cost. He established almshouses for widows and a large orphanage for boys, consisting of a street of houses rather than the factory-like buildings of many other such efforts (to which one for girls was later added, modelled on a quadrangle). Often these mercy ministries ran short of funds and Spurgeon poured his own money into them. Many children were saved through the Christian ethos and teaching of the orphanages, and some went into preaching and teaching ministries themselves when they grew up. Spurgeon spent much of his “spare” time there and was loved by all the kids. This example of personal involvement, entrepreneurship and organisational leadership, is key – along the lines of what some in the emerging church have suggested about missional church, though one difference now is that in this state-dominated age there is perhaps slightly less room for charities of immediate relief attached to churches in the UK (3). 

In 1887 Spurgeon ‘propelled Baptists into the Down-grade controversy, the most notorious of a series of general scares about the way evangelical doctrines were going’ (4). By standing firm in the face of creeping decay of liberal teaching he provided a beacon to alert many who were indifferent, and a bulwark of evangelicalism against the encroachments of false teaching. For reasons of conscience he (and the Metropolitan Tabernacle) left the Baptist Union, and some other churches followed suit. Although Spurgeon did not doubt the faith of most in the Union he could not countenance fellowship with a wider body that included many who denied essential Christian doctrine (5). This had the knock-on effect of drawing many Baptists away from the Congregationalists who were the mainstream Nonconformists of the later 19th century (6). Today most Congregationalists have joined the URC, a denomination in decline and not known for its commitment to evangelicalism. Baptists en masse are not exactly thriving, but one legacy of Spurgeon’s controversies is plenty of independent baptistic churches that continue to embrace biblical Christianity.

Spurgeon could be imperious or offhand, and he took the virtue of hard work and self-denial to dangerous extremes, but there is much worth copying in his character. Though they are out of fashion in the world and in parts of the evangelical church today, dilligence, love of learning, perseverance, generosity, and commitment to prayer will never go out of business. Dallimore’s rather quaint biography is brimming with vignettes about Spurgeon’s daily activities, habits and character. He worked very hard at his schooling and immersed himself in the Bible and works of great Christian leaders such that he could quote at will from Scripture and many Puritans. He endured tremendous opposition in the press, Christian and secular, much of it based on falsehoods and exaggeration, and he either held his tongue/pen or responded with truth without personal rancour. His health was not good for the second half of his life and he was in agony with incurable gout for decades, yet he did not give up his pastoral responsibilities. That kind of patience in the face of various types of suffering is a powerful example to today’s budding leaders, who, if they’re anything like me, might be tempted to idle hours in front of a computer or moan about minor ailments rather than apply themselves to hard work and finding joy in the Lord even in the midst of real distress. He took no salary from the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but provided for himself and his family only by the income from his books and sermons; one-off gifts to him personally he usually passed straight on to the work of the training college or orphanage. He made no plans for retirement! He was not given to long periods of prayer, but would readily pray about anything and anyone that crossed his path, and the prayers he spoke to lead groups were apparently more inspiring than his sermons.

Finally, in the exploitative and war-torn world of 2008, Spurgeon’s strong criticism of slavery and of political violence are a challenge to contemporary evangelicals the world over. Despite the financial losses he suffered as a result he was open in his hatred of slavery in the USA and wrote against it, earning much hostility in the Southern States (7). He was a lover of peace. Preaching to 20,000 people at Crystal Palace in 1857 he attacked militarism and the British violence in India on the grounds that the gospel should make wars cease to the ends of the earth. In 1870 his anti-war preaching was no less strong (8). He won grudging respect from unbelievers who had initially scorned him because of his personal integrity. A true witness to the transforming power of the gospel in every area of his life.


(1)  Clyde Binfield, So Down To Prayers: Studies in English Nonconformity, 1780-1920 (London: J.M. Dent, 1977), p.26.
(2)  Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985 [1984]), pp.163-64.
(3)  For example, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Peabody: Hendrikson, 2003), pp.135-37. They make many good suggestions concerning and observations of missional church activities, but, oddly, direct mercy ministries are not among them.
(4)  Binfield, So Down To Prayers, p.6.
(5)  Dallimore, Spurgeon, pp.204-10, gives detail on this process of withdrawal, the restrained manner of Spurgeon and the unjust criticism he received when he was too much of a gentleman to use confidential letters to vindicate himself.
(6)  Binfield, So down to Prayers, p.26.
(7)  Dallimore, Spurgeon, pp.96-7.
(8)  David W. Smith, ‘A Victorian prophet without honour: Edward Miall and the critique of nineteenth-century British Christianity’, in Tales of Two Cities: Christianity and Politics, ed. Stephen Clark (Leicester: IVP, 2005), pp.152-83 (p.162, fn.21).