Charles Haddon Spurgeon:
The Greatest Victorian Preacher
By William P. Farley
Which 19th-century pastor has collected works that total approximately 25 million words and comprise the largest collection of books by any single Christian author ever printed, selling more than 1 million copies?
Which 19th-century pastor owned a personal library containing more than 12,000 books, 1,000 printed before 1700?
Which 19th-century pastor preached more than 600 sermons before age 20, read an average of 6 books per week, wrote 140 books, sold 25,000 printed copies of each of his Sunday sermons, and preached to at least 10 million people?
The answer: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th-century Baptist preacher; a man today’s Christian leader can profit from greatly.1
Birth And Childhood
Charles Spurgeon was born in 1834 in Essex, a town east of London, to John Spurgeon, a part-time pastor. Family poverty moved him to his grandfather’s home where he lived until age 5.
His grandfather, a successful pastor, quickly discerned the intelligence of his precocious grandson. At age 5, Spurgeon first read Pilgrims Progress. “He was always reading books,” his father later reminisced, “never digging in the garden or keeping pigeons, like other boys. It was always books, and books.”2
By age 9 or 10 Spurgeon was reading books on advanced theological studies, and was attracted to 17th-century Puritans, such as John Owen, John Flavel, and Matthew Henry.
Spurgeon’s intelligence also manifested itself in other ways. At age 15 he devised mathematical calculations that proved of such benefit a London insurance firm used them for a half century.
Like Martin Luther, Spurgeon had great knowledge, but lacked new birth. And, like Luther, he came under a deep and pronounced conviction for which he could find no remedy. His suffering was profound. “I had rather pass through 7 years of the most languishing sickness,” Spurgeon later wrote, “than I would ever again pass through the terrible discovery of the evil of sin.”3
About this time Spurgeon stumbled into a primitive Methodist chapel. The preacher read from Isaiah: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22, KJV). At once the Holy Spirit opened his eyes. He saw that justification was by grace through faith alone. He firmly grasped this truth never to let it go. “I can testify that the joy of that day was utterly indescribable,” Spurgeon later wrote. “I could have leaped; I could have danced; there was no expression, however fanatical, which would have been out of keeping with the joy of that hour.”4
A few weeks later, before Spurgeon’s 16th birthday, a rural pastor baptized him in a local river.
A few months after his baptism, Spurgeon moved to Cambridge. He addressed a Sunday School class when he was only 16. The adult supervisor was so moved that he asked Spurgeon to join the lay evangelists who preached in surrounding villages. In one village the effect of Spurgeon’s words were electric. At his conclusion an astonished elderly woman cried out, “Bless your heart, how old are you?”
“Younger than 60,” replied the gifted youth.
When Spurgeon was 17, the village church at Waterbeach called him to be their pastor. The church’s congregation of 40 quickly swelled to 400. Even at this tender age, “Spurgeon manifested a gift for which he was to be pre-eminent throughout his later ministry — the gift of understanding and influencing people.”5
About this time Spurgeon began the system of rigorous daily discipline that characterized the rest of his life. This was the source of much fruitfulness later. Rising early, he spent the initial hours of each day in study and prayer. He kept himself from common diversions like sports, and even from young women, concluding that their friendship was an unnecessary distraction.
In February 1854, when Spurgeon was 19, the Park Street Chapel in London called him to their pulpit on a 3-month trial. He remained until his death 40 years later.
Although the church held 1,200, attendance had dwindled to about 80 people. Spurgeon’s preaching was so powerful, however, that within 1 month of his arrival overflow crowds waited in the street to hear him. “No chapel seemed large enough to hold the people who wanted to hear him.”6
When people asked the secret of his success, Spurgeon replied, “My people pray for me.” He meant it. Members of his congregation regularly met and stormed heaven on his behalf.
To accommodate his success, New Park Street Chapel started enlarging its building. In the meantime, Spurgeon and his congregation moved into Exeter Hall in downtown London. Despite the fact it held 5,000 people, the crowds filled it to overflowing.
Spurgeon was now 20. His success might have been his undoing were it not for his humility. Spurgeon wrote, “When I first became a preacher in London my success appalled me, and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depths.”7
Continual persecution from the secular press also kept him humble. People were suspicious of an unordained 20-year-old who drew huge crowds while lacking college training. Spurgeon was also unrefined in the ways of London Society. His ministry attracted criticism and jealousy. The press labeled him the “boy preacher.” The Ipswich Express reported that his sermons were “ ‘Redolent of bad taste, vulgar, and theatrical.’ ”8 Others called him “ ‘a clerical poltroon,’ ‘the Exeter Hall demagogue,’ or ‘the pulpit buffoon.’ ”9
During this time he met and courted Susannah Thompson. In early 1856, they married. Charles desperately needed a helpmate, and she was the ideal choice. She shouldered his burden. Many have said that their marriage was made in heaven. Without her, Charles’ ministry would not have become what it did. Filled with common sense and compassion, she was his lifelong sounding board. A year later, she birthed twin sons, Charles and Thomas.
In 1855, at age 21, Spurgeon began The Pastor’s College to train men for the ministry. Although its beginnings were inauspicious, by 1877 enrollment climbed to 110. Eventually 900 men graduated, and Spurgeon planted 200 churches from their ranks.
Many wanted to hear Spurgeon preach but could not get into his church. So, in 0ctober 1856, a month after the birth of his twins, Spurgeon decided to hold a service in Surrey Gardens, London’s largest indoor venue. Even though it held 10,000 people, on the first night people filled the seats, aisles, and every other vacant space. A large number waited outside. In the crowd were also enemies. Shortly after the service began someone cried, “Fire.” A stampede resulted. Seven people died and 28 were severely injured.
Spurgeon was devastated and plunged into depression. “Perhaps never soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity, and yet came away unharmed,”10 he later wrote. It was the first of many severe depressions that plagued him for the rest of his life.
New Park Street Chapel was building a larger facility. In 1861, at age 27, Spurgeon moved into the newly built Metropolitan Tabernacle, south of the Thames in downtown London. Seating 6,000, it was the largest Protestant church in the world.
God put the Spurgeons through many trials. In her mid-30s, Susannah contracted an illness from which she never fully recovered. She was sickly for the rest of her life. Often she was so weak she could not attend church with her husband.
About the same time, in 1869, rheumatic gout afflicted Charles for the first time. It continued off and on for the rest of his life, eventually causing his death at age 56.
Preaching, Poverty, And Controversy
The outstanding quality of Spurgeon’s preaching was earnestness. “Spurgeon was characterized by an earnestness that almost defies description.”11 “As he stood before the congregation, he felt a great sense of ‘power from on high.’ ”12 His message was simple, and the secret of its power was the cross. “I take my text,” Spurgeon later wrote, “and make a beeline to the cross.”13 “When it came to declaring the gospel in a relevant fashion to the common masses, Spurgeon was a master.”14
Nineteenth-century London was the scene of great poverty and tragedy. Life expectancy was short, and orphans abounded. In 1866, Mrs. Hillyard gave Spurgeon 20,000 pounds. With this money he started four boys orphanages in London, modeled after the work of his friend, George Mueller.
In 1887, Spurgeon passed through a fiery trial known as the “Downgrade Controversy.” At the end of the 19th century, liberal German theology was beginning to influence the English church. The Baptist Union came under its spell. Spurgeon complained of the growing tendency to downgrade certain fundamental doctrines. He was either ignored or opposed, so he eventually withdrew from the denomination he loved. This painful move caused him great stress and grief in his later years.
Spurgeon was amazingly productive. His secret was hard work. With the help of two secretaries he answered 500 letters per week.
In 1885, he finished his seven-volume commentary on the Psalms called The Treasury of David. Spurgeon’s Treasury remains in print and is widely used today. He also published a monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel.
Every Monday morning Spurgeon edited his Sunday sermon for international distribution. He also preached nearly every day at different churches in London or on preaching excursions into the English countryside.
Spurgeon was also occupied with The Pastor’s College. His ever-popular Lectures To My Students,were addresses regularly made to this body of budding leaders. “We are all too much occupied with taking care of ourselves,” he later wrote. “We shun the difficulties of excessive labour.”15
Spurgeon accomplished all of this while married to a sickly wife and suffering bouts of depression and major illnesses.
In January 1892, recurring and increasingly severe attacks of rheumatic gout finally ended his life. “Sixty thousand people came to pay homage during the 3 days his body lay in state at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. … A funeral parade 2 miles long followed his hearse from the Tabernacle to the cemetery at Upper Norwood. One hundred thousand people stood along the way. Flags flew half mast, shops and pubs were closed.”16 Spurgeon was a man deeply loved by both citizens of London and believers throughout the world.
Today’s pastor can learn many lessons from Spurgeon’s life.
First, when God calls a man, He equips him. God called Spurgeon to a great work, and God equipped him for the task with a strong intellect, a voracious appetite to learn, a strong voice that could preach to crowds of more than 20,000, unusual organizational skills, and an uncommon compassion.
Second, Spurgeon’s life casts light on the role of seminary. His career reminds us that seminary is helpful, but not necessary. Like Augustine, Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, A.W. Pink, and numerous others, Spurgeon received no formal theological training. Although this pattern is the exception not the rule, the church must be open to this kind of exceptional grace.
Third, great leaders are usually great readers. Spurgeon exemplified this principle. “We must recognize that Spurgeon was, above everything, a theologian. He had given thought to the great doctrines of the Bible from the time he had begun to read, and from that time he had been steadily building in his mind and heart knowledge of the vast system of theology that is revealed in scripture.”17
Many people graduate from seminary, but then quit reading and learning. Spurgeon had a holy curiosity and developed a lifelong habit of daily reading motivated by a passion to better know God.
Fourth, fame and notoriety can be painful. One should not seek great things unless he is ready for the consequences. Spurgeon was so popular that well-known theologian Helmut Thielke wrote: “Sell all [the books] that you have … and buy Spurgeon.”18 In Spurgeon’s case, popularity was costly. The British Media, the established church, and the upper classes envied and resented his success. In addition, people’s expectations and the great workload nearly crushed him. Many times he wished for the peace and quiet of anonymity, but could not find it.
Fifth, God perfects His strength in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). God used Spurgeon’s constant sicknesses and persecutions to humble him. Spurgeon’s incredible gifts and successes made humility necessary. During one of his bouts of gout, Spurgeon wrote to his congregation, “The furnace still glows around me. Since I last preached to you, I have been brought very low; my flesh has been tortured with pain and my spirit has been prostrate with depression.”19 Spurgeon’s suffering produced a humility that continually deferred all the glory for his success to God.
Spurgeon’s life reminds pastors to thank God for the trials and troubles He allows. In Spurgeon’s case, and ours, they are the necessary foundation for our future “weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17, KJV).
History is His story!
1. For these statistics and more see Christian History and Biography 10,no. 29 (1991): 2,3. See Iain Murray, Spurgeon Versus Hyper Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995). Also see,Iain Murray, Forgotten Spurgeon (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966).
2. Arnold A. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984), 8.
3. Iain Murray quoted in Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography, 15.
4. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography, 19.
5. Ibid., 35.
6. Patricia Stallings Kruppa, “The Life and Times of Charles Spurgeon,” Christian History and Biography, 1 January 1991, 11.
7. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography, 52.
8. Lewis A. Drummond, “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching,” Christian History and Biography, 1 January 1991, 14.
9. Kruppa, “The Life and Times of Charles Spurgeon,” 11.
10. Darrell W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” Christian History and Biography, 1 January 1991, 23.
11. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography, 76.
12. Ibid., 77.
13. Drummond, “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching,” 15.
14. Ibid., 15.
15. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” 24.
16. Kruppa, “The Life and Times of Charles Spurgeon,” 8.
17. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography.
18. Drummond, “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching,” 14.
19. Ibid., 137.