EMINENT CHRISTIANS: 10. CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON
Despite Spurgeon’s tender years and the fact that as a young child he found it very difficult to lift these large and weighty Puritan volumes, he would later write that as a boy he was never happier than when in the company of these Puritan authors. In time Spurgeon would be rightly convinced that commitment to the Calvinism and the spirituality of the Puritans was vital for the orthodoxy and well-being of Baptist churches.
However, despite such godly surroundings it was not until January, 1850, that Spurgeon was soundly converted. Four months later, Spurgeon, with the agreement of his Congregationalist parents, was baptized in the River Lark not far from Isleham in Cambridgeshire. After his baptism Spurgeon found an unquenchable desire to serve Christ. He began to speak in more public settings, and his compelling preaching soon led to an invitation to pastor the Baptist church in Waterbeach, a small hamlet a few miles northeast of Cambridge. Spurgeon laboured here from the autumn of 1851 to April, 1854. In those two and a half years the membership of the small Baptist chapel more than doubled, going from 40 to 100.
Hearing of his scintillating preaching, the deacons of Park Street Chapel, an historic London Baptist congregation, invited him to preach on December 11, 1853. The congregation who heard Spurgeon that Sunday were thrilled with his preaching and the deacons quickly arranged for Spurgeon to return three Sundays in January, 1854. He was subsequently invited to supply the pulpit for several months, and in April of that year, at the age of nineteen, he accepted a call to be the pastor of the church.
The church was built to seat 1,200, but it soon proved far too small for the crowds that sought to sit under Spurgeon’s preaching. In 1855 the chapel was consequently expanded to seat 1,500. A year later, however, this renovated chapel had also been outgrown, and the decision was made to build what would become known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Completed in 1861, the Tabernacle could seat 5,000 and accommodate another 1,000 standing. For the rest of Spurgeon’s pastorate the Tabernacle saw an average of 5,000 at each Sunday morning and evening service. And while Spurgeon and his fellow elders were careful not to make a huge membership their goal—indeed Spurgeon had a healthy distrust of all such statistics—14,691 were added to the church during Spurgeon’s time there, of which roughly 10,800 were by conversion and baptism.
Spurgeon’s success as a preacher certainly owed little to his physical appearance, for he was of average height, fairly stout as he grew older, and had two unduly prominent front teeth. In the words of a certain Monckton Milnes: “When he went into the pulpit, he might be taken for a hairdresser’s assistant; when he left it he was an inspired apostle.” Augustine Birrell records that when he went to hear Spurgeon preach the only seat he could find was in the topmost gallery, between a woman eating an orange and a man sucking peppermints. Finding this combination of odours unendurable, he was about to leave, when, he said, “I heard a voice and forgot all else.” In the words of recent biographer Mike Nicholls, Spurgeon possessed one of the great speaking voices of his age, musical and combining compass, flexibility and power.”
Spurgeon, though, looked to quite a different source for the blessings which attended his ministry. In a speech which he gave at a celebration held in honour of his fiftieth birthday in 1884, the Baptist preacher forthrightly declared that the blessing which he had enjoyed in his pastorate “must be entirely attributed to the grace of God, and to the working of God’s Holy Spirit…Let that stand as a matter, not only taken for granted, but as a fact distinctly recognized.”
Spurgeon died in 1892 at Menton, a resort on the French Riviera not far from the Italian border, where he had annually taken vacations since the mid-1870s. Spurgeon had come there as an ill man with his wife in October of that year in the hope that a change of scenery and weather would facilitate a recovery of health. It was not to be. The Prince of Preachers died in the last hour on the final day of January, 1892.
And although Spurgeon’s voice was stilled in 1892, through the ongoing publication of his sermons the Holy Spirit continues to honour Spurgeon’s ministry and to draw sinners through them to know and to worship the Triune God. Little wonder that the twentieth-century Lutheran preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke once suggested with regard to Spurgeon’s sermons: “Sell all you have…and go buy Spurgeon.”