While Moody and Sankey were leading mighty revivals in the USA, a work of God was being developed in London which would have an impact upon that city and influence many others for years to come. It was being led and expanded by a young man whose name is well known and respected to this day - Charles Haddon Spurgeon.¹
Victorian Britain was prospering, at least outwardly, but, just beneath the surface, poverty, crime and vice continued. Religious life in general was deteriorating into formalism. New atheistic ideas, seeded by Darwin, and promoted by others, were spreading fast among the intellectuals. The effects of Wesley's and Whitfield's preaching were now a fading memory. Into such a scene came the young, gifted Spurgeon. He had begun his preaching career at the age of 17, in the country village of Waterbeach, near Cambridge, where he saw the congregation of the Baptist Chapel increase from around 40 to over 400 within a few months. Then, at the age of 19, he was invited to London's largest Baptist Church, where tremendous blessing would be experienced under his ministry. He continued there from 1854 until the end of his life.
The Metropolitan Tabernacle
The church to which Spurgeon came was in an industrial and grimy part of the city, south of the Thames. It had seating for 1,200, but his first audience numbered less than 200. Soon, however, crowds were squeezing in. The place became so unbearably hot and airless that it had to be enlarged. During the renovations, services were held in Exeter Hall which, although holding 4,000, was still too small for all who wanted to attend. Not unexpectedly, Spurgeon and his work attracted many critics from the popular newspapers, and from some religious establishments. As a result, he was denied the use of Exeter Hall, and so decided to move to the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, which held 8,000. However, a tragic accident occurred there when an overcrowded balcony collapsed, killing several people, and injuring others. This incident added to the wave of criticism, some of it cruelly warped and unjust.
The new Metropolitan Tabernacle was built at a cost of £31,000, with seating for 5,000 people. On 31st March 1861, the first service had around 6,000 packed in. Soon Spurgeon was asking members of the church to stay away from the evening services to allow unsaved ones to attend. In the first three months, around 270 people were baptised and added to the church, following clear evidence of salvation in a changed lifestyle - something that Spurgeon required in applicants for church fellowship. The work of God at his hands went from strength to strength. His preaching was thoroughly Christ-centred, cross-based, and backed up by much fervent prayer.
When the Tabernacle needed redecoration, six years later, 20,000 attended services in the Agricultural Hall in the north of London! The largest audience Spurgeon addressed was in the Crystal Palace at a 'service of national humiliation' over the mutiny in India against Britain's rule, where 23,654 were counted in. He deplored the heavy-handed actions in the sub-continent, and called for national repentance, reminding all that "righteousness exalteth a nation" (Prov 14.34). Such numbers and growth in church fellowships can hardly be imagined in the UK today. Do we ever wonder why?
C H Spurgeon's Early Life
Many biographies of Mr Spurgeon have been written.² Here are just a few of the highlights of his remarkable life and ministry.
He was born on 19th June 1834 in Kelvedon, Essex, the first of three children of John and Eliza Spurgeon. His upbringing was strongly influenced by his godly parents and grandparents, and his mother's earnest prayers for his salvation. His schooling was mostly in Colchester, where he excelled in the usual diet of Classics and Maths, and he also spent a final year at Maidstone, where his strong, upright character developed both independence and courage. For all his godly upbringing, Charles was not saved, and he knew it. He earnestly sought salvation, and was deeply convicted about his sin. He tried to find out what he had to do. He wanted to feel something. Listening to many different preachers made no difference.
The story of Spurgeon's conversion is well known; he retold it himself so often during later years. One Sunday morning, in December 1849, a snowstorm caused him to enter a small, almost empty, Methodist chapel. The usual preacher was unable to attend because of the snow, so a working man took the pulpit, using Isaiah 45.22 as his text. He simply reiterated it with emphasis, for he was unable to say much more about it. Seeing the miserable young stranger sitting under the gallery, with great enthusiasm he called on him to "Look to Christ – Look and live!" Charles Spurgeon did that, there and then, at the age of 15. His joy knew no bounds. He realised that he should now become associated with God's people in a church, and sought baptism in a Baptist Church in nearby Isleham. On 3rd May 1850, along with two women, he was baptised in the local river, surrounded by people on the ferryboat and on the shore. He said, "I lost a thousand fears in that River Lark, and found that 'in keeping His commandments there is great reward'."
His Public Life and Ministry
When he went up to London, his father and others felt that he should get formal training for the ministry. However, after missing a college interview, he decided that such training was not for him, having heard the Lord saying "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not" (Jer 45.5). Also, some of the office bearers of the church wanted him to be 'ordained' and known as 'Reverend'. This too he refused, saying that was a remnant of Romanism. His work in London went far beyond his preaching. Finding young men without any basic education trying to preach the Gospel, he set up the 'Pastor's College', in 1857, to help them develop. These men had a fruitful ministry; for example, in London, in 1866, they saw hundreds of souls saved and baptised, and 18 new churches established. In the cholera epidemic of 1855, Spurgeon mixed with the people to pray and comfort the victims. He established almshouses, and implemented other measures to try to alleviate the desperate poverty around. The Stockwell Orphanage was opened for boys in 1867, and for girls in 1879.
Spurgeon's written ministry was immense, much sought after, and much blessed. His writings included The Penny Pulpit - his weekly sermons; The Sword and the Trowel - a monthly magazine; Lectures to My Students; and The Treasury of David - an unsurpassed seven-volume commentary on the Psalms. These, and many others, were painstakingly written with a pen dipped in ink. In 1864, his booklet on the error of Baptismal Regeneration sold 350,000 copies, and provoked much controversy. He also put in writing a strong warning about the growing acceptance within the church of evolutionary thinking and liberal theology, which was threatening to 'downgrade' the church, and which, alas, it did.
In his huge ministry he was ably supported by his wife Susannah (Thomson), whom he had married in 1856. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. Part of Susannah's work was to obtain and provide good books to over 6,000 needy ministers at home and abroad. She was, however, a chronic invalid for most of their married life. Mr Spurgeon himself became increasingly weak and ill, perhaps due to overwork. He suffered severely from gout, and occasional depression. He sought relief in southern France for the winter months but, eventually, weakness and pain overcame his strong spirit.
C H Spurgeon preached his final sermon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on 7th June 1891. He died in France on 31st January 1892. A week later, over 60,000 people filed past his casket in the Tabernacle. Immense emotional crowds attended the burial, in Norwood Cemetery, of a servant of God, aged just 57, who had left his mark on so many.
¹ The surname is continental. Spurgeon's 17th century ancestors escaped to England because of persecution for their Protestant faith.
² W Y Fullerton's biography is very detailed and interesting; Arnold Dallimore's is more recent (Banner of Truth Trust, reprint 2005), and very readable.