Charles Haddon Spurgeon is famous for being a Baptist preacher in the 19th century (1834-92). But more interesting than his career of regularly preaching to 10,000+ congregants is how he lived his life outside of ‘merely’ preaching the Bible.
Charles was born in Kelvedon, Essex, England on 19 June 1834 as both the son and the grandson of independent preachers. The first of 17 children (9 of whom died in infancy), Charles came from a large family, but was under the care of his grandfather for several years as a youth. Though trained in the Bible by his grandfather and father, Charles didn’t truly understand the gospel and find Christ until he was nearly 16 years old. He claimed, “that I never would have been saved if I could have helped it. As long as ever I could, I rebelled, and revolted, and struggled against God. When He would have me pray, I would not pray, and when He would have me listen to the sound of the ministry, I would not. And when I heard, and the tear rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away and defied Him to melt my soul. But long before I began with Christ, He began with me.” [bio ch 2]
His parents and grandparents – but especially his mother – prayed for him for many years while seeing him continuing to rebel against God and do the opposite of what was required by God for salvation. His self-beratement for knowing God’s law and will, and yet also knowing he didn’t measure up, and never would, took a toll on him as a teenager. The majority of the preaching and teaching he heard was accurate and faithful to the Bible, but young Charles never heard the pleas of God as recorded in the scriptures and proclaimed by the preacher to believe and repent of his sins for God had provided a just means for his salvation.
It was the 6th of January, in the middle of a snow storm when Charles meandered into Primitive Methodist Chapel. The preacher was not the ordinary one, and there where only a handful of souls who had come out for the service that morning. The text was “‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ Even though the preacher did not pronounce all his words correctly, there was a gleam of hope in them for the seeker in the side pew.” [bio ch 2] The preacher, having noted Charles’ visit, noted him specifically and told him what his problem was. He was miserable because he wasn’t looking to the right man: “Young man, look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” [bio ch 2]
From that moment, when Charles saw the way of salvation, the truth of Christ, and the life possible through Him, he was Christ’s.
His entire life-course had been altered: no longer was he a sin-tormented adolescent, but a new creature in Christ, pushing himself to carry that call to the lost. He began preaching ‘for real’ the week after his baptism as a Sunday school teacher, and continued to proclaim his savior until his death 41 years later. His early ministry encompassed the distribution of tracts, and engaging on a personal level those who would talk to him.
Charles, who became widely known for his magnificent illustrations, was nonetheless always in earnest about his topic. He served his Lord and Master daily, hourly, with everyone he met. His was not a privatized or compartmentalized faith – it was on public display for all to see. And the public did certainly see him. After being converted in 1850, Charles became a pastor just 2 years later, and just a year after preaching his first ‘official’ sermon. [wik]
At age 20, just 4 years after his conversion, he was called to pastor the New Park Street Chapel in Southwark. Outgrowing their building shortly after his arrival, they moved to Exeter Hall, and then to Surrey Hall wherein Charles would routinely preach to crowds of more than 10,000 people. This God-granted and -sparked growth happened within 2 years of his arrival in Southwark. The church moved in 1861 to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, where Charles did more than just preach. He wrote, taught aspiring pastors, and began an orphanage.
In his lifetime, Charles published 49 works, including commentaries, sayings, anecdotes, illustrations, and devotions. [wik] He married a young Christian woman in 1856, and had twin boys – both of whom were converted to Christianity under his ministry. Among his most famous published works are Morning and Evening – a devotional, and The Treasury of David – a treatment of the Psalms. In the 1860’s he was known to preach a great deal: “it was no uncommon thing for the young preacher, in the exuberance of his early days, to preach ten to twelve times a week. He was in demand in all parts of London and the home counties.” [bio ch 3]
He preached all through Great Britain, and visited Ireland and France several times. On each of his trips, whether officially in a church service setting, or just on an interpersonal basis, Charles exuded the gospel message he so dearly loved. His service to Christ’s kingdom extended wherever he was, and perhaps no more famous preacher has lived.
While he was by conviction a Calvinistic Baptist, he was not strictly bound to a denomination, and would preach in any church that would have him – including St Peter’s Cathedral. From chapter 3 of his biography:
Preaching in Leeds for the Baptist Union in a Methodist Chapel on a memorable occasion, he read the tenth chapter of Romans. Pausing at the thirteenth verse, he remarked, “Dear me! How wonderfully like John Wesley the apostle talked! ‘Whosoever shall call.’ Whosoever. Why, that is a Methodist word, is it not?”
“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” came the responses.
“Yes, dear brothers,” the preacher added, “but read the ninth chapter of the epistle, and see how wonderfully like John Calvin he talked – “That the purpose of God according to election might stand.'” Smiles on the faces of those that had before been silent were the only response to this utterance. “The fact is,” continued the preacher, “that the whole of truth is neither here nor there, neither in this system nor in that, neither with this man nor that. Be it ours to know what is scriptural in all systems and to receive it.”
He tried to proclaim the full counsel of God, and whether or not that ‘fit’ with a given denomination’s creeds was not his problem – if it were in the Bible, he proclaimed it. This caused some consternation to his hearers who didn’t necessarily fully agree with certain aspects of Christian doctrine, but Charles’ view was that if God said it, and it was recorded for us in His Word, that it should be taught and expounded.
He held that faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross to reconcile us to God was a fiercely personal faith. Simultaneously, he understood that such a personal conviction and faith can not be lived-out merely by one’s self – it must be lived in public. Christ did not call us to separate ourselves from the world by removing to some monastery. He called us to be separate in heart and affection, but to live in the world and try to bring those we come into contact with to faith in Him.
Eph 4:11-12 “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. Charles was an exemplar for the ministry. Perhaps no other preacher in the history of the church had the impact he did on both his and future generations. To this day, pastors of many denominations look to Spurgeon as a model for preaching, passion, and patience. Charles was not afraid to preach bluntly to his congregation – to make them sit up and pay attention to their plight as unbelievers, or their reward as believers. His impassioned pleas for repentance are famous. And his eagerness to share his faith over and over and over again with the lost is astounding.
His self-effacing claim was that “he had no wish to speak to ten thousand people; his only ambition was to do the will of God.” [bio ch 3] I think it is fortunate for the rest of us that God’s will seems to have been for him to preach to thousands, and write to millions. Charles’ life has been studied, reviewed, and used as an encouragement to churches, Christians, and the lost around the world for over a century.
He proclaimed what, at the time, were unpopular political views, especially with regards to slavery, war, and the opium trade. But for each he would start with the Bible, study out the issue, and exegete the verses therein. He didn’t attempt any runs for political office, start any protests, or encourage marches. He just tried to follow God’s word where ever it led.
Charles’ calling was to teach others, to share the gospel, to prepare men and women for service in the kingdom of God. How he found time to lecture for hours several days a week, run an orphanage, raise two children, keep a wife, and pastor a church I don’t know. But God gave him the ability, for which the world has benefited much since.
George Whitefield once said, “We are immortal till our work is done.” Charles Spurgeon’s immediate work ended in 1892, and “like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Jeremy Taylor, George Whitefield and William Tyndale, Spurgeon was fifty-seven when he died, but he was not young, for he began early and he had laboured long, and departed full of days and of grace.” [bio ch 19] He has lived-on in his published works, and the memories of those who heard him.
I think if more Christians took their faith and Savior seriously, myriad more ‘Charles Haddon Spurgeons’ would appear. He didn’t set out to become famous. His goal wasn’t world renown. He was merely looking to share his faith and love of Christ with others.
It is staggering to think of what he accomplished in such a short time. It is humbling to realize I am already almost 10 years older than he was when he was converted and began preaching. But more amazing is that God has used a man from a pretty small town, in a small country, during a time of formalism and disinterest in God, Christ, and church to bring so many to Himself. I pray that I will be used for the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom here on earth in some measure. All Christians may not be Spurgeon, but we can all share our faith with those we meet like he did.