“In the midst of the theologically discredited nineteenth century there was a preacher who had at least six thousand people in his congregation every Sunday, whose sermons for many years were cabled to New York every Monday and reprinted in the leading newspapers of the country, and who occupied the same pulpit for almost forty years without any diminishment in the flowing abundance of his preaching and without ever repeating himself or preaching himself dry. The fire he thus kindled, and turned into a beacon that shone across the seas and down through the generations, was no mere brush fire of sensationalism, but an inexhaustible blaze that glowed and burned on solid hearths and was fed by the wells of the eternal Word. Here was the miracle of a bush that burned with fire and yet was not consumed.”1
Thus commented Helmut Thielicke on Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the greatest of the Victorian preachers and one of the greatest princes of the pulpit to serve the church in any age.
Spurgeon was a legend in his own day, and was a household name in London before he reached the age of twenty. Yet his popularity has continued into the late twentieth century, and his voluminous writings are still among the best-selling devotional and homiletical materials currently available. What can explain this phenomenon?
The Victorian age was noted as an era of princely preachers and London — with the British empire then at its height — was the setting for many of the greatest pulpit ministries in the history of the church. But Spurgeon stands alone as the most widely appreciated and influential preacher of his century.
The background of Spurgeon’s life is unremarkable. Born June 19, 1834 at Kelvedon in Essex, Spurgeon entered life the son and grandson of Congregational ministers. Spurgeon’s father, John Spurgeon, was what would now be known as a bi-vocational preacher, serving a largely itinerant ministry. But Charles’ grandfather, James Spurgeon, was a well-known Congregational minister. Charles spent most of his childhood in his grandfather’s manse at Stambourne. There he was exposed to a warm-hearted devotion and to his grandfather’s extensive library of Puritan theology.
The Spurgeon family early noticed a particular sense of spiritual urgency in young Charles, and the parish manse was a healthy place for Spurgeon to indulge in rather precocious theological investigations. The catalyst for Spurgeon’s theological development was his grandfather’s library of Puritan classics. In an attic loft Spurgeon spent many boyhood days in the company of Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and John Bunyan — especially Bunyan.
Spurgeon’s disquietude was not eased until January 6, 1850, when he was converted during a meeting at the Primitive Methodist chapel at Colchester, His testimony of that day was of a burden released. As he would write in his Autobiography: “The frown of God no longer resteth upon me; but my Father smiles, I can see His eyes — they are glancing love; I hear His voice — it is full of sweetness. I am forgiven, I am forgiven, I am forgiven!”2 Spurgeon was soon to join a Baptist church, driven to the conviction of believer’s baptism by his own study of the Bible.
Within a matter of months, Spurgeon would preach his first sermon, tricked into doing so by an older friend who encouraged him to go to a meeting at a Teversham cottage, where a promising young man was to preach his first sermon. As he was later to relate, “It seemed a great risk and a serious trial; but depending upon the power of the Holy Ghost, I would at least tell out the story of the cross, and not allow the people to go home without a word.”3
That would be Spurgeon’s practice and pledge for the remainder of his remarkable ministry. By the next year, Spurgeon had been called as pastor of a small chapel at Water-beach, where his reputation soon expanded throughout the Cambridgeshire area. By 1853, his reputation took him to the pulpit of the famed New Park Street Baptist Church in London.
The New Park Street Church had once been numbered among London’s most famous and well-attended churches. Previous pastors had included Benjamin Keach, John Gill, and John Rippon. But the 1200-seat sanctuary held only about one hundred when Spurgeon arrived to preach a guest sermon. Within eighteen months, the congregation would be forced into the cavernous Exeter Hall in order to accommodate the thousands who came to hear their preacher.
The scene would shift in 1861 to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle in south London, where Spurgeon would draw a congregation of no less than 6,000 persons for thirty years.
His unprecedented ministry defies summarization, but one homiletical resource states it in stark terms: “Before he was twenty a significant church in London called him as pastor. Within two years he was preaching to audiences of 10,000 people; at twenty-two he was the most popular preacher of his day. By the time he was twenty-seven, a church seating 6,000 people had been built to accommodate the crowds which flocked to hear him preach. For over thirty years he pastored the same church without decrease in power or appeal.”4
What can explain the power and substance of this ministry? Spurgeon was, it must be granted, a particularly effective preacher. His voice was often described as “silvery” in its effect and intonation. His voice was powerful enough to be heard clearly by as many as 20,000 persons without amplification. His voice was heard by an estimated 10 million persons during his ministry — all before the invention of radio and television.
Once, when testing the acoustics of London’s spacious Agricultural Hall, Spurgeon shouted, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.” A workman was later to tell Spurgeon that he had heard the words while working in the rafters, and had been led to conversion.
As described by Harwood Pattison, “His voice was a powerful organ. Its first note, while it filled with ease the largest room, was so personal that each one of his hearers seemed to be especially addressed …. It was clarion in its powers to arouse, and lacked only a pathetic note to make it perfect.”5
But Spurgeon’s voice was, though unique, not the secret of his pulpit power. A great many other Victorian divines were blessed with powerful voiceboxes and gifts of inflection.
The popular appeal of Spurgeon’s preaching could be traced, in part, to his unique method of preaching messages which were at once both rich in substance and clear in presentation. Spurgeon rejected the high-brow elegance of the aristocratic Victorians and preached using popular language and directness. He used illustrations from everyday life and current events, rather than the literary allusions common in Victorian sermons.
This approach had an immediate impact in London, starved for relevant preaching. “Not for a long time,” one observer noted, “had a prominent preacher condescended to preach the simple gospel in plain English, free from classicial quotations and over-burdened rhetoric.”6 Long before Karl Barth, Spurgeon instructed his student preachers to read the Bible and the newspaper side-by-side. Current events, he urged, illustrated timeless truths.
Spurgeon’s popular style won him both friends and enemies. Much of the response fell along class lines. Spurgeon came to prominence in London as the industrial revolution was in full sway. A new middle class of entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and managers was emerging, and those persons found Spurgeon’s preaching compelling and understanding. They flocked to his services, joined by representatives of both the poor and the aristocratic.
After observing the young Spurgeon, James Grant wrote in the Morning Advertiser that Spurgeon “has evidently made George Whitefield his model, and, like that unparalleled preacher, that prince of pulpit orators, is very fond of striking apostrophes.”
Others were less taken with Spurgeon’s approach. Older, more established ministers found the young upstart uncultured, at least in terms of current literature and classical references. Cartoons in the popular press portrayed Spurgeon as a young dynamo upsetting the comfort of the ensconced pulpit orators.
Spurgeon was, in fact, accused of theatrical tactics and manipulation. But no less than Helmut Thielicke, who observed Nazi propaganda and manipulation first-hand, absolved Spurgeon of such methods. “Charles Haddon Spurgeon … was still unaware of the wiles of propaganda …. He worked only through the power of the Word which created its own hearers and changed souls.”7
Spurgeon spoke with unusual directness and used references to everyday life. The Ipswich Express described Spurgeon’s preaching as “redolent of bad taste, vulgar, and theatrical.” But Spurgeon’s style was vulgar only by the standards of Victorian aristocrats. For the remainder of Londoners, what the aristocracy described as “vulgar” was the stuff of everyday life.
Spurgeon was undeterred: “I am perhaps vulgar, but it is not intentional, save that I must and I will make the people listen. My firm conviction is that we have had quite enough polite preachers, and many require a change. God has owned me among the most degraded and off casts. Let others serve their class; these are mine, and to them I must keep.”8
Thielicke noted the “worldliness” of Spurgeon’s sermons, even as he acknowledged the “homiletical risks” Spurgeon chose to take. “The dogmatician, the exegete, and also the professor of practical theology may often be impelled to wield their blue pencils; the aesthete may often see red and the liturgiologist turn purple when they read his sermons and hear what he did. For the priests and the Levites always have the hardest time listening with simplicity and without bias.”9
To Thielicke, this worldliness was the glory — not the scandal — of Spurgeon’s preaching. “Such critics ought to see in this man Spurgeon the shepherd who was willing to allow his robe — including his clerical robe — to be torn to tatters by thorns and sharp stones as he clambered after the lost sheep …. Worldly preaching is impossible without having the earth leave its traces on a man’s wardrobe. Here there are no robes that look as if they had just come out of a sandbox.”10
Spurgeon’s humor, said Thielicke, is “Easter laughter,” the laughter which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified — because it grows out of an overcoming of the world ….”11
But Spurgeon’s homiletical method — revolutionary and effective though it was — was not the foundation of his ministry nor the source of his power. Preaching was for Spurgeon first and foremost a matter of conviction, even before it blossomed into communication.
While the society Victorians often minimalized doctrine and the Tractarians taught their theory of doctrinal “reserve,” Spurgeon preached a full-bodied gospel with substantive content and unashamed conviction. In this he was regarded as something of an exception, but he held fast to his biblical faith, Calvinist convictions, and evangelistic appeal.
“I take my text and make a beeline to the cross,” explained Spurgeon, and that brief statement is Spurgeon’s preaching method in sum. He would often preach as many as five to seven sermons a week, but the Sunday sermons at the Metropolitan Tabernacle consumed most of his energies in preparation. Spurgeon would seek texts for his Sunday sermons throughout the week, seeking through prayer, Bible reading, and conversation with friends (especially his devoted wife, Susannah) to find the most appropriate text for Sunday’s sermons.
On Saturday night, he would sequester himself away from family and friends by six o’clock and remain in his study until the morning message was in outline form. From that outline, Spurgeon would preach an extemporaneous message lasting from forty-five minutes to an hour, on average.
Spurgeon found the identification of the text his most vexing challenge, and it consumed much of his energies during the week. “A man who goes up and down from Monday morning until Saturday night, and indolently dreams that he is to have his text sent down by an angelic messenger in that last hour or two of the week, tempts God, and deserves to stand speechless on the Sabbath,” he charged.
His own struggle is made clear in this reflective passage: “I have often said that my greatest difficulty is to fix my mind upon the particular texts which are to be the subjects of discourse on the following day …. As soon as any passge of Scripture really grips my heart and soul I concentrate my whole attention upon it, look at the precise meaning of the original, closely examine the context so as to see the special aspect of the text in its surroundings, and roughly jot down all the thoughts that occur to me concerning the subject, leaving to a later period the orderly marshalling of them for presentation to my hearers.”12
But whatever the text — Old Testament or New Testament — Spurgeon would find his way to the gospal of the Savior on the cross. And that gospel was put forth with the full force of substitutionary atonemen and with warnings of eternal punishment but for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
That uncompromising message was offensive to some even in Victorian England. Some chose to admire Spurgeon’s preaching ministry while ignoring or minimalizing his theology. This Spurgeon will not allow. As Iain Murray states: “The only way to deal with Spurgeon’s theology is to accept it for forget it: the latter is what I believe has largely happened in the twentieth century. And Spurgeon without his theology is about as distorted as the cheap china figures of Spurgeon which were offered for sale by charlatans more than a century ago.”13
The famous preacher found himself engaged in several heated theological disputes, ranging from debates over baptismal regeneration to the infamous “Downgrade Controversy” of his final years. In each of these, Spurgeon attempted to maintain clear evangelical conviction, while keeping the focus on the gospel.
He resisted any compromise on substitutionary atonement, the authority and inspiration of Scripture, eternal punishment for unbelievers, original sin, and the absoluteness of Christianity. The lack of emphasis on substitutionary atonement which marked many of his contemporaries concerned Spurgeon, for he saw no genuine gospel in any preaching which was embarrassed by the Scriptural witness to what God in Christ did on behalf of the redeemed.
As he stated: “I have always considered, with Luther and Calvin, that the sum and substance of the gospel lies in that word Substitution — Christ standing in the stead of man. If I understand the gospel, it is this: I deserve to be lost forever; the only reason why I should not be damned is this, that Christ was punished in my stead, and there is no need to execute a sentence twice for sin.”14
Spurgeon was concerned with the function and effectiveness of the sermon. A student at his famous pastor’s college once asked Spurgeon how he could focus more clearly on bringing unbelievers into the faith. “Do you expect converts every time you preach?”, Spurgeon asked. The student quickly retorted, “Of course not.” “That is why you have none,” chided Spurgeon.
But Spurgeon made content his concern, trusting that God would use the substance of his message to penetrate the hearts of his hearers. “Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey, important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings.”15
He warned his students to evaluate their sermons by content — and not by structure or design. “To divide a sermon well may be a very useful art, but how if there is nothing to divide? … The grandest discourse ever delivered is an ostentatious failure if the doctrine of the grace of God be absent from it; it sweeps over men’s heads like a cloud, but it distributes no rain upon the thirsty earth; and therefore the remembrance of it to souls taught wisdom by an experience of pressing need is one of disappointment, or worse.”
“Brethren,” he pleaded, “weigh your sermons. Do not retail them by the yard, but deal them out by the pound. Set no store by the quantity of words which you utter, but try to be esteemed for the quality of your matter.”16
Spurgeon held fast to Calvinist theology, even as he extended a universal appeal to the gospel. When asked how he could reconcile his understanding of election and his evangelistic appeal, Spurgeon retorted quickly: “I do not try to reconcile friends.”17
That quality of vigor and vitality produced one of the most remarkable ministries of the church in the modern age — or any age. Upon Spurgeon’s death, Texan B. H. Carroll was moved to deliver an address celebrating his British colleague’s life and ministry: “With whom among men can you compare him? He combined the preaching power of Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield with the organizing power of Wesley, and the energy, fire, and courage of Luther. In many respects he was most like Luther. In many, most like Paul.”18
But Spurgeon never intended to be the center of attention — in life or in death. He would point to the cross. As Thielicke stated plainly, “His message never ran dry because he was never anything but a recipient.” And to that Spurgeon would say a hearty “Amen.”
1. Helmut Thielicke, Encounter with Spurgeon, trans. John W. Doberstein (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1964), p. 1.
2. Charles H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, vol. 1 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897; reprinted edition, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), p. 110.
3. Autobiography, 1/201.
4. “Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching: An Encyclopedia of Preaching, 12 vols., edited by Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, Jr. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971), VI/3.
5. T. Harwood Pattison, The History of Christian Preaching (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1903), p. 335.
6. Charles Ray, A Marvelous Ministry: The Story of C. H. Spurgeon’s Sermons (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1905; reprinted edition, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1985), p. 17.
7. Thielicke, p. 1.
8. Cited in Lewis Drummond, “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching,” Christian History, issue 29 (1992), pp. 14-15.
9. Thielicke, pp. 40-41.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., p. 25.
12. Cited in Ray, pp. 34-35.
13. Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), p. 5.
14. Autobiography, I/113.
15. C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1881), I/72.
16. Lectures, I/73.
17. Cited in Drummond, p. 15.
18. B. H. Carroll, “The Death of Spurgeon,” an address delivered in Nashville, Tennessee, February, 1892, in Sermons and Life Sketch of B. H. Carroll, D.D., compiled by J. B. Cranfill (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1893), p. 29.

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