Only a daring soul would attempt to preach on Job 6:6: “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? Is there any taste in the white of an egg?”1 To publish such a sermon would take even more courage. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was apparently the only preacher among the recognized greats who ever attempted to do so.
Spurgeon answered both of Job’s questions with resounding negatives. He used that wise man’s metaphors as tools to compare the tastelessness of egg white, without salt, to the unpalatable and indigestible sermons common in his day.
Many Victorian-age preachers neglected the needs of their hearers, ignored logic, disdained doctrine, and bored congregations with material of little value, delivered in a style both verbose and irrelevant. Sermons lacked spiritual power and experiential authenticity.
Some saw themselves as apologists for the faith, laboring at seventy-five minute sermons which spawned points and sub-points with the same abandon that caged rabbits multiply. Other pulpiteers pondered aloud about obtuse theological nothings, pouring out an ocean of words in a grandiloquence that set their audiences “a-drowning.”
Then, as now, many mistook opaqueness for amplitude, holding that, because one could not see the bottom clearly, the river was deep, when often it merely was muddy.
Other preachers strove for a kind of pulpit cleverness which they assumed their exalted positions as clergy demanded. Those wishing to earn a reputation as literary lions roared their bombastic mouthings, and/or intoned dreary religious essays to hearers held fast beneath the claws of their clerical authority.
Spurgeon aimed to avoid these extremes of bombastic banality, committing himself to a clear communication of the biblical doctrine of grace.
The Fresh Style of Spurgeon
Through disciplining himself to adopt a precise, lucid, zestful, and sometime colloquial style of thought and delivery, Spurgeon sought to sharpen the aptness of his presentations. He linked them clearly with his hearers’ needs, using ideas phrased to arrest and hold their attention.
Before congregations drowning in a maelstrom of sermonic words and ideas, he placed solid planks of biblical doctrine shaped to enable a firm grip from even the weakest in the faith. He sought to preach to the common people with an uncommon clarity, taking George Whitefield, the open-air evangelist of a previous century, as his major model.
His central themes followed orthodox lines. He proclaimed the sovereignty of God, the cross of Christ and its relation to the other doctrines of grace, and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to facilitate genuine holiness. He linked together the pragmatic relevance of a variety of biblical doctrines around the nucleus of substitutionary atonement. But he also used illustrations from nature and life as few before him had.
Spurgeon bent novelty and humor to fresh ends. His application of the dynamics of faith to personal and life-situation concerns refreshed and invigorated many by its innovative pertinence.
Facile forms of accurate and often emotive sense-appeal expression lifted huge assemblies to new heights of perception and motivation. He approached the rhetorical task from a theological perspective, as Helmut Thielicke affirmed,2 declaring that it demanded both skillful study and ethical responsibility. Such plain gospel preaching, aided by the cultivation of a forceful style of Anglo-Saxon expression, shook all of London, reaching assemblies of up to 25,000 persons, and then leaped out to affect an entire world.
Spurgeon’s emphases shaped the evangelical pulpit of his day and beyond. His influence centered on his popularity. (To be popular does not necessarily imply that one’s work is shallow and superficial.) Spurgeon’s ministry was spectacular, but its wide and wholehearted acceptance by the masses validated its quality.
He truly represented the common people. He ministered to their needs and articulated their feelings. He arrested their attention through plain and easily understood sermons which treated some of the deepest questions in life and theology. They liked what they heard because he anchored his teachings around vital biblical doctrines. His value for them enlarged as they discerned an authentic spirituality about him — an ethos which sought only to exalt Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The Dynamics of Spurgeon’s Popularity
A definition of some of the pulpit energies which characterized Spurgeon’s greatness can help, in part, to explain something of his power and influence. Unquestionably, he acted innovatively in evangelism in an era of religious traditionalism. He also stood firm for a reasoned theological orthodoxy when secular liberalism had cast out such basics as the deity of Christ and rejected any validities of consequence arising from the biblical revelation.
Yet his pulpit work drew its strengths only partially from such areas. Ten perspectives of his preaching, at least, loom as focal points which will assist in evaluation.
The Quantity of His Productions. Weekly sermons, sold at a penny each from newsstands and railroad stations, rapidly made Spurgeon’s name a household word. Around four thousand of these entered publication. He probably preached at least three or four times that number, many never being recorded. (Recent research has identified at least 525 published only in an obscure English periodical; these have never been widely available.)3
Those included in the sixty-three official volumes were adjusted from the originals prepared from shorthand notes taken at his services as Spurgeon made multitudinous corrections in the galley proofs. Yet they still reveal many facile expressions and imaginative ideas. Some thoughts appear to be the outgrowth of an extemporaneous spontaneity built upon laborious hours of disciplined study about the topic concerned.
Spurgeon preached “out of the overflow,” studying topics all week and finally nailing down texts to stand as summaries for his subjects on Saturday evening, and Sunday afternoon. He also wrote his final skeleton outlines for sermons then, discarding dozens in the process of refinement.
Within a century after he began his publications, 500,000 copies of his Lectures to My Students sold along with 300,000 copies of his popular work John Ploughman’s Pictures. His Treasury of David, a massive seven-volume commentary on the Psalms, sold 130,000 sets during the same period. In all, he authored 135 volumes and edited another twenty-eight. His production has been calculated as being at twenty-three million words, the equivalent of the twenty-seven volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.4
The publishers kept one million copies of his sermons constantly in stock to meet the demand for back numbers, and kept on issuing hitherto-unpublished ones until 1917, twenty-five years after his death. If one set out to read one sermon a day from his New Park Street Pulpit and Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, it would take about ten years to complete the task.
More publishers have more titles by Spurgeon in print today than by any other religious author, living or dead.5 Such a quantity of material, clear, consistent, and manifold, partially documents his popularity.
The Quality of His Content. Quantity is not the only criterion. The quality of Spurgeon’s preaching also explained his power. Most of his waking hours were spent in reading, research, and sermon planning in his own twelve-thousand volume personal library, often assisted by his private secretary and/or his wife. He directed his people in plain, simple, unadorned worship successfully, without the aid of elaborate ritual, choirs, or the trappings of other church traditions, largely because the sermonic materials he presented were theologically sound, attractively created, and carefully presented. He constantly endorsed the value of systematic study.
“The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou contest, bring with thee, and THE BOOKS, but especially the parchments.” II Timothy 4:13.
Even an apostle must read. Some of our very ultra-Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon, must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher.
A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains — oh! that is the preacher.
How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books!
He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.”
The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all people. You need to read.6
The Variety of His Subjects. The breadth and diversity of Spurgeon’s ideas still stand as phenomenally incredible. He disdained prophetic and eschatalogical extremes but found his eternal freshness by lifting up a variety of texts allowing light to fall upon them from a multitude of perspectives.
Originality and creativity stood out in such sermons as the one he preached on “Seven Texts.” In this he took the confession, “I have sinned,” found on the lips of seven biblical characters. He discussed these as revelations of Pharoah as the hardened sinner, Baalam as the double-minded man, Saul as the insincere, Achan as the doubtful penitent, Judas as the lost man, Job as the saint, and the Prodigal Son as the returning believer.
Some sermons, such as that on the text “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” revealed a charming simplicity and possessed a magnetic attraction by their rationality alone. His first division here simply stated, “Death is an Enemy!” (breaks up the body, divides families, severs relationships, ends opportunities); his second division, “Death is an Enemy to be Destroyed” (through the resurrection and its victory); his final division, “Death is an Enemy to be Destroyed — Last!” (only after God has first dealt with our sins through the work of the cross).
The Simplicity of His Message. Spurgeon’s preaching centered around the idea of a substitutionary atonement and the potential for conversion among his hearers who rested in the grace of God. His comfort for the suffering, instructions to growing saints, and exhortations for dedication and service were all based firmly on the evangelical experience of new birth.
He brought a fresh focus to evangelism and allied himself with the work of Dwight L. Moody and other gospel preachers. He used an inquiry room for seekers from time to time, and endorsed the method, although he mostly interviewed converts personally on Thursdays prior to approving them for baptism and church membership.7
The Humility of His Approach. When asked to come to New Park Street Baptist Chapel for a six-month trial pastorate, he declined and said that his worth or lack of it would be discovered within three months. He continually displayed an authentic and unaffected modesty, ascribing all the blessings of his ministry to the providence of God.
Although he developed close friendships with some of the great among his regular hearers, such as John Ruskin, he never took advantage of these intimacies from the pulpit. Members of the Parliament, including prime ministers, a president of the United States, and certain members of the English royal family came to hear him, but he never traded on these honors or expressed anything remotely like conceit over them. He constantly reiterated his utter dependability upon the Holy Spirit for all his powers and skills.
The Integrity of His Objectives. Spurgeon’s sermons carried great weight as his hearers discerned an authentic spirituality behind them. His piety shone out as a genuine commitment of the heart, revealed in many pulpit asides, and enlarged by quiet personal ministries of support and encouragement among his people. In the “Down Grade” controversy he refused to share information about individuals publicly which had been given to him privately by the Baptist Union, although this would have cleared his own name. When advised, very late in the situation, that the information given was to be considered confidential, he withdrew from the Baptist Union in 1887 without revealing the materials which would have cleared him of unjust criticism.
He refused to create a fresh denomination in which his concerns could properly be aired, although supporters asked him to do so, and which he obviously had the power and the following to effect.8 Instead, he joined the Surrey and Middlesex Baptist Association and continued to work with the Baptist Union as and where he could. Such ethical responsibility, honesty, and integrity affirmed his pulpit presentations.
The Sensitivity of His Spirit. The evangelical world has largely forgotten that Spurgeon opened his heart widely to social issues of his day, as well as to spiritual ones. His immense chapel, often crowded out for extended prayer meetings and fast days, became a center of religious revival which embraced the spiritual awakenings of both 1859 and 1905.9 But he also launched massive programs of social outreach providing almshouses for London’s poor, an orphanage, an evening school for the uneducated masses, and twenty-one mission halls ministering to the social aches and pains of the city. He often supported these institutions from his own purse to keep them solvent.10
Methods he pioneered became models for later secular programs. His sermons were often redolent with comfort for the depressed and downtrodden. The poor of South London regularly crowded into the tabernacle for special services at his invitation to respond to his encouragements.
The Authority of His Perspectives. As a biblical theologian from first to last, Spurgeon relied on scripture alone for his authority. He held a high view of inspiration but refused to become entangled in arguments defending the Bible or to enter into controversy. He practiced a doctrine of functional infallibility and faith-assurance inspiration, as recent research has shown.11
The Dexterity of His Presentation. Spurgeon’s common preaching method was to select a text which summarized a major doctrine or biblical topic and to walk around it as one might evaluate a jewel from a variety of perspectives. Light falling on different facets revealed composite truth. Sometimes he used such a text imaginatively or as a simple foundation on which to build a purely topical sermon. At other times he exegeted his text in relation to the context and moved into a more expositional mode.
He was, therefore, open to just criticism on purely homiletical grounds. His work, although always acceptable and seldom at all extreme, was sometimes overtly typological. But wherever one can rightly complain about a less-than-strictly-correct scholarly treatment of his text or passage, one is most often also overwhelmed by the devotion of his spirit and the practicability of his goals.
These were minor flaws, but they support the assertion that Spurgeon was a great preacher of sermons before he was a preacher of great sermons (although many of his sermons are quite worthy of comparison with the best of others.)
Spurgeon succeeded as well as he did because he added word-precision, lucid expression, and an explicit understanding based on sense-appeal images.12 With a voice of amazing compass, full, rich, sweet, and clear, he could roar with trumpet-energy and whisper with bell-like clarity. Melodious cadences and perfect pitch came because he had disciplined and practiced with his vocal instrument until it was honed to an excellence far beyond his peers. One discerns his understandings and his patient work in such areas behind the many sagacious comments concerning communication and delivery which fill the pages of his Lectures to My Students.
In early years he roamed the platform considerably to depict dramatic biblical scenes. He continued to create such biblical episodes and dramatize certain life-situations, often forging conversation between biblical characters or contemporary hearers to suit his purposes. But with maturity came a fullness and poise of greater dimension.
In later years he reserved his considerable dramatic powers, and abilities to caricature and mimic others, for the Friday afternoon Pastors’ College lectures which he shared informally with his students. Many of these elements remain preserved also in his Lectures to My Students. Writing when only twelve volumes of Spurgeon’s sermons had been released, a contemporary spoke with great delight of the peaks and climaxes, and the pace, pause, and purpose of his sermons, and of the sometimes outstanding responses they evoked:
Mr. Spurgeon touches many springs, aphorism and anecdote, gross, quaint, outrageously grotesque; then again quiet, subjective, profoundly tender and subdued, snatches from unexpected poets, strains of household songs, come lilting along, with troops of quotations from all the sacred poets, versicles of hymns by wholesale, giving a chorus to his own feelings and a relief to the feelings of the people. Travels to and fro in England are always furnishing him with stories of persons and places.
Anecdotes, humorous or pathetic; gushes of rich poetic description, sometimes a sublime sustained exordium; vehement, passionate, over-whelming peroration. They must have been strange scenes, one thinks, sometimes at the Tabernacle. It must have been a fine moment when preaching a new-year’s sermon from the text, “To Him be the glory both now and forever, Amen,” the invocations of the preacher were met and responded to by the massive thousands thundering back to him again, and again and again, their loud Amens at the close of each passage. “13
The same writer also asserted that Spurgeon’s verbal power did not arise for oratorical pyrotechnics but rather from plain, warm, human, Anglo-Saxon sensibilities.14
The Stability of His Doctrine. Theologically, Spurgeon’s greatest facility was his ability to declare the paradox of God’s will working in conjunction with man’s. He allowed for the effectual call of the elect but insisted that this arose only through the free offer of salvation published to all people.
In the tradition of Andrew Fuller and Wiliam Carey, he dared to expound difficult doctrines by dealing in a masterly manner with the truths of election, predestination, atonement, the nature and attributes of God, and the preservation of the saints. He reached into heights and depths of argument and practical illustration well beyond many of his contemporaries, couching his thoughts in concrete and often colloquial images.
But his strength in the espousal of these values lay in the balance with which he expounded them and not in the ideas as they stood alone. He displayed an equipoise in doctrine which stabilized his ministry. He preached the atonement as potential for all and the gospel as an authentic free offer of grace. Yet he also insisted that, from an eternal perspective, the atonement was actually effective only for the elect who responded freely to God’s call of grace. He felt that many Calvinists did not hold such a balance.15
He refused to reject those who could not see these doctrines exactly as he did, affirming that John Wesley and others were true servants of God also.16
His free gospel invitations were entirely unlimited by his views of election. Thus, his theological system exhibited unity, consistency, and balance. The doctrines commonly called Calvinistic were not the sum total of his ministry as some would claim, but rather the foundation and structure of a pulpit faithfulness which bore testimony to the needs of human nature, the absolute necessity of grace as our only hope, and the revelation of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone.
The Contributions of Spurgeon
Spurgeon’s published works, hawked from door to door almost across the civilized world, resulted in the conversion of many, and the call of quite a number into ministry for themselves. In the first one hundred years of its existence, his Pastor’s College graduated 154 preachers into North American pulpits alone.
With his son Thomas (who succeeded him successfully for fourteen years as the pastor of the London Baptist Tabernacle Church), he shaped the preaching and theology of modern evangelism. Dwight L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, J. W. Chapman, John McNeill, F. B. Meyer, Henry Varley, F. W. Boreham, and G. Campbell Morgan were just a few of the greats who drank deeply at the Spurgeon springs.17
Notes
1. Sermon #1,730, “A Cure for Unsavoury Meats; or, Salt for the White of an Egg,” in C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabenade Pulpit, XXIX (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1883).
2. Helmut Thielicke, Encounter With Spurgeon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), pp. 15ff.
3. Although this is a potential publishing bonanza, today’s typesetting costs mean that they may never be released.
4. Craig Skinner, Lamplighter and Son: The Forgotten Story of Thomas Spurgeon and His Famous Father, C. H. Spurgeon (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1984), p. 44.
5. Christian Bookseller (Colorado Springs, CO, February, 1980).
6. Sermon #542, “Paul — His Cloak and His Books,” in C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, IX (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1863).
7. Skinner, pp. 47, 157, 167-68, 246, 249, 255.
8. Ibid., pp. 91-92.
9. Ibid., pp. 47-48, 172-87.
10. Ibid., pp. 92-93; Cf. J. C. Charlile, C. H. Spurgeon: An Interpretive Biography (London: Religious Tract Society, 1933), pp. 64-69; R. J. Helmstadter, “Spurgeon in Outcast London,” in E. T. Phillips (ed.), The View from the Pulpit – Victorian Ministers and Society (Toronto: MacMillan of Toronto, 1978), pp. 60ff.
11. Skinner, passim, and apprendices.
12. Cf. Jay E. Adams, Sense-Appeal in the Sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Grand Rapids, MI; 1975).
13. E. Paxton Hood, Lamps, Pitchers, and Trumpets: Lectures on the Vocation of the Preacher, II (New York, Dodd and Mead, 1876), p. 198.
14. Ibid., p. 216.
15. Skinner, p. 80.
16. Ibid., pp. 80-86.
17. Skinner, passim.
This copyrighted article originally appeared in the October 1984 issue of Baptist History and Heritage, quarterly journal of the SBC Historical Commission, Nashville, TN. Reprinted by permission.

Share This On: