How Would This Innovator Be Received Today?

By the middle of 1852, a young minister serving in the quaint and pastoral village of Waterbeach, located just a few miles from Cambridge, England, was becoming a minor local celebrity—a prologue to a much bigger story to come. There was a chapel in another hamlet not far away, overseen by a faithful servant of God who was well more than 80 years old. The congregants purposed to have a special service to mark their pastor’s anniversary at their church.

Who better to invite to speak on the important occasion than the popular young preacher?

The old pastor never had met the guest minister; and he paced the floor before the appointed hour, waiting for him to arrive. He barely noticed when a round-faced lad of 17 came through the door. “Surely this can’t be the preacher,” he thought. When it was confirmed to him this was indeed the person tasked with delivering the homily that special day, the old man did not try all that hard to hide his disdain bordering on disgust. He muttered something about young boys who began preaching, “Before their mother’s milk was well out of their mouths.” In fact, he was somewhat embarrassed to attend the service; but he did, dutifully.

The young preacher took the shoddy treatment in stride. He already had developed a bit of a thick skin, tending not to shy away from responding to those who despised him because of his youth. Wise beyond his years, he began his address with some careful remarks about the local pastor and the “hoary head” being a “crown of glory.” The octogenarian was moved by this and soon warmed up to the younger man. Then he actually found himself impressed. When the sermon was done, he remarked to the young preacher: “You are the sauciest dog that ever barked in a pulpit!”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon long has been considered a flesh-and-blood gold standard for pulpit ministry. He was called “the prince of preachers” long before he died at the age of 57 in 1892; and his legend lives on via numerous biographies, a significant body of published sermonic work and the sheer magnitude of the impact he made on Victorian England.

Hindsight is said to be an exact science, but can it be influenced by chronology? It is easy to think of Mr. Spurgeon (he thoroughly despised the title “Reverend” and had no formal education) as a man in mid-life, with fully matured thoughts and habits. This is the Spurgeon of near-universal acclaim, the man who fought the watering down of the faith in the downgrade controversy, the man who criticized contemporaries such as Joseph Parker for being insufficiently orthodox. All of it is very true. In fact, Spurgeon’s doctrinal zeal and his Puritan-like passion for being “valiant for truth” were in his ministry arsenal from the beginning and very much part of his spiritual DNA.

The boy who became a man while preaching God’s Word did not burst onto the public stage to universal acclaim; quite the contrary, actually. Truth be told, Spurgeon—essentially a megachurch pastor a century before the nomenclature was recognized—was subject in his day to the very same kind scrutiny, even scurrilous treatment, as is the case all-too-often in our day when it comes to high-profile ministries and ministers—especially when the status quo is challenged and the envelope pushed.

Spurgeon did both.

He was bold, innovative, daring, confident and a little avant-garde in his approach to preaching and public ministry. He raised eyebrows and created a stir, quickly becoming a major topic of conversation, gossip, rumor and slander at the outset of his London ministry. Clergymen were jealous and petty; journalists were worse; and few others were neutral about young Spurgeon. Was he the real deal? Was he a charlatan? Was he simply an actor? These were the questions of the day.

His call to London itself was, at least in part, was a result of what some saw as evidence of his vanity. He spoke at a meeting in Cambridge and was followed by two older ministers who went out of their way to take a few crude potshots at the gifted young man who preceded them on the platform that day. One of the pastors remarked sarcastically, “It is a pity boys do not adopt the scriptural practice of tarrying at Jericho till their beards are grown before they try to instruct their seniors.” Spurgeon, rather than letting it go, asked permission of the moderator to reply; he reminded everyone there that the reference to remaining at Jericho until beards grew had nothing to do with age, but better applied to someone who had fallen into disgrace and been driven into seclusion.

He had no way of knowing it, but most of those present knew that one of Spurgeon’s critics that day had, in fact, so disgraced himself. Game, set and match to the young preacher. The saucy dog evidently had a bit of a bite to go with his bark.

Of course, it would be easy to see this as an example of the very arrogance Spurgeon often would be accused of possessing, but the way he handled himself that day actually impressed a man from London. When that man heard that his city’s historic New Park Street Chapel was looking for a pastor, he recommended the members take a look at the young Spurgeon, then just 19 years old. The rest, as they say, is history; but it was all far from automatic.

From day one in 1854, first as a pulpit guest at the New Park Street church, then as its “probationary” pastor and later full pastor, great crowds came to hear the young preacher. He was seen by many observers to be like a meteor, briefly blazing across the Victorian sky. A popular publication called the Saturday Review used terms such as coarse, stupid and irrational bigot when describing young Spurgeon.

Such criticism came his way because he pioneered a new style of preaching, in effect ushering in a new era for the pulpit. Reading his sermons now in the 21st century, the language comes across as flowery and ornate; but this is far from how it was received then. One early biography, published shortly after Spurgeon’s death, suggested:

Mr. Spurgeon spoke a language they could understand without being obliged to refer to a dictionary, and they heard him gladly. No doubt it looked something like presumption in so young a man when he thus deliberately set his face against the fashion which had prevailed for generations and set up a method of his own.

When criticized for this, he simply acknowledged what he was doing and why—because “he judged the new method to be better than the old.”

As it is today, so it was more than 150 years ago—to go against the way it usually been done was risky business for a preacher. When reading about this, it is easy to wonder how young Spurgeon might be received were he to be, to borrow a phrase from Warren Wiersbe, “homiletically transported” to our times. Is it possible that Spurgeon would yet again be on the cutting edge of modern communication, finding new ways to tell the old story? History indicates this is exactly where he’d be. It also suggests that not everyone would be happy about it.

I have in my library (in the interest of full disclosure, and to spare me a certain paternal rebuke, on loan from my father) an original edition of the 1894 multi-volume biography of Spurgeon written by G. Holden Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and have read through it recently. I was fascinated by how much time Pike took to describe the background of the church, the general state of ministry matters and Spurgeon’s turbulent early months in London in 1854 and 1855.

For whatever reason, many modern biographies of the great preacher move too quickly past the idea of Spurgeon as an innovator and a practitioner of groundbreaking ministry methodology. The idea of thinking about young Spurgeon in the same way many today would see a Steven Furtick or Perry Noble would make some cringe. Surely, Spurgeon was too divine a soul to be grouped with such ministry commoners or populists. Many who these days revere Spurgeon as “the prince of preachers” really see him as a prince of their theology, and certainly he was; but it was theology put into practice, and one wonders how some today who hold Spurgeon’s memory in high regard would react to him as a cutting edge 20-something abruptly seizing center stage today.

Fifty years after the fact, Pike wrote: “The prejudice against this youthful innovator was far stronger than people at this distance of time can realize.” If anything, it is even harder for us to grasp this today, with the legend of Spurgeon as a much older man chiseled in storied stone. In his early years, some London pastors denounced him from their pulpits; and others refused to attend conferences if Spurgeon was to be one of the speakers.

He was a different kind of preacher. He did not read from a polished manuscript, but delivered his sermons extemporaneously, using just a few notes jotted down on a half-page of paper or the back of an envelope. He moved freely on the platform, sometimes waving a handkerchief. Some of the more conservative church members managed at least to get him to use white ones instead of the polka dot ones he brought with him from Waterbeach. He used humor freely, something rarely done in the pulpit up to that time. There was spontaneity in his delivery, and a typical Spurgeon sermon was described as a “gigantic conversation.” These days we might refer to this as an “animated conversation.”

James Sheridan Knowles, an Irish playwright and actor, who had been converted and entered the ministry saw the preacher in action during Spurgeon’s first weeks in London in 1854 and promptly told a college class:

He is only a boy, but he is the most wonderful preacher in the world. He is absolutely perfect in oratory; and, beside that, a master in the art of action. He has nothing to learn from me or anyone else. He is simply perfect. He knows everything. He can do anything. I was once the lessee of Drury Lane Theater; were I still in that position, I would offer him a fortune to play for a season the boars of that place. Why boys, he can do anything he pleases with his audience; he can make them laugh and cry and laugh again in five minutes. His power was never equaled. Now mark my word, boys, that young man will live to be the greatest preacher of this or any other age.

Others in the pulpit and press were not nearly as impressed as was Knowles, saying and writing things such as: “Will his popularity last? We more than doubt it.” Referring to Spurgeon as “a religious demagogue,” “nine-day wonder” and of being a practitioner of “pulpit buffoonery,” the Christian News of Scotland said: “Mr. Spurgeon, in our estimation, is just a spoiled boy with abilities not more than mediocre.” One newspaper accused him of defiling the Bible itself, describing “a beautiful book that had been in the hands of an unclean boy.”

Why not? Spurgeon challenged long-held assumptions about how to deliver the message. His sermons read today with a Victorian feel. This was the lingua franca of his day, but now is a way of communicating that is foreign and archaic to us. When they were first delivered, though, the sermons were a two-edged sword cutting through the fabric of London life. The masses loved them, embraced them, were moved by them and converted through them. The response from officialdom was quite different. Likely never before or since has a preacher been as publicly savaged via press and pulpit than was the case with young Spurgeon.

Crowds flocked to a church that recently had difficulty drawing 200 souls into its cavernous 1,200-seat auditorium. The highlights of the story are fairly well-known. Soon the building had to be enlarged and the congregation moved to Exeter Hall for a few months, another innovation that shocked many traditional Victorians. When criticized by one newspaper, Spurgeon remarked, “Who cares what a harlot says?”

Soon plans were announced to build a larger, state-of-the-art church facility, which would become the famous Metropolitan Tabernacle. The Daily Telegraph took the young preacher to task:

This man, in his own opinion, is a righteous Christian; but in ours, nothing more than a ranting charlatan. We are neither strait-laced nor Sabbatarian in our sentiments; but we would keep apart, widely apart, the theater and the church.

Spurgeon met and married his wife, Susannah, during the early months at New Park Street Chapel, and she soon got into the habit of reading every morning to her husband the text from Matthew 5: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Even this daily reminder did not prevent young Spurgeon from developing what would become a life-long, and often paralytic, battle with depression, which in turn hurt his overall physical health.

One contemporary of Spurgeon, a pastor named E. Paxton Hood, answered many of Spurgeon’s detractors around that time:

For polished diction we shall not look to him; for the long and stately argument we shall not look to him; for the original and profound thought we shall not look to him; for the clear and lucid criticism we shall not look to him; but for bold, convincing statements of Evangelical truth, for a faithful grappling with convictions, for happy and pertinent illustrations, for graphic description, and for searching common sense, we shall look, and we believe we shall seldom look in vain. In a word, he preaches not to metaphysicians or logicians; neither to poets or savants; to masters of erudition or masters of rhetoric; he preaches to men.

He was indeed the “prince of preachers” because he kept in mind the fact that his audience was God and humanity, in that order. He purposed early on not to try to conform to some preconceived ideas about sermons and preaching and dared to be different. In the years that followed, his popularity never waned, and his voice and life remained true to his call. Eventually, petty pastors made their peace with Spurgeon as someone who was indeed authentic and unique. Even the newspapers came around, some quite grudgingly, to write about Spurgeon more flatteringly. His sermons were published and distributed widely.

Of course, the charge of arrogance still followed Spurgeon were ever he went. Once, decades after he hit the ground running in London, he was asked about it and he offered a candid answer:

Do you see those bookshelves? They contain hundreds, nay, thousands of my sermons translated into every language under heaven. Well, now, add to this that ever since I was 20 years old there never has been built a place large enough to hold the numbers of people who wished to hear me preach, and, upon my honor, when I think of it, I wonder why I am not more conceited than I am.

If Spurgeon were on the scene today, does anyone really think he’d be immediately and universally embraced as “the prince of preachers?” Doubtful. Like back then, people of faith and goodwill eventually get it right, but not always at first.

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