Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is mostly remembered as an innocuous Victorian preacher whose quotes show up on hallmark mugs and Baptist sermon illustrations. Although he is generally admired by modern Evangelicals, his reputation has prevented his legacy from benefiting the Evangelical Church to its fullest capacity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll examine the degree to which Spurgeon diverged from the prevailing attitudes of Victorian British Christianity, and seek to identify his “integrative motif.” Finally, I will explore several ways in which a proper appraisal of his theology and ministry would be beneficial to the modern Evangelical Church as we seek to imitate those aspects that would prove fruitful in contemporary gospel ministry.
There is no dearth of information surrounding the life and character of the “prince of preachers,” but it is exceedingly difficult to separate fact from folklore when attempting to wade through the vast ocean thereof. Many of the inspiring anecdotes that surround his life come from dubious sources, or are difficult to source altogether. Even biographical information that came from his own pen, when scrutinized carefully, does not always hold up to the standards of modern historiography. The many accounts that he produced of his own conversion, for example, are not easily harmonized. It is not only the emphases that vary from one retelling to the next but also the details themselves. Additionally, those who have undertaken to verify the details of the story have found that the external evidence that is available conflicts with, rather than confirms, his version of the events of that fateful Sabbath morning.
It is unclear whether the inconsistencies between the accounts themselves and between the accounts and the external evidence are due to the inherent unreliability of human memory and/or the sheer creativity of a mind as imaginative as Spurgeon’s or if they are due to a conscious effort on his part to shape the events of his conversion to illustrate the gospel most clearly. In any case, this and other parts of his biography appear to be closer to creative Midrash than straightforward history. It is tempting, therefore, to draw a clear distinction between the “Spurgeon of Faith,” i.e. the near mythic figure who shows up in sermon illustrations, and the “Charles of History,” i.e. the unglamorous man who pastored a thriving congregation and tried to lead a household beset with tragedy. This is done, both consciously and unconsciously in many an academic study of the preacher, as scholars seek to humanize a man who has become the stuff of legends.
The reigning paradigm in academic writing at this point in time posits that good analysis of any historical figure requires us to deal exclusively with “the bald facts of history,” calling into question anything that appears to be the product of “imaginative interpretation” of the historical data on the part of the subject themselves or past biographers, particularly those who wrote in a premodern context. Under this paradigm, any sort of interpretive retelling of the subject’s life events is branded as propaganda and a new, “objective” picture of said historical figure is produced—often a more cynical picture. I want to establish that I will be eschewing this practice for the purpose of this paper. The paradigm described above is not merely flawed, but defunct, not least because it vastly misunderstands human nature and the nature of truth itself.
In her wonderful book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes that purposeful articulation of life experiences is the essence of autobiographical story-telling. As a form of self-disclosure, the objective is not, in fact, to relate the bald acts of history in an orderly and coherent fashion, but to process through narrative the goings-on of our lives and put to words the complex, emotionally nuanced movements of our daily struggles and joys so that the point of the story is clear. If, for example, one was to have a subtle but humorous encounter at a cafe, it would be necessary to embellish certain aspects of the story when relating it to friends. The humor of the encounter arose in the moment out of a multitude of factors both external (i.e. circumstances, timing, etc.) and internal (i.e. emotions, past experiences, etc.) that came together to produce amusement. Communicating the humor of the encounter to an audience who did not experience it may entail playing up certain details of the encounter and omitting others, rearranging in some part the order of events and rephrasing the words exchanged to render their significance more immediately obvious.
As can be seen in the way that the authors of the four canonical Gospels would rearrange events, alter minor details and shift the emphases of various pericopes shared between them, the aforementioned principle applies across all mediums of storytelling. In short, much of what contemporary biographers of Spurgeon have sometimes written off as ahistorical folklore about the man is probably just purposeful storytelling. Therefore, I have no designs to “strain out gnats” in my treatment of the historical Spurgeon. I will deal instead with the portrait that has been passed down to us, because that is the way that those who loved him, whose lives were transformed by his staggering influence, who needed him, and whom he needed, remembered him. This is not a treatment of the so-called “historical Spurgeon.” I will treat the pithy anecdotes about him as integral so long as they do not contradict what is known about him. Therefore, this is a treatment of “Spurgeon remembered,” not because I prefer to work with a “false” Spurgeon, but because the storified Spurgeon we encounter in the lively anecdotes about him is, by any meaningful measurement, the best window we have into Spurgeon as he actually was.
The Subversive Spurgeon, Remembered
The life and ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is incomprehensible without a cursory understanding of the Victorian backdrop against which he lived and ministered. Author Iain Murray has noted that the unfortunate lack of nuance in Spurgeon studies can be traced to the tendency amongst previous scholars to neglect the specific points of divergence between Spurgeon’s ideology and the prevailing attitudes of the contemporary Victorian culture. The failure to situate their subject firmly within the prejudices of Victorian London can be regarded as the chief contributor to the popular but inaccurate portrait of Spurgeon as an innocuous Victorian preacher.
But as Evangelical churches increasingly self-marginalize and an alarming number of once doctrinally robust denominations succumb to theological drift, we need a subversive Spurgeon. Contemporary Evangelicals are inescapably the intellectual heirs of Spurgeon’s legacy, and he remains a hugely influential figure among our ranks. It is in our interest to reconstruct an image of him that is theologically robust and politically iconoclastic. Just as the reintroduction of William Wilberforce through Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace into the mainstream Evangelical consciousness has enabled him to be a transformative tool from beyond the grave toward refocusing Evangelical efforts around an elucidated communal identity, so also will a fresh look at the fiery preacher provide us with a refined vision for the future. Fortunately for us, the subversive Spurgeon that we need is, in fact, the only Spurgeon that ever existed.