Upon arriving in London, the 19 year old country preacher found that he had inherited a troubled church scene. Throughout Britain, but especially in the cities, the institutional Church had spent decades laboring tirelessly to render itself irrelevant on all counts. Hardly a soul in London would have identified as something other than Christian, but their religious devotion was built exclusively atop a foundation of national identity. By and large, they were Christian because they were British. To suggest that there was a distinction would have elicited puzzled looks from the average practitioner. There was, of course, an alternative to be found in the Evangelical movement. Nevertheless, by 1853 the nonconformist descendants of Bunyanite Puritans had substantially lost momentum and cultural influence apart from the scattered rural enclaves where Puritan theology still thrived. As their cultural influence faded, so did their tenacity to the principles that had formed them. Iain Murray writes:
“The Evangelical sections of the Church had not escaped from the prevailing tendencies of the times. The work of Whitefield and Wesley was admired, but it was little followed. The cutting edges of Evangelical truth had been gradually softened down. Those rugged Methodist doctrines that had shaken the land a century before had not been abandoned—and by a few they were still fervently preached—but the general feeling was that a more refined presentation of the Gospel was needed. With this kind of outlook abroad it was inevitable that the strong and clear-cut Reformed theology of 16th and 17th century England was quite out of favour.”
The problem was compounded by the aggressive theological drift that the institutional Church was undergoing during this time. John Henry Newman’s On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles Into the Christian Religion (1836) illustrates the corrosive effects that Enlightenment rationalism had wrought on English Christianity. In it, he reacts vociferously to what he dubs as the “forgetfulness of God’s power,” which, by his estimation, is written into the DNA of the newly developed ‘rational Christianity.’ He laments its inherent “want of faith, which [has] invented a spurious gospel,” all the while showing little hope that a return to orthodoxy is anywhere in sight.
Still more destructive was the ever-increasing influence of radical higher-criticism upon churches, mostly Anglican, throughout urban Britain. As the conclusions drawn by German Liberal scholars such as David Strauss and F.C. Baur gained hegemony in the classroom, young and educated ministers would introduce them to the laity from the pulpit. Emphasis on the truth claims of Christianity steadily became passé and prominence was instead bestowed on the ‘functionality’ of Christianity as an ethical buffer. The writings of Charles Christian Hennell are representative of a popular consensus among clergy on both sides of the high/low church line, he says:
“Let not [the] mind which is compelled to renounce its belief in miraculous revelations deem itself bound to throw aside, at the same time, all [Christianity]’s most cherished associations. Its generous emotions and high contemplations may still find occasion for exercise in the review of interesting incidents.”
Writing in 1838, Hennell was a Johnny-come-lately, and the theological drift had begun decades prior. In 1797, Evangelical William Wilberforce had written A Practical View of Christianity in an attempt to combat what he perceived as a growing doctrinal and moral decline. In retrospect, the patterns against which he had pushed were precursors to the predicament in which Spurgeon would find British Christianity upon arriving in London in December of 1853. “If we listen to their conversation, virtue is praised and vice is censured; piety is perhaps applauded and profaneness is condemned. So far all is well,” wrote Wilberforce. “[But] examine a little more closely, and he will find that, not to Christianity in particular, but at best to religion in general, perhaps to mere morality, their homage is intended to be paid.” This breed of nominal Christianity had so blossomed among the higher and upper middle-classes that it quickly became more or less the official religious orientation of the bourgeois.
Although not directly related to the aforementioned theological drift into ‘religious functionalism,’ the budding Victorian Self-Help culture was built atop a common foundation of post-Enlightenment individualism. In 1859, five years after Spurgeon took up the New Park Street pastorate, a man named Samuel Smiles published what was to become the seminal work in Self-Help philosophy, unsurprisingly titled Self-Help. The underlying message of the work is that every individual is responsible for his own lot in life. He develops this principle into a simple but consequential axiom: that the poor are poor ultimately due to a deficit in responsible decision-making skills on their part, and that overcoming their current dejection will be possible only when they take it upon themselves to learn the science of thrift and the art of constructive decision-making.
By all indications, Smiles had no intention of reinforcing the heavy-handed caste system of his day—after all, his work was aimed at enabling individuals from the bottom rung of the ladder to begin ascending it—but he did so nonetheless.
Life-changing though it was for many a Victorian plebian, Self-Help inadvertently pulled the wool over the eyes of the bulk of benevolent-minded Brits and prevented them from recognizing the inherently oppressive nature of the caste system in which Self-Help’s target audience was trapped. Nevertheless, Smiles was a man after Spurgeon’s own heart, and the latter was known to have referred to the former as “one of the ablest authors of our time.” It is important, then, to understand that the London of which Spurgeon was to become a permanent fixture was not only a place of profound spiritual chaos but also systemic oppression of the working class, which was ironically reinforced by the underlying principles upon which the groundwork of Victorian charity was laid.
It is hardly an overstatement to say that Spurgeon’s London was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. British society, best known for its primness and propriety, was implicated in an impressive assemblage of unambiguous human rights infringements. Even decades after jumping the slave ship, England was a hard place to be a human. D.N. Duke writes that
“Spurgeon’s contributions to Victorian social concern are often noted by his biographers and historians of Victorian Evangelical Christianity. In addition to numerous societies and missions sponsored by the tabernacle, he established a college to train low-income preachers, a book distribution society, an orphanage, and almshouses. He supported the temperance movement, Lord Shaftsbury’s schools for the poor, and the extension of the voting franchise and public education. He aided many fundraising efforts for noble causes and denounced slavery, war, and British imperialism.”
The manifold social ills present especially in highly populated urban districts made London fertile ground for the gospel to take root, if only church bodies could unite around a coherent vision of God’s redemptive purposes—a fact that did not escape the young pastor. What came to distinguish Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle from other socially conscious ministries of the time is the holism with which they confronted poverty and injustice. They sought not only to attend to individual cases of poverty (Spurgeon was, after all, largely on board with Samuel Smiles’ characterization of poverty as the product of personal vice), but also to speak prophetically into the contemporary milieu of systemic corruption, both overseas and domestic. In this way, they were a commendable synthesis of two generally competing ideological streams in Evangelical activist Christianity—hardly the behavior of an innocuous Victorian preacher.