Spurgeon’s Witness and the Plight of Contemporary Evangelicalism: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 4)

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Cover page of early Sword and Trowel Magazine, published by the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

And we’re coming to a close. Charles Spurgeon is by no means a flawless witness. The advent of fringe sects such as the “5-point Spurgeonists” (See: Pulpit and Pen, etc.) have demonstrated the futility of orienting whole theological systems off of the work of any single theologian or Church figure. “Calvinism,” with its variegated pool of sources, is less-than-susceptible to this particular crack-in-the-asphalt, although no one theological system is without blemish. Nevertheless, it ought to have been exceedingly self-evident throughout this series that a sustained, immersive study of his ministry and the underlying theological propositions that drove it would be in our better interest. The fault-lines in his theology are not ambiguous. His ecclesiology was insufficiently robust. Although he managed to transcend the hyper-individualism that held Victorian Britain in its oppressive grip, he nevertheless allowed it to influence him away from a more satisfactorily plain reading of the new testament vision of the Church—the list goes on. But those fault lines, substantial as they are, do not diminish what he has to offer.

Although propositional theology has waned in popularity over the last half century, Spurgeon stands as a walking indictment against those who have sought to snuff it out of contemporary Evangelicalism. All of the charges leveled against it—that it breeds a cold, unfeeling demeanor in those who hold it, that it shuts down all opportunities for ecumenical activity, that it inclines believers away from social action by needlessly occupying them with intellectual scuffles, that it kills community between Christians of diverse stripes, and, among other things, that it fosters coercive measures to suppress theological dissenters—are found dead on arrival when applied to Spurgeon. He was vociferously opposed to the what he considered to be the peripheral flamboyances of Roman Catholicism but regarded them as brothers and sisters and unabashedly sought guidance from Catholic devotional writers.

He espoused a warm, emotive gospel proclamation that beckoned any and all to the rest of God. The finer points of theology that furnished his proclamation were not extraneous; they were the substance of his proclamation. His Evangelical Calvinism, his devotion to the supernatural authority of scripture, etc. were not baggage that came along with an otherwise nondenominational message of comforting vaguery. They were his message, and they were more tangibly love-wrought than anything drawn from the fashionable obscurantism emanating from the modern Evangelical establishment.

We can learn from Spurgeon that the challenges of the post-modern age are best met with a robust orthodoxy. After years of thinning out the distinguishing marks of the Christian religion in an effort to render our gospel proclamation more palatable to an increasingly post-Christian culture, it has ironically turned out that we need what Glen Stassen calls “a thicker Jesus.” We’ve come to hold the letter of Paul in suspicion, based on the assumption the he was part of some DaVinci Code-esque theory to depoliticize Jesus by turning Him into a Greek god—or something along those lines. Spurgeon’s testimony reminds us that an unrelenting faithfulness to Biblical authority will render us subversive. If Spurgeon read his Bible right, Paul was the force that cemented the subversive Jesus into the memory of the Church and defended His memory against the amnesiac tendencies of Judaizers and proto-Gnostic hecklers.

Likewise, we have plenty to learn about the importance of integrative theology. One unfortunate by-product of higher criticism’s growing prominence throughout all corners of the Church has been an obsessive attention-to-detail at the expensive of the bigger picture. The most troubling of the conclusions at which our 19th century German forefathers arrived can be pretty well traced back to F.C. Baur’s lack of imagination. Theological trends tend to ebb and flow according to the intellectual climate of the age, and the 19th century proved to be discouraging time for Orthodoxy, not because the foundations of the ancient faith had eroded, but because the men and women (mostly men) to whom we entrusted the keys to the hermeneutical kingdom had a keen eye for details but a hopeless deficiency in the sort of imaginative qualities required to interpret details well.

These controversies only arose at the tail end of Spurgeon’s life, and in any case he was in no condition to approach them earnestly. The stand that he took against higher critical methodology has not aged well, and those seeking to identify as contemporary Spurgeons, waging brave battle against the modern downgrade bear little resemblance to their hero. As a people who live in the middle of a peculiar standstill within the Evangelical world between differing strands of inerrantists, we would do well to emulate Spurgeon’s remarkable aptitude for integrating diverse sources into a coherent theological synthesis. By all accounts, the prince of preachers bore the greatest similarities to the puritan tradition. But we would be remiss to neglect the very real influence of Madame Guyon upon his thought. His disdain for the extravagancies of Roman Catholicism did not prevent him from appropriating that which was truthful in the scholarship and devotional literature of his would-be opponents.

Had he been in a more able state when the so-called Downgrade Controversy, he might have been able to prevent the mass apostasy that took place. Were Spurgeon to have put his imaginative prowess to use in sifting through the admittedly dry literature coming from the higher critical machine, he may well have come to the conclusion that the broad majority of conservative Evangelicals now hold: that the tools introduced by Wellhausen and friends are actually pretty useful so long as you can reason through the data you happen upon. In any case, he did not, and the heated propaganda churned out by both sides probably played a big part in preventing him from doing so. But with his penchant for integrating new and often stultifying information into a coherent ‘big picture’ in view, we are well equipped to confront even the more controversial edges of contemporary biblical scholarship and integrating what is truthful there without making a shipwreck of our faith.

Finally, we have plenty to learn from Spurgeon about the sheer depth of our dependence upon Christ as the inaugurator and completer of our ministry efforts. You could fill Noah’s Ark with all of the books that have been written over the last several decades about the various methodologies employed by Spurgeon and his compatriots at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. These are often helpful but can only tell so much of the story. When surveying Spurgeon’s own comments about his success in ministry, what emerges is a radical dependence upon the Spirit of the Christ with whom He communed to actualize the ministries for which He had commissioned him and his church family.

If a substantial amount of the work undertaken by Evangelical churches today feels empty, it is likely because although we have strategically built our church staffs with the Meyers-Briggs team development methods in mind, and crafted our programs specially around the trends we have noticed in our own communities, and paid close attention to Pew Research statistics and Barna studies to familiarize ourselves with the mind of our friendly neighborhood unchurched Mary(s) and Harry(s), we have carried out our best laid plans with the Spirit of Christ as an afterthought at best. The old saying, “is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” is as cheesy as it gets, but it’s also poignant.

Divine unction arises out of radical desperation for the Spirit of God to carry out the work of God and a willingness to become tools in his invisible hands. This desperation is visible in every line that Spurgeon wrote, and until we surrender ourselves, along with our resources and our status in contemporary western culture, we will see nothing like the revival that God was pleased to bring about in the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

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Communion and Social Justice, or, How the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Turn Our Faces Toward the Reformation of Society: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 3)

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Last Supper by James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894.

With a cursory understanding of the backdrop against which the ‘prince of preachers’ conducted his ministry in place, we can make real sense of him. In Spurgeon’s estimation, the established Church in England at the time could be generally characterized as lacking active communion with God – with the notable exception of the fairly small evangelical subsector therein. This was most clearly visible in what he considered to be the dry, mechanical way in which they went about celebrating the ordinance of Communion. He abhorred their practice of reciting pre-written prayers and carrying out elaborate rituals in tandem with the sharing of bread and wine. He once posed the rhetorical question, “can anyone see the slightest resemblance between the Master’s sitting down with the twelve, and the mass of the Roman community?” referring to the Catholic Mass, he appears to have held the same complaint against the ‘tractarians’ and nominalists in the Church of England.

Evangelical churches, as mentioned earlier, had gradually surrendered their identities as the movement lost cultural influence, leaving London in an awkward position. On the one hand, there was a Christless community of ‘whitewashed tombs’; on the other, a lukewarm community who possessed the gospel but were increasingly without unction. The struggles that Victorian Evangelicals were facing were not, in Spurgeon’s mind, because God was not in their midst. He was of the opinion that God had temporarily withdrawn His Spirit from London, and that He was preparing to stir up a revival unlike anything that had been previously seen. But He had no illusions that revival would come about as the result of innovative ministry methods or captivating preaching styles, although he eventually put both to use in service of the kingdom. Spurgeon’s vision for revival was centered on individuals experiencing radical spiritual awakening through communion with God.

This, for Spurgeon, was what Stanley Grenz calls an integrative motif. It is defined as “that concept which serves as the central organizational feature of the [theological] system, that theme around which the systematic theology is structured.” He explains that it is “the heart of the theological system [and] it focuses the issues discussed and illumines the formulations of our responses to these issues.” To name an example, although Martin Luther never produced a volume specially devoted to systematic theology, justification by faith can be clearly identified as the integrative motif in his framework. Likewise, the entire body of John Calvin’s work is oriented around the glory of God and is best understood when read with that motif in view. Friedrich Schleiermacher, to name one more, theologized around the integrative motif of human religious experience. Reading through Spurgeon’s voluminous writings, it becomes clear that experiencing ‘communion with Christ and His people’ was the heart of his theology. Everything that he said and did—his whole body of preaching, his public prayers, his social concern—was born out of that integrative motif.

His theology, then, was a breath of fresh air at a time when the bulk of British Christianity was inconsequential. Although he bought in, at least on the surface level, to the prevailing Self-Help individualism of his day, the heart of his theology was relational. The two aspects of his character proved to be mutually modifying, and the end product was a deep concern for the souls of individuals, for the purpose of seeing them share in the joy of communing, first and foremost with Christ Himself as regenerate persons, and then consequently with His people as persons grafted into the community in whom His presence dwells. His fondness for the ordinance of communion makes sense is this light: it serves as a concrete reminder (Spurgeon often referred to it more emphatically as a “forcible reminder”) of the most unknowable mysteries of the Christian faith—most notably, of the atonement.

Thus, for Surgeon the value of the Communion ordinance was not respectful adherence to the ancient wellspring of Christian tradition, something with which he had a complex and uneven relationship, but instead the impossibility of separating the symbols of the bread and wine from the reality of the pierced flesh and flowing blood of the once wounded and eternally present savior. Here what Peter J. Morden has dubbed “Spurgeon’s convertive piety” was at work, and the frequent, attentive observance of Communion was an apt tool in the life of the believer to further cement their self-understanding in the concrete imagery of the gospel. Its effects on the community that observes the ordinance together are equally dramatic. It is in the daily “feasting on the Lord” in the form of spiritual disciplines and surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit that individuals are “conformed to the image of Christ; enjoyed together at the “Lord’s table,” individuals who are growing in godliness actualize the realities that define them as a community.

“Feasting on the Lord” together is, for Spurgeon, the most tangible discipline whereby a collective church community can commune with Christ. The intimacy with which they commune with God is illustrated by the intrusive nature of the ordinance: the elements are taken into the body, and so the Christ whom they portray is invited for all time into the whole person of the recipient. Receiving the elements into our persons together knits us to one another as brothers and sisters united by our common identity as people indwelt by Christ. Our kinship is more than skin deep. This likewise illuminates the experiential nature of Spurgeon’s theology. It is not merely a common adherence to an external tradition, but the common experience of the crucified Christ who is testified to in the elements that shapes us as a community. Thus, what initially appears to be a typically Victorian individualism proves, in fact, to be a humble reverence to the reality of experience. Whereas common Church practice, both among the establishment churches that sometimes derived harmony coercively through an imposition of the sacred rites onto individual believers and nonconformist churches that often lost their sense of Eucharistic identity in their zeal to distance themselves from sacerdotalism, Spurgeon’s robust integrative motif produced a clearly Evangelical understanding of the ordinance that, while nearly identical in substance to the traditional Baptist memorialist position, was decidedly more alive.

The same motif that formed his Eucharistic orthodoxy gave shape to his praxy. Plenty has been written about the seemingly tireless work that he would carry out on a daily basis. He was once asked, “how is it that you do the work of two men in a day?” He was reported to have wryly smiled and responded, “Have you forgotten that there are two men?” When his writings are closely examined, it becomes clear that this was not merely a clever quip. It was a summary of his whole attitude toward ministry. He was speaking in individualistic terms here, as the situation demanded, but it is also illustrative of his understanding of the ministry of the local church as well.

It should be noted early on that Spurgeon had a comparatively weak ecclesiological stance. He was indeed a fairly paint-by-numbers particular Baptist in regard to his congregationalism, but he approached ministries (such as the ordinance of communion) that were generally understood to be offices reserved for the local church with a looseness that was largely unheard of in Baptist life. Therefore, it is with his characteristic looseness that he espoused a paradoxically robust theology of ministry in which the Church labors away in the world as witnesses to the mercy of God as co-laborers with Christ. Informed largely by his Fullerite Calvinism, he conceptualized the Christ with whom believers commune not as an “absentee savior” but as an active worker in and alongside the Church whom He created. Although the nature of Christ’s labor alongside the Church was functionally different, it would have been inconceivable to Spurgeon to imagine that He was not actively working in the world to prepare hearts to meet Him and to prepare the way for His return.

For Spurgeon, this inevitably included the reformation of society. Although he was not a political radical, he saw the necessity of seeking relief for the suffering of those crushed under the heel of contemporary society’s protracted power struggles. This included slaves, underpaid laborers, the uneducated poor, indigenous natives of lands imperialized by the West, and soldiers wielded as disposable weapons by feuding governments. He felt he could not commune with Christ faithfully if he did not seek to live out the will of Christ in his own life and make it a reality in the lives of the downtrodden. It was, then, faithfulness to the principles of the gospel that Christ came to actualize that motivated Spurgeon to shepherd the church bodies over whom he had influence into unprecedented social concern. Sharing in the work of Christ was a concrete embodiment of the blood bought communion with him that believers enjoyed.

This led, as was mentioned above, to a multitude of different outworkings. The most relevant of these is The Pastor’s College a seminary aimed at preparing young, poor ministers for a future of ministry after Spurgeon’s own vision. It was not to create an army of minions who would then crowd out the London Church scene to give him a unique cultural hegemony. Rather, it was to extend the scope of his vision past the immediate influence of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Although the ministries in which they had involved themselves were going exceptionally well, there was an obvious need for fellow churches to join in the work. The need was not only practical but theological. Communing with Christ was not simply the business of the people of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but the business of the whole Church. Therefore, Spurgeon sought to pave the way for future ministers to take up the mantel that his congregation had thus far carried on its own.

It was an obvious outworking of his theology that the people who communed with God must commune with one another in the process of communing with God. This meant quite plainly that he had a responsibility to bring the mission of Christ within reach for other Churches. Although there was plenty to be done for and with stagnant churches during his life, he found his primary role in the process to be the training of low-income pastors. He was noted to have suggested that “If God has a preference for one group of people over others, it is the poor whom he favors … and we are blessed to favor them as well.” One of the requirements of The Pastor’s College was to live with a working-class family from the Metropolitan Tabernacle to become acquainted with the conditions of life faced by working-people. It was of no use to anyone, Spurgeon thought, if the clergy was to be composed entirely of cultural elites whose sermons are aimed at furthering their own respectability and whose personal concerns are at odds with the radical inclusiveness of the gospel message brought to the Church by Christ.

As a result, Spurgeon’s disciples made up the majority of Baptist church-planters by a wide-margin during the second half of his lifetime—congregations with a driving compassion for the working-class and a robust adherence to the Calvinistic doctrines of grace. In the troubling absence of lively churches with whom to share in the discipline of communing with Christ in mutual gospel labor, he prepared leaders to plant a whole slew, and in doing so recast the direction of nonconformism for future generations of devout Brits. Likewise, and equally important, the multiplying activity of the Metropolitan Tabernacle went a long way in overcoming lostness in Victorian London. As they colabored with Jesus against the evils of false religion, irreligion, and social oppression, souls were redeemed at an alarming rate. Throughout the entire process, he was sure to center the spiritual development of the students around his own integrative motif, often illustrating their collective identity as blood-bought people by celebrating the ordinance of communion after Friday lectures.

And he prayed for them. It was his conviction that the labor which they had been called to carry out alongside the tireless Jesus was possible only through continued mutual prayer support. Charles no more believed that he could accomplish notable things for Jesus on His own strength than that he could cross the Atlantic Ocean on horseback. The same was true, he reasoned, for all ministers. Therefore he urged his students and congregants to “pray [for him] without ceasing],” that he might be an effective minister of the gospel in their city and in the world. One of the many “possibly apocryphal” Spurgeon stories that I mentioned in the first entry of this series involved someone visiting the Metropolitan Tabernacle on one of the rare nights in which there was not an organized activity going on, having scheduled an interview with the pastor. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly and personally given a tour by his interview subject. “What is the secret to your church’s success?” They asked. He smiled thoughtfully and said, “follow me,” before taking them into a sequestered room that was filled with people praying together for the church, for Spurgeon, for missions, etc. Charles looked at them earnestly and insisted, “what you are looking at is the life-blood of our Church.”

In another, more easily verifiable instance, a vacationing Spurgeon was asked about his ministry strategy by a local pastor from Mentone. After stewing on it for a few moments, he replied, “my people pray for me.” Communing with Christ entailed spending time with Him in prayer in the same way that you would spend time with another person. It was not for Spurgeon merely a tool whereby God could be made to act in the believer’s favor, nor should it consist in what he saw as monotonous prewritten mantras lifted up to the heavens for the sheer sake of tradition. He saw prayer in largely the same terms as his American contemporary, E.M. Bounds: personal prayer was the most relational of all spiritual disciplines, given that it consists from beginning to end in intentional time spent basking in the presence of the risen Christ and sitting at His feet. Although its primary function is not the sanctification of the believer, it is the inevitable product. One cannot sit at the feet of Jesus without being changed by what He has to say.

Likewise, one cannot be delighted by the treasures of knowing Christ intimately without experiencing a fundamental change in the underlying desires that drive their decisions, both moral and practical. Prayer was God’s chief means of sanctification, and per His divine scheme, sanctification was the product of a sustained and soul-sustaining friendship with Jesus.

The sanctifying properties of prayer work horizontally as well as vertically. It was not merely devotional prayer that sustained the prince of preachers, but intercession that had been lifted up on his behalf. In Spurgeon’s theological framework, God predestined not only events but the petitions that brought them about. He saw no contradiction between his determinism and his steadfast devotion to prayer. He could therefore comfortably teach that nothing happened for the kingdom apart from the prayers of the saints while simultaneously teaching that God’s sovereignty covered every aspect of existence, including salvation history. The conversion of a single sinner, for example, could be attributed to the ceaseless prayers of his wife and mother on his behalf, which they lifted up because God had willed the man to be saved. His theology presupposes that God has established an order in which He rarely carries out His own will unless He is asked. Therefore, He metes out understanding to different individuals in the Church so that they might petition Him to carry out His desires. “God predestines our prayers,” Spurgeon was known to say.

This played out vividly in his understanding of ministerial success. As he grew more experienced, he placed a steadily increasing emphasis upon congregation-wide prayer meetings. It became his conviction that his preaching, however important, was of less concrete value than the mutual prayers off the people in his congregation lifted up for one another. He would preach to them sometimes five days a week, but he wanted even more desperately for them to pray for one another (and for him). In this way, communing with Christ in prayer did much of the work of bringing His people into communing with one another. It is not a stretch to suggest that the tightly-knit community that formed around the shared communion with Christ in these congregational prayer meetings became a catalyst for the groundbreaking work that God entrusted to them throughout the nearly four decades of Spurgeon’s pastorate. Indulging together in communion with Christ through prayer ennobled them to follow through in communion with Christ in the mission field and on the streets of London. The resultant church was a prophetic force to be reckoned with in a Christless culture that had hitherto come to justify its idolatry by posturing itself as Christendom.

Spurgeon’s Adventures in Victorian London: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 2)

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William Howell Frith’s depiction of Paddington railway station in London.

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.

Spurgeon Remembered: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 1)

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Spurgeon preaching at the Surrey Music Hall circa 1858. From Spurgeon’s Sermons Fifth Series; Sheldon & Co. 1858. At Surrey Music Hall, Kennington.

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.

Spurgeon Remembered
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.