On October 11, 1856, the London Illustrated Times ran an article on Pastor CH Spurgeon. At the time, he was 22 years of age, and, perhaps, not quite the household name he later became. About a year ago, I bid a few pounds on ebay for an image of CH Spurgeon (left) from the same newspaper. To my delight, the page contained the entire article. I am going to reproduce it for you here. Perhaps you will be suprised by it – possibly amazed – but I’m sure if you have read any of the major biographies such as Dallimore or Holden Pike – you will have noted the comments about what the press wrote about CHS – much of it was very unkind. It is instructive to read this article, and I will offer a few comments at the end – I am sure that you will have many of your own.
The Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon.
Mr Spurgeon was born in Kelvedon, in Essex, says “The Patriot;” but another informant says that Colchester was his birth-place. He came into the world on the 19th June, 1834; he is, therefore, rather over twenty-two years of age: – a young man to make such a noise in the religious world. His father, Mr John Spurgeon, was, and is now, for aught we know to the contrary, a clerk in the office of Mr. Mann, a merchant at Colchester, and preaches on the Sunday at the Independent Chapel at Tollesbury. His son Charles, the popular preacher, was educated at the School of Mr. Henry Lewis of Colchester; subsequently, he went to the Agricultural College at Maidstone for a year; afterwards, as a teacher, to a school at Newmarket; and from thence, as usher, to Mr Leedham of Cambridge. At school, he showed no remarkable signs of talent, and when he left, could not devote much time to study, as, in addition to his duties of usher, he very soon had preaching engagements. His first settlement as a dissenting minister was at Waterbeach, Cambridge, where he was very popular, and it was from this time that he was allured to New Park Street Baptist Chapel by the deacons and managers, who were in want of a popular man to fill their deserted pews. Every Sunday did they look over their “beggarly account of empty boxes”, and sigh at the remembrance of old times, until at length the bruit of this young man’s fame reached them. The style of his preaching was very different to the old sobrieties of Dr. Rippon and his successors, and, moreover, he was “o’er young” to undertake a “London charge;” but, after due consideration had, the invitation was sent, and the tyro “came, saw and conquered.” Indeed, it is now a question whether his success is not too great for the deacons and managers; for it is not unlikely that Mr Spurgeon may soon contemplate a higher flight, and aspire to some still larger place of worship, and leave the Park Street deacons in worse case than they were before.
Mr Spurgeon’s popularity is unprecedented; at all events, there has been nothing like it since the days of Wesley and Whitfield. Park Street Chapel cannot hold half the people that pant to hear him, and even Exeter Hall is too small. Indeed, it is reported on good authority that his friends mean to hire the Concert-room at the Surrey Gardens, and firmly believe that he will fill that. Nor is his popularity confined to London; in Scotland he was very much followed; and lately, we ourselves saw, on a weekday, in a remote agricultural district, long lines of people all converging to one point, and on inquiring of one of the party where they were going received for an answer “We’re a gooing to hear Master Spudgin, sir.”
This is a ticklish subject, for of all people we have met with in our career, the Spurgeonites are the most belligerent and fierce. They are as jealous for the reputation of their idol, as a Roman Catholic priest is for the authenticity of his “true Cross;” and only hint to one of them that you are not an enthusiastic admirer, and they “flare up” in a moment, as when a spark
“Lights on a heap of nitrous powder.”
Still we must venture – premising, by way of deprecation of their wrath, if we should not quite agree with his worshippers – that as we are not of his professed followers, so we are not his enemy – we belong to no religious faction. First, then, let it be remembered that ennui, as it is called in fashionable life, is to members of the religious world very distressing on a Sunday. During the week, most of them are actively engaged in business, time flies fast enough; but on the Sunday, dulness and wearisomeness reign. They may not read newspapers, or what are called secular books – no business must be attended to – even walking or riding for pleasure is considered to be of questionable propriety; and the places of worship to which they resort, some twice and some three times, are generally the most awfully dull places in the world.
It may be said, “Why do they not break through these customs? – read what they please? – walk and ride where they choose? – and go where they like, or stop at home when they are so minded?” But those who ask these questions little know the quiet tyranny that reigns in the religious world. What would the minister say if Stubbs were not regularly in his pew? What would the “deacons” say if he were known to “break the Sabbath” by reading “secular books,” or walking out as “worldly people” do? In short, what would Mrs Grundy say? Now, this being the case, it is easily seen that anyone who brings a little liveliness, novelty, or strangeness into this dull scene must be a God-send. And this Mr Spurgeon has done; and we are persuaded that this in the main is the cause of his popularity. Go to most of the “places of worship” and you will find that the dullness is intolerable. Execrable singing, wearisome long prayers, and sermons as soporific as opium; but in Park Street, if there is nothing more, there is at least liveliness, and, for the present, novelty.
We have been several times to Mr Spurgeon’s chapel, and for the life of us we can discover little more than this to account for the crowds that follow him. In the man himself, and in his preaching, there is really nothing remarkable, excepting his oddities. His doctrine is not new; on the contrary, it is nothing more than old Calvinism revived in its most uncompromising form. He is not an orator, scholar, nor man of genius; and he is the very worst reasoner we ever heard. But he is lively – says strange, odd, daring things, which keep the attention brisk, amuse the hearers, and give them something to talk about. Some have compared him to a great preacher of the last century, and say that he is a “second Whitfield;” but this is rubbish. Whitfield was a fervid orator, a man of genius, a scholar and a polished gentleman; but Mr Spurgeon is neither of these. This is, in our view, one great cause of his popularity; and this view is confirmed by observing who they are that form the staple of his congregations. Whitfield and Wesley gathered together thousands who never were accustomed to go to chapel or church – miners, sailors, craftsmen, and labourers of all sorts. But it is not so with Mr Spurgeon. His congregations are made up, not of those “outcasts” who “go nowhere” but of the middle-class regular chapel-goers, who, weared with the dulness of their own places of worship, come here for excitement. Outside of the “religious world”, Mr Spurgeon has been little heard of. Even the echo of his name has not been heard in the higher classes, and amongst the lower he is quite
as little known.
It is true that we hear much of his success, but we must take all that we hear cum grano salis at present. If he has made the drunkard sober, debauchees chaste, or rogues honest, then he has been successful; but if he has only increased the number of fierce and intolerant belligerants for a creed, they had better been as they were. “They’re worse for mending.” We have too many of them already.
WILL HIS POPULARITY LAST?
We more than doubt it. It stands on no firm basis. Thousands who go now to hear him only go through curiosity. Men are very much like sheep; one goes through a hedge, then another, and another; at last the stream gathers crescit cundo, and the whole flock rushes madly forward. This has been a good deal the case with Mr Spurgeon’s congregation, but the current will soon turn and leave him; and to those who have gone from a slightly different, if not better motive, it is hardly likely that he will retain them long. He must bid high if he does – offering them every Sunday a stronger dram than they had the last. Some short time ago we went to see the hippopotamus in the Regent’s Park, and there we moralised upon the vanity of popular favour. When that poor brute first came to the Gardens, thousands rushed to see him, and for the convenience of the crowd seats, rising one above another, were erected; but now all this is past and gone. The reason is – there really was nothing specially attractive in the poor brute. His neighbour the giraffe was infinitely more graceful – the elephant was far more clever, and in his own element the otter and seal were much more agile and interesting; but he was strange, odd-looking, and novel; and so crowds and crowds hurried to see him, and for a time he was simply the most popular animal in all London. But, of course, this novelty soon wore away, his appearance became as familiar as the street monkeys, and as he had no new tricks to offer, his popularity rapidly declined. Now, Mr Spurgeon is the hippopotamus of the religious world – there have been and are many preachers far superior to him in every respect, but he is at present strange, odd, something new.
HIS APPEARANCE, MANNERS, STYLE &c.
We had intended to give a description of Mr Spurgeon’s personal appearance, but there is no occasion, as the portrait from Cox’s photograph will do that better than we can by words. Suffice it to say, that there is nothing about his head than indicates intellectual power, but everything to justify the opinion that we have formed after hearing him preach several times and read some dozen of his sermons. In all his productions there is one decidedly and unmistakeable proof that the author is not a man of an enlarged and cultivated mind. The audacious presumption with which he dogmatises on the profoundest mysteries, rushing in “where angels fear to tread,” is quite decisive on that point. Every great man is reverent and modest in the presence of great mysteries; but Mr Spurgeon, on subjects that have perplexed and wearied the greatest thinkers of all time, never doubts, never hesistates, nor even condescends to reason.
“I am not here to argue,” we heard him say, “but to proclaim the truth,” that “truth” involving such questions as “fate, fore-knowledge, and free-will.” As if he should say, “I am Sir Oracle; when I ope my mouth, let no dog bark.”
Nor does he hestitate what to do with his opponents. He consigns them to perdition without mercy. “Arminianism,” the creed of Wesley, and a whole host of pious and learned men, “will sink back to its birth-place in the pit.” And in one of his sermons he draws a picture of a whole parish howling after a poor parson in hell because he had preached the efficacy of good works. “You advised me,” he makes one of the parishoners say “to do such and such good works. I went and did them, and I am damned”
Mr Spurgeon’s manner in the pulpit is not to be commended. His manner of praying is to our mind shocking. Most ministers when they pray, kneel down and cover their faces; but Mr Spurgeon stands up, stretches his hands out above his head, and fixing his eyes upon the ceiling, as if he saw someone up there to whom he was speaking, halloos at the top of his voice in the most irreverent and familiar manner. That this is all affectation we cannot doubt for a moment, for it is quite impossible to suppose that a man’s devotional feelings would impel him to assume this ridiculous attitude. Mr Spurgeon’s prayers are to us the most offensive part of the service. “Fantastic tricks” in speaking we can forgive – but “fantastic tricks before High Heaven” in prayer!! Of his manner when preaching there is little to be said; there is the usual amount of gesticulation – sometimes appropriate, and oftentimes not.
His sermons sometimes remind us of “Billy Dawson,” the noted Methodist Yorkshire farmer, and sometimes of William Huntingdon, the famous antinomian; but he is not equal to either of them in natural ability. The chief characteristic of his preaching, and that which alone makes it attractive, is his coarse, vulgar metaphors. A little while ago, in addressing certain imaginary persons, who affected to think that they could give but little light in the world, he told them “that God would stick them in a saveall, for he loved to burn up His small pieces of candle.” Sometimes he attempts the dramatic style, introducing upon the stage God, Jesus, Gabriel and himself. Now and then he says a good thing, and displays a touch of humour. For example, in a printed sermon, he says “There are some who find unneccessary and absurd fault with the things of this world, and call jewels ‘gaudy toys’ and gold ‘sordid dust’. I have often admired some of my friends when I have heard then talking about gold as ‘sordid dust,’ for I have wondered why they did not give it to the dustman the next time he came round. If they were to do that, I would not mind going round myself for once with the bell.”
But we must stop – we have said enough. There is one excuse for Mr Spurgeon: he is very young – only twenty-two. When he shall be a few years older, he will probably learn that “there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy,” and be less dogmatic and bigoted; and if we mistake not, will wish that much of his strange career and earlier utterances may be forgotten; especially if he shall be made to feel, as he will be, the fickleness of human applause.
Well, there you go. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Holden Pike quotes from this very news article in his biography of Spurgeon as summative of the type of criticism he received. Of course there were very much more favourable notices given, and many directly contradict this author (who is unknown) – particularly with regard to the young man’s oratory, and ‘genius’.
This article is notable for ‘what happened next’. Just over a week later, when the Surrey Gardens Music Hall was engaged for Spurgeon’s ministry as predicted, a tragic ‘prank’ was played when someone shouted ‘fire’, and seven were killed in the rush to escape. We have just passed the 150th anniversary of this sad event.
The next sermon delivered there was November 23rd, 1856, when Spurgeon, who had slowly recovered from great anguish after the tragedy, preached on Romans 5.6 – ‘But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’. It is a fantastic sermon, and gives the lie to the body of text above!
The author of the article claims to belong to ‘no religious faction’. I’d say he probably did – a rather large faction of Anglicans who attended church out of social custom to be entertained with the latest textual theories and developing liberalism – even modernism, one might say. In fact, there is a hint even of post modernism in what the author says – in objecting so strongly to Spurgeon’s remark “I am not here to argue … but to proclaim the truth”, he effectively challenges the existence of objective truth at all!
Amusing to note as an aside is his remark on Spurgeon’s head shape. I don’t know if phrenology was particularly fashionable at the time, but I believe it was (if Sherlock Holmes is anything to go by!). Apparently, the appearance of ones head could ‘indicate intellectual power’ !!
Also amusing is his effusive praise of Whit(e)field – his praise for the preaching of a man he had NEVER HEARD. No doubt had he lived in those days he would have joined the general condemnation for such outrageous and irreligious open air preaching!
Spurgeon did, of course, aspire to some larger place of worship – but he didn’t leave the New Park Street deacons behind – he took them with him! His autobiography records that they did try to keep a church going at New Park Street, but in due course it was sold and used commercially.
Another overriding theme in the article is the author’s inability to attribute to Spurgeon, or those around him, the pursuit of anything but personal fame and full church collection boxes. It surely says more about the heart of the author himself than about his subject. We also wonder what place this man has given to the Holy Spirit in what he has observed? No place whatsoever – because all fame and ‘success'; must be explained away by ‘natural’ phenomena. The author no doubt considered himself a ‘christian’ gentleman – but the signs of life are sadly lacking!
We also do wonder what ‘more’ there could possibly have been in ‘heaven and earth’ that could have expanded the view of Spurgeon as his life progressed – he already had a sure and certain view of this world, as given by God in his Word.
Perhaps the author had cause to change his mind in future years as the Lord blessed, and as people of ALL classes and conditions were converted in their thousands. But for such an insincere reporter, who spent the times of prayer at New Park Street staring at Spurgeon rather than bowing his own head before almighty God… we have to quote his own words:
“We more than doubt it.”