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Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography

Chapter 14

A Bundle of Opinions

HERE HAVE BEEN so many and diverse opinions expressed about Mr. Spurgeon and his work that it seems desirable that some of them should have permanent place in the record of his life. They will form a sort of composite picture of the man that may perhaps be nearer the reality than any description or estimate issuing from one pen. This chapter will therefore consist of extracts selected with some discrimination from material that has not been used in previous chapters.

    Among these names as lustrous as the brightest, and yet shining with a radiance all its own, gleams that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the greatest of modern Puritan preachers, who approached nearer to Bunyan than any other in the quality of his imagination, and to Wesley in the thoroughness of his practical endeavours, who rivalled Hooker in the mastery of Saxon speech, and Henry Ward Beecher in his poetic temperament and Shakespearean acquaintance with the varying moods of the human microcosm.[1]
    The voice was that of Chrysostom, the ardour was that of Wesley, the unction was that of Savonarola, the doctrine was that of Bunyan, the wit was that of Thomas Adams, the originality was that of Christmas Evans, the fervour was that of John Howe, the boldness was that of Calvin, the simplicity was that of Whitefield, the pathos was that of Toplady. Yes, it was the composite character of Spurgeon's preaching which really accounted for its infinite charm. Herein he differed from every other preacher, and herein is to be found the reason of the almost amusing perplexity of innumerable critics. Again and again he used to say, with a gleam in his eyes, that American hearers had accosted him in his vestry with refreshing candour, assuring him that they really wondered what it could be that made him so famous, as they had many more remarkable preachers than himself. They might as well have wondered why a kaleidoscope elicits delight, with its endless varieties of beautiful forms flung out by the simplest materials.[2]
    Though he was not equal to Liddon for subtlety of thought and refinement of expression, or to Beecher for philosophic presentation of Bible truth, or to Parker for striking and suggestive sayings, or to Maclaren for deep and connected exposition of Scripture, yet he towered above them all, and occupied a unique place as a herald of the Gospel, a preacher to the common people. Men have discussed the secret of his power, and have given different explanations of it, but all have been agreed about the fact of power.
    To hear him preach, especially in his own tabernacle, was to feel his marvellous power, even though it was difficult to understand or explain it. There was the perfect ease of manner, the voice of such remarkable clearness, compass, flexibility and volume; the directness of the address, the tremendous force of conviction that throbbed in each sentence, the purpose that from the beginning to the end of the service was kept well in view, the pure, homely, Saxon style and apt illustration, the earnest and pathetic appeal. And withal there was a strong magnetic force which riveted the attention of his audience and kept them spellbound. "We are never great," says Schiller, "but when we play," and listening to the orator in the tabernacle, carried away on the full flowing tide of his own thought and emotion, speaking so easily, simply, naturally and effectively, we have found in him the truest greatness.[3]
    In the intensity and purity of his inner life Spurgeon had more in common with old-fashioned saints of the type of John Woolman and George Müller than with the Laodicean type of religion which is prevalent in the churches of today. Mr. Spurgeon was a humorist and an orator. The saint pure and simple is not always a genial person. Readers of the lives of Woolman and Müller may have their hearts couched to finer issues, but inasmuch as their mental outlook is narrow, and their prevailing temperament sombre and serious, they have little or no influence over people given to humorous and innocent hilarity.[4]
    He has been, not unjustly, compared to the friar preachers of the Middle Ages, and, of course, the parallel has been drawn between him on the one hand and Wesley and Whitefield on the other. He was like any medieval mission preacher: he accepted the system in which he found himself and upon its basis preached a repentance of heart. On the other hand, he resembles the Wesleys, and still more Whitefield, in the style of his preaching, in the quality and character of his theology, and in the personal effect of his preaching. He, too, had a personal following, as had the Wesleys and Whitefield. He knew that definiteness and sincerity are the qualities of a great preacher. Thus well-educated men could be moved by the reality of his preaching as well as charmed with its literary merits. A greater mistake cannot be made than that which thinks or speaks of Mr. Spurgeon as an uneducated man. He was the master of an English style which many a scholar might envy, and which was admirably fitted for his purposes. This style could only have been acquired by great pains and by the constant study of the best literary models, which it recalls. Mr. Spurgeon's knowledge of the Bible was, of course, thorough; he knew it in its subject matter, and he knew it in its old-fashioned English dress, and with that he was content.[5]
    The truth is that instead of limiting himself to commonplace illustrations Spurgeon turned round his gaze on nature, on society at large, and gathered from each and all whatever he saw available for the illustration of the subject he had before him. He cared little for authority, or the formulas of creeds and articles, and instead of confining himself to the language of the schools, and of previous divines and theologians, he would ransack the stores of modern literature, profane as well as sacred, not objecting to a phrase or a sentiment because it came from Shakespeare or Scott, Dr. Johnson or Robert Burns.[6]
    He could not help talking sense, and the sense of a master of strong English often assumes a more or less comic form. You see precisely the same thing in John Ploughman's Talk, where many of his strings of sentences, in their crisp and energetic form, rouse just the sense of unexpectedness and enlightening incongruity which is the foundation of all true humour.
    Mr. Spurgeon knew his audience, and spent his life in trying to warm respectability into virtue, and acquiescence in Christianity into energetic obedience to its commands; and if that is not good work, there is none. Whether he succeeded or not, is for a higher knowledge than ours to decide; but he turned a vast chapel into a sort of college for making good ministers, and made of a huge middle-class congregation, drawn together mainly by delight in his preaching, an effective centre of all good work. That looks, at all events, like Christian success.[7]

    For directness and felicity of homely illustrations he was Cobden's sole rival. His discourses were full of shrewd sayings—pithy Saxon utterances such as Franklin loved. Their style was, however, exquisitely simple, and everything was put with a touch of pathos, a homely humour, which gave even to his platitudes the semblance of vivid and vigorous originality.[8]
    His intellectual qualities were of the supremest kind. I have met many great men, but never one so swift in perception, so rapid in seizing on the prime element in every cause, so prompt in discussion. To listen to his talk on books, one would think that he had done nothing but read in the library all his life, and to mark his publications, would fancy that he had done nothing but write. His heart had twelve gates that were not shut at all by day. There were few such men of business. He had resource, ingenuity, and judgement that gave him infinite self-reliance. He worked swiftly, while such was his humour, his fertile mind, his ready thought, his affluent speech, that no speaker had ever equalled him in our generation-perhaps few in any generation, in power of swaying masses of his fellowmen.[9]

    There is a passage in Carlyle's article on Burns in The Edinburgh Review which might have been written of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: "To every poet, preacher, or orator, we might say: Be true, be sincere if you would be believed. Let a man but speak with genuine earnestness of the thoughts, the emotions the actual condition of his own heart, and other men, so strangely are we all knit together by sympathy, must and will give heed to him. In culture, in extent of view, we may stand above the preacher or below him; but in either case, his words, if earnest and faithful, will awaken an echo within us; for in spite of all casual varieties in outward or inward rank, as face answers to face, so does the heart of man to man."[10]
    He was utterly free from cant. He hated it and denounced it, and no trace of it was found in his own language. He was what we call racy. There was a fine, honest brusqueness about him. He never feared the face of man. In vituperation in its best sense he had no rival. His irony was not a keen rapier, but a terrible bludgeon, with which he dealt blows that never needed repetition. He introduced a note of new realism into the pulpit. He spoke out of the depths of himself, and followed the traditions of no man's eloquence. If he soared into the heights of poetic imagination, it was by accident; it was a natural flight; it was too spontaneous to be despised.[11]
    Mr. Spurgeon displayed his innate strength of character while he was still young; and we think of him as old, not because of his years, but rather because of the marvellous opulence of his activities, and the irresistible energy with which he seized the sceptre of pulpit pre-eminence, and the indisputable ability with which he held it to the close of his career. In short, it is a chief element in the problem of the prophet-preacher's unannounced but indisputable fame, that he took a foremost place among the leaders of the religious life of the world in his dawning manhood; took it easily and with full assurance of conviction, and kept it with unbroken steadfastness for more than thirty-five years out of his fifty-seven.
    He substituted naturalness for a false and stilted dignity, passion for precision, plain, homely Saxon for highly latinized English, humour and mother wit for apathy and sleepiness, glow and life for machinery and death. It is difficult to say what rank coming generations will assign to Mr. Spurgeon among the world's preachers; but it is certain that his work as a leader of our religious life introduced a new era, and filled it with seeds of energy that will be reproductive forever.[12]
    There never was a man more spontaneous in all he did, and less ambitious. He studied day and night, and filled his unerring memory with pious thoughts and suggestive histories, but it was never as men read for examinations, or even as men investigate for research and discovery; it was solely with the object of winning souls to Christ. Whatever could be done for this end, with might and main he would do. Whatever could be spoken to reach the intricacies of the human heart, that he longed to speak. He was a consummate dramatist, and might have earned a reputation either as an actor or a novelist, had he chosen, but his heart was in one sacred direction and, like St. Paul, he emphatically knew nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He was the finest possible elocutionist, and yet he never formally studied elocution. He was the most consummate mimic, and yet had never trained himself artistically. Constant devotion to one aim and end drew out all his faculties to their most definite expression, so that he was throughout the orator born, and not in the least item artificially moulded. That, however, which infused vitality into his speaking and relieved it from an otherwise inevitable monotony when always addressed to one topic was a native mother wit. Spurgeon was essentially a humorist. This lent buoyancy to his spirits, brightness to his imagination, and perpetual freshness to his discourses. He was an often unconscious but always close observer of men and morals. The kaleidoscope of humanity invariably yielded to his inspection its most charming colours.[13]
    Very solid and even commanding qualities were requisite in Mr. Spurgeon's youth to gain the suffrages of the vast tract of the middle classes which formed his constituency-a mass which was in its way a fastidious one. Eccentricity, if carried far enough, was always effective, but then it required a considerable amount of moral courage for its practice, and moral courage implies a good deal more than mere eccentricity. It has seldom been the chosen mission of the reformer, or the revivalist, or in general of the awakener of souls to preach to the bourgeoisie. The class is by no means so easily moved as the miner and peasant; it seems trenched in an armour of respectability, which, for that matter, appears to put it outside the need for collective conversion. It will remain among Mr. Spurgeon's titles to honour that he reached the most difficult class by legitimate and honourable means.[14]
    To come into contact with Mr. Spurgeon was to feel in his personality a potent charm which can scarcely be described. It was instinctively realised that the man was richer, nobler than his words and works. To spend a day with him was to observe a wonderful play of faculty. Now there is an outburst of tenderness and sympathy which reveals the wealth of a gentle, loving heart; anon there are flashes of wit and humour which light up the topic of conversation; then there is some telling epigram, or racy anecdote, or kindly sarcasm; and again some scathing denunciation descends upon that which he regards as evil. And all is so natural and unconstrained as to suggest vast reserves within; as yet untouched, and that the nuggets thus brought to the surface are only a faint indication of the untold wealth of the mine.[15]
    Charles Spurgeon passed through the greatest peril that can beset a man's character, and he came out of it not only unscathed but with an ever-increasing reputation. A preacher who attains unbounded popularity at twenty is exposed to temptations which few can successfully withstand. He was for a year or two the sensation of the town. The cleverest satirical writers of the period made him the butt of their almost constant attacks. Exaggerated praise on the one hand, and ignorant and ill-tempered vituperation on the other, would have effectually spoiled any but a man of genuine sincerity. But fame was by no means Mr. Spurgeon's only snare. From an early period in his career he has been trusted with the dispensing of enormous sums of money. Others, also, have been similarly trusted, have doubtless been equally honest, but it has happened to few to escape, as he has done, even the breath of suspicion.[16]
    Taking all things into account, Mr. Spurgeon seems to be the greatest preacher of the century—above Chalmers, Robertson, Newman, Liddon. He was learned in certain departments of theology that lent themselves to spiritual preaching, and he had an inexhaustible store of noble words which waited upon him like nimble servers. He was as characteristic an Englishman as our generation has seen and possibly, after Mr. Gladstone, the ablest.[17]
    Mr. Spurgeon has been to a large extent no unfair representative of English life and thought, capable of putting before men in words an adequate expression of their half-conscious thought. To condemn Mr. Spurgeon is thus to pass sentence on no small pan of his countrymen.[18]
    Nobody ever heard Mr. Spurgeon preach without remembering something that he had said.
    What is more, there is not one in the whole of that great mass of human beings (in the tabernacle) who does not feel that Mr. Spurgeon's discourse is absolutely addressed to him as much as if it were given to him alone.[19]
    A young man after hearing Spurgeon wrote to his mother, "They say there were six thousand present in the tabernacle, but to me it was as though I were alone, and he was speaking to me."
    The Church of England owes him a deep debt of gratitude, and if he would stoop to the office would profit more largely by making him Bishop of Southwark and St. Giles, and having an exchange between St. Martin's Church and the tabernacle.[20] It might be said of his style what Macaulay said of Bunyan's: "The vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people." Yet no writer has said more exactly what he meant to say. For magnificence, for pathos, for vehement exhortation, for subtle disquisition, for every purpose, the poet, the orator, the divine, this homely dialect, the dialect of the plain workingman, was perfectly sufficient.[21]
    Spurgeon is not to be classed with types like Erasmus or Fénélon or Leighton but with men like Knox and Luther, and Cromwell and Baxter. He was a man of infinite capacity, with a sense of ready wit, and felt it more seemly that he should even make his congregation smile than allow them to slumber. God, death, judgement, and the life to come were intense realities with him.[22]
    He was as far above Liddon as Liddon was above Farrar.[23]
    I confess that when I had the privilege of a little talk with Mr. Spurgeon I have looked at him, and listened to him, and said to myself, "What is there in this man that has made him the most popular preacher that ever spoke the English tongue?" I have always believed that the chief secret of his attractiveness was the fact that, in every sermon, no matter what the text or the occasion, he explained the way of salvation in simple terms. There are thousands of people everywhere who, beneath their superficial indifference or apparent opposition, long in their hearts to know what they must do to be saved.
    Once when I happened to be in Mr. Spurgeon's study, he showed me a book which he had just received. It was a Russian translation of a select number of his sermons, published with the imprimatur of the Archimandrite of Moscow for the use of the Greek Church. If the Archbishop of Canterbury would follow the example of the exalted Russian dignitary, it would prove a great blessing to many of his parochial clergy. An acquaintance of mine, crossing the Atlantic, met a Jesuit Father from South America, and that priest told him that he regularly read every sermon of Mr. Spurgeon's that he could lay his hands on, and that he owed more to Mr. Spurgeon than to any other living man. The day of judgement alone will reveal the extent to which millions of all faiths in all lands have been converted and edified by Mr. Spurgeon's sermons, and all because he was not too clever and too learned to explain the way to Christ intelligibly.[24]
    As we have said, he was positive from the very nature of his work. Once when he was sailing past the coast of Ayrshire, the land of Burns, and someone remarked, "Surely He who gathers up the fragments that nothing be lost, will find something worth saving, something good in poor Burns"; he replied quickly, "Oh, that is no use to me." Doubtless he meant that to his six thousand he must sharply draw the line—black or white, no tints—he must say, "You are saved or lost, forever saved, forever lost."[25]
    Charles Haddon Spurgeon is not one of a class, but an individual chosen for the accomplishment of a special work; and mentally, morally, and physically he is in every way adapted to his mission. His seeming defects, in the eye of some, are special excellences. He is not to be judged by the petty rules that poor mortals have derived from the creeping experience of the past. Nothing were easier than to prove that he is often wild and erratic, and transgresses the canons of the schools. He is above the schools. He is a law to himself, and wholly unamenable to the tribunals of criticism. He simply exerts the powers, peculiar and wonderful, with which God has endowed him. He reads, he expounds, he prays, he preaches, as nobody else ever did, or probably ever will do. He is an original and a rebel in everything. But his insurgency notwithstanding, he is the impersonation of the profoundest loyalty to a higher law. Comets are not less amenable to law than suns. Through his disobedience he achieves his triumphs and rules his millions.[26]
    England's greatest contribution to the spread of the Gospel in the nineteenth century was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Through him God wrought signs and wonders, adding another chapter to the Acts of the Apostles. There is no class or type in which Spurgeon can be included. He stands alone, a new species among the varieties of ministers, a sun that outshines the stars in splendour.
    No great preacher retains his supremacy except by becoming universal. Spurgeon, the sturdy Protestant Baptist, was a true Catholic. No modern preacher has touched and held so large and varied a constituency. I recognise that the surest way to the dethronement of kings in the realm of thought is to claim for them despotic sovereignty. Each teacher elected to permanent influence must die to live. The local and the sectional fall away The dross is taken away that the gold may go into the currency of the kingdom.
    In 1854, The Baptist Magazine, at the end of its pages, recorded that C. H. Spurgeon had removed from Waterbeach to New Park Street, that the chapel was filled and several candidates awaited baptism. This was told in a brief paragraph. The cautious editor made no comment. He did not know he was chronicling the most noteworthy event in the history of British Baptists, and the advent of a preacher without a compeer in the story of the Christian pulpit.
    The poor pedants of the pulpit who made merry over young Spurgeon's homely Saxon speech did not observe that almost all the words he used came from the Authorised Version of the English Bible, which, as Mark Rutherford declares, "is sufficient for nearly everything, including science, that a human being can know or feel."[27]
    Mr. Spurgeon reckoned as the highest compliment ever paid to him the words of an open enemy who said: "Here is a man who has not moved an inch forward in all his ministry, and at the dose of the nineteenth century is teaching the theology of the first century, and in Newington Butts is proclaiming the doctrine of Nazareth and Jerusalem current eighteen hundred years ago."[28]


    Dr. J. H. Jowett, at the welcome meeting of the present pastor of the tabernacle, Rev. H. Tydeman Chilvers, declared that Spurgeon's greatness had four qualities: The tremendous Gospel he preached, which was not only that man could be saved but that he could be saved to the uttermost. The fact that he was so joyous—he always brought a song-bird into his sermon. Ruskin had declared that the first sign of renaissance of art was the introduction of a bird into a certain picture. Then there was his human touch, and finally his humour. "As far as I can read Spurgeon, and I am always reading him, whenever he brought in humour, it was not a drawing room lamp, lighting up a single room; it was always a street lamp, to show people the way home."


NOTES:

  1. George C. Lorimer, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, pp. 11-12.
  2. Christian Commonwealth, Feb. 4, 1892.
  3. Christian World, Feb. 4, 1892.
  4. Edinburgh Evening News, Feb. 1, 1892.
  5. Church Times, Feb. 5, 1892.
  6. Morning Post, Feb. 1, 1892.
  7. Spectator, Feb. 6, 1892.
  8. Black and White, Feb. 6, 1892.
  9. Dr. Richard Glover of Bristol.
  10. Daily Telegraph.
  11. Rev. W J Dawson in The Young Man.
  12. Dr. John Clifford in The Review of the Churches.
  13. The Rock, Feb. 5, 1892.
  14. The Globe.
  15. Christian World, Feb. 4, 1892.
  16. Morning Advertiser, Feb. 11, 1892.
  17. Dr. John Watson.
  18. The Times, Feb. 1, 1892.
  19. Daily Telegraph, Dec. 24, 1880.
  20. Vanity Fair, Dec. 10, 1870.
  21. Resolution of the Baptist Union Council, Feb. 16, 1892.
  22. Bishop Boyd Carpenter in Ripon Cathedral, Feb. 14, 1892.
  23. British Weekly, Feb. 4, 1892.
  24. Rev. Hugh Price Hughes in The Methodist Times, Feb. 4, 1892.
  25. Rev. J. H. Shakespeare in The East Anglian Daily News, Feb. 10, 1892.
  26. Dr. Campbell in 1861
  27. Dr. J. C. Carlile at the Berlin Congress of Baptist Churches.
  28. Holden Pike, Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. V, p.108.

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