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Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography

Chapter 3

The Apprentice Preacher

1844—1853

PURGEON was destined to be a preacher, and he began early. Like many other boys, he held mimic services with his brothers and sisters in the Colchester home. He was often found on the hayrick or in the manger praying or reading aloud. One of the family remembered how frequently he would quote the verse—

Now will I tell to sinners round,
What a dear Saviour I have found.

"I'll point"—and here he would raise his index finger and point upward. (Evidently a favourite gesture, for one of his early photographs has his finger pointing to the skies.) Then he would finish the stanza—

I'll point to Thy redeeming blood
And say, "Behold the way to God."

    But earlier still, when he was but six years of age, he gave evidence of his vocation. His Aunt Ann tells the story. During his first visit to Stambourne he heard his grandfather lamenting time and again over the inconsistent life of one of his flock, and one day he suddenly declared his intention to kill old Roads, the man in question. In spite of the warning his grandfather gave him about the awful fate of murderers, he persisted in his resolve. "I'll not do anything bad," he declared, "but I'll kill him." Shortly afterwards he astonished them by asserting that he had done the deed. In answer to all questions he declared he had done no wrong but that he had been about the Lord's work, that he had killed old Roads, who would never trouble his grandfather any more.
    The mystery was solved by the appearance of old Roads himself, who shortly afterwards called at the manse, and told how he had been sitting in the public house, with his paper and mug of beer, when the boy entered and, pointing to him, said, "What doest thou here, Elijah, sitting with the ungodly, and you a member of the church, and breaking your pastor's heart? I'm ashamed of you. I wouldn't break my pastor's heart, I'm sure." The sermon in its brevity and simplicity and directness might also be put alongside that other which ten years afterward led the young preacher himself to surrender his life to Christ, as this one led old Roads. During the four years that followed, the old man lived an exemplary life. He could not read, but he knew that the words of life were in the Bible, and with pathetic love for the Book, he counted the very leaves of it.
    The greatest impulse the boy Spurgeon received in the direction of the pulpit came from Richard Knill, who visited his grandfather's house on missionary deputation when the boy, ten years of age, was also a guest.
    This Richard Knill was a man all aglow for Christ. The story of his decision to serve the Lord is worth recalling. When he told his mother of his desire to go to India, she flamed forth on him and declared that she would never consent, that he should have waited until she and his father were beneath the clods of the valley before thinking of such a thing. But she presently changed her mind, and not only consented but urged him to go, glad that she had an Isaac to put on the altar. On the day of his departure she took off her wedding ring and said, "This is the dearest thing I possess. It was given to me by your dear father, as a pledge of his love, on our wedding day. I have worn it more than forty years, and now, in the expectation that I shall never see you again in this world, I give it to you. Your father gave it to me as a pledge of his love, and in his presence I give it to you as a token of our united love to you."[1] Richard Knill was invalided home and afterward spent some years in St. Petersburg, subsequently settling in England. His portrait is in the vestry of Queen Street Congregational Chapel, Chester, of which he was the minister,[2] and beneath it he has written his message for all who come after him. "Brethren, the heathen are perishing. Shall we let them perish? God forbid." His mother's ring pledged him to Christ with undying ardour all his life. He died on January 2, 1857, and up to that time it was stated that no man ever had so many of his tracts circulated as he had. In England and America some fourteen millions of his tracts had been distributed and they were also translated into ten other languages.
    This was the man who, with an instinct that had its origin in his own walk with God, attached himself to the boy at Stambourne, asked him where he slept, so that he might waken him in the morning, called him at six o'clock the next day, and took him out to one of the yew-tree arbours in his grandfather's garden. There he told him of the love of Christ, and with arm round the boy's neck prayed for him. During the three days of his stay he sought every opportunity of winning his life for Christ, and then at morning prayer, in the presence of the whole family, he took the boy on his knee and spoke as an oracle of God. "This child will one day preach the Gospel," he said, "and he will preach it to great multitudes. I am persuaded that he will preach in the chapel of Rowland Hill." It was a singular utterance, difficult to explain, and it doubtless helped in part to bring about its own fulfilment. Having spoken, he gave the boy sixpence-that would help him to remember it-and made him promise to learn the hymn and to see that it was sung when he preached in Rowland Hill's Chapel—

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.

So when Spurgeon preached at Surrey Chapel, London, and also when he ministered at Wotton-under-Edge, where Rowland Hill had his summer residence, the hymn was sung, and the preacher, filled with emotion, told the story. "To me it was a very wonderful thing, and I no more understood at that time how it came to pass than I understand today why the Lord should be so gracious to me," is his mature comment on the sequence of incidents.
    In the autumn of 1849 he went as an articled pupil to the school of Mr. John Swindell, at Newmarket, Cambridgeshire. During the Christmas holidays the great spiritual crisis of his life came. He had been prepared for it, doubtless, by frequent conversations with Mary King, the cook of the Newmarket household, to whom he says that he was also indebted for much of his theology. "Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union with Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe that I learned more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays."
    The ministry they attended was somewhat barren. Once when he asked the old housekeeper why she went, she made the quaint reply that a hen scratching on a heap of rubbish does not get any corn, but she shows that she is looking for it, is using the means to get it, and is warmed by the exercise. Mr. Spurgeon had a great regard for old Mary, and in her later years made her an allowance in memory of old times.
    After his enlightenment he returned to Newmarket to take up his duties and studies. He called upon the minister of the church, but was not received. He called four successive days, but was unable to gain an interview. His temper may be gauged by the fact that he then wrote to him saying that he would go down to the church meeting and propose himself for membership. This seems to have brought things to a climax, for he was admitted to fellowship on April 4, 1850.
    From the earliest days of his Christian life he dwelt in the spiritual tropics. There were no half shades with him, no mists to make the grey light of dawn or gloaming. It was either day or night; a man was either for God or against Him. As for himself, he was on God's side with all the power of his being all the time.
    On the first day of February, 1850 (remember that the snowy Sunday at Colchester was on January 6) he dedicated himself anew to God. "O Great and Unsearchable God, who knowest my heart and triest my ways, with humble dependence upon the support of Thy Holy Spirit, I yield myself to Thee. As Thy reasonable sacrifice, I return to Thee Thine own. I would be forever unreservedly, perpetually Thine. While I am on earth I would serve Thee, and may I enjoy Thee and praise Thee for ever. Amen."
    In a diary which he gave to his wife soon after their marriage, opened only after his death, there are entries from April 6 to June 20 of this year. On April 22 he wrote, "Went this evening to the prayer meeting; engaged in prayer. Why should I fear to speak of my only Friend? I shall not be timid another time." And on May 5 there is the short sentence: "Five of us engaged in prayer." He was evidently feeling his feet.
    He had not yet sat down at the Lord's Table, for though he had never heard of Baptists until he was fourteen, he had been convinced, partly by the Church of England catechism and partly by study of the New Testament, that believers in Christ should be baptised in His name after they believed, and logically enough he desired baptism before his first communion. So he cast about for a Baptist minister, and failed to find one nearer than Isleham, where Mr. W. W. Cantlow, formerly a missionary in Jamaica, ministered. Like an obedient son he wrote to his parents asking their consent, which was readily given, not without a warning from his father that he must not trust in his baptism, and a playful reminder from his mother that though she had often prayed that her son might be a Christian, she had never asked that he should be a Baptist. Just as playfully he retorted that the Lord had dealt with her in His usual bounty, and had given her exceeding abundantly above what she had asked.
    It was on his mother's birthday, May 3, 1850, that he "put on Christ," when he was within a few weeks of being sixteen years of age. Up early in the morning he spent two hours in prayer and dedication, then walked eight miles to Isleham Ferry, on the river Lark, a beautiful stream, dividing Suffolk from Cambridgeshire, which is dear to local anglers. It was Friday, and there was not such a crowd of people as assembled when there was a baptism on a Sunday. Still, quite a respectable number were present. Never having seen a baptism, the young confessor was somewhat nervous. Two women were also to be baptised—Diana Wilkinson and Eunice Fuller, who held it a great honour ever afterwards that they were baptised the same day as Spurgeon. Here is his own description of the scene.
    The wind blew down the river with a cutting blast as my turn came to wade into the flood; but after I had walked a few steps, and noted the people on the ferryboat, and in boats, and on either shore, I felt as if heaven and earth and hell might all gaze upon me, for I was not ashamed, then and there, to own myself a follower of the Lamb. My timidity was washed away; it floated down the river into the sea, and must have been devoured by the fishes, for I have never felt anything of the kind since. Baptism also loosed my tongue, and from that day it has never been quiet.

    The evening was spent in happy conversation in the Isleham vestry. There was a prayer meeting, at which the newly baptised disciple prayed. "And people wondered and wept for joy as they listened to the lad." He was back at Newmarket in the morning, and on the following Sunday he sat down at the Lord's Table and also became a Sunday school teacher.
    Years after, he wrote:
    I did not fulfil the outward ordinance to join a party and to become a Baptist, but to be a Christian after the apostolic fashion; for they, when they believed, were baptised. It is now questioned whether John Bunyan was baptised, but the same question can never be raised concerning me. I, who scarcely belong to any sect, am nevertheless by no means willing to have it doubted in time to come whether or not I followed the conviction of my heart.

    His earliest service for the church was the distribution of tracts. On Saturday afternoons he visited seventy people, not only handing in the tracts to the houses, but "endeavouring to draw their attention to spiritual realities." The Saturday after his baptism saw him at this work, which he had taken up some weeks earlier.
    On Sunday afternoon he was in the Sunday school. Once before he had attempted to take a class, during a visit to Stambourne, but was not much encouraged. "I felt myself a failure, and I fancied that some around me were not brilliant successes." But now that he was rejoicing in Christ, and spoke of things he had himself tasted, he was able to hold the attention of his boys. When they began to fidget, he took it as a signal that he must give them an illustration. One boy at times said, "This is very dull, teacher. Can't you pitch us a yarn?" and the apprentice preacher learned the lesson which he never afterward forgot, that truth in a tale is often remembered when the sermon is forgotten.
    But he was in deadly earnest all the time. On May 8 he, who was afterwards supposed to be the harlequin of the pulpit, wrote in his diary, "Teachers' business meeting. Too much joking and levity to agree with my notions of what a Sunday school teacher should be."
    At a subsequent teachers' meeting it was suggested that the teachers should alternate with the superintendent in giving the closing address of the school. When Spurgeon's turn came, he was so successful that the superintendent asked him to speak every Sunday, but he demurred. The matter was compromised by Spurgeon taking the superintendent's days, and on these afternoons the older people began to come too, so that the school almost became like a church service.
    His witness for Christ broke the bounds of the school. In season and out of season he was ready to bear testimony. Newmarket, with its racing atmosphere, was not a very congenial place for Christian service, but at any rate he could refrain from going to the race course. Not content with this, he was ready to rebuke others when he thought they needed rebuke. Seeing a professing Christian about to enter a dancing booth at the village fair, he went up to him and, perhaps remembering his earnest preaching exploit at Stambourne, said, "What doest thou there, Elijah? Art thou going in there?" But this time the appeal was fruitless.
    From his diary it is evident that the Apostle Paul was his hero. On May 9 of this early year he writes, "Make me to be an eminent servant of Thine, and to be blessed with power to serve Thee like Thy great servant Paul." On June 7, "Could I be like Paul, how honoured I should be!"
    People had not then begun to talk about the subconscious mind, but there is no doubt that great thoughts were even then stirring in his soul. Already he had the strong impression that he was to be a preacher, and he has told us that sometimes he even dreamed that his sermons would be printed. But his fondest dreams came nowhere near the future reality.
    That ardent affection for the Lord Jesus which has been deemed extravagant in his afterlife, was already evident, and it was as zeal to him as to Samuel Rutherford, of whom he wrote: "Let it be known that Spurgeon counted Rutherford's Letters as the nearest thing to inspiration in all human literature." His own diary contains such sentences as these: "Beloved, Thine is enduring beauty." "Life of my soul, forgive me when I am so blind as to look on an earthly object, and forget Thy divine beauties." "Desire of my heart, keep me nearer Thy bosom."
    Before we close the diary, two other expressions may be noted—a confession, "Pride is yet my darling sin"; a desire, "Lord, give me much of Berean nobility."
    His first speech in public, outside the Sunday school, was at a missionary meeting on Monday, September 10, 1849. It was given in the school where he was a pupil. Professor J. D. Everett, of Queen's College, Belfast, his fellow student, recalls both the circumstance and the date, and says that "he spoke fluently." In the same place he gave another missionary speech on June 14 of the following year. Here it may not be amiss to say that in the beginning of his ministry in London he seriously faced the question whether he was not called to preach the Gospel in China, and all through his life his sympathies were always strong with those who had gone overseas with the message of life.
    In those early days young Spurgeon was accustomed to repeat, to Mr. Everett and other intimates, long passages from the open-air orations at Colchester Fair of Mr. Davids, the Congregational minister there. He could also repeat many passages from Grace Abounding. He was not only a good sermon taster, but a generous critic of pulpit utterances.
    In August, 1850 he moved to Cambridge, to a school established by Mr. Leeding, who had been usher at the Colchester School when young Spurgeon was there, and here he remained for three, formative years as assistant without a salary, learning and teaching, and, as we shall see, preaching too. With gratitude he recalled that in this home at 9, Union Road, each morning from eight o'clock, for half an hour, the members of the household returned to their rooms for prayer and meditation.
    Toward the end of his time in Cambridge it became necessary for him to earn some more money, though he never sought money for its own sake. In November, 1852 he wrote to his mother, "I had rather be poor in God's service than rich in my own." And there is no doubt that he was poor, for earlier in the same year he calculated that at midsummer he might have £15 in hand, to provide himself with books and other necessities.
    So at the end of 1853 the following advertisement appeared in a Cambridge newspaper: "No. 60, Park Street, Cambridge. Mr. C. H. Spurgeon begs to inform his numerous friends that after Christmas he intends taking six or seven young gentlemen as day pupils. He will endeavour to the utmost to impart a good commercial education. The ordinary routine will include Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry and Mensuration, Grammar and Composition, Ancient and Modern History, Geography, Natural History, Astronomy, Scripture and Drawing, Latin and the elements of Greek and French if required. Terms, £5 per annum." Surely a very modest announcement. But that school was never started; the beginning of his great career prevented it.
    When he first came to Cambridge he joined the St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church, where Robert Hall, in his day England's greatest preacher, had for some time ministered; where Robert Robinson, the author of the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," had also been pastor. An amusing incident, revealing his sense of the equality of the saints and of the aristocracy of grace, is best told in his own language:
    When I joined the Baptist Church at Cambridge, one of the most respectable churches that can be found in the world, one of the most generous, one of the most intelligent—this was a great many years ago, when I was young—nobody spoke to me. On the Lord's Day I sat at the Communion table in a certain pew. There was one gentleman in it, and when the service was over, I said to him, "I hope you are quite well, sir?" He said, "You have the advantage of me." I answered, "I don't think I have, for you and I are brothers." "I don't quite know what you mean," said he. "Well," I replied, "when I took the bread and wine just now, in token of our being one in Christ, I meant it. Did not you?" We were by that time in the street; he put both his hands on my shoulders—I was about sixteen years old then—and he said, "Oh, sweet simplicity!" Then he added, "You are quite right, my dear brother, you are quite right. Come in to tea with me. I am afraid I should not have spoken to you if you had not first addressed me." I went to tea with him that evening; and when I left, he asked me to go again the next Lord's Day, so I went, and that Sabbath Day he said to me, "You will come here every Sunday evening, won't you?" So old Mr. Watts and young Mr. Spurgeon became fast friends.

    Soon he began in Cambridge, as in Newmarket, to address the Sunday school, and he read an essay on Sunday school work at the Teachers' Institute of the town, but he had never yet delivered a set discourse to a congregation met for worship.
    There was at that time a Mr. James Vinter in Cambridge, who was president of the Preachers' Association, a society that still continues its good work for the villages. "Bishop Vinter," the name by which he was generally known, called one Saturday morning on young Spurgeon, just as the school was dismissed, and asked him "to go over to Teversham the next evening, for a young man was to preach there who was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of company." Evidently he knew his man. A definite request to preach would have met with a refusal, but the leader of the band of preachers knew that this young recruit had it in him, and only needed to get started. The ruse was perhaps pardonable, anyhow it was successful.
    So Spurgeon, accompanied by another young man somewhat older than himself, started off in the early evening, walked through Barnwell, along the Newmarket Road, and at length the younger man expressed the hope that his companion would realise the presence of God when he preached. Aghast, the older man declared that he had never preached, could not preach, would not preach, and unless Spurgeon preached there would be no sermon. Both were perplexed, but his companion suggested that if he would give one of his Sunday school addresses it would do excellently, and they both continued on their way to Teversham. And the Lord Himself drew near and went with them, as with the two to Emmaus. Spurgeon reproached himself for his hesitancy: "Surely I can tell a few poor cottagers of the sweetness and love of Jesus, since I feel them in my own soul."
    Spurgeon's text on that notable evening was "Unto you that believe he is precious," and under the low-pitched roof of the thatched cottage he spoke the praises of his Lord. When he had finished, delighted with the fact that he had not broken down (so low was his estimate of his own powers), he took up the hymn-book, when an aged voice cried out, "Bless your dear heart, how old are you?" Somewhat on his dignity, the preacher said, "You must wait until the service is over before making any such inquiries. Let us now sing." So they sang, and then there was a free friendly talk, during which the question "How old are you?" was again asked. Spurgeon gave the quaint and almost prophetic reply, "I am under sixty." (He died at fifty-seven.) "Yes, and under sixteen," said the old lady, to whom the preacher replied, "Never mind my age, think of the Lord Jesus Christ and His preciousness." Then he promised to come again if the gentleman in Cambridge thought him fit to come!
    His fame soon spread round the countryside, and he was invited to preach both on Sundays and weekdays. He describes his methods at this time. In the early morning he was up praying and reading the Bible, then school duties until about five in the evening, when he set off, almost daily, to tell the villages round about Cambridge what he had learned during the day. He found that the things he had thought of during the day were wrought into the fibre of his being when he proclaimed them to others. He frankly confesses that he said many odd things and made many blunders, but he had friendly audiences and there were no reporters.
    Toward the end of October, 1851, he promised to supply the pulpit of the church at Waterbeach, six miles from Cambridge, the village where Rowland Hill is supposed to have preached his first sermon. The chapel was a primitive structure with a thatched roof. The promise was but for a few Sundays, but he remained with the people for more than two years. At first they contributed very little toward his expenses, but at length they gave him £45 year. As he had to pay twelve shillings a week for the two rooms he occupied, his income was scanty; and had they not shared their produce with him, he could not have continued with them. But the Lord whom he served supplied his needs, sometimes through unexpected channels.
    There was a miser in the village, of whom somebody said to the pastor, "He has never been known to give anything to anybody." To which Spurgeon replied that he knew better, for one Sunday afternoon the man had given him three half crowns, and he had bought a new hat with the money. "Well," rejoined the friend, "I am quite sure he never forgave himself such extravagance, and that he must have wanted his three half crowns back again." Instead of that, the old man came the next Sunday and asked his minister to pray for him that he might be saved from covetousness, for the Lord had told him to give half a sovereign, and as he had kept back half a crown, he could not rest at night for thinking of it.
    Different from this was an old gentleman familiarly known as Father Sewell. A meeting on behalf of home missions was being held, and he was only able to get to it at the very end. The pastor said, "Our brother who has just come in will, I am sure, close the meeting by offering prayer for God's blessing on the proceedings of the evening." He stood up, but instead of praying began to feel in his pockets. "I am afraid that my brother did not understand me," Mr. Spurgeon said. "Friend Sewell, I did not ask you to give, but to pray." To which the bluff old saint replied, "Aye! Aye! but I could not pray till I had given. It would be hypocrisy to ask a blessing on that which I did not think worth giving to."
    Both pastor and people lived in a world that even then was out of the main current of English life—a rural world that preserved much of the simplicity and religious sincerity of the Puritan era, fearing God and reverencing His Word. The qualities of the people were well matched by the single-hearted devotion and clear-cut theology of the young preacher, who had the Lord always before him, and walked with God day by day.
    Waterbeach was notorious for its drunkenness and profanity when Spurgeon went to it as God's messenger. "In a short time the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing. I can say with joy and happiness that almost from one end of the village to the other, at the hour of eventide, one might have heard the voice of song coming from every rooftree, and echoing from almost every heart." Which reminds us of the change wrought by Richard Baxter at Kidderminster.
    A labourer's wife was Spurgeon's first convert, and he prized that soul more than all the multitude that came after. Early on the Monday morning he drove down to her cottage to see his first spiritual child. "If anybody had said to me, 'Somebody has left you twenty thousand pounds,' I should not have given a snap of my fingers for it compared with the joy which I felt when I was told that God had saved a soul through my ministry. I felt like a boy who had earned his first guinea, or like a diver who had been down to the depth of the sea, and brought up a rare pearl."
    He was ever seeking such pearls. One night at Waterbeach he shared a room with a young man who jumped into bed without praying, and Spurgeon, seizing the opportunity, asked him how it would be if, going to sleep prayerless, he never wakened again. It ended on them both rising, and after two hours the young man was converted as they knelt together. On another occasion, in the same room, Spurgeon woke his companion to tell him that he had had such a vision of the judgement of sinners that he dare not sleep, and the next day he preached such a sermon on the fate of the lost that the faces of the people blanched and their knees trembled. For scores of years afterwards that terrible sermon was recalled by those who had heard it.
    Of the deacons, the young pastor spoke with much esteem. One of them, a Mr. King, instead of rebuking him openly for some unguarded statement, just stuck a pin into his Bible at Titus 2:8: "Sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you."
    As an example of his daring utterances, one day he declared that a change of nature was absolutely necessary, for if a thief went to heaven without it, he would be a thief still, and would go round the place picking the angels' pockets. During the week the mayor of Cambridge took him to task, and told him that the angels have no pockets. Quite gravely Mr. Spurgeon said he had not known that, but he was glad to be assured of the fact by a gentleman who did know, and that he would put the thing right on the first opportunity. On the following Monday he walked into Mr. Brimley's shop and said, "I set that matter right yesterday, sir."
    "What matter?" he inquired.
    "Why, about the angels' pockets."
    "What did you say?" the elder man asked in despairing tones.
    "Oh, sir, I just told the people that I was sorry I had made a mistake, but that the Mayor of Cambridge had assured me that the angels had no pockets, so I would say that if a thief got among the angels, without having his nature changed, he would try to steal the feathers out of their wings."
    Upon which his critic, who had several times found fault with him, said, "Then I'll never try to set you right again"—which was exactly what young Spurgeon wanted him to say.
    Such an incident lends point to the remark of Mr. Sutton of Cottenham, who said that Spurgeon was "the sauciest dog that ever barked in a pulpit." He had invited the popular preacher over to his village, and the people were arriving in all sorts of conveyances, when he was taken aback to find in his vestry one so young, nor did he conceal his disappointment. The old minister sat in the pulpit in case the boy should break down. But the preacher was equal to the occasion. He read the chapter in Proverbs where it is written, "The hoary head is a crown of glory," and then stopped and said, "I doubt it, for this very morning I met a man with a hoary head, yet he had not learnt common civility to his fellowmen." Proceeding with the reading, he finished the verse, "if it be found in the way of righteousness." "Ah!" he said, "that's another thing. A hoary head would then be a crown of glory, and so would a red head, or a head of any colour." The reading finished, he preached, and as he came down from the pulpit, the old minister slapped him on the back, said he was never better pleased with a sermon in all his life, and then told him he was a saucy dog.
    At Waterbeach, the afternoon service followed quickly after the morning service, with but a small interval, and one Sunday after dinner, which came between, Spurgeon was quite unable to recollect even the subject of the sermon he had prepared for the second service. "Oh, never mind," said the farmer, "you will be sure to have a good word for us." Just at that moment a blazing log fell out of the fire. "There," said his host, "there's a sermon for you. Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?" And on that text Spurgeon preached, and the sermon had converting power.
    Two sets of books, with floral frontispieces, containing the outlines of his earliest sermons, have been preserved, containing the "firebrand" discourse among the rest. Some idea of the extent of the service he rendered to the country may be gathered from the fact that before his call to London he had preached 670 sermons.
    Of these early days his brother James says:
    When I drove my brother about the country to preach, I thought then, as I have thought ever since, what an extraordinary preacher he was. What wonderful unction and power I remember in some of those early speeches! The effect upon the people listening to him I have never known exceeded in after years. He seemed to have leaped full-grown into the pulpit. The breadth and brilliance of those early sermons, and the power that God's Holy Spirit evidently gave to him, made them perfectly marvellous. When he went to Waterbeach his letters came home, and were read as family documents, discussed, prayed over and wondered at. We were not surprised, however, for we all believed that it was in him.[3]

    On one occasion, the fame of the Waterbeach pastor having spread, he was invited to Isleham. The deacons hoped for such crowds that they borrowed the largest chapel in the neighbourhood, but when the day came the congregation in the morning numbered exactly seven persons. Nothing daunted, he preached one of his best sermons, with the result that in the evening there was not standing room in the place.
    It was during this period that, for the jubilee services at Waterbeach on June 26, 1853, he composed one of his finest hymns. It is a remarkable production for a youth of nineteen.

When once I mourned a load of sin,
When conscience felt a wound within,
When all my works were thrown away,
When on my knees I knelt to pray,
Then, blissful hour, remembered well
I learnt Thy love, Immanuel!

When storms of sorrow toss my soul,
When waves of care around me roll,
When comforts sink, when joys shall flee,
When hopeless gulfs shall gape for me,
One word the tempest's rage shall quell,
That word, Thy name, Immanuel.

When for the truth I suffer shame,
When foes pour scandal on Thy name,
When cruel taunts and jeers abound,
When "bulls of Bashan" gird me round,
Secure within my tower I'll dwell,
That tower, Thy grace, Immanuel.

When hell, enraged, lifts up her roar,
When Satan stops my path before,
When fiends rejoice and wait my end,
When legion'd hosts their arrows send,
Fear not, my soul, but hurl at hell
Thy battle-cry, Immanuel.

When down the hill of life I go,
When o'er my feet death's waters flow,
When in the deep'ning flood I sink,
When friends stand weeping on the brink,
I'll mingle with my last farewell
Thy lovely name, Immanuel.

When tears are banished from mine eyes,
When fairer worlds than these are nigh,
When heaven shall fill my ravished sight,
When I shall bathe in sweet delight,
One joy all joys shall far excel,
To see Thy face, Immanuel.


    The question of going to a theological college for further study occurred to him again and again. He was inclined toward such a course, but did not wish to take it at the expense of other people, and besides, he says (writing to his father), "I am now very well off, I think as well off as any one of my age, and I am sure quite as happy. Now shall I throw myself out, and trust to Providence as to whether I shall ever get another place as soon as I leave college?" At which, in view of the future that awaited him, we can afford to smile.
    But at length he had some definite thought of entering Stepney College, now Regent's Park College, and when Dr. Angus, the principal, visited Cambridge on February 1, 1852, to preach at St. Andrew's Street Chapel, he expressed a desire to see the young preacher. It may be noted here that Joseph Angus for two years had been pastor of the church at New Park Street, London, to which Spurgeon was later to be called; that for some time afterward he was Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, and in later years was on the committee which issued the revision of the Scriptures in 1881.
    An appointment was made for Dr. Angus to meet Mr. Spurgeon in the house of Mr. Macmillan, the publisher. Punctually the young man called, and was shown into the drawing room, where he waited for two hours, feeling too much impressed, as he says, by his own insignificance and the greatness of the tutor from London to venture to ring the bell and make inquiries as to the unreasonably long delay. At length he ventured to ring, and was informed that Dr. Angus had waited a considerable time for him in another room, and had at length been compelled to go to London by train. The stupid girl who had put him in the drawing room had forgotten to tell anyone in the house of the young man's arrival, and so it came to pass that the two men, anxious to see each other, were in the same house at the same time and missed each other.
    Of course, Spurgeon was much disappointed, but that afternoon, on his way to a village appointment, he was walking over Mid-summer Common to the little wooden bridge that used to be on the road to Chesterton, when, in the centre of the common, the word of the Lord came to him. A loud voice seemed distinctly to say, "Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not." And then and there he renounced his thought of a collegiate course.
    Dr. Angus made a mistake, to which as a college official he was, of course, liable, when he wrote two days later to Mr. Watts, "I should regret for your friend to settle without thorough preparation. He may be useful in either case, but his usefulness will be much greater, it will fill at all events a wider sphere, with preparation than without it." Which, of course, is all true, but the writer was quite oblivious of the fact that Spurgeon was already serving his apprenticeship and learning his business in practical ways.
    But he had set his face like a flint, never afterwards to seek great things for himself. Bishop Ken, in the two books he most often used, wrote, "Et tu quaeris tibi grandia? Noli quaerere." But the words were written on Spurgeon's heart. He had no need to offer the beautiful old Moravian litany, "From the unhappy desire of becoming great, preserve us, gracious Lord and God." However, greatness came, though he did not seek it.


NOTES:

  1. Richard Knill's Biography.
  2. An e-mail from Gervase Charmley, Upton Baptist Church, Chester, informs , "This information has since been rendered incorrect. In fact, there is nothing at all in the vestry of Queen Street Congregational Church, Chester, anymore. This is because, to the shame of the city, that venerable edifice was demolished, and all that remains is the facade of the church, built into the back of a Tesco supermarket. Richard Knill's portrait [was] probably removed, with the church membership, to Vicar's Cross. The church is now a part of the notoriously Liberal URC—the nine people who founded it would be apalled, as they seceded from Matthew Henry's Chapel over Unitarianism. But . . . Chester nonconformity is far from dead."
  3. G. H. Pike, James Archer Spurgeon, p. 25.

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