Blog Entry

Spurgeon's Evangelical Activism

By Timothy Gatewood Mar 7, 2019

“Christian people are never so happy as when they are busy for Jesus. When you do most for Christ you shall feel most of His love in your hearts.”[1]

 

            According to historian David Bebbington, “activism” continues to be a defining characteristic of Modern Evangelicalism. Citing Jonathan Edwards, Bebbington explained, “Persons, after their own conversion, have commonly expressed an exceeding great desire for the conversion of others.”[2] Historically, this longing for conversions has compelled men and women on to Christian service; to venture out into the world with a passion marked by a post-redemption rise of activity. The early Methodist preachers served as fitting examples as “a typical one attended class and band meetings, visited the sick and preached five or six times a week.”[3] These men rode “a circuit of 300 miles every six weeks, visiting some sixty societies,” and they “frequently managed no more than eight hours a sleep a week.”[4] This was not unusual as, according to Bebbington, “A working week of between 90 and 100 hours was expected of men in the nineteenth-century Wesleyan ministry.”[5]

 

            This activity, however, did not arise from a desire to fill one’s schedule to the brink or a veiled attempt to earn personal salvation, but a passion to fulfill biblical commands and preach the gospel. This corporate vision led R.W. Dale to describe an evangelical saint as “a man who is a zealous Sunday-school teacher, holds mission services among the poor, and attends innumerable committee meetings.”[6] Indeed, Dale went so far as to say, “‘Work’ has taken its place side by side with prayer.”[7] In essence, to be Evangelical required full dedication to one’s Lord as demonstrated through personal action.

 

            One of the chief evangelical leaders to ever incarnate this activist mentality was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. From the moment of his conversion Spurgeon’s life was defined by an unyielding service to Christ. As his wife Susannah once wrote, “Surely, there never was a busier life than his; not an atom more of sacred service could have been crowded into it.”[8] For Spurgeon, faith and deed were so connected that he could proclaim, “A believing man becomes an active man.”[9] A lazy believer was simply an oxymoron. Fueled by such conviction, Spurgeon dedicated each moment of his schedule to the work of his Master by preaching, writing, serving, and evangelizing without pause. A typical week could include twelve sermons, hundreds of miles traveled, dozens of written letters, hours of editorial work, an afternoon of college lectures, or late-night prayer meetings. In fact, Susannah believed that Spurgeon accomplished more during his vacation than most men did while working full-time!

 

            This prodigious work ethic led to a notable change in London’s skyline. According to Mike Nicholls, fifty-three of the sixty-two London Baptist churches established between 1865 and 1876 could be attributed to the work of the Pastor’s College which Spurgeon founded and presided over as president.[10] Moreover, Spurgeon created sixty-six parachurch ministries to care for London’s social ills including orphanages, shelters for victims of domestic abuse, and ministries to care for London’s police force. Evangelical activism, however, was more than a social program. It was a transformative force that created a physical difference on the city in which it sparked.

 

            A cornucopia of case studies for Spurgeon’s transformative activism can be found within the parachurch ministries he established. The Stockwell Orphanage, for example, was born out of prayer and a sense of duty. During a prayer meeting in August of 1866, Spurgeon called his church to action by stating, “Dear friends, we are a huge church, and should be doing more for the Lord in this great city.”[11] In light of this call, Spurgeon penned an article entitled “The Holy War of the Present Hour” within The Sword and the Trowel in which he wrote, “A great effort should be made to multiply our day schools, and to render them distinctly religious by teaching the gospel in them.”[12] Providentially, Spurgeon published this article around the same time Anne Hillyard sought to care for the “training and education of a few orphan boys.”[13] Soon, the two began a partnership founded on activism. Remarkably, Hillyard did not attend the Metropolitan Tabernacle and only knew of Spurgeon through reputation, but she saw in him a full-fledged commitment to the betterment of London. Seeing Spurgeon’s heart for the children promoted Hillyard to donate £20,000 to the formation of the Stockwell Orphanage.[14]  Little did they know that this commitment to demonstrate pure and undefiled religion would flourish to help over 37,000 children and still exists, albeit under the name of Spurgeons Children Charity, to this day.[15]

 

              Hillyard and Spurgeon provide a fitting example of two distinct ecclesiological camps crossing the aisle in the cause of evangelical activism. Spurgeon, a prominent Baptist, and Hillyard, the widow of a Church of England clergyman, found much to agree on in their service to Christ in spite of theological differences. Spurgeon recognized that there were individual evangelicals within different denominations and was willing to work alongside them for the sake of the gospel and the betterment of the community. This was quite common as, according to Kathleen Heasman, as many as three-quarters of all charitable organizations in the second half of the nineteenth century in England were founded or led by evangelicals from different ecclesiological camps.[16] The ecclesiological background of both the leaders of the orphanage and the children admitted into its care reflects such catholicity. The president of the orphanage would be one Mr. Charlesworth, a paedo-baptist, and the children admitted would represent Church of England families, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and more.  This would suggest that Spurgeon was merely one exemplary soldier amidst an evangelical garrison dedicated to Christian service.

 

            It should be noted that Spurgeon’s social concern, much like all aspects of Spurgeon’s worldview, was Christocentric. To obey Christ is to know Him more, which gave Spurgeon all the motivation he needed. In fact, Spurgeon believed that activism should be defined according to Christ’s example. In a sermon entitled The Blind Man’s Eyes Opened: Or, Practical Christianity, Spurgeon called Christ the “chief worker, the example to all workers.”[17] Peter Morden reached a similar conclusion in his analysis, noting that, “Spurgeon regarded active Christian work as a form of communion with Christ. . . Overall, the desire was ‘to spend and be spent’ in the service of Christ.”[18] Indeed, the person of Jesus, and a longing to know him with greater intimacy, was the crux of Spurgeon’s work.

 

            Yet, even in spite of his exhausting schedule and impressive social impact, Spurgeon was never satisfied with his efforts for Christ. When his poor health limited his work, Spurgeon would attempt to console himself by acknowledging the exertion with which he served as a younger man. Even then, Spurgeon would conclude, “I always felt that I could never do enough for Him who had loved me and given Himself for me.”[19] Since Spurgeon’s activity hinged on a passion for the commands of Scripture and love for Christ, he could never do enough to express his gratitude and love for Jesus. This passion led him to write, “When I come to render up my account, He might say, ‘Well done;’ but I should not feel it was so.”[20] Humanly speaking, Spurgeon would rather say, “I have not done that which was even my bare duty to do, much less have I done all I would to show the love I owe.”[21] This sentiment did not belittle the value of Spurgeon’s service, but rather exalted the value of Christ’s sacrifice. Since the fountain of Christ’s love was unceasing and overflowing, so should Spurgeon’s service follow suit.

 


Timothy Gatewood is a Residency PhD student in systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also studies in the Pastoral Residency at Emmaus, KC, and serves as a Research Assistant at The Spurgeon Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1]C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C.H. Spurgeon. Vols. 7-63 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), MTP 17:623.

[2] Cited in D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2005), 29. Originally found in Jonathan Edwards, “A Narrative of Surprising Conversions,” Select Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 2nd ed. (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 40.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] R.W. Dale, The Evangelical Revival and Other Sermons: With an Address on the Work of the Christian Ministry in a Period of Theological Decay and Transition (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1880), 35-36.

[7] Ibid., 36.      

[8] C.H. Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography. Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife, and Private Secretary. 4 Vols. (London: Passmore and

Alabaster, 1897-1900), Autobiography 4:89.

[9] MTP 26:282.

[10] M.K. Nicholls, C.H. Spurgeon: The Pastor Evangelist (Didcot: Baptist Historical Society, 1992), 98.

[11] Autobiography 3:168.

[12] C.H. Spurgeon, ed., “The Preacher’s Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining It,” in The Sword and the Trowel; A Record of Combat with Sin & Labour for the Lord. 37 Vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1865-1902), ST August 1866:343.

[13] Autobiography 3:169.

[14]  Ibid., 167

[15] For more information regarding the history and current state of Spurgeon’s Children Charity visit https://www.spurgeons.org/.

[16] Kathleen Heasman, Evangelicals in Action: An Appraisal of Their Social Work (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), 13-14.

[17] MTP 29:675.

[18] Peter Morden, “The Spirituality of C.H. Spurgeon: III: The Outworking of Communion: Active Exertion,” in Baptistic Theologies 4.1 (2012): 77-78. Morden’s thorough research was a rich resource during the writing of this article.

[19] Autobiography 2:81.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.