Baptists these days are once again debating the Bible’s teaching on women preachers. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In Charles Spurgeon’s day, he saw the growing popularity of women preachers, particularly among the Salvation Army and Quakers. Such a practice was largely unheard of among Baptists. But there was one notable exception: his sister, Eliza. Even as she grew in popularity as a preacher, we see in Spurgeon’s teaching and letters that he held fast to historic biblical convictions.
Eliza Jackson, “the Queen of Preachers”
Eliza Rebecca was the second child of John and Eliza Spurgeon, younger only to her big brother Charles. She would go on to marry a Baptist minister, Rev. W. Jackson of Waltham Abbey. It’s unclear when she begins to preach, but by mid-1870, we begin to find reports on Eliza’s preaching.
One newspaper gives this account of her preaching at Ridgmount Baptist Chapel on October 14, 1874: “On Sunday last, two sermons were preached at the Baptist Chapel in support of the ministry, by Mrs. W. Jackson, sister to the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon. In the morning the chapel was crowded to excess, many being unable to obtain admission.” Eliza’s preaching at Ridgmount received significant attention and may have been her first public preaching occasion. Later that week, Eliza preached at a Tuesday night service in Wellington-street Chapel to help raise funds for the Luton College Hospital. In 1876, she preached again, this time at the 147th-anniversary celebration of Paradise Row Chapel. On this occasion, her husband preached in the morning service and “Mrs. Jackson, sister of the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, at the evening service.” Such accounts continue into the 1880s and 90s, though they seem to receive less attention as the years go on.
It’s clear from these accounts that Eliza was not being ordained as a pastor, but these were occasional preaching opportunities, mostly for fundraising events or special celebrations. It’s evident that part of her appeal was her ability to draw a crowd. A big part of her attraction was the novelty of a female preacher. Victorians loved to hear sermons and, as one paper comments, “The presence of a female in the pulpit on Sunday evening will no doubt succeed in attracting a large congregation.” But just as appealing, if not more, was her connection to her famous brother. Like her brother, Eliza clearly had speaking gifts. One newspaper gives this comparison: “Mrs. W. Jackson is very much like her rev. brother in face, voice, and talent. The following brief analysis of the services conducted by her will give but a brief idea of her Spurgeonic talents for preaching.” For these special services in Baptist churches, Eliza was a way to bring a connection to the most famous Baptist preacher of their day. One paper concludes, “If the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon is the prince of preachers among men, Mrs. Jackson, his sister, is the queen of preachers among women. The services will long be remembered in the village of Ridgmount.”
Spurgeon’s Teaching on Women Preachers
How did Spurgeon feel about all this? He never spoke publicly against Eliza or his brother-in-law. In fact, from his correspondence with Jackson, it’s clear that they maintained a good relationship throughout their lives. At the same time, Spurgeon made clear his position on women preachers. For example, preaching in 1885 on Matthew 8:14-15 and the example of Peter’s mother-in-law, Spurgeon declares,
But notice that what this good woman did was very appropriate. Peter’s wife’s mother did not get out of bed and go down the street and deliver an address to an assembled multitude. Women are best when they are quiet. I share the apostle Paul’s feelings when he bade women be silent in the assembly. Yet there is work for holy women, and we read of Peter’s wife’s mother that she arose and ministered to Christ. She did what she could and what she should. She arose and ministered to him. Some people can do nothing that they are allowed to do, but waste their energies in lamenting that they are not called on to do other people’s work. Blessed are they who do what they should do. It is better to be a good housewife, or nurse, or domestic servant, than to be a powerless preacher or a graceless talker.
Throughout his ministry, Spurgeon exemplified this balance: On the one hand, upholding Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2 about the complementary roles of men and women in the church; on the other, promoting the countless ways women are called to serve.
But his sister’s preaching likely put Spurgeon in an awkward position. His celebrity was being used by a family member to promote something he believed to be unbiblical. In public, he restrained himself from commenting on Eliza. But in private, this seems to have been a topic of lively conversation.
Spurgeon’s Letter to His Father
In a letter dated September 23, 1876, Spurgeon wrote to his father, letting him know that he was still planning on preaching for him in an upcoming service, but he was battling “a very bad cold & headache” that made his arrival “a little dubious.” Then, Spurgeon writes,
What an advantage it would be to have a wife to preach for me!! I fear you are envious of Mr. Jackson. Perhaps if I don’t come, Mother will fill my place & then you will no longer be averse to women preaching. Why should not the pretty dears preach? Paul forbids it, but then Paul did not live in these enlightened times. I think the darlings deserve a testimonial & I will subscribe to it if it takes the form of a pair of leather breeches. I do not believe that your wife will ever come up to Mr. Jackson’s in that respect – so dismiss all envy & give your wife two warm kisses for me.
Three observations stand out from this letter.
First, in his characteristic wit, it seems that Spurgeon does not see the issue of women preaching as a first-order gospel issue but as a second-order issue. Being a Baptist and his father being a Congregationalist, they had learned to get along despite differences in second-order issues. Hence, his tone is more humorous rather than serious. His suggestion of being “envious of Mr. Jackson” and that Mother should preach likely brought a chuckle from his father.
Second, Spurgeon seems to echo the arguments he heard in his day supporting women preachers. First, there was the sentimental argument: “Why should not the pretty dears preach?… I think the darlings deserve a testimonial.” In an age of growing concern for equality and liberality, many argued that it would be unfair not to allow women to preach. This concern was likely connected to the second argument of progress: “Paul forbids it, but then Paul did not live in these enlightened times.” This was the tactic of the Modernists, whom Spurgeon would battle in the Downgrade Controversy. They applied this same hermeneutic of progress to gospel doctrines, veering away from historic orthodoxy. Of course, Spurgeon, here, is speaking tongue in cheek. From his teaching elsewhere, we know that he rejected both sentimentality and chronological snobbery as sufficient to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.
Third, Spurgeon did not see women preachers as part of the Baptist tradition. His comment, “I will subscribe to it if it takes the form of a pair of leather breeches,” refers to George Fox, the leader of Quakerism. Fox traveled so widely in his preaching that he made himself a coat and pants (breeches) out of leather as a practical measure to warm and protect himself during his extensive travels. This was a strange sight, and so the title, “the man in leather breeches,” stuck. Spurgeon here seems to be saying that he would subscribe to women preachers if he were a Quaker, given their understanding of the Holy Spirit, inner light, and preaching. But as a Baptist and his parents Congregationalists, both in the larger Reformed tradition, Spurgeon was convinced that their understanding of preaching was more faithful to Scripture. So instead of innovating, they should “dismiss all envy” and continue to walk in obedience.
To be sure, this letter was not a theological treatise on women preachers. It was a humorous private letter written to his father. But it reveals that despite his sister’s talents and ability to draw a crowd, Spurgeon believed there were more important concerns to guide Christians on this issue.
The questions that Baptists face in our day are very different from those that Spurgeon faced in his. But as is so often the case, his biblical and theological convictions are so helpful for us as we navigate these difficulties. On the issue of women preachers, Spurgeon’s faithful restriction of the function and office of elders to men, fervent support of women’s ministry, differentiation of first and second-order issues, holding to the authority of Scripture, and clear understanding of the Baptist tradition, should all guide our discussions today.
 The Luton Reporter, Wednesday, 14 October 1874.
 The Bedfordshire Mercury, Saturday, October 17, 1874.
 Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt Weekly Telegraph, Saturday, Sept. 9, 1876.
 Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt Weekly Telegraph, Saturday, Sept. 9, 1876.
 The Leighton Buzzard Observer, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1874.
 MTP 31:225. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/first-healing-and-then-service/#flipbook/
 For more on this, see https://www.9marks.org/article/charles-spurgeon-womens-ministry-and-female-preachers/
 C. H. Spurgeon, Letters to His Father and Mother 1850-84, Angus Library and Archive, Regent’s Park, Oxford.