An artist once tried to paint a portrait of Charles Spurgeon. After much frustration he said, “I can’t paint you. Your face is different every day. You are never the same.”
To be sure, the most popular preacher in the Victoria era was also one of the most burdened.
Spurgeon owned more than thirty books on mental health. He read about depression, wrote about depression, and suffered from depression. Spurgeon’s letters contain numerous references to his sinking spirits. He often called himself a “prisoner” and wept without knowing why.
“I pity a dog who has to suffer what I have.”
Some biographers have claimed Spurgeon suffered from bipolar disorder, oscillating between highs and lows, ups and downs, productivity and inability. Others believed his “fainting fits” were also caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Dr. Anil Den, a psychiatrist in London today, claimed that Spurgeon’s depression was endogenous, and if he were alive today, he’d be treated with medicine.
The best new PhD research on Spurgeon’s depression comes from Dr. Brian Albert, who noted that Spurgeon’s doctors, Joseph Kidd, R. M. Miller, and Russell Reynolds, believed one reason for the pastor’s depression was “extra pressure of care or labour.”
Spurgeon’s wife believed the weather affected his mental stability. “Dull and dreary days depressed him,” she wrote.
Was Spurgeon’s depression only a spiritual problem? Spurgeon didn’t think so. He did acknowledge “soul sickness,” but also understood that the brain is just as broken as the body. If the body needs medicine, why not the mind? “It is not repentance,” he speculated, “but indigestion or some other evil agency depressing the spirits.”
“The troubled man experiences a good deal, not because he is a Christian, but because he is a man, a sickly man, a man inclined to melancholy.”
Victorians didn’t have a modern understanding of mental health. They viewed depression as a disorder rather than a disease and believed each person could be cured. The most common treatment for serious cases was admittance to public asylums (Spurgeon’s first church in London was located beside a “lunatic asylum”).
“Do not think it unspiritual to remember that you have a body. . . . The physician is often as needful as the minister.”
Diagnosing the dead is neither easy nor altogether accurate. But in the case of Charles Spurgeon, it’s worth a try.
Why was Spurgeon depressed? Here are a few reasons distilled from his own writings.
1. Chemical Imbalance
“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for there are bottomless pits.”
“Some are touched with melancholy from their birth.”
“I have been very ill for more than five weeks, and during that time I have been brought into deep waters of mental depression.”
“A sluggish liver will produce most of those fearsome forebodings, which we are so ready to regard as spiritual emotions.”
“There are dungeons beneath the Castle of Despair as dreary as the abodes of the lost, and some of us have been in them” (in the context of the Surrey Garden Music Hall Disaster of 1856).
“This loneliness, which if I mistake not is felt by many of my brethren, is a fertile source of depression.”
5. Increased Mental Exertion
“All mental work tends to weary and to depress, for much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
“I cannot yet call myself free from fits of deep depression, which are the result of brain-weariness; but I am having them less frequently, and therefore I hope they will vanish altogether.”
“When I first became a pastor in London, my success appalled me; and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth, out of which I uttered my misery, and found no room for a Gloria in excelsis.”
“How often have some of us tossed to and fro upon our couch half the night because of conscious shortcomings in our testimony! How frequently have we longed to rush back to the pulpit again to say over again more vehemently, what we have uttered in so cold a manner!”
“Living in an unbroken series of summer days, where no cold mists are dreamed of, it is no great marvel that rheumatic pains fly away, and depression of spirit departs.”
“I often wonder, to this day, how it was that my hand was kept from rending my own body in pieces through the awful agony which I felt when I discovered the greatness of my transgression.”
“To my great sorrow, last Sunday night I was unable to preach. I had prepared a sermon upon this text, with much hope of its usefulness; for I intended it to be a supplement to the morning sermon, which was a doctrinal exposition. The evening sermon was intended to be practical, and to commend the whole subject to the attention of enquiring sinners. I came here feeling quite fit to preach, when an overpowering nervousness oppressed me, and I lost all self-control, and left the pulpit in anguish.”
“I cannot tell you by letter what I have endured in the desertion of my own men.”
“I have suffered enough for one lifetime from those I lived to serve.”
Charles Spurgeon “is a nine days’ wonder, a comet that has suddenly shot across the religious atmosphere. He has gone up like a rocket, and ere long will come down like a stick” (The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, April 28, 1855)
A Final Word
Spurgeon’s depression didn’t hinder his ministry – in fact, it helped it.
Spurgeon’s many faces might have frustrated the artist trying to paint his portrait, but they also gave the pastor a multi-faceted empathy for the problems facing his flock. That’s one reason Spurgeon was “the people’s preacher.”
Spurgeon called his depression “a prophet in rough clothing.” His weakness reminded him that, as humans, we are all designed from dust.
“As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance?”
With Spurgeon, may God’s strength be spotlighted in the shadow of our sufferings.