After Spurgeon's conversion in Colchester, fifteen-year-old Charles Spurgeon moved to Cambridge in 1850. Because Spurgeon wasn't an Anglican, he couldn't matriculate into any of Cambridge's colleges. But it was here that Spurgeon passed several key milestones on his road to ministry. Spurgeon was baptized near Cambridge, discerned his call to ministry, taught Sunday School, learned to preach, and pastored his first congregation.
In many ways, Spurgeon's Cambridge hasn't changed at all. Walking through its narrow streets, you can still see the same houses and buildings that Spurgeon would have seen. You can visit the school where he lived, worship at St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church where he joined, walk through the room where he missed his college interview. Waterbeach Baptist Church, his first pastorate, still stands and continues to champion the legacy Spurgeon left there.
Here are five photos – then and now – taken from one of the most pivotol seasons in the life of the "Prince of Preachers" when he lived in Cambridge.
1. Spurgeon's Baptism in the River Lark
"It was a new experience to me, never having seen a baptism before, and I was afraid of making some mistake. 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 ferry-boat, 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, there and then, 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. I lost a thousand fears in that River Lark.”
2. Spurgeon's Local Church, St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church
When Spurgeon moved to Cambridge, he joined St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church. It was here that he taught Sunday School, was mentored, listened to great preaching, and learned to preach himself.
“There is a Preachers’ Association in Cambridge, connected with St. Andrew’s Street Chapel. . . . A number of worthy brethren preach the gospel in the various villages surrounding Cambridge, taking each one his turn according to plan.”
3. Spurgeon's First Sermon in Teversham
Spurgeon was tricked into preaching his first sermon by his mentor, a deacon at St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church. The deacon told Spurgeon to accompany another young man as he preached in a small cottage in Teversham, but he told the other young man the same thing about Spurgeon. The two teenagers walked from Cambridge to Teversham, each believing the other was going to preach. When they discovered the prank, Spurgeon decided that he could tell a few poor cottagers of the love of Jesus Christ.
"We entered the low-pitched room of the thatched cottage, where a few simple-winded farm-laborers and their wives were gathered together; we sang, and prayed, and read the Scriptures, and then came my first sermon. How long, or how short: it was, I cannot now remember. It was not half such a task as I had feared it would be, but I was glad to see my way to a
fair conclusion, and to the giving out of the last hymn. To my own delight, I had not broken down, nor stopped short in the middle, nor been destitute of ideas, and the desired haven was in view. I made a finish, and took up the hymn-book; but, to my astonishment, an aged voice cried out, 'Bless your dear heart, how old are you?' My very solemn reply was, 'You must wait till the service is over before making any such enquiries. Let us now sing.' We did sing, the young preacher pronounced the benediction, and then there began a dialogue which enlarged into a warm, friendly talk, in which everybody appeared to take part. 'How old are you?' was the leading question. 'I am under sixty,' was the reply. 'Yes, and under sixteen,' was the old lady’s rejoinder. 'Never mind my age, think of the Lord Jesus and His preciousness.'”
“I do not think I could have said anything upon any other text, but Christ was precious to my soul, and I was in the flush of my youthful love, and I could not be silent when a precious Jesus was the subject.”
4. Spurgeon's First Pastorate at Waterbeach Chapel
After preaching itinerately for several months in the villages surrounding Cambridge, Spurgeon accepted the pastorate of Waterbeach Baptist Chapel where he served for three years. When Spurgeon discovered that the original thatched cottage burned in 1863, he sent his own architect from London to reconstruct what is now the current sanctuary.
“In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears."
"Early on the Monday morning I was driving down to the village my deacon had mentioned, to see my first spiritual child. I have in my eye now the cottage in which she lived; believe me, it always appears picturesque.I felt like the boy who has earned his first guinea, or like a diver who has been down to the depths of the sea, and brought up a rare pearl. I prize each one whom God has given me, but I prize that woman most. Since then, my Lord has blessed me to many thousands of souls, who have found the Saviour by hearing or reading words which have come from my lips. I have had a great many spiritual children born of the preaching of the Word, but I still think that woman was the best of the lot."
4. Spurgeon's Botched College Interview with Joseph Angus
Spurgeon's father wanted him to pursue formal academic education in London. In February 1852, he arranged an interview at a publisher’s house in Cambridge (currently the bookstore of Cambridge University Press) between his son and Joseph Angus of Stepney College. The meeting, however, would never take place:
"I entered the house exactly at the time appointed, and was shown into a room where I waited patiently a couple of hours, feeling too much impressed with my own insignificance, and the greatness of the tutor from London, to venture to ring the bell, and make enquiries as to the unreasonably long delay. At last, patience having had her perfect work, and my school-engagements requiring me to attend to my duties as an usher, the bell was set in motion, and on the arrival of the servant, the waiting young man was informed that the Doctor had tarried in another room until he could stay no longer, and had gone off to London by train. The stupid girl had given no information to the family that anyone had called, and had been shown into the drawing-room; and, consequently, the meeting never came about, although designed by both parties."
5. Spurgeon's Mystical Experience in Midsummer Common
After departing from the mistimed interview with Joseph Angus, Spurgeon walked to the north of Cambridge through Midsummer Common and became convinced to remain a pastor at Waterbeach and not pursue formal theological education.
"Still holding to the idea of entering the Collegiate Institution, I thought of writing and making an immediate application, but this was not to be. That afternoon, having to preach at one of the village-stations of the Cambridge Lay Preachers’ Association, I walked slowly, in a meditative frame of mind, over Midsummer Common to the little wooden bridge which leads to Chesterton, and in the midst of the Common I was startled by what seemed a loud voice, but which may have been a singular illusion. Whichever it was, the impression was vivid to an intense degree; I seemed very distinctly to hear the words, 'Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!' This led me to look at my position from another point of view, and to challenge my motives and intentions. I remembered the poor but loving people to whom I ministered, and the souls which had been given me in my humble charge; and, although at that time I anticipated obscurity and poverty as the result of the resolve, yet I did there and then solemnly renounce the offer of Collegiate instruction, determining to abide for a season at least with my people, and to remain preaching the Word so long as I had strength to do it. Had it not been for those words, in all probability I had never been where and what I now am. I was conscientious in my obedience to the monition, and I have never seen cause to regret it."
A Final Word
Though Spurgeon had no ambition of ever leaving Cambridge, God called him to accept the pastorate of London's New Park Street Baptist Church in 1854.
London offered Spurgeon more resources and opportunities than could the country. The global reach of his sermons would not have been possible had he remained in Waterbeach. Nor would he have met his publishers, Joseph Passmore and James Alabaster. Spurgeon never sought a transition to London, but four years after being baptized in the meandering stream of Isleham, he moored his ministry to the southern bank of the well-trafficked Thames, the waters of which opened directly into the sea.