“Simplicity is the authorised style of true gospel ministry.”
Charles Spurgeon is adored, in part, for his mastery of the English language. As the most published English speaking Christian of all time, Spurgeon has captured the hearts and minds of his readers with pithy quotes and powerful turns of phrase. Spurgeon’s iconic style, however, was a frequent subject of criticism in his time. In fact, Spurgeon’s manner of speech was a popular topic of conversation throughout London newspapers in 1855. An excerpt from one editorial reads:
[Spurgeon’s] style is that of the vulgar colloquial, varied by rant …. All the most solemn mysteries of our holy religion are by him rudely, roughly, and impiously handled. Mystery is vulgarized, sanctity profaned, common sense outraged, and decency disgusted …. His rantings are interspersed with coarse anecdotes that split the ears of the groundlings.
Spurgeon’s commitment to the groundlings, or common people, required him to preach differently than those preaching to the cultural or academic elite. His energetic style, vivid illustrations, and use of humor from the pulpit was more than many London church-goers could handle. Another letter sent to The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent was equally as scathing as the first:
Mr. Spurgeon preaches himself. He is nothing unless he is an actor, . . . declaiming in a ranting and colloquial style, strutting up and down the platform . . . His fluency, self-possession, oratorical tricks, and daring utterances, seem to fascinate his less thoughtful hearers, who love excitement more than devotion.
Thus, Spurgeon, only twenty-one at the time, had to learn how to bear the weight of blistering public critique, and yet he remained steadfast in his use of clear and common language. Spurgeon rejected pomp and circumstance from the pulpit. Instead, he presented his message in a way all classes of Londoners could comprehend. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of preachers like John Knox who may “ding our pulpits into blads,” but “rouse our hearts to action.” In response to his critics, Spurgeon wrote, “I am neither eloquent nor learned, but the Head of the Church has given me sympathy with the unenlightened.” Spurgeon never sought popularity but believed he must do all he could to make his people listen. Spurgeon wrote, “My firm conviction is that we have quite enough polite preachers. . .God has owned me to the most degraded and off-cast; these are mine, and to them I must keep.”
Such a conviction is significant when one considers the neighborhood in which Spurgeon preached. According to Helen Douglas-Irvine, the Southwark Borough had an evil reputation and was filled with poverty and decay. Southwark was home to the “shiftless, unlovely, and tragically cheerful poor” and the “graceless scoundrels and brawlers.” Thus, the epicenter of Spurgeon’s influence was the inner city, dying from decay.
While some critiqued Spurgeon’s “vulgar colloquialisms,” others came to his defense. One such editorial, signed by “Vox Populi” (The Voice of the People), advocated for the groundlings of Spurgeon’s congregation. Vox Populi wrote, “The pulpit is now too much abused by the mere display of intellect. Instead of the indignant burst of a Luther against the iniquities of mankind, we have only the passive disapprobation of the silvery-tongued man of letters.” Unlike Spurgeon, “[These] preachers address their cold, ‘packed-in-ice’ discourses to the educated portion of their audience.” Vox Populi concluded that “the majority, the uneducated poor, are unable to learn the way of holiness” from these “scientific sermons.” Spurgeon wanted to ensure this was not the case within the walls of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
What was a great source of ridicule for Spurgeon is also a key to his longevity: preaching the simple gospel to simple people in simple terms. He possessed the intelligence, skills, and theological understanding to produce lofty sermons, but instead chose to highlight the clarity of the gospel rather than his own abilities. Indeed, as Spurgeon famously said, “We must preach according to the capacity of our hearers. The Lord Jesus did not say ‘Feed my giraffes,’ but ‘Feed my sheep.’ We must not put the fodder on a high rack by our fine language, but use great plainness of speech.”
Spurgeon even compared the use of lofty rhetoric to the Latin translation of the Bible, completely unreadable by the common public. As the average man could not comprehend the Latin Bible of the “Romish Church,” neither could the average man comprehend the lofty sermons of Spurgeon’s contemporaries. This led him to believe, “When we preach the gospel plainly, I am sure we have our reward! When preaching in some village chapel, or from a waggon in a field, it is no small delight to watch the faces of the men in smockfrocks and the women in their print gowns, as they catch or feel the force of an inspired truth.” On the other hand, “To stand and talk right over the people’s heads – what is it but having the corn and keeping it from those who want it?” In short, “Simplicity is the authorised style of true gospel ministry.”
In his lifetime Spurgeon would earn the moniker “Prince of Preachers,” but he extended that title to another man – George Whitefield. It is interesting to note that the same quality that Spurgeon adored in Whitefield won Spurgeon the adoration of his people. According to Spurgeon, “Whitefield, the prince of preachers, was mainly so because of the market language which he used.” Therefore, preachers should, “Break the large slices of truth into small pieces, and crack the shells of the hard nuts.”
Ultimately, Spurgeon did not care about entertaining the masses or tickling the ears of his congregation. Rather, he wanted to share Christ with every person he met, which required clarity and simplicity. He wrote, “They will not go to hear your philosophies, they leave you and your philosophies to the spiders and the dry rot; but preach Jesus, and his precious blood, and tell men that whosoever believeth in Christ shall be saved, and they will hear you gladly.”
If modern Christians follow Spurgeon’s commitment to the “groundlings” of their day and a clear declaration of the gospel, then perhaps there may be a modern Prince of Preachers to serve as the voice of the people.
Timothy Gatewood is a 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.