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Spurgeon and the Poor

Alex DiPrima March 27, 2023

The following excerpt is from the Preface of Spurgeon and the Poor by Alex DiPrima. Learn more about this important new work here.

The American temperance activist John B. Gough stepped off the train in London. He had come to visit England’s greatest preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The year was 1879, and the preacher was at the height of his powers. Gough himself had described Spurgeon’s ministry as “a career thus far unparalleled in the history of ministers.”[1] Indeed, there had never been a preacher like him. In his teenage years, he gained a reputation as the famous “boy preacher of the Fens.”[2] He arrived in London at the age of nineteen to command the pulpit of the city’s most historic Baptist church in the heart of the metropolis, just south of the Thames. He preached for nearly forty years from that pulpit to thousands upon thousands, winning souls, planting churches, and ministering to the poor.

During Gough’s visit, Spurgeon provided him with a tour of the Stockwell Orphanage. Ten years prior, Spurgeon began this ministry to orphaned boys with the help of an elderly widow who will appear later in these pages. While the two men were visiting the orphanage, Spurgeon received a call to the bedside of a boy who was terminally ill. As he sat with the dying boy, Spurgeon placed the child’s hand in his and told him, “Jesus loves you. He bought you with His precious blood, and He knows what is best for you. It seems hard for you to lie here and listen to the shouts of the healthy boys outside at play. But soon Jesus will take you home, and then He will tell you the reason, and you will be so glad.”[3] Spurgeon then inched forward in his chair, laid his hand on the boy’s head, and quietly prayed aloud, “O Jesus, Master, this dear child is reaching out his thin hand to find thine. Touch him, dear Saviour, with thy loving, warm clasp. Lift him as he passes the cold river, that his feet be not chilled by the water of death; take him home in thine own good time. Comfort and cherish him till that good time comes. Show him thyself as he lies here, and let him see thee and know thee more and more as his loving Saviour.”[4] After a moment’s pause, he said with a warm smile, “Now, dear, is there anything you would like? Would you like a little canary in a cage to hear him sing in the morning? Nurse, see that he has a canary tomorrow morning. Goodbye, my dear; you will see the Saviour perhaps before I shall.”[5] Gough, who had quietly witnessed the scene, recorded his recollections in his autobiography, writing, “I had seen Mr. Spurgeon holding by his power sixty-five hundred persons in a breathless interest; I knew him as a great man universally esteemed and beloved; but as he sat by the bedside of a dying pauper child, whom his beneficence had rescued, he was to me a greater and grander man than when swaying the mighty multitude at his will.”[6]

The book in your hands is about this greater and grander man—a man who, in a sense, history has obscured amid the widely chronicled sensation his preaching genius created. Ask many evangelicals today about Spurgeon, and they can likely tell you something about his storied preaching. However, how many have heard of Spurgeon’s activities as a philanthropist, activist, or friend of poor orphans and needy widows? How many would imagine that Spurgeon, the famous Prince of Preachers, whose preaching commanded the rapt attention of tens of thousands, took appointments to pray hand in hand with sick children? Yet this is the Spurgeon who was and who must again be reintroduced to the church today.

From the very beginning of his Christian experience, Spurgeon zealously devoted himself to good works. Within days of his conversion at the age of fifteen, Spurgeon began giving his time to ministry among the needy of his community in Cambridgeshire. He filled his days distributing tracts, ministering to the poor, and teaching Bible classes to young children. Spurgeon said of this period in his life, “I could scarcely content myself even for five minutes without trying to do something for Christ.”[7]

The same was true when he arrived in London in 1854 at the age of nineteen. The sprawling metropolis was, to Spurgeon, one towering monument to human need. Almost immediately, Spurgeon established himself as a friend to London’s indigent. Just a few months into his new pastorate at New Park Street Chapel (later to change its name to the Metropolitan Tabernacle), Spurgeon found London in the midst of a deadly cholera epidemic, which would claim the lives of over ten thousand of its citizens. Without hesitation, Spurgeon threw himself into the fray, traveling from house to house to visit the sick and dying. He did this for weeks on end, all the while expecting that he would die from the disease himself, as many in those days believed cholera to be contagious. This concern was insignificant to him in the face of the tremendous need all around him.

As Spurgeon gained more exposure to the acute and diverse exigencies facing London, he aggressively launched dozens of ministries and organizations to combat suffering and poverty in the city. By 1884, these benevolent ministries numbered sixty-six in total and included an orphanage, a ministerial college, subsidized housing for poor widows, a clothing bank, a ministry to prostitutes, several street missions, and a host of children’s ministries.[8] Whether it was London’s widows and orphans, the poor of her many crowded slums and back alleys, or the city’s forgotten blind, Spurgeon opened his arms wide to the needy and the afflicted. In addition, his private philanthropy was prodigious, from supporting needy saints out of his own pocket to providing the means for new churches to be planted. Throughout his life, money flowed freely through his hands into the many benevolent institutions he himself founded.

Still more remarkable is that Spurgeon was not content to advocate only for the afflicted and the oppressed of his homeland. On the eve of the American Civil War, Spurgeon spoke out courageously against the evils of slavery, leading to significant personal criticism, financial loss, and even occasional death threats. Spurgeon’s godly stand against the wicked institution of slavery (which will be considered in greater depth in chapter 11) provides a striking example of what it looks like to fight injustice from biblical convictions and principles.

Even from his deathbed in Mentone, France, when most men would be attending to the details of their estate, Spurgeon steadfastly gave to the church and the poor. His last conscious act was to give one hundred pounds to the Metropolitan Tabernacle thank offering for the support of the church and its various ministries. His final telegram before he died read, “Self and wife, £100, hearty thankoffering towards Tabernacle General Expenses. Love to all Friends.” Spurgeon’s secretary, Joseph Harrald, recorded, “That was his last generous act, and his last message.”[9]

Spurgeon lived a life filled to the brim with good works of benevolence and charity. However, too few today are familiar with this vital aspect of his life and ministry nor the theological convictions that undergirded it. I have written this book because I find in Spurgeon a most compelling example of the proper wedding of faithful gospel preaching with earnest social concern. Evangelicals have frequently failed in correctly understanding the relationship between these two biblical burdens. I am convinced that Spurgeon can help us. He eagerly invites pastors and churches to devote themselves to the fervent preaching of evangelical truth while showing us how that truth moves Christians toward practical concern for the needy. As the subtitle of this book suggests, the gospel compels Christian social concern (Titus 2:11–14).

[1] John B. Gough, Sunlight and Shadow; or, Gleanings from My Life Work (Hartford, Conn.: A. D. Worthington, 1881),407.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records by His Wife and His Private Secretary (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), 1:199–212. The Fens (or the Fenlands) is a relatively flat and marshy region of East Anglia comprising parts of the counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire. It is the region where Spurgeon did most of his early preaching and is just north of where Spurgeon grew up.

[3] Gough, Sunlight and Shadow, 407–8.

[4] Gough, 408.

[5] Gough, 408. This was not an unusual occurrence. Arnold Dallimore notes that Spurgeon “made it a particular point to call on any children who might be in the infirmary, to pray for them and show whatever special kindness he could.” Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 129.

[6] Gough, 408.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, 1:181.

[8] Memorial Volume, Mr. Spurgeon’s Jubilee: Report of the Proceedings at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on Wednesday and Thursday Evenings, June 18th and 19th, 1884 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1884), 7–8; C. H. Spurgeon, “Mr. Spurgeon’s Jubilee Meetings,” Sword and the Trowel, July 1884, 373.

[9] C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, 4:371.