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Spurgeon as a Literary Man

September 22, 2020

From time to time, we would like to showcase the scholarship that is coming out of Midwestern Seminary and the Spurgeon Library. This excerpt is taken from the Ph.D. dissertation “All Hail, Thou Comforter Divine”: The Ontological And Functional Pneumatology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) by Tyler H. Smiley. Here, Tyler explores Spurgeon’s prolific reading and how it shaped his teaching and theology.

In order to show that Spurgeon’s pneumatology was shaped by a range of theological writings, first, this section will argue that Spurgeon was capable of reading, comprehending, and assimilating large quantities of information. Recognizing Spurgeon’s ability to read with speed and retention undergirds this chapter’s argument by showing how it was possible for him to interact effectively with theological writings from the early church through the nineteenth-century. Next, this section will demonstrate that, even with his prolific reading, Spurgeon aimed to make his teaching, preaching, and writing accessible for the common person. Hence, he described the Christian gospel in vernacular language, and refrained from including lengthy quotations, which might confuse his audience or give the appearance of intellectual pretension. At the same time, in order to keep the gospel simple yet historically grounded, Spurgeon identified Augustine, Calvin, and the Puritans as key historical witnesses to the gospel. Finally, this section will show that Spurgeon’s knowledge and appreciation for theologians from church history stemmed from his belief that the Holy Spirit had assisted the church through their writing. This final point will be further demonstrated by the succeeding content of the present chapter, which shows the historical influences behind the development of Spurgeon’s pneumatology.

A Mind that Absorbed All Knowledge

Spurgeon was a voracious reader with an eidetic memory. He had the ability to read and synthesize large quantities of content quickly and effectively without sacrificing comprehension. He had a “mind that absorbed all knowledge—whether from books or nature—that came within its range.”[1] When he traveled to Mentone for holiday he took spare luggage full of books, and had others sent to him once he finished the first batch. He could master the content of five or six large volumes in a single sitting, reviewed thousands of books for his editorial work in The Sword and the Trowel, curated and produced a magisterial commentary on the Psalms, and assessed four-thousand biblical commentaries to produce a volume of recommended resources for pastors and students.[2] In order to approximate the quantity of reading that Spurgeon completed during his pastorate in London, his wife explained that “it would be necessary to make a list of nearly all the principal theological and biographical works published during that period, and to add to it a large portion of the other standard literature of the present and previous centuries, and almost the whole of the volumes issued by the great divines of the Puritan period.”[3] By the end of his life, Spurgeon had amassed a personal library of 12,000 volumes, not including the books with such troubling content that he tore them into “little pieces too small to do harm to anyone,” or committed them “bodily to the flames.”[4] Spurgeon had a unique ability to engage vast amounts of content through reading.

At the same time, while engaging copious amounts of material, Spurgeon also possessed the ability to retain and recall the content he read. William Wright, friend of Spurgeon and editorial superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, testified to Spurgeon’s ability to combine speed and accuracy in reading. With rapid glances over a page Spurgeon assimilated content in full measure, so that he read “by sentences as others read by words.”[5] Even so, Spurgeon could quote from memory long passages of books he had previously read. Wright confirmed that Spurgeon’s “power of swift and effective reading was one of the greatest of his many talents.”[6]

Spurgeon possessed an unique ability to read and retain large amounts of content. 

The Gospel for the Common Person

Even with his remarkable ability of recall, Spurgeon was reticent to utilize lengthy theological quotations in his books or sermons. To him, the practice was pretentious and pedantic, and the mark of a lower level of comprehension. As Spurgeon argued, “Those who have no learning usually make a point of displaying the pegs on which learning ought to hang.”[7] He often used quotations, but when he did he presented them in a concise and discernable way. In his 1873 review of James Culross’s book, John, Whom Jesus Loved, Spurgeon explained that even when the most noteworthy parts of a book are quotations, for “they will reveal the man, for the set of an author’s thought may be seen as clearly in his quotations as in his original matter.”[8] Spurgeon did not avoid quotations in his preaching and writing, but he employed them selectively and concisely, knowing they would reveal his inner thoughts.

The reason for Spurgeon’s reluctance in using extended quotations was to avoid any deterrence in the common person’s understanding of the gospel. As Susannah described her husband’s preaching:

Perhaps there is a very learned man sitting over yonder, and the temptation to the preacher to say something that shall make him feel that the minister to whom he is listening is not so ignorant as some people suppose; but if there is an unlearned, simple sinner anywhere in the place, the preacher’s business is just to chop his words down to that poor man’s condition, and let the learned hearer receive the same message if he will.[9]

Spurgeon himself conveyed the same approach in a Sunday evening sermon:

The preacher must also mind that he preaches Christ very simply. He must break up his big words and long sentences, and pray against the temptation to use them. It is usually the short, dagger-like sentence that does the work best. A true servant of Christ must never try to let the people see how well he can preach; he must never go out of his way to drag a pretty piece of poetry in his sermon, nor to introduce some fine quotations from the classics. He must employ a simple, homely style, or such a style as God has given him and he must preach Christ so plainly that his hearers can not only understand him, but that they cannot misunderstand him even if they try to do so.[10]

In his “Lecture on Commenting,” Spurgeon warned his students of the dangers of using elongated quotations, words, and phrases.[11] He knew that a false sense of pride might develop in the student or young pastor who was studying the biblical languages or theologians from the history of the church. Spurgeon admonished his students:

A pedant, who is continually quoting Ambrose and Jerome, Piscator and Œcolampadius, in order to show what a copious reader he has been, is usually a dealer in small wares, and quotes only what others have quoted before him; but he who can give you the result and outcome of very extensive reading without sounding a trumpet before him, is the really learned man.[12]

Spurgeon used common language to keep the gospel message clear and simple for the common person. He avoided complicated or extended quotations, and warned preachers against any impressions of intellectual superiority. For these reasons, there was a noticeable lack of extensive quotations in Spurgeon’s teaching ministry.

Spurgeon’s Historical Theology

While intending to keep the gospel message simple, Spurgeon also desired to maintain its historical rootedness. Thus, he aimed for clarity and concision when affirming the theologians and traditions that best described his theological beliefs—he admired Augustine’s teachings, filtered his theology through the Puritans, and identified himself as a nonconformist, Baptist, and Calvinist. In his 1881 sermon “Silver Sockets,” Spurgeon acknowledged, “I have read plenty of books on modern theology,” yet he identified himself with “the old-fashioned puritanical theology—the Gospel of Calvin, the Gospel of Augustine, the Gospel of Paul, the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”[13]

Likewise, in his sermon “The Root of the Matter,” Spurgeon stipulated that the essential doctrines of the Christian faith were made clear in “the Puritans, which made blessed the heart of Luther and of Calvin, fired the zeal of Chrysostom and Augustine, and flashed like lightning from the lips of Paul.”[14] Spurgeon must have talked about these historical influences often because at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Metropolitan Tabernacle B. W. Carr, a deacon of the church, celebrated Spurgeon’s leading of the church into “the grand fundamentals of that holy faith delivered to us by Christ, translated by Paul, handed down by Augustine, clarified by Calvin, vindicated yet again by Whitefield, and held by us as the very truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”[15] In his Autobiography, Spurgeon summarized his theological commitments:

The doctrine which I preach is that of the Puritans: it is the doctrine of Calvin, the doctrine of Augustine, the doctrine of Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Ghost. The Author and Finisher of our faith Himself taught most blessed truth which well agreed with Paul’s declaration, “By grace are ye saved.” The doctrine of grace is the substance of the testimony of Jesus.[16]

The historical markers of the Christian gospel most commonly included, for Spurgeon, the triumvirate refrain of Puritans, Calvin, and Augustine. In this way, Spurgeon’s theological commitments were straightforward and clear for the common person.

The Holy Spirit and the Historical Church

Spurgeon’s simplicity in describing his theological influences must not be confused as representing a simplistic approach to historical theology. Spurgeon was well-read and knowledgeable in the theological history of the church. In his October 20, 1861 sermon, he strung together a list of theologians he considered praiseworthy for preaching the true gospel, from “Augustine, to Chrysostom, to Bernard,” through the Reformers, “Luther and Calvin, and Zwingli and Melanchthon, and Wycliffe and Huss, and Jerome [of Prague] and Knox.”[17] He quoted Samuel Rutherford and John Newton and celebrated “those in later days, such as [Hugh] Latimer, William Tindal [sic], and [John] Hooper.”[18] Finally, he recognized “the men who later still with Whitefield and with Wesley preached the Word.”[19] These references to historical theologians and Christian traditions revealed Spurgeon’s appreciation and knowledge of church history. He did not make references to historical theologians with ostentatious motives. He understood the risk of appearing pretentious when utilizing these names and revealing his knowledge, yet he saw great value in aligning himself with the historical witness of the church.

Spurgeon appreciated the theologians of the past, not because they were great human beings, but because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and helpful to the church. In his 1864 sermon titled, “‘Thus Saith The Lord:’ or, The Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balances of the Sanctuary,” Spurgeon combined a similar list of theologians as in his October 21, 1861 sermon. However, the 1864 list of names was used to point to the true authority of the church over and against the creeds, councils, or early theologians. Spurgeon argued:

They may quote Irenaeus or Cyprian, Augustine or Chrysostom; they may remind us of the dogmas of Luther or Calvin; they may find authority in Simeon, or Wesley, or Gill—we will listen to the opinions of these great men with the respect which they deserve as men, but having so done, we deny that we have anything to do with these men as authorities in the Church of God, for there nothing has any authority, but “Thus saith the Lord of hosts.”[20]

Spurgeon valued the theologians of church history and lamented when pastors and biblical commentators failed to take notice of them. In his introductory lecture to “Commenting and Commentaries,” he reasoned, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”[21] The “others” that Spurgeon had in mind were those theologians of the past through whom the Holy Spirit had preserved the teaching of the church. While Spurgeon’s final source of authority was the Holy Spirit teaching through Scripture, he understood that the Holy Spirit also taught through the theologians of the past.

To summarize, Spurgeon was both widely read, and shaped by the content of his reading. He had a unique ability to assimilate vast amounts of information with accuracy and permanence, and to retrieve that information for concise use in his sermons and writings. Nevertheless, he avoided the appearance of intellectual superiority, despised pretention, and felt that including extended quotations of theological writings worked against his ability to communicate the gospel in plain language. He presented his theological influences in a simple and straightforward manner, yet his knowledge of church history was far from simplistic. In all, Spurgeon avoided displaying his intellectual ability in order to communicate the gospel with clarity. As such, his colloquial oratory gave the impression to some that he lacked intelligence. Even so, he willingly received accusations of being unlearned if it meant the gospel was made clearer in his ministry. In his words to William Wright, Spurgeon captured the essence of his motivation on this matter: “They say … that I am ignorant and unlearned. Well, let them say it; and in everything, by my ignorance, and by my knowledge, let God be glorified.”[22] Spurgeon veiled his brilliance with vernacular for the sake of clear gospel proclamation.

Tyler Smiley is the Senior Pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, GA, where he lives with his wife and two young boys (with another boy on the way!). He earned his MDiv from Denver Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. Follow him on Twitter at @tylerhsmiley.

[1] Autobiography, 4.274.

[2] For Spurgeon’s ability to read multiple volumes in a single sitting, see Autobiography, 4.268–274. References to Spurgeon’s monthly magazine are from Charles H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 7 vols. (Albany, OR: Ages Digital Library, 1998), unless otherwise noted. Hereafter references from The Sword and the Trowel work will be noted as ST. References to Spurgeon’s commentary on the Psalms are from Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), unless otherwise noted. Hereafter references from The Treasury of David will be noted as Treasury. Spurgeon’s review of biblical commentaries and study aides are found in “Catalogue of Commentaries and Expositions,” in Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 4 vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1881–1893), 4.35–200. Hereafter references from Lectures to My Students will be noted as Lectures.

[3] Autobiography, 4.304.

[4] Ibid., 4.296. Regarding Spurgeon’s personal library, the largest single collection of his personal library is housed in The Spurgeon Library at The Spurgeon Center for Biblical Preaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 5001 North Oak Trafficway, Kansas City, Missouri 64118. For more on The Spurgeon Library or The Spurgeon Center, see and For a history of the relocation of Spurgeon’s library from his home to William Jewel College, prior to its acquisition by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, see Adrian Lamkin, “The Spurgeon Library of William Jewel College: A Hidden Treasure among Baptist in America,” Baptist History and Heritage 19, no. 4 (October 1984): 39–44. 

[5] Autobiography, 4.298.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lectures, 4.30.

[8] ST, 3.309. The book that Spurgeon reviewed was James Culross, John, Whom Jesus Loved (London: Morgan and Scott, n.d.).

[9] Autobiography, 4.268.

[10] MTP, 56.629.

[11] Lectures, 4.21–32.

[12] Autobiography, 4.270. 

[13] MTP, 27.90.

[14] MTP, 9.274.

[15] NPSP, 5.630–631.

[16] Autobiography, 2.87.

[17] MTP, 7.977.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] MTP, 10.668.

[21] Lectures, 4.1.

[22] Autobiography, 4.274.