The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is still vibrant and thriving. Every week, we receive guests and scholars who have traveled to see the library or study with us. But what makes it so special?
Jared Wilson visits with Spurgeon Library curator Dr. Christian George to find out more about what makes the Spurgeon Library such a special contribution to the seminary, to talk about some of the specific artifacts found there, and to discuss growing Spurgeon interest as well as Dr. George's publication The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon.
Jared Wilson: We know in terms of sheer volume, the library holds a lot of material owned by Spurgeon. But what makes these items so special, aside from the fact that his hands once held them?
Christian George: The Spurgeon Library contains approximately 6,000 books that Charles Spurgeon personally owned. Many of his works are heavily annotated and give us a deeper insight into Spurgeon’s theology, spirituality, and interests. Spurgeon’s books ranged in diversity from works on preaching, nature, and geography to commentaries, travelogues, novels, and even books on Victorian spiritualism. Spurgeon’s favorite books were authored by Puritans like John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton, John Owen, among others.
JW: What is the most interesting, in your estimation?
CG: Charles Spurgeon had – and has – a way of bringing people together. He was admired by pastors and theologians of very diverse theological perspectives. His friendship with Chicago based pastor, D. L. Moody, proves the point.
As a microcosm of his ability to hold theologies in tension, Spurgeon kept two authors next to each other on his shelf: Methodist expositor, Adam Clarke, and Particular Baptist, John Gill. In Spurgeon’s words, “I have placed next to Gill in my library Adam Clarke, but as I have no desire to have my rest broken by wars among the authors, I have placed [Phillip] Doddridge between them.” We have recreated the proximately of these three authors in a display near the entrance of the Spurgeon Library.
JW: Okay, so I know you don’t like to think this way, but some of us do: What’s the most valuable item in the library?
CG: Each book and artifact in the Spurgeon Library is valuable for the simple reason that Spurgeon owned it. However, some books solicit greater affection given that Spurgeon valued and annotated them more than others. The Psalter that Spurgeon used in the writing of his commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David is valuable in that it contains dozens of pages of inscriptions. Also, given the numerous times Spurgeon quoted John Calvin in his sermons and writings, Spurgeon’s copy of Calvin’s commentary on the Gospels is valuable. On the inside front cover, Spurgeon scribbled the words, “Incomparable Calvin: he speaks not his own mind but labours to utter the Spirit’s meaning.” We are displaying the ten most valuable books in our collection on glass-covered pedestals in front of the windows on the interior walls of the library.
JW: Some of us around campus like to refer to you as the “Indiana Jones” of Charles Spurgeon because of your discovery of the unpublished early sermons in the archives at Spurgeon College and your continual pursuit of Spurgeonalia for the library. Can you give us an idea of what the most significant find in the collection has been?
CG: One of the more significant books in the Spurgeon Library is the pocket edition of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This was Spurgeon’s favorite book outside of Scripture. He once claimed to have read it over one hundred times in his life. Spurgeon quoted Bunyan in his sermons and writings significantly more than any other author. And I think this book is significant because it reminds us that a straight line can be drawn from Spurgeon’s exegetical impulses to those of Bunyan. Both of these great Baptist preachers captured the attention of their culture, not with sophisticated or even well-educated methods, but instead with simple, colorful language that could be understood by the common person.
German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, once wrote that Spurgeon was a combustion of two things: oxygen and grace. And Thielicke was right, there was a fire about the way this man handled the Word of God. Spurgeon had the rare ability to rotate a particular passage of Scripture and explosively expose its truths – like a Gospel grenade, perhaps. Bunyan could do this, too. And it was his ability to incarnate the deep mysteries of God for anyone and everyone that caused Spurgeon to stand out from other preachers of his day and ours.
JW: You’re one of only a handful of genuine Spurgeon scholars in the world, so I’m curious to know if you have learned anything new from assembling this collection that you didn’t know about Spurgeon.
CG: I’ve learned a small galaxy of things I didn’t know about Spurgeon from the collection. But it wasn’t so much what I’ve learned that has left its mark on me, as who I’ve come to know.
Before coming to Midwestern, I had no idea that Spurgeon descendants living in the United Kingdom. This past summer, I had the privilege of meeting Susannah Spurgeon, her brother Richard, and their mother and father, Hilary and David Spurgeon. David was the great, great grandson of Charles Spurgeon. As God’s providence allowed, I was with David a few months ago during the final hours and minutes of his earthly life. I was able to read Scripture to him, tell him about the Spurgeon Library, and also read portions of his ancestor’s sermons on resurrection and hope. David loved what God was doing at Midwestern Seminary. Before his passing, he wanted to make sure that we received a personal heirloom that he had kept in his family for decades – the original doorknob that once adorned his great, great grandfather’s library door.
One way we are honoring David’s life is by displaying his doorknob in the entrance of the Spurgeon Library so that it can continue to grant access to the thousands of volumes that shaped the mind and heart of England’s greatest preacher.
JW: I know the bulk of the collection wasn’t built a little bit at a time. Tell us how the collection came to be in the possession of Midwestern Seminary.
CG: By the time of his death in 1892, Charles Spurgeon had marshaled approximately 12,000 books in his personal library at his Westwood residence in south London. While many of the volumes were theological, his collection also contained a great number of interdisciplinary offerings, including popular literature, novels, travel guides, biographies, scientific and historical tomes, and books on hymnody.
In 1904, Spurgeon’s sons bestowed the bulk of their father’s library upon the care of an agent who attempted to sell the collection to a British college. The attempt was unsuccessful, and in the following year the Missouri Baptist General Association expressed interest in its acquisition. Led by J. T. M. Johnson, John E. Franklin, John Priest Greene, and J. E. Cook, the Association raised $2,500 for the purchase of the library, which sold for 50 cents per volume.
Under the supervision of Dr. J. W. Thirtle, Spurgeon’s library was packaged in 38 cases lined with waterproof canvas, loaded onto the S.S. Cuba, and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean on December 16. After arriving in New Orleans, Louisiana, the library was transported to Kansas City, Missouri, by the Illinois Central Railroad before traveling some 20 miles to Liberty, Missouri, where it was presented as a gift from the Missouri Baptist Association to William Jewell College. For 100 years, the collection remained on display in the lower level of the Curry Library.
In a blind auction on October 10, 2006, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary purchased the library of over 6,000 volumes, many of them heavily annotated by Spurgeon. In 2014, under the leadership of Dr. Jason K. Allen, the Seminary’s fifth president, a generous donation was given for the founding of the Spurgeon Center. Renovations to transform the Seminary’s former chapel were completed in July 2015, with its dedication following that October.
Today, the Spurgeon Library contains the largest collection in the world of Spurgeon’s personally owned works and is committed to advancing Spurgeon scholarship, promoting biblical preaching, and bringing theological higher education into the service of the church.
JW: The place, frankly, looks amazing, and students and faculty alike thus far have been flocking to it. Aesthetically speaking, the library space itself is really a beautiful environment. And one thing a visitor notices right away, besides the impressive architecture and fixtures, is the incredible artwork around the library. Tell us a little bit about the space itself.
CG: Since the library used to be Seminary chapel, it needed only renovation, not construction. The renovation took only a few months.
As part of the vision of the administration, the Spurgeon Library exists not only to serve as a permanent location for Spurgeon’s book, but also as a conduit through which to tell Spurgeon’s story. We have done that in several ways:
First, we have created a visual timeline of Spurgeon’s life and ministry that spans the entrance of the foyer. For a lack of space, the timeline contains approximately 15 percent of the original data I wrote. It offers a detailed chronology of Spurgeon’s life as well as a collection of cultural events that took place during his lifetime. For instance, we’ve included the founding of Kansas City in 1853 – three years after Spurgeon became a Christian. We’ve included the newspaper article from Montgomery, Alabama, that in 1859 called for a public burning of Spurgeon’s abolitionist sermons. We’ve also included an excerpt from The Kansas City Times written in February 1892, one month after Spurgeon’s death. “The death of Charles Spurgeon removes the most commanding figure in the Protestant Church.” In addition to cultural/historical facts, the timeline also displays water from the River Lark where Spurgeon was baptized, a Japanese edition of Spurgeon’s favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a personal letter from A.A. Hodge to Spurgeon, and a pulpit note that Spurgeon wrote and preached from.
Secondly, we also tell Spurgeon’s story through artwork. Most people don’t realize this, but Charles Spurgeon was an artist. His son, Thomas even became a professional artist. Spurgeon often sent home letters to Susannah filled with sketches of his travels. In fact, one of Spurgeon’s earliest notations is a journal of bird drawings that Charles sketched as a teenager.
For this reason, we commissioned two artists to capture the likeness of Spurgeon and also the key moments in his life. As you enter the Spurgeon Library, you are first flanked by two life-size portraits of the preacher – a young one in the dawn of youth, and an older one in the sunset of his ministry. These paintings are depicted in the Renaissance style by Caffy Whitney, the talented wife of Dr. Donald Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Upon entering the Library, you will also see eight large, 6 by 8 foot paintings that hang around the upper periphery. These paintings offer visual snapshots of key moments in Spurgeon’s ministry – his conversion, baptism, first sermon, orphanage, Tabernacle, theological institute, among others. In the parlor, you will see a vertical portrait of Spurgeon seated in his library with his wife, Susannah, standing behind him. These depictions were painted by Romanian artist, Petru Botezatu and are cast in the Byzantine style.
Thirdly, there are also three pieces of noteworthy furniture in the Spurgeon Library. First, Spurgeon’s original preaching rail that W. A. Criswell obtained from Spurgeon’s College. Second, Spurgeon’s writing desk. And third, a replica of the pulpit desk that Spurgeon preached from at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. These three pieces of furniture stand as a reminder that God desired to communicate his truth, not only through Spurgeon’s pulpits, but also through his pen.
Fourthly, the final way we are telling Spurgeon’s story is found on the table display near the entrance of the Spurgeon Library. On it, you will see the complete process of Spurgeon’s published sermons, from the actual sermon note that Spurgeon took with him into the pulpit to the stenographer’s notation, Spurgeon’s redactions on the type-set galley proofs, and at last to the finished publication. As influential as his London ministry was, Spurgeon’s sermons transcended England and placed him on a global radar. His sermons were translated into over 40 countries and found in the hands country preachers in Tennessee, coal miners in Colorado, sailors in San Francisco, and often – against Spurgeon’s permission – preached in pulpits on the following Sundays.
JW: What began your personal interest in Spurgeon?
CG: It’s amazing to come to a season of life and realize that all along God has been drawing the lines of your life to converge at a particular place and a particular time. The lines that led me to Kansas City begin with a pilgrimage that my father and I took to England when I was a teenager.
We traveled to Colchester to see where Charles Spurgeon was converted, to Iselham where he was baptized, to Waterbeach where he pastored his first church, to London where he served for 37 years as pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and to Norwood Cemetery where he is buried. Traveling to Spurgeon Country gave me a vested interest in learning more about what God has accomplished in the life of this Victorian preacher.
Over the next several years, I began to read through all of Spurgeon’s sermons. I wrote papers about him in college and divinity school, and then completed a dissertation on his Christology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The discovery and publication of his earliest Cambridge sermons in recent years has only fueled the fire of my interest in the mind and heart of this great man.
I always tell my students that they need to fall in love with a dead theologian before they graduate – to spend their lives learning from the wisdom of the past. For J. I. Packer, it’s John Owen. For Eric Metaxas, it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But for me, Charles Spurgeon will always be my historical man-crush. And I’m totally unashamed to own that. (laughs)
JW: Well, we can forgive you for that! I know your hope is that Spurgeon's heart and mind will shape the hearts and minds of the men and women entering the orbit of the library and Midwestern Seminary in general. What is your vision for the use of the library and its impact on the Church?
CG: The Spurgeon Library is the fulfillment of a vision to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ for the academy, for the church, and for the glory of God through the preservation and presentation of Charles Spurgeon’s personal library. As an extension of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission, the Library hosts fellowships and scholarships; extends research opportunities to visiting scholars and professors; and sponsors annual conferences, lectureships, gatherings, papers, and symposia.
As a steward of this story, the Library is designed to foster a deeper appreciation of Spurgeon’s life and legacy by making visible the highlights of his ministry through books, letters, photographs, sermons, art, and artifacts. In attitude and architecture, the aim of the Library is to create a visual memory – a sermon in stone – that calls for reflection on what God has accomplished in the past and anticipation for what God will accomplish in the future. Following the example of Spurgeon’s own convictions about theological education, the Library likewise supplies resources for pastors, teachers, students, and missionaries to be better equipped to fulfill God’s calling upon their lives.
At the height of the Downgrade Controversy, Spurgeon offered a farewell prophesy: “I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years, but the more distant future shall vindicate me.” Over a century has passed since he uttered those words. Yet today, perhaps more than ever, evangelicals continue to glean wisdom from the words and witness of “The Prince of Preachers.” Like Abel, who “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4), Charles Spurgeon still has something to say. Insomuch as the gospel is preached, disciples are made, students are taught, and cities are reached; and insomuch as future generations look not to Spurgeon but through Spurgeon, Helmut Thielicke’s words will ring true: “This bush from old London still burns and shows no sign of being consumed.”
JW: Tell us about your sermon project — The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon— and how the work is progressing on it.
CG: In 2011, as I was preparing to defend my PhD dissertation, I came across a stack of notebooks at Spurgeon’s College in London that contained sermons written by Charles Spurgeon from his teenage ministry in Cambridgeshire.
Spurgeon attempted to publish these sermons in 1857, three years after he moved to London, but the demands of his new pastorate prevented him. My initial impulse, after realizing the significance of this material for the academy and the church, was to fulfill Spurgeon’s original desire and bring their publication to fruition.
In the spring of 2017, after more than a century and a half since the sermons were written, B&H Academic began publishing them in a multi-volume set that includes facsimiles and transcriptions of every sermon, along with a contextual introduction and editorial annotations. The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon will add approximately 10% of material to Spurgeon’s total body of literature and will constitute the first critical edition of any of his works.
JW: What new insights into Spurgeon’s life and ministry does this book offer?
CG: In some ways, studying the past is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Every new piece of information provides a more complete picture of the whole. Spurgeon’s earliest sermons offer a more comprehensive perspective of his life and work. They will help scholars answer questions like, what influences shaped Spurgeon’s earliest ministry? What mistakes did he make? How do his early sermons compare to his later ones? Did Spurgeon’s theology, preaching style, or doctrinal emphases change or remain constant?
Given Spurgeon’s meteoric rise in popularity, it is sometimes tempting to think that he arrived on the scene of mid-Victorian evangelicalism perfect and polished. But it is becoming clear that Spurgeon’s homiletic habits evolved dynamically over the first four years of his preaching ministry. His redactions on the manuscripts themselves tell us a lot about the progression of his preaching. To really understand Spurgeon, you have to know where he came from, whom he was reading, and how his sermon-craft developed. It has been so fascinating to watch the seeds that were planted in Cambridge fully blossom in his pastorate in London.
This project reveals not only a new product from the most popular preacher of his day, but a new process– an experimental exegesis that complements his uncanny and anointed abilities.
JW: This book includes your own critical commentary on the sermons. Why is this inclusion significant and unique?
CG: A project like this demands textual analysis. Spurgeon wrote these sermons to assist him in the pulpit, not to be read by the public. Had he succeeded in publishing them, as he did with his later sermon outlines, Spurgeon would have edited them for his readership. In their present form, however, his sermons are raw and messy. His phrases are erratic, inconsistent, and in places hardly legible. His punctuation provides visual cues more than grammatical aids. For these reasons, the text demands a docent – someone to offer explanation and interpretation.
This project also demands contextualization. Context is crucial to reconstructing the setting in which Spurgeon penned and preached these sermons.
The great problem of studying the past is that you and I are tethered to the present. In 21st-century America, we are separated from Spurgeon by two intimidating barriers: chronology and geography. To scale them, the historian must live in two worlds. He must live in the world he knows and he must live in the world he wants to know. That is why, for the past four years, I have kept up to date not only with the current events of our time, but also with the current events of Spurgeon’s time. It is not enough to hold the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This project demands a Bible in one hand and two newspapers in the other – one from the past and one from the present.
JW: What has been the greatest challenge of this publication?
CG: For me, the greatest challenge of this publication is becoming invisible. It takes a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of work to transmit the thoughts of a Victorian teenager into the mind of a 21st-century citizen. And yet, the ultimate goal of this project is to erase the middleman so that God can bring two individuals from two different cultures into sacred conversation. Once we get out of the way, I believe Spurgeon’s sermons will travel seamlessly across a century and an ocean into the heads and hearts of their new audience.
JW: What would you say is one thing about Spurgeon’s life and ministry that people often overlook?
CG: I think it can be easy to make a superhero out of Charles Spurgeon. In many ways, he does appear bulletproof. If progress was the Victorian’s greatest virtue, Spurgeon was as virtuous as they came. In his early twenties, he had become pastor of the largest Protestant congregation in the world. His voice reached crowds of three thousand and twenty-three thousand. His church had baptized almost 15,000 members, maintained a weekly attendance of 6,000 people, and spawned 66 parachurch ministries, including two orphanages, a book fund, a retirement home, and a theological college. Every week, Spurgeon wrote nearly 500 letters, digested six meaty books, preached up to 10 times, and constantly switched hats among pastor, president, editor, author, and evangelist. By 1892, Spurgeon had published more words in the English language than any other Christian in history. Without the aid of television, radio, or the Internet, Spurgeon proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to an estimated 10 million people in his lifetime. It is small wonder that, according to Carl F. H. Henry, Charles Spurgeon is “one of evangelical Christianity’s immortals.”
But Spurgeon also bled like the rest of us. His mortality was always on his mind. Spurgeon suffered long periods of physical and mental illness. One psychiatrist has noted that if he lived today, Spurgeon would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with medicine. He was constantly plagued by disease on the one hand and depression on the other, always oscillating between gout and doubt. At the age of twenty-two, Spurgeon almost quit the ministry. Eight years later, his wife, Susannah, suffered a botched surgery that rendered her infertile for the rest of her life. At the end of his life, many of Spurgeon’s students, deacons, and even his own brother turned their backs on him.
Spurgeon was no stranger to suffering, and I think this is what made him connect so directly to his audience. He appealed to the common working class because he suffered as one of them. He could incarnate the gospel because he himself was human. Spurgeon once said, “If there is anything in this world for which I would bless [God] more than for anything else, it is for pain and affliction. … Fear not the storm. It brings healing in its wings, and when Jesus is with you in the vessel, the tempest only hastens the ship to its desired haven.”
Spurgeon is often subject to hero-worship. But I hope this publication will break from the usual hagiography which deteriorates Spurgeon scholarship, and instead paint a three-dimensional portrait of the preacher whose warts reveal as much about his profile as his dimples.
JW: Why do you think Spurgeon's popularity endures, and has even intensified, in the 21st century?
CG: Mine is a generation of amplifiers, not antennas. The constant broadcasting of our lives through social media can have a deteriorating effect on that part of our soul that needs to listen, contemplate, and be. Spurgeon speaks into our culture loudly and in a way that we can easily understand.
Younger generations are more primed for Spurgeon than even older ones. Has there ever been a preacher in the history of Christendom more capable of speaking the language of Millennials? Spurgeon doesn’t even need the full 140 characters to get the gospel across. His sentences are pithy and punchy – as tweetable as they are true. And I think this is one reason why Spurgeon is making an epic comeback in our time.
JW: If someone is interested in reading Spurgeon for the first time, where would suggest they start?
CG: For a bite-sized introduction, I recommend Spurgeon’s daily devotional, Morning & Evening, which has been converted into a free app that can be downloaded. For a deeper read, I would point to Spurgeon’s four-volume and also his books The Soul Winner, Lectures to My Students, and All of Grace. In his 63 volumes of digitized sermons, my favorite is “The Dying Thief in a New Light,” though his most famous sermon during his lifetime was “Baptismal Regeneration,” preached on June 5, 1864. First-time readers often tell me that when they read Spurgeon, they feel that he is speaking directly to them. I think this is one reason that he loses little over time.
JW: Excellent. All right — any parting thoughts for the Spurgeon-curious?
CG: Yes. If you want to study Karl Barth, go to Princeton. If you want to study Jonathan Edwards, go to Yale. But if you want to study the life and legacy of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, come to Midwestern Seminary. Because God is doing something unprecedented and unparalleled in the heart of this great nation.
Charles Spurgeon died in 1892, but God is not done with his Victorian preacher. Like Abel, Spurgeon “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4). I believe future generations will discover in him one of the greatest amplifiers of God’s glory and one of the most encouraging edifiers of God’s people. Spurgeon once said, “I would fling my shadow through eternal ages if I could.” Indeed, his life and legacy have spilled deeply into our own age. My greatest passion, and the ultimate ambition of the Spurgeon Library, is to help men and women look, not just to Spurgeon but through Spurgeon so they can get a better glimpse, as it were, of the Son that caused the shadow.