By the end of his life, Spurgeon had preached the gospel to an estimated ten million Victorians, all without television, radio, microphones, or the Internet.
Thousands of Londoners were converted under his four-decade ministry. Some were orphans, others beggars. Many were prostitutes, chimney sweeps, and domestic servants. Yet all of them shared one thing in common: God had melted their hearts through the faithful gospel preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
“I do not know of any sermon preached here without conversions.”
But who was Spurgeon’s first convert?
For over 150 years, that individual has hidden from history. Now, based on the best available research, we think we have found him, and also Spurgeon’s second convert. Using a triangulation of Spurgeon’s Lost Sermons, his autobiography, and genealogical research in Cambridgeshire, Spurgeon’s first convert (and the one that got away) can finally step into the light.
Sixteen-year-old Spurgeon began preaching in 1851, only months after his surprising conversion in a Colchester blizzard. Spurgeon was youthful, zealous, and full of energy. Pride lurked in his heart, but the teenager combated his “darling sin” with prayer, fasting, and meditation on Scripture.
As a member of St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Spurgeon joined a group of young men who traveled throughout the country preaching in cottages and small chapels. One of them—Waterbeach Chapel—invited Spurgeon to be their pastor. Instead of pursing formal theological education in London like his father wished, Spurgeon accepted the pastorate of a dying church with only a few dozen members.
Every Sunday, Spurgeon walked “five or six honest miles” to Waterbeach to preach. His annual salary was only forty-five pounds (the equivalent today of $5,443), but his church gave their preacher everything they had.
“I do not think there was a pig killed by any one of the congregation without my having some portion of it.”
Soon, attendance began to expand. Within three years, almost 400 people crammed each week inside the thatched cottage to hear the “boy preacher of the fens.” Crime diminished in the village, as did the drunkenness and debauchery that had tainted Waterbeach’s reputation.
Spurgeon wrote his outlines and sermons in a series of nine unpublished notebooks which he kept until he died. In his fifty-fourth sermon, “The Little Fire and Great Combustion” (James 3:5), Spurgeon inscribed the name of his first recorded convert: “Mr. Charles.”
Name: Thomas Charles
Age: 31 (born in 1820)
Occupation: Agricultural laborer
Town: Histon, Cambridgeshire (only 5 miles from Waterbeach)
According to Spurgeon, Thomas Charles was “the ringleader in all that was bad.” He was the “terror of the neighbourhood” who “would be drunk for two or three weeks at a spell” and raged like a madman.
But Spurgeon never forgot the moment of Charles’s conversion. He recalled,
“That man came to hear me; I recollect the sensation that went through the little chapel when he entered. He sat there, and fell in love with me; I think that was the only conversion that he experienced, but he professed to be converted. He had, apparently, been the subject of genuine repentance, and he became outwardly quite a changed character; he gave up his drinking and swearing, and was in many respects an exemplary individual. . . . I heard him pray; it was rough, rugged language, but there was such impassioned earnestness.”
“If there was rough work to be done, he would do it.”
“If there was a Sunday-school to be maintained, six or seven miles away, he would walk there.”
Problem was, Thomas Charles apostatized and abandoned the faith.
After nine months, Spurgeon’s first recorded convert returned to his former sinful lifestyle and left the church. The brokenhearted young pastor lamented,
“He began to think he had been a little too fanatical, a little too earnest. He slunk up to the place of worship instead of coming boldly in; he gradually forsook the week-night service, and then neglected the Sabbath-day; and, though often warned, and often rebuked, he returned to his old habits, and any thoughts of God or godliness that he had ever known, seemed to die away. . . . Before I left the district, I was afraid that there was no real work of grace in him.”
Three months and twenty-three sermons later, Spurgeon recorded a second convert, “Mrs. Spalding.”
Name: Hannah Spalding
Age: 49 (born in 1802)
Occupation: Wife of Richard Spalding, agricultural laborer
Town: Outwell, Norfolk (29 miles from Waterbeach)
Hannah Spalding was converted in 1851 during Spurgeon’s 100th sermon, “Sinners Must Be Punished.” Spurgeon preached that Sunday on Psalm 9:17: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” At the end of his sermon, he said, “The sinner can bring no excuse. Not ignorance, nor forgetfulness, want of heart, nor want of time, nor part obedience, nor the hardness of the law.”
Hannah could bring no excuse either. She surrendered her life to Jesus Christ and three weeks later, a deacon told Spurgeon the good news.
“She was the first seal to my ministry, and a very precious one.”
“I prize each one whom God has given me, but I prize that woman most.”
“Who is it?” Spurgeon asked.
“Oh, it is a poor labouring man’s wife,” the deacon said. “She went home broken-hearted . . . but she has found peace, and she says she would like to speak to you.”
On Monday morning, Spurgeon took a carriage to meet his “first spiritual child.” He reflected,
“How my heart leaped for joy when I heard tidings of my first convert! . . . If anybody had said to me, ‘Someone has left you twenty thousand pounds,’ I should not have given a snap of my fingers for it, compared with the joy which I felt when I was told that God had saved a soul through my ministry! . . . . 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.”
A Final Word
At the very end of Spurgeon’s favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, after Christian had reached the gates of the Celestial City, John Bunyan included the plight of Ignorance, a character who forfeited heaven at the end of his pilgrimage. Bunyan’s final sentence is often deleted from modern versions:
“Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven.”
Hannah Spalding died shortly after her conversion. Did she, like Thomas Charles, abandon the faith at the end?
Spurgeon didn’t think so. “After a year or two of faithful witness-bearing,” Spurgeon said, “she went home, to lead the way for a goodly number who have followed her.”
The story of Spurgeon’s two first converts—a genuine conversion and an apostate—stands as a haunting reminder that each of us will give account for how we walk the pilgrim path.
As Christians, we can never lose our salvation, but as John Bunyan and Thomas Charles remind us, even at the gates of heaven there is a way to hell.