While many young pastors long for an influential ministry in the population centers to increase their platform and reach more people, Spurgeon believes they should embrace rural ministries. From his upbringing to his first ministry post, Spurgeon would look back with much affection to the time he spent in these rural areas—areas that those in the cities would ignore or outright forget. Spurgeon’s ministry was laced was references to his rural upbringing.
Spurgeon Idealized Rural England
Spurgeon was born in Kelvedon in Essex on June 19, 1834. Early in his childhood, he went to live for a time with his grandfather James in Stambourne, approximately 60 miles from London’s center, and developing a love for “his beloved Fenlands.” For Spurgeon, this rural area was a place where he learned and ultimately submitted to his Lord Jesus and, as we shall see, surrendered to God’s call to ministry. Thomas Breimaier noted that Spurgeon “would idealize rural England,” specifically Stambourne, the place where he lived with his grandparents, James and Sarah. God used his relatives and neighbors in these areas to show Him the wonders of Christ and ministry, and Spurgeon believed that others could be of use in those areas as well. After all, Christ plants His church in all manner of places.
Find the Church of Christ wherever you will, and you shall find her scorned and despised of man. Find her in Scotland, and her Covenanters have to hide themselves in the midst of the mountain, and read the Word of God by the lightning flash, to escape from the dragoons of Claverhouse. Find her in England and where was she? Not in the cathedrals of her cities, but in the dungeons of her rural towns like Bedford with John Bunyan; not among the great and noble who were the persecutors, but among the poor and conscientious who were the persecuted.
Spurgeon’s First Time Preaching was in a Rural Area
Spurgeon first preached at a small home in Teversham, no more than 15-16 years of age. He was on the receiving end of the Preachers’ Association’s leader James Vinter’s plans to have Spurgeon preach without his consent and knowledge. Spurgeon remembered that “Bishop” Vinter wanted him to accompany someone to Teversham, “for a young man was to preach there who was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of the company.” The young man to preach was Spurgeon himself, who would have balked at such a notion had Vinter phrased this task differently! He preached one of his Sunday School talks.
He described the place of the gathering as a “low-pitched room of the thatched cottage where a few simple-minded farm-labourers and their wives were gathered together; we sang, and prayed, and read the Scriptures, and then came my first sermon.” God used that first preaching occasion to send Spurgeon on a trajectory to preach as a vocation.
Spurgeon’s First Pastorate was in a Rural Area
In his Autobiography, Spurgeon looked back at how God used him even as a young lad in that farming community of Waterbeach. “Have you ever seen the poverty, and degradation, and misery of the inhabitants, and sighed over it? . . . But was it ever your privilege to walk through that village again, in after years, when the gospel had been preached there? It has been mine.” It was here where Spurgeon first pastored on October 7, 1851 at the tender age of 17, serving there for two years as their pastor. Waterbeach, located near Cambridge and approximately 70 miles northeast of London, was far away from the cultural center of England (and the world, one might add). Yet, the taste of seeing God change so many hardened sinners into followers of Christ reminded Spurgeon that God was at work in every area. As such, this set a course for Spurgeon to a continued reliance on the gospel of Jesus, regardless of his situation. Hear William Estep’s words:
Waterbeach meant more to Spurgeon than just a place to preach. It was here that he felt that God had unmistakably put his seal upon his ministry, for in that English hamlet he claimed his first convert for Christ. His first pastorate also became his divinity school. His inherited Calvinism had been underlined and reinforced by a cook in the Agriculture College. To her he often referred in words of tribute and gratitude for what she had taught him. In Waterbeach, his intensive pursuit of his vocation with its opportunity for ready application of lessons learned in the study became the necessary preparation for what was to become his life’s work, his London pastorate.
While Spurgeon’s ministry and fame would come during his 38-year ministry in London, the largest city in the world at that time, it was at Waterbeach (as Estep noted) where God would confirm his calling. “I would rather bring the poorest woman in the world to the feet of Jesus than I would be made Archbishop of Canterbury.” He had no desire to climb the ecclesiastical ladder as was often the case with other ministers in the Anglican church. In fact, his heart always stayed with those who could offer little due to their status in the culture.
Urging Younger Preachers Toward Rural Areas
Spurgeon’s heart always stayed with those forgotten communities, even urging younger preachers in his Pastors College to take advantage of the opportunities these areas presented. In one rather lengthy paragraph in the first volume of his Autobiography, he closes the section of his account at Teversham this way:
Are there not other young men who might begin to speak for Jesus in some lowly fashion—young men who have hitherto been mute as fishes? Our villages and hamlets offer fine opportunities for youthful speakers. . . . If they go out and tell from their hearts what the Lord has done for them, they will find ready listeners. Many of our young folks want to commence their service for Christ by doing great things or nothing at all; let none of my readers become victims of such an unreasonable ambition.
Spurgeon’s advice serves young, aspiring ministers well even today. Even from an early age, Spurgeon refused to ignore those whom others disregarded or had forgotten. And in this case, even as Spurgeon moved to the historic New Park Street Church in England’s capital, the city did not diminish his love for those in the country. But more than this, he knew that, “he who talks upon plain gospel themes in a farmer’s kitchen, and is able to interest the carter’s boy and the dairymaid, has more of the minister in him than the prim little man who keeps prating about being cultured, and means by that—being taught to use words which nobody can understand.”
The rural areas sharpen the preaching of many a young preacher to help them remain biblically precise while helping those who do not have the benefits of education such as farmers and laborers understand the Word of God in their own language. These experiences helped Spurgeon connect with the lower and middle class of London, much to their delight.
Spurgeon’s preaching emerged not in the ivory towers of Cambridge but in the lowly villages surrounding it. He was more concerned with feeding sheep than giraffes. . . . Even after moving to London, Spurgeon retained his early earthy idioms and used illustrations common to the Victorian experience.
The rhetoricians and orators that occupied London’s pulpits failed to connect to the common citizen like Spurgeon did, and looked upon Spurgeon with contempt. Robyn Carswell rightly reflected on how Spurgeon’s critics viewed him.
On many Sundays, crowds that numbered over ten thousand attended his sermons. However, Spurgeon was not without his critics. The press, Anglican ministers, and even members of his own denomination took many opportunities to disparage the young Baptist minister. They thought his technique and style were vulgar and base, and antithetical to proper worship and religious decorum. Despite his detractors and their frequent and malicious attacks, Spurgeon’s success escalated.
The vulgarities and baseness to which Carswell refers originate from Spurgeon’s rural upbringing. Whereas other preachers in the city sought to impress the elite of society with their academic and high-flown oratory, Spurgeon would use illustrations that connected to the average person, regardless of their station in life. The experiences he had in the rural areas planted a seed in his heart for his sermons (and, as a result, the gospel) to use whatever means necessary to bring clarity to the preaching of the Word. Thus, whenever any delivery or doctrine of preaching arose that confused the Word, Spurgeon did not hesitate to address this problem.
In a sermon in 1860 quoted in his Autobiography, he lamented the “new theology” that took hold in all-too-many pulpits:
I have often thought, that the best answer to the new theology is, that the true Gospel was always preached to the poor . . . I am sure that the poor will never learn the Gospel of these new divines, for they cannot make head or tail of it; nor will the rich either. After you have read one of their volumes . . . it sours your temper, it makes you feel angry, to see the precious things of God trodden underfoot . . . we can allow a thousand opinions in the world, but that which infringes upon the doctrines of a covenant salvation, through the impudent righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ–against that we must, and will, enter our hearty and solemn protest, as long as God spares us.
Spurgeon’s willingness to preaching the gospel to the poor in person in a way that they could understand not only expressed his pastoral heart to have all embrace the gospel, but also demonstrated a trajectory that began in those early ministry years in those rural areas.
Whether you live in London or in any other great town amidst reeking sin, or dwell in the country amidst the dense darkness which broods over many rural districts, you are under bonds to be up and doing. It may be a cross to you, but for Jesus’ sake you must uplift it, and never lay it down till the Lord calls you home.
Jesus Did Not Neglect the Rural Areas
Spurgeon reminded his congregation that Jesus Himself did not neglect the rural areas. In an 1873 sermon, Spurgeon recounted a time when Jesus once again put the religious leaders in their place, observed that:
… in argument he had proved their folly, and had crumpled them up till they were like so many bruised bulrushes; but there he paused, he did not pursue the conflict further, but retired to Galilee, into the lone places and rural districts of the country, and preached there the gospel.
God provides a remnant of believers in rural areas as well, and have been on the receiving end of persecution by religious leaders:
Cases of persecution are by no means rare. In many a country village squires and priests rule with a high hand, and smite the godly villagers with a rod of iron. “No blankets, no coals, no almshouse for you, if you venture into the meeting-house. You cannot live in my cottage if you have a prayer-meeting in it. I will have no religious people on my farm.” We who live in more enlightened society, little know the terrorism exercised in some of the rural districts over poor men and women who endeavour conscientiously to carry out their convictions and walk with Christ.
Though religious persecution came at the hands of the “village squires and priests” because of their walking with Christ, Spurgeon reminded all who heard that Jesus saw their situation and would bring comfort and strength in those times of trouble. Yes, Jesus saw the plight of believers in rural areas as well.
God Gives Strength to Those in Rural Ministries
In Spurgeon’s book An All-Around Ministry, a series of lectures he delivered to the students at his Pastors College, he spoke to those who would preach and minister in areas of low visibility. Yet, his experience in serving in these types of areas helped him encourage those students who were doing so as well. In this lengthy paragraph, Spurgeon shows how well he knows the challenges that arise from such ministries.
Faith in God enables many of you, I know right well, to bear much hardship, and exercise much self-denial, and yet to persevere in your ministry. My heart rejoices over the many brethren here whom God has made to be winners of souls; and I may add that I am firmly persuaded, concerning many here present, that the privations they have undergone, and the zeal they have shown in the service of their Lord, though unrewarded by any outward success, are a sweet savor unto God. True faith makes a man feel that it is sweet to be a living sacrifice unto God. Only faith could keep us in the ministry, for ours is not a vocation which brings with it golden pay; it is not a calling which men would follow who desire honor and rank. We have all kinds of evils to endure, evils as numerous as those which Paul included in his famous catalogue of trials; and, I may add, we have one peril which he does not mention, namely, the perils of church-meetings, which are probably worse than perils of robbers. Underpaid and undervalued, without books and without congenial associates, many a rural preacher of the gospel would die of a broken heart, did not his faith gird him with strength from on high.
This last sentence in that quote resonates in the heart of every rural preacher. “Underpaid and undervalued, without books and without congenial associates, many a rural preacher of the gospel would die of a broken heart, did not his faith gird him with strength from on high.” Spurgeon outlines the internal and external challenges rural ministries bring, tempting young preachers to stay away to pursue a ministry with a higher visibility, higher pay, and higher respect from congregants and fellow ministers alike. Yet, Spurgeon reminds them that, “though unrewarded by any outward success,” God sees, and God knows—that ministry, indeed, is a “sweet savor unto God.”
Spurgeon recognized that those rural areas are mission fields populated with souls in need of rescue. Yes, God may call one to serve in population centers as God called Spurgeon to London. Yet, Spurgeon never forgot those dear souls as the cities often do. And God does not forget. Are you willing to serve Christ in these forgotten areas so that they may see and know Christ as their Lord?
O mosses and hill-sides of Scotland, in the Covenanting times, many believed on him there! Talk not so exceeding proudly, O ye cathedrals or ye great tabernacles; for many have believed on Jesus by the highway side, out on the village green, or under the spreading oak. Out in the desert of southern France, where men fled for their lives to hear the gospel, many believed on Jesus. In what place cannot Jesus triumph?
Jesus can and will triumph in every place. How thankful we are that Spurgeon reminds us of that reality.
Matthew R. Perry (Ph.D., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO; D.Min., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY) serves as Lead Pastor of Arapahoe Road Baptist Church in Centennial, CO; and also Affiliate Faculty at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, CO.
Thomas Breimaier, Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C.H. Spurgeon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 21-22.
Spurgeon, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” MTP 7:397 (1861).
William R. Estep, “The Making of a Prophet: An Introduction to Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Baptist History and Heritage 19:4 (1984), 8.
Christian George, ed., The Lost Sermons of Spurgeon, Vol. 1, xx.
Robyn Carswell, “Charles Spurgeon: The Prince and the Paupers,” Historia (2005), 118.
Spurgeon, Autobiography 1:260.
Spurgeon, “Up from the Country, Pressed into Service,” MTP 31:1853 (1885).
Spurgeon, “The Gentleness of Jesus,” MTP 19:1147 (1873).
Spurgeon, “Suffering and Reigning with Jesus,” MTP 10:547 (1864).
Spurgeon, An All-Around Ministry
Spurgeon, “A Cheering Incident at Bethabra” MTP 32:1924 (1886).