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Spurgeon’s Last Inscription

Brandon Rhea May 7, 2020

To the credit of J.W. Harrald and Susannah Spurgeon, they documented Charles Spurgeon’s last days before leaving his mortal body. His last service commenced on January 17, 1892, in his sitting room in Mentone, France. He read excerpts from a sermon on Psalm 73:28 and his Exposition from Matthew 15:21-28. “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” was his final hymn. Moreover, he sent his last telegram on Tuesday, January 26th, despite only being “partly conscious,” to pledge 100 pounds to the Tabernacle as a thank offering.[1] Finally, as a voracious reader, the editors who compiled Spurgeon’s Autobiography recorded the last book in which he inscribed a review.


From the beginning of his ministry, Spurgeon wrote notes in his books. After reviewing Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians in 1852, he penned, “‘This volume is one of my earliest friends;—needs no letter of commendation.” He also praised John Gill’s commentary on the Song of Songs: “This priceless work of my learned predecessor has always been helpful to me.”[2]


Considering Spurgeon’s love for church history, what author grabbed his attention in his final weeks? Was it Augustine, Luther, Gill, or even his contemporary A.A. Hodge? No, he read from new author Alice Morse Earle’s 1891 publication, which examined the Christian Sabbath’s institution in 17th and 18th centuries of New England. His Autobiography notes, “The Sabbath in Puritan New England by Alice Morse Earle, probably contains the last inscription written by the Pastor, and a very expressive one it is.”[3]


Why would Spurgeon be interested in this subject? Since his early childhood, he devoured Puritan authors, which explains one reason.[4] Additionally, he emphasized for believers to keep the Christian Sabbath in his pulpit ministry. In one sermon, for example, he exhorted his hearers to “confess your pride and unbelief, your Sabbath-breaking, your dishonesty, your falsehood, your disobedience to parents, your every breach of the divine law.”[5] Consequently, Earle’s book brought to an intersection his life-long interests of the Puritans and the Sabbath.


Given Spurgeon’s approbation of Luther and Gill, what was his last inscription in this book? Surprisingly, he critiqued it. “‘An amusing but saddening book. The seamy side of New England religion exposed. The authoress is the wife of that Ham of whom we read in Genesis.—C.H. Spurgeon, Dec., 1891.’”[6] For Spurgeon, Earle unsympathetically shined the lantern light on the excesses and sins surrounding the New England Puritans’ Sabbath observance. To make his point, he compared Earle to Ham from Genesis 9:21. He saw Noah’s nakedness and did not cover him up. In Spurgeon’s opinion, Earle viewed the Puritans’ nakedness too. Instead of covering them up, she gazed and announced it to the public. Hence, the editors of Spurgeon’s Autobiography commented, “He knew that there was a ‘seamy side’ even to his beloved Puritanism; but he felt that it ought not to be thus exposed to the public gaze, but to be kindly and charitably concealed.”[7]


What did Earle expose? First, she highlighted the practice of forming seating committees to assign where each person would sit for the church service. Showing her bias, she noted, “Our Puritan forefathers, though bitterly denouncing all forms and ceremonies, were great respecters of persons; and in nothing was the regard for wealth and position more fully shown than in designating the seat in which each person should sit during public worship.”[8]


Second, she unveiled the Puritan’s practice of instantaneous church discipline upon the drowsy and misbehaving. Each congregation appointed tithingmen to keep order in the meetings. For Earle, the tithingmen “impresse[d] me always with a sense of unreality, of incongruity, of strange happening, like a jesting clown in a procession of monks, like a strain of low comedy in the sober religious drama of early New England Puritan life.” With a long staff, he would hit the heads of the slumbering to awaken them. In one instance, a tithingman accidently used the heavy end, reserved only for males, on a woman—for which he was warned.[9]


The third example revealed the anti-stove wars. The combination of cold New England winters, meetinghouses in the country, lightly insulated women’s attire, the frozen chosen shivered through the services. Eventually, some congregations considered adding a stove to heat the building, but since it went against tradition, church divisions formed. Due to their stubborn and backward ways, Earle lamented that they “did not, in their minds, need any shielding and coddling to keep it [religion] alive, but thrived far better on Spartan severity and simplicity.”[10]


In this light, Spurgeon’s negative reaction against the author can be understood. Even though Earle’s account had entertaining stories, her tone and editorial selections meant to embarrass the Puritan churches as pre-modern instead of trying to comprehend their mindset, theology, and culture.


At the same time, Spurgeon’s last inscription revealed two things about him before his death. First, his love for studying the Puritans and the Christian Sabbath did not wane. Even in periods of long physical decline, his curiosity pulled him like a magnet to these interests. Second, his graciousness shines. In contrast with Earle who judged Puritan history from her pedestal, Spurgeon exercised the Golden Rule in historical interpretation. He judged the New England Puritans with the same standard by which he would want to be judged. He employed 1 Peter 4:8 where “love covers a multitude of sins.” He did not dismiss the Puritans’ sins, but he did not enjoy gazing at them and exposing them for the world.


The next month, after writing his last inscription, Spurgeon perished. Fittingly the man, who spoke frequently about the Christian Sabbath, took his last breath on Sunday, January 31, 1892. To his great joy, he also took his first gaze at Jesus on the same Lord’s Day. Even though we do not know if he sang this verse from “The Sands of Time are Sinking” in his last service, it anticipated the scene which commenced in a fortnight.


            I shall sleep sound in Jesus,

            Filled with His likeness rise,

            To love and to adore Him,

            To see Him with these eyes:

            ‘Tween me and resurrection

            But paradise doth stand;

            Then—then for glory dwelling

            In Immanuel’s land.

Brandon Rhea currently serves as pastor of Faith Baptist Church, in Kirksville, MO. He also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Hisotrical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] Charles Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records by His Wife and Private Secretary, 4 vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897-1900), 4:370-371.

[2] Ibid., 300-301.

[3] Ibid., 304.

[4] Ibid., 1:22-23.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 34 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications 1970-2006),    391.

[6] Autobiography, 4:304.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alice Morse Earle, The Sabbath in Puritan New England (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 45.

[9] Ibid., 66-67.

[10] Ibid., 101.