The Victorian era has captivated the imaginations of many in recent years. One contributing factor has been PBS’s hit series Victoria, which portrays the story of the illustrious queen from her coronation in 1837 at the tender age of eighteen through the ups and downs of one of the most intriguing periods in Britain’s national life. The Victorian era witnessed rapid industrial expansion, widespread social reform, and major developments in the fields of science and medicine. It was an age of enterprise and progress, of evolution and change.
When one peruses the most popular shows and books set in the Victorian era, certain stereotypes are usually present. Even the word “Victorian” itself evokes a certain set of ideas and expectations. Many think of civility, good breeding, and fine manners. Some of these stereotypes extend to gender and expectations for men and women. When one imagines Victorian women, one thinks of doilies, teas, dresses, novel-reading, and letter-writing. However, such associations are only superficial.
Many are surprised to learn that in the Victorian era, women formed a large part of the industrial work force. Women worked in factories, mills, and on farms. Many women engaged in philanthropic work and labored on the front lines of social reform. The Victorian era was the age of Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, and Elizabeth Fry. These women and others like them changed society in lasting ways, and all the while imbued millions of women with new prospects, aspirations, and ambitions.
In the evangelical world, women were heavily engaged in church ministry, philanthropic work, and social activism. Women discovered new usefulness in the life of the church, and many gave themselves with rugged determination to substantial kingdom efforts. Though almost all evangelicals of the day embraced the traditional biblical understanding of the office of elder/pastor and it being limited to men, this did not keep women from throwing themselves into various other forms of meaningful ministry.
Charles Spurgeon, the most popular preacher of the day, eagerly promoted a vision for women active in ministry to the church and to the world. Spurgeon believed that God called many women to serve Christ in large and inspiring ways. Spurgeon expected that the women of the Metropolitan Tabernacle would participate fully in the life of the local church and would contribute to the success of the church’s mission.
As Spurgeon expected women to engage in active work for Christ, he sought to promote the example of certain faithful women in his own life. Below is a brief survey of five women whose lives and ministries Spurgeon heartily celebrated and commended.
Eliza Spurgeon: A Faithful Mother
Eliza was the mother of seventeen children, only eight of whom survived infancy. She devoted herself tirelessly to the nurture and care of her family. Her eldest son, Charles, provided a number of touching tributes to his faithful mother over the course of his life and ministry. He once wrote,
“I cannot tell you how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother…It was the custom, on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us, and then we sat round the table and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us…. Certainly I have not the powers of speech with which to set forth my valuation of the choice blessing which the Lord bestowed on me in making me the son of one who prayed for me, and prayed with me. How can I ever forget her tearful eye when she warned me to escape from the wrath to come?… How can I forget when she bowed her knee, and with her arms about my neck, prayed, ‘Oh that my son might live before Thee!’”
Throughout his life, Spurgeon would reflect again on the profound worth and value of his godly mother.
Eliza’s second son, John Archer, who served as co-pastor to Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle once said, “She was the starting point of all the greatness any of us, by the grace of God, have ever enjoyed.”
Perhaps one of the greatest tokens of Eliza’s faithfulness as a Christian mother was that all eight of her surviving children professed faith in Christ and commended the faithful example of their mother in leading them to Jesus. Spurgeon’s father, John, also testified to Eliza’s faithful witness before her children, recalling how impressed he was as he “heard her pray for them one by one by name.”
Mary King: A Godly Mentor
After Spurgeon left his parents’ home, he went on to study at Newmarket Academy in Cambridge. While there he came under the influence of the humble and godly cook at the school named Mary King. Spurgeon was only fifteen-years-old when he met Mary, and she would come to have a tremendous influence on his spiritual development over the next two years. Spurgeon wrote of her,
“She was a good old soul [and] liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine…. Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.”
Mary saw potential in young Charles, and did not view it as inappropriate in the least to endeavor to disciple this precocious young man. Spurgeon had just recently come to faith and been baptized before he met Mary, and he was in need of someone to mentor him in his young faith. Mary King made for a most unlikely mentor, and yet she had a formative influence on Spurgeon’s spiritual development in those pivotal days. Some years later, as Mary grew old, she became unwell and Spurgeon eagerly supported her financially for the rest of her life to honor the contribution she made to his Christian walk.
Susannah Spurgeon: A Companion in Ministry
Susannah, or ‘Susie,’ as Spurgeon called her, was a remarkable woman in many ways. Not only was she a tremendously faithful wife and mother, but she also participated alongside her husband in the work of ministry. Susie was an invalid for most of her adult life and was confined to her home much of the time. She was well acquainted with physical suffering. However, Susie was undaunted by the limitations imposed on her by her physical maladies.
As she surveyed the evangelical landscape of her day, Susie detected a need among many poor pastors in England for solid books with rich theology, such as the ones her husband wrote. This passion led her to found what came to be known as “Mrs. Spurgeon’s Book Fund,” which provided books free of charge to needy ministers all over the country. Over the course of her life she distributed over two hundred thousand books, filling the shelves of poor pastors who could not otherwise afford to buy the books themselves.
Susie became affectionately known as the “Mother” of the Pastors’ College. She earned this title in part because of her heavy involvement in the early years of the College. Susie and Charles together practiced the most rigid home economy to allow themselves the ability to give liberally to the establishment and growth of the school. Susie also labored to make the Spurgeon home a center of hospitality for students of the college who frequently came to their home to enjoy fellowship with the Spurgeons.
Even after the death of her husband, Susie was still actively engaged in Christian work. Not only did her book fund continue, but Susie gave herself to the work of church planting in the final years of her life. While passing through the coastal town of Brexill-on-Sea, Susie was in search of a Baptist chapel where she could worship. Finding that there was no such chapel in the area she undertook to plant a church there herself. The church she helped to plant, Beulah Baptist Church, still stands today as an evangelical witness in Brexill-on-Sea.
Anne Hillyard: A Christian Philanthropist
In the mid-1860s Spurgeon began to lead his church in praying that God would guide them into some new work they could carry on for his glory and for the good of the needy people of London. This prayer was answered through the benevolent vision of the unassuming widow of an Anglican pastor. Anne Hillyard was a godly woman who had inherited a large fortune from a deceased family member and was eager to use her money in benevolent causes. She carefully studied and waited for the right opportunity to invest her funds in kingdom work.
The opportunity came after she read an article in Spurgeon’s magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. She immediately sent a letter requesting a meeting with the famous preacher. It was at this meeting that she proposed a gift of £20,000 (worth about £2.5 million today) to start what came to be called the Stockwell Orphanage, founded in 1869. Over the next couple of decades, Anne and Charles partnered together to provide care for hundreds upon hundreds of needy orphans. The ministry continues today under the name “Spurgeons Children’s Charity,” and provides support and care for thousands of vulnerable children.
Spurgeon loved to tell the story of the auspicious origins of the Stockwell Orphanage. He also loved to promote Anne up as a model of Christian philanthropy. At the opening of the Orphanage, Spurgeon said of Anne:
“When Mrs. Hillyard’s munificent contributions were first announced in the newspapers, people said it had been given by a duchess, but I say no, it is given by a princess—one of the blood imperial—a daughter of the King of kings. She has given it in the most unostentatious manner desiring that her name should not be known, and I and my friends have dragged her into the light today contrary to her wishes. She is a simple, earnest, Christian woman, who has devoted by far the largest portion of her property to God without asking honour from anyone. She only asks help to this great work. I hope to see not 200, but 2,000 boys in the Orphanage, and I ask all those who now hear to break through their Christian rule and give three cheers for Mrs. Hillyard!”
Anne died in 1880 surrounded by many of the boys she had rescued. Her final words were, “My boys! My boys!”
Mrs. Bartlett: A Teacher of Women and Servant of the Church
Though Spurgeon would not support the idea of women serving in pastoral ministry or preaching to the gathered congregation, he nonetheless valued the role of women in the spreading of the gospel. He also believed it was entirely appropriate for women to teach other women in the church. Thus, Spurgeon sought to promote and resource women who evidenced an ability to teach the truth to others.
One such woman was Lavinia Bartlett, who had an unusual teaching gift. In 1859 she was asked to temporarily fill a post as a teacher of a small Sunday school class. At the class’s first meeting, only three teenage girls showed up. Just six years later she was teaching 700-800 women on a weekly basis. The class had come to take on the character of an evangelistic Bible study, and members of the church would regularly invite their unconverted friends from outside the church to the class. It has been estimated that approximately 1,000 women were added to the membership of the Metropolitan Tabernacle as a direct result of Lavinia’s Bible class. Not only were members of the Tabernacle served through this class, but large numbers of women were converted through Mrs. Bartlett’s ministry, including a number of London’s prostitutes (at least one of whom went on to became a missionary).
Spurgeon, for his part, made every effort to promote Lavinia Bartlett’s work. After Mrs. Bartlett died in 1875 at the age of sixty-nine, Spurgeon addressed her class with these words,
“Her unstaggering reliance upon the Saviour has led many of you to confide in him. You saw how she believed, you saw the joy which her faith brought to her, the calm rest and power which she obtained, and you were led to Jesus Christ, perhaps unconsciously to yourselves, very much through her example. She was a thorough and complete believer; downright in her convictions and rooted in her principles. She was immersed into the Lord Jesus…. What a worker she was. Nobody will ever know until the books are opened at the last how much she did…. I do not believe that any mother in this place knows her children much better than she knew the members of this class…her heart was large and her efforts incessant.”
In closing, what can be said of Spurgeon? Spurgeon’s earnest desire was to promote the work of faithful and godly women in the life of the church. He believed that God had called women to spread the gospel, raise up godly children, practice good works, minister to the needy, and teach other women in the church. He believed women should be actively engaged in the work of God’s kingdom. He firmly believed women should not serve as elders or preach in the gathered assembly, and yet he believed that no woman need go without regular opportunities to carry on valuable and meaningful work in the service of Christ. Though he believed that the pulpit was closed to women, the world was not. He would have wholeheartedly supported the words of an earlier evangelical woman, Hannah More, who said, “Action is the life of virtue, and the world is the theatre of action.”
Alex DiPrima is the senior pastor of Emmanuel Church in Winston Salem, NC. He’s a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is currently writing on the social activism of C. H. Spurgeon.