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What Was the Downgrade Controversy Actually All About?

Alex DiPrima January 17, 2022

“For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”[1] Spurgeon spoke these fateful words at the conclusion of his presidential address at the Annual College Conference, a gathering of current and former students of the Pastors’ College. He voiced them in the midst of the greatest conflict of his life, often referred to as the Downgrade Controversy. He was tired, discouraged, and disillusioned, yet also calm, resolute, and certain. He had made his stand for the truth, and he felt sure he could endure whatever opposition would come, confident in the knowledge that he had his Lord’s approval.

Most people familiar with Spurgeon’s story have at least a working knowledge of the Downgrade Controversy, which in many ways defined the final years of Spurgeon’s life. But if you ask people to identify the exact issues that were under debate, few would be able to name them. So what was the Downgrade all about after all?

In the famous controversy, Spurgeon had four main grievances with the men of his denomination, the Baptist Union. He summarizes them in one of the early articles that precipitated the Downgrade Controversy, “We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it;… we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the ‘larger hope.’ One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour.”[2]

Here we see that Spurgeon was concerned that some within the denomination were either flirting with, or in some cases openly promoting the following errors:

  1. The denial of the infallibility of Scripture.
  2. The denial of the necessity and substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement.
  3. The denial of the existence and eternality of hell.
  4. The affirmation of universalism.[3]

Whatever one may notice about the above list, at least two things should stand out.

First, all four of these issues are doctrinal issues. Second, not only are they doctrinal, but they are matters of basic Christian orthodoxy, of first importance, and have to do with doctrines that have been universally affirmed by the church throughout its history. The infallibility of Scripture, the necessity and substitutionary nature of the atonement, the existence of an eternal hell, and the doctrine of divine wrath for all those who do not possess true saving faith in Christ are doctrines as old as Christianity itself. To deny them is to deny some of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. In other words, Spurgeon’s stand in the Downgrade Controversy, simply put, was about defending matters of basic Christian orthodoxy. These were the only issues that would lead him to withdraw from his denomination in the autumn of 1887.

That last line is important. It might be asked, why was Spurgeon content to remain so long in the Baptist Union? Someone might answer that he must not have had disagreements with members of his denomination prior to the Downgrade Controversy. But that would of course be wrong, spectacularly so. The truth is Spurgeon maintained many disagreements with men in his denomination on a wide range of other issues for decades before the Downgrade Controversy.

Most of these issues fell under two main categories. First, Spurgeon disagreed with others in the Baptist Union over secondary doctrinal issues. For example, Spurgeon, a vocal proponent of Calvinism, remained in fellowship with men of Arminian persuasion. He disagreed with such men passionately and publicly, yet he continued to associate with them, completely content in doing so. He disagreed with men over the use of instruments in worship, whether or not communion should be open or closed, and how evangelism should be conducted. These and a host of other disagreements over second-tier doctrinal matters could be enumerated, and yet none of them ever suggested to Spurgeon that he should divide from men in his denomination.

The second category of disagreement between Spurgeon and others of his colleagues in the Baptist Union was differences over social, political, and cultural issues. Spurgeon held disagreements with some of the men in his denomination over whether or not ministers should frequent the theater, over the relative use of public schools, and over which political candidates should be supported. He disagreed with others on the temperance movement, the question of Irish Home Rule, the role of state paternalism in economic affairs, British foreign policy, and the best methods for relieving the poor. Many of these disagreements with his peers in the Baptist Union over social and political issues were often private, though sometimes public. At times they came to represent deep personal differences, yet none of these matters ever precipitated a serious division or schism between Spurgeon and his denomination. Spurgeon simply would not allow it to be so.

In light of these simple, yet important historical observations, I draw the following three conclusions:

  1. The Downgrade Controversy was about doctrinal matters that went to the very heart of Christian orthodoxy. Spurgeon would allow only such matters to become the grounds for separation and schism between him and his denomination.
  2. Spurgeon was comfortable being in denominational fellowship with men with whom he held numerous disagreements on second-tier doctrinal matters and on social, political, and cultural issues, as long as he shared basic agreement with them on matters that were essential to evangelical orthodoxy.
  3. Spurgeon believed that in order for true gospel unity to be authentic, there had to be a basic foundation of agreement on matters of primary doctrinal importance, particularly on those doctrines that were at the heart of the gospel itself. However, agreement on secondary doctrinal issues, or still further, agreement on social and political matters, were not necessary for true unity in the gospel to exist. Indeed, to insist on unity in such matters would be to require something more than unity in the gospel for fellowship and partnership.

Many in our day style themselves as modern Spurgeons standing against what they perceive as the various downgrades of today. Yet if they are to resemble Spurgeon himself and his original stand against downgrade in his own denomination, such stands will be on matters of primary doctrinal significance, not matters of legitimate disagreement between brothers and sisters who share the same orthodox doctrine, and in some cases, even the same confession of faith. The fact is Spurgeon was not willing to be eaten of dogs over his views regarding politics or second-order doctrines. Nor did he boast of the distant future’s verdict in these matters. However, with respect to issues of basic Christian orthodoxy, he beckoned the dogs to come, and he looked to Judgment Day for vindication.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Direction, Wisdom, and Encouragement for Preachers and Pastors, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2018), 281.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel (London: Passmore and Alabaster, September 1887): 465.

[3] For more information on the Downgrade Controversy, see Mark Hopkins, Nonconformity’s Romantic Generation: Evangelical and Liberal Theologies in Victorian England (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 193–248.

Alex DiPrima is the Senior Pastor of Emmanuel Church in Winston Salem, NC. He holds a Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in historical theology with an emphasis on the ministry of Charles Spurgeon.