I’ve appreciated reading the sermons of 19th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon over the years, and have quoted him on my blog a number of times (not as much as the Pyromaniacs, but still a bit).
So when I came down with the flu and found myself in bed for three days straight, I thought it would be encouraging to pick up Arnold Dallimore’s short, well-researched biography of the man himself. Sick Calvinists of the world, unite. Spurgeon, so it happens, was a lot sicker than me for most of his life. He was seriously and often crippingly and painfully ill, both mentally (with depression) and physically, from his mid-30s until his death from illnesses at age 57. The same went for his wife Susannah who, because of chronic illness, was more often than not unable to attend the meetings where he preached.
If you haven’t ever read any Spurgeon, do yourself a favour and pick up a book of his sermons where you can, or click through on some of the links in the first paragraph of this post to get just a small taste for his straight-talking, gospel-centred style. Of his Calvinism, Dallimore quotes him (p. 67 of my 1991 Banner of Truth edition) saying
We only use the term ‘Calvinism’ for shortness. That doctrine we call ‘Calvinism’ did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth.
Spurgeon never received any formal theological training, although he’d begun reading Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from the age of six, and progressed on to later Puritan writers such as John Owen and Richard Sibbes by the time he was 10.
Here are some other facts and figures I picked up on the way:
- His father and his father’s father were ministers, but he himself was converted through a poorly preached sermon by a layman in another church at the age of 15. Spurgeon at the time said,
Now it is well that preachers be instructed, but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ There was, I thought, a glimmer of hope for me in that text.
It was enough, it turns out, for Spurgeon to put his trust in Jesus.
- He became pastor of Waterbeach Baptist church at age 17.
- He next became pastor at the London church (which became the Metropolitan Tabernacle) from age 19 until his death at age 57. By age 20-21, he was preaching regularly to 2000 people (before microphones and the electric light had been invented).
- He married Susannah at age 21, and had twin sons who later followed him into ministry.
- When asked for the secret of his ‘ success’, he replied “My people pray for me” (p. 49). He not only said it, but appeared to believe it.
- He was known in London for his pastoral visits to the houses of people dying during the cholera epidemic of the 1850s (cholera being, at the time, untreatable, and of unknown cause).
- He had a weekly time set aside to meet individually with people who wanted to become church members because they had become Christians. In this way, he came to know at least 6000 church members by name, together with knowing how they had come to receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
- Nevertheless, he was bitterly opposed by many newspaper editors, both secular and religious. His wife kept a scrapbook of such opposition, and filled a huge volume with clippings, and produced a framed wall text quoting Matthew 5:11-12.
- He preached at Crystal Palace at a service of National Humiliation over the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The size of the crowd, counted by turnstile, was 23,654.
- He began and ran a pastor’s college offering a two year course. (For a sample of what he taught them, see Lectures to my Students.)
- By 1866, his trainees had begun 18 new churches in London alone.
- His largest work was his seven-volume commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David. It sold 148,000 copies during Spurgeon’s lifetime.
- He began a door-to-door book-and-tract-sellers (colporteurs) organization to sell Bibles, as well as books, magazines and tracts produced by him. In the year 1878 alone, 94 colporteurs made 926,290 home visits. Their aim was not merely to sell books, but to talk about spiritual questions with the people they met.
- When the Metropolitan Tabernacle was under repair in 1867, the church hired the Agricultural Hall in another part of London for regular meetings. 20,000 turned up to hear him preach on a regular basis.
- Most weeks, and as just a sample of some of his regular duties, Spurgeon wrote, delivered and published a weekly sermon; looked after an orphanage, a pastor’s college and an almshouse; read and responded personally to 500 letters; and preached up to 10 times in churches that he had started.
- Susannah Spurgeon became permanently semi-invalid after a serious illness. Although not able to attend church frequently, she found that she was able to begin and maintain a book fund to buy and supply free books for poor pastors, including books from Spurgeon and several Puritan writers. She spoke of sending books to missionaries in “Patna, Bengal, Ceylon, Transvaal, Samoa, China, Oregon, Jamaica, Kir Moab, India, Trinidad, Equatorial Africa, Russia, Natal, Canada, the Congo, Buenos Aires, Cayman, Damascus, Madrid, Lagos and Timbuctoo”.
- The Metropolitan Tabernacle was a place of constant activity, open from 7 in the morning until 11 at night seven days a week, hosting spiritually focused or welfare programmes run by people who lived and worked in the area.
- The busyness of the building is not surprising, since Spurgeon began and maintained 65 different institutions, ranging from welfare organizations through to mission organizations, preacher training colleges, and organizations for the distribution of literature.
- As well as a monthly magazine and many tracts, Spurgeon wrote 140 books.
- For his work on the book Commenting and Commentaries, he read 3-4000 volumes and chose 1437 of them to express an opinion on.
- From 1870, Spurgeon began the practice of, once every three months, asking all Metropolitan Tabernacle members to stay away from church the following Sunday evening in order to allow unconverted people to attend. The members co-operated, yet the Tabernacle was invariably fuller on those Sundays.
- In 1884, at Spurgeon’s Jubilee celebration, Deacon Olney of the Metropolitan Tabernacle claimed that on Sunday evenings, there were 1000 members of the Tabernacle regularly involved in conducting meetings outside the Tabernacle.
- I could go on.
- I choose not to.
Despite what may appear, the book is not a hagiography, and records with disappointment Spurgeon’s moderate drinking, smoking and use of a church fete to raise money for the completion (debt free) of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
I have to trust to God’s providence that this was the right book for me to read while I was lying sick in bed over the last four days or so. But let me say that Spurgeon’s attitude to his own labours do not fit easily with our recommendations in Going the Distance, which we put out for the help of those in long-term ministry.
In contrast, Spurgeon wrote in 1876:
If I have any message to give from my own bed of sickness it would be this—if you do not wish to be full of regrets when you are obliged to lie still, work while you can. If you desire to make a sick bed as soft as it can be, do not stuff it with the mournful reflection that you wasted time while you were in health and strength. People said to me years ago, “You will break your constitution down with preaching ten times a week,” and the like. Well, if I have done so, I am glad of it. I would do the same again. If I had fifty constitutions I would rejoice to break them down in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. You young men that are strong, overcome the wicked one and fight for the Lord while you can. You will never regret having done all that lies in you for our blessed Lord and Master. Crowd as much as you can into every day, and postpone no work till to-morrow. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” (Ecc 9:10).
(From ‘For the Sick and Afflicted’.)
My uncomfortable feeling is that Spurgeon’s advice to the sick minister is rather closer to that of the Apostle Paul than the advice that I would offer. What do others think?