Spurgeon: For the sick and afflicted

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?

12 thoughts on “Spurgeon: For the sick and afflicted

  1. Yes, this is an important issue. I feel that there are conflicting messages out there as to how hard we are supposed to work. I think our church culture could benefit from some hard and honest reflection on this. Spurgeon’s story reminds me of Judd’s biography of RBS Hammond which mentions that Hammond had a similar workload during his lifetime, getting up at 5am on his “day off” to get going on that next project etc etc. No thanks.

    Just a note on Hagiography…

    <i>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>

    Just because some negatives are mentioned doesn’t mean that the other figures aren’t inflated. I remember doing some maths after reading Dallimore’s book, and concluding that some of the figures are just impossible (can’t remember which ones, sorry). So either they are probably an overestimation or Spurgeon had a lot of help that Dallimore isn’t telling us about.

  2. What a challenging quote! Challenging because, with you Gordon, I think Spurgeon is onto something very important in his attitude to serving the Lord even when he is ill.  We are so quick to say our family needs us and our body needs us to rest and, for the long term, we need to ensure we have plenty of R & R, and there is wisdom in all of this. We can’t afford to be absent husbands and fathers if we are married with kids.
    BUT… we are much slower to say that our families will make sacrifices together and that the need for people to hear the gospel now is so urgent we will do all we can now to reach more people, and that if our bodies wear out we will have new ones anyway in the age to come. 

    I sense that, if in times past gospel preachers may have been guilty of neglecting their families, we may be guilty now of putting our families ahead of the Lord.  I don’t feel comfortable in expressing this, but I think we may be at risk of not working hard enough what we are called to do as preachers and pastors.

  3. Thanks Gordo, I’m reading this while home with the flu, and I think my comment here will be the only thing I send electronically today.

    I love those sort of biographies. Can I borrow your copy when you’ve finished?

    I’ve not read much of Spurgeon, but from this position of ignorance have always wondered quite why people lionise him as a preacher so much (my very limited impression – some seemingly odd things in preparation method and not really always true exposition??)

    Lastly I love his quote at the end about wearing out in service of the Lord. Yes, there’s all sorts of qualifications we want to add (and do add), but it’s a word well needed in our generation.

  4. It seems to me, as a non-clergyman who has lots of friends who are clergymen, that families can probably cope with a lot as long as values and expectations are shared.

    The problems I’ve observed have sometimes emerged when the minister asks his family to accept sacrifices without actually checking (and repeatedly checking) that they deeply share his passion for the lost and his willingness to make those sacrifices. Where they feel ripped off by what ministry does to their family life, often with good reason, that’s a recipe for problems.

  5. Of course, with respect to productivity, Spurgeon had some massive advantages over the rest of us—no email, no TV, no internet.

    And I think he would have been a supporter of the ‘Going the Distance’ philosophy. I’ve posted something on that today.


  6. There speaks the counsel of caution and prudence, TP, and in the post you link to as well. But I can’t help feeling that Spurgeon’s last quote quite deliberately flouts caution and wisdom, which had he exercised them may (God alone knows) have seen another ten years added to his life and ministry.

    In life’s marathon, practical wisdom seemed to have slowed him down from 400m pace to 800m pace. Illness did the rest.

  7. I’d have to agree that Dallimore’s is the best short biography of Spurgeon out there. He (unlike other recent writers) used the records extant at the modern day Met Tab to aid his research. And he paints the correct picture of what lay behind the ‘success’ of Spurgeon’s day – yes, God’s blessing, but undeniably, very hard work and self-sacrifice.

  8. Spurgeon died at 57
    Luther died at 62
    Calvin died at 54
    (As sourced from Wikipedia, which yes, I feel guilty about)
    It may have been the life-expectancy of the day, yet I can’t help but wonder if their workloads contributed to cutting their years of ministry short.

    My experience of those in full-time ministry is that on the whole they tend to be workaholics, who need to trust themselves less and God more.

    Is Paul commending this sort of Gospel-work induced exhaustion of Epaphroditus in 1 Timothy 3:29? Isn’t ‘rest’ integral to God’s people, reminding us we are dispensable and it’s God’s world?

  9. Izaac, you might as well add the Lord Jesus, died at age 33 because of excessive commitment to gospel ministry! And I didn’t even get that from wikipedia!


    My sense with Spurgeon was that failure to trust God was not what drove him to an early grave. If anything, he loved his people too much to stop meeting with them. Me, I’d rather have my afternoon sleep.

  10. As a wife of a busy gospel-proclaimer, I find Spurgeon’s life and words very challenging.
    I worry far too much about my husband’s health and rest and far too little about those who need to hear about Jesus!
    Thanks heaps for writing about this Gordo.

  11. Is God not sovereign?  Ours is not to prolong our life but to serve Him with all the energy we have until He calls us home.  God did not sit in Heaven worrying when Spurgeon passed away.  He did not say, “Oh, I thought he would live ten more years.”  He simply said “Next” and used the next person of His choosing.  He does not need us and how foolish we are to think that but He allows us to serve Him and to bring Him glory.

  12. Fascinating read Gordo — and thanks for all your comments.

    I especially appreciate Ian Carmichael’s comment about family life.
    “The problems I’ve observed have sometimes emerged when the minister asks his family to accept sacrifices without actually checking (and repeatedly checking) that they deeply share his passion for the lost and his willingness to make those sacrifices. Where they feel ripped off by what ministry does to their family life, often with good reason, that’s a recipe for problems.”

    I’ve seen and heard of cases where the wife has suffered enormously due to being neglected for the sake of the church, even during times of her own health crisis — one case in the days following a birth — and the Pastor was later held up as an example of sacrifice for the sake of the gospel! In the examples I’m thinking of it was not <i>his</i> sacrifice to make — the Pastor sacrifices his wife. That doesn’t sit right with Paul’s marriage advice with Paul’s advice in Ephesians 5 or acknowledgement that marriage will divide loyalties in 1 Cor 7.

    Maybe if all ministers were single they could be hit with this Spurgeon quote… but marriage and children seem to be pretty high on our <i>ministry priorities</i> in Paul’s eyes. 1 Timothy 3 “4He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)”

    How can kids obey or respect their father if they don’t even know him because he’s always working?

    I wonder if writing that 10th Kudos-earning book <i>really is </i> as important as playing with your kids? Let’s not forget the propensity for the male ego to see ‘our thing’ as more important than ‘the family thing’ — even when our ‘thing’ is the gospel.

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