Prince of Preachers

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Prince of Preachers

Sunday, Jan. 6, 1850, found London in the grip of a driving snowstorm. A 15-year-old lad bound for the church his mother had recommended had to turn aside on the way, into the Artillery Street Primitive Methodist Church. It was tremendously providential.

The minister was also snowbound; perhaps 15 were present. An "earnest but ignorant" substitute agreed to pinch-hit. His text: "Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth" (Is. 45:22). Eyeing the uncomfortable visitor, he shouted, "Young man, you're in trouble! Look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look!" Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born again on the spot. "The cloud was gone, the darkness rolled away.... "

Born in 1834, the descendant of independent ministers, Spurgeon grew up in a godly home where his mother discussed with her children from their earliest ages "the great doctrines of Christianity." At school he made good progress; in debates. "He often took both sides of the question, amusing and astonishing his auditors in hearing him refute his own arguments."

Conversion climaxed five years of "mental and spiritual anguish." Soon he declared, "It's all settled; I must preach the gospel of Christ."

Immediately he became a diligent Bible student, was baptized, and joined a Baptist church. By 16 he was a lay preacher, giving himself "with utter abandon to study and to the service of God."

His rise was meteoric. First he pastored a small Baptist church at Waterbeach, then was called to the New Park Street Church, London. Only 100 attended his first service; before the end of the year, the congregation was forced to move to Exeter Hall, then to Surrey Music Hall, at the time London's largest, accommodating some 12,000 people.

Alas, a few moments into the opening service-Oct. 19, 1856-a cry arose in the packed hall: "FIRE! . . . The place is falling!" In the terrible panic which followed, seven were killed, many seriously injured. It was all a cruel prank, surely from Satanic forces, and it plunged Spurgeon into a terrible depression, from which he never fully recovered. He spent hours "in tears by day, and dreams of terror by night."

Yet that disaster only increased the crowds and catapulted him from local celebrity to world fame. All London now wanted to hear him.

However, a tide of slander and vilification set in, ranging from newspaper cartoons and bitter editorials to criticism from other ministers. Spurgeon weathered them all, but on the heels of the Surrey tragedy, they must have taken their toll.

It seems unbelievable that in the days before microphones, for three years he preached to an average of 10,000 every Sunday! He also began an outdoor ministry, holding many services every week, extending all over the Empire and into Holland and France.

The next major milestone was the great Metropolitan Tabernacle, then the largest Baptist church on earth, completed in 1861. For 31 years, an average of 5,000 people assembled there to hear Spurgeon preach the Word of God each Lord's Day, morning and evening.

In 1856 he married Susannah Thompson, of whom Dr. R.E. Day declared that "never was a woman of greater inspiration to a man [than she]." But her health began to fail only a decade later; in another two years, she completely broke down. For 16 years she remained an invalid, unable even to attend church until Spurgeon's 50th birthday jubilee in 1884. During those difficult days, she started the famous "Book Club," through which thousands of poor ministers of all faiths welcomed gift volumes.

Day also affords us a fascinating glimpse into Spurgeon at work. He never permitted himself more than half a page of notes; "he must remain able to think on his feet." Seldom did he know 24 hours beforehand "the subject of any sermon I am going to preach." For years, he held open house on Saturday afternoon. But at 6 p.m., immediately after tea, he announced, "Dear friends, goodbye! You know what a number of chickens I have to scratch for!"

Great as his oral ministry was, Spurgeon's literary labors seem even more outstanding. Below are some of the many titles by and about him. Warren Wiersbe declares that, "When the sermons of other men are covered with dust, Spurgeon's will still be read-and preached!"

As indicated, depression assailed him early. Later, he found "the pains of rheumatism, lumbago, and sciatica, mingled together, are exceedingly sharp," especially with gout also coming on. It was all so bad that on occasion he was forced to take a two or three month leave of absence from his pulpit, and even considered resigning. However, he was assured, "We would rather have you one month in the year than any other twelve."

The last time Spurgeon preached in the Tabernacle was June 7, 1891, when he appeared "utterly weary in the Lord's work, but not of it." He was prematurely used-up at 56 and "so enfeebled that he supported himself with his right hand on the back of a chair." In his final months, he suffered beyond measure.

Once he testified about his struggles:

"I would give anything to be perfectly healthy, but if I had to go over my time again, I would not get on without these sickbeds and those bitter pains and those weary, sleepless nights. Oh, the blessedness that comes through suffering."

Finally, on Jan. 31, 1892, he uttered his last words, "I have had such a blessed time with my Lord." No fewer than 60,000 participated in the funeral service of triumphant testimony for one of the most outstanding servants of the Lord.

Excerpts from Walking With the Giants, by Warren Wiersbe, used by permission.

For more reading:

Spurgeon, Heir of the Puritans, by Ernest W. Bacon, which Wiersbe calls "the best of the recent biographies."

A History of Spurgeon's Tabernacle, by Eric W. Hayden.

C. H. Spurgeon, by W. Y. Fullerton, assistant to Spurgeon, who edited his messages for publication.

Spurgeon, 2 vol. autobiography.

The Forgotten Spurgeon, by Iain Murray.

Lectures to My Students, by Spurgeon. (This man, lacking formal college or seminary training, founded a pastor's college, as well as a number of other fruitful organizations.)

The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 56 vols.