Chapter 1 : The Spurgeon Country (1465-1769)
JUNE 19, 1834—JANUARY 31, 1892
THE WHOLE OF EAST ANGLIA may claim the Spurgeon family, but Essex holds the primacy as the Spurgeon country, and the parishes round about Stambourne still bear that name. With its great hemisphere of sky, Essex, like Nazareth of the olden days, lies near the stream of the world’s traffic, but is shut off from it. And Spurgeon, in his touch with the life of his time, his aloofness from it, and his open vision of the wide heavens, resembles his native country.
There is a gap in the suburbs of London. The suburbs of London stretch west and south, and even west by north, but to the north-eastward there are no suburbs; instead there is Essex. Essex is not a suburban county; it is a characteristic and individualised country which wins the heart. Between dear Essex and the centre of things lie two great barriers, the East End of London, and Epping Forest. Before a train could get to any villadom with a cargo of season-ticket holders, it would have to circle around the rescued woodland and travel for twenty unprofitable miles; and so once you are away from the main Great Eastern lines, Essex still lives in the peace of the eighteenth century, and London, the modern Babylon, is, like the stars, just a light in the nocturnal sky.
As far back as 1465 we find the names of two Spurgeons as witnesses to a legal document; in 1575 Thomas Spurgeon was tenant of the Manor of Dynes, Great Maplestead, where even today there is a holding known as Spurgeon’s; at Much Dunmow, Felsted, Blacknotlye, Eastwood, Thundersley, and South Beanflet there were also Spurgeons at the end of the sixteenth century.
In the seventeenth century one Job Spurgeon, who was C. H. Spurgeon’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, had a distress levied on him for attending a Nonconformist meeting, and six years later was fined for the same offence. Since he refused to pay the fine, he and three others were required to give sureties for their good behaviour or go to prison. To prison they went and, in a winter remarkable for its cold, three of them lay upon straw for fifteen weeks, but Job Spurgeon, “being so weak that he was unable to lie down, sat upon a chair the most of the time.” Upon which C. H. Spurgeon remarked with some pride, “I had far rather be descended from one who suffered for the faith than bear the blood of all the emperors in my veins.”
The direct line of the preacher’s ancestry can be traced through the Spurgeons of Halstead for eleven or twelve generations. In 1551 a Richard Spurgeon held land in the district. In 1718 Clement Spurgeon took sittings in the Independent Chapel. Two years later the same Clement Spurgeon and his wife conveyed to the trustees, for £15, the piece of ground on which the meetinghouse was built, and in his will he disposed of considerable property. His brother, John Spurgeon, an apothecary, bequeathed £100 to be invested towards the repairs of the meetinghouse, and his son, Samuel Spurgeon, was minister of the church that worshipped in it. An interesting entry in the church book, one of several of a similar nature, may be cited: “April 9th, 1736. To cash paid ye Rev. Mr. Spergin for preaching one whole Lord’s Day 15s.” Another son was the grandfather of that James Spurgeon, minister of Stambourne, who was grandfather to Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
By far the most notable item in the old records is in the parish register of Burnham Thorpe. Under date March 13, 1769, the certificate of marriage of Elizabeth Spurgeon has the name spelled by the Rector in that form in the second line, and on the seventh line signed by the lady herself as Elizabeth Spurgin. One of the witnesses, a lad of ten years of age, signed as “Horace Nelson,” but his first name was afterward altered, in his father’s writing, to “Horatio.” He was no less a person than the great admiral that was to be, and here the lines of two notable men cross, and Trafalgar Square has something to say to Newington Butts.
There are at least nineteen known variants of the family name. Two have already been noted. As early as 1273 we find a Wi1liam Sprigin in Norfolk; in 1576 Robert Spurgynne, vicar of Fouldon; in 1712 John Spurgeon, mayor of Yarmouth. Other forms are Spirjon, Spurrgon, Spurggin, Spurrgin, Spourgion, Spugin, Spurgyn, Spurgen, Spurginn, Spourgian, Spurgion, Spurgine, Spurgien, Spurggon. The name is almost as baffling as that of Shakespeare.
It is more than probable that the first Spurgeons in England were Norsemen. The name may be considered as a diminutive of “Sporr,” the old Norse word for sparrow, not an inapt suggestion for the heraldry of the family.
The current opinion that the family is of Dutch origin has no evidence to support it. It is probably founded on a misconception of a statement by the preacher of the clan when he said, “I remember speaking to a Christian brother who seemed right happy to tell me that he sprang from a family which came from Holland during the persecution of the Duke of Alva, and I felt a brotherhood with him in claiming a like descent from Protestant forefathers.” At the same time it is highly probable, since so many Dutch refugees settled in East Anglia, that there was an appreciable mixture of Dutch blood in the family. Spurgeon was of conventional Dutch build, and there is a portrait of him and a portrait of Paul Kruger which very closely resemble each other!
Throughout the generations, though few of the Spurgeons seem to have been great in the eyes of the world, there was evidently a tradition of piety handed down from sire to son. Though grace does not run in the blood, there is a disposition towards grace that appears to be hereditary. The children of saints, like the children of consumptive parents, have a tendency in the direction of their parents’ chief qualities, but no inevitable destiny in that direction. Spurgeon himself, exponent of God’s sovereignty as he was, never thought lightly of his ancestry. “There is a sweet fitness,” he said. “in the passing of holy loyalty from grandsire to father, and from father to son.” His most ardent desire for his own sons, happily fulfilled, was that they might be in the godly succession and take up the work of God when it should drop from his hands.
In a quaint little cottage at Kelvedon, in Essex, still standing almost unchanged since that day, C. H. Spurgeon was born on June 19, 1834, ten days after William Carey had died in India. He had no memories of the place, for when he was ten months old the family moved to Colchester. Few of the people of the village associate the house with the event. When Thomas Spurgeon visited it some years ago he only found one old man who knew of it, and he remarked that he thought Spurgeon’s side should buy it. In answer to further inquiry it turned out that he had the very proper notion that the Nonconformists should make the cottage a memorial for the great preacher.
Spurgeon’s mother, whose maiden name was Eliza Jarvis, was born at Otton Belchamp on May 3, 1815, so that she was little more than nineteen years of age at the time of her son’s birth. His father, born at Clare in Suffolk on July 15, 1810, was about twenty-four. Her second son, James Archer, said of his mother that she was “the starting-point of all greatness and goodness that any of us by the grace of God have enjoyed,” and her elder son always held her in reverence.
The father was engaged in business during the week, and for sixteen years ministered on Sundays to the independent congregation at Tollesbury, removing from Colchester to Braintree, afterward to Cranbrook, then to London to take charge of the church in Fetter Lane. From there he migrated to the church at Upper Street, Islington and, after a long life, died at Croydon on June 14, 1902, his wife having preceded him in 1888.
Our thoughts now travel to Stambourne, its manse, and its minister, and especially to the boy who was taken there toward the end of the year 1835. He was then about eighteen months old, and remained with his grandfather for six years. The old legend that Charles was sent away from home to his grandparents because he was one of seventeen children is a romance. There were, indeed, seventeen children born to his parents, nine of whom died in infancy, but as he was the eldest and his father was not endowed with the prophetic gift, that could scarcely have been the reason for his removal. The birth of the eldest of his six sisters in January, 1836 may have had more to do with it, and similar reasons no doubt accounted for his prolonged stay at Stambourne. His brother was born on June 8, 1837.
For fifty-four years James Spurgeon, the grandfather, was minister of the people who worshipped in the meetinghouse at Stambourne. He was a man of wide sympathies and was on excellent terms with the rector of the parish. He had great preaching gifts, and wherever he went he was able to call men to Christ. “I heard your grandfather, and I would run my shoes off my feet to hear a Spurgeon,” was once said to the grandson in his early preaching days. The grandfather had a dry sense of humour, like that which was later seen in his grandson. On one occasion, when James Spurgeon was asked how much he weighed, he answered, “Well, that all depends on how you take me. If weighed in the balances, I am afraid I shall be found wanting, but in the pulpit they tell me I am heavy enough.” His influence on the lad committed to his care was abiding. Grandmother Spurgeon was “a dear, good, kind soul,” and no doubt took her share of the training, but it was chiefly Aunt Ann, one of the eight children, the only one who remained unmarried, who mothered Charles, and for her he ever cherished a warm affection.
A story about his grandfather conveys an idea of his attachment to the Gospel and his unconventional methods in declaring it, better than pages of description, and suggests that his grandson had caught his spirit. C. H. Spurgeon had been announced to preach at Haverhill in Suffolk, and—an exceptional incident—he was late in arriving. So his grandfather began the service and, when the expected preacher did not arrive, proceeded with the sermon. The text was “By grace ye are saved.” He had gotten some way into his discourse when some unrest at the door made him aware that his distinguished grandson had arrived. “Here comes my grandson,” he exclaimed. “He can preach the Gospel better than I can, but you cannot preach a better Gospel, can you, Charles?” Still pressing up the aisle, his grandson replied, “You can preach better than I can. Please go on.” His grandfather refused, but he told him the text, explained that he had already shown the people the source and fountainhead of salvation “grace”—and was now speaking of the channel of it “through faith.” The younger preacher took up the theme and advanced to the next point—”but not of yourselves”—and was setting forth the weakness and inability of human nature when his grandfather interrupted, and said, “I know most about that.” So for five minutes he discoursed, and then his grandson continued again, having his grandfather’s whispered commendation “Good! Good!” as he warmed to his subject, until at some special point the old man ejaculated, “Tell them that again, Charles.” Ever after, when Charles recalled the text, there came to him with recurring force the words, “Tell them that again.” The incident was almost reproduced at a later date in the tabernacle when he shared the sermon with me, and we both preached on the text, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out”—the same Gospel from grandfather to biographer!
Toward the end of his life Spurgeon’s mind reverted more and more to those early days: he had a premonition that his life was drawing to a close when he wrote his last book Memories of Stambourne. To choose the views for the volume he went down to the neighbourhood on June 8, 1891, the morning after he had preached what proved to be his last sermon in the tabernacle. His friends pleaded with him to refrain from the journey, but nothing would hinder him—something in his heart turned him back upon his past. The illness which was to prove fatal seized him while he was away from home, and on Friday of that week he hurried back, to be laid aside completely for three months.
The memories of those early years include the manse with its brick hall floor sprinkled with sand, the sand being kept in a cupboard under the stairs; its windows in part plastered up to escape the window tax; its attic, to which the lad surreptitiously climbed one day and discovered the treasures of darkness—books, books, books. Here he made his first acquaintance with the Puritan writers, though as a boy he was chiefly interested in their bindings. Here, too, he found a copy of The Pilgrims’s Progress and read it, becoming so enamoured of it that he reread it during his life at least a hundred times.
Occasionally he used to disappear and was searched for in vain. Not till many years after did he reveal his hiding places. One was beneath the horse block in front of the meetinghouse, among the leaves of the lime trees which were thrown there and made a pleasant resting-place; the other was in an altar-like erection over a tomb where one of the slabs of stone at the side moved easily, so that the boy could enter, pull it back again into its place, and shut himself off from all the world. Many a time he heard voices call him and feet running in search of him, but he answered not. Of him it was said, “Where he went to, his guardian angels knew, but none on earth could tell.” And he himself said, “Dreaming of days to come befell me every now and then as a child, and to be quite alone was my boyish heaven.”
He records that his climax of delight was to see the huntsmen with their red coats as they chased the fox, and at that time he stoutly declared that he was going to be a huntsman.
“I remember well, in my early days,” he says, “seeing upon my grandmother’s mantelshelf an apple contained in a phial. This was a great wonder to me, and I tried to investigate it. My question was, ‘How came the apple to get inside so small a bottle?’ The apple was quite as big around as the phial; by what means was it placed within it? Though it was treason to touch the treasures on the mantelpiece, I took down the bottle and convinced my youthful mind that the apple never passed through its neck; and by means of an attempt to unscrew the bottom, I became equally certain that the apple did not enter from below. I held to the notion that by some occult means the bottle had been made in two pieces, and afterwards united in so careful a manner that no trace of the join remained. I was hardly satisfied with the theory, but as no philosopher was at hand to suggest any other hypothesis, I let the matter rest. One day the next summer, I chanced to see upon a bough another phial, the first cousin of my old friend, within which was growing a little apple which had been passed through the neck of the bottle while it was extremely small. ‘Nature well known, no prodigies remain.’ The grand secret was out.” This became his classic illustration of the necessity of getting young people into the house of God, and into the kingdom of Christ while they are small, that they may grow there.
No doubt the boy was precocious. At his grandfather’s house, before he left, he was allowed to read the Scriptures at family worship. Once when the reading was in the Apocalypse he came to the expression “the bottomless pit,” and he paused and asked the meaning of it. “Pooh, pooh, child,” said his grandfather, “go on.” The next morning he read the same chapter, asked the same question, and received the same answer, and so continued, until at length his grandfather capitulated, and inquired what puzzled the child. “If the pit has no bottom, where would all those people fall who dropped out at the lower end?”—a question which rather startled the propriety of the worshipers and had to be answered at another time. His horror, when he was given the explanation that there was no depth to which a soul can sink that has not a deeper depth beyond, made an impression on his heart never to be effaced.
It is easy to see, in retrospect, that those early Stambourne years gave colour and bent to his whole life. It was well that he had no formal schooling (save only such elementary instruction as he could glean from old Mrs. Burleigh of the village) until he had looked out on life from the comparative solitude of Stambourne. The simplicity of his early surroundings remained with him to the end. He described the people of those days as “mainly real Essex; they talked of places down in ‘the shires’ as if they were in foreign parts: and young fellows who went down into ‘the hundreds’ were explorers of a respectable order of hardihood.” Years after, when he was returning from a continental holiday and heard that there had been an earthquake in Essex, he declared that he was glad that something had shaken the people at last.
Leaving his grandfather, when the time came, was the sorrow of his early life. They wept together, and the grandfather sought to comfort him by telling him that when he looked up to the moon that night at Colchester, he was to remember that it was the same moon his grandfather was looking at from Stambourne. For years after the boy never looked at the moon without thinking of his grandfather. There was genius in the thought.
Subsequent holidays were often spent at Stambourne. On one occasion his grandmother promised him a penny for every hymn of Isaac Watts that he could perfectly repeat to her. So quickly did he learn them that she reduced the price to a halfpenny, and still it seemed that she might be ruined by the calls on her purse. But then came a diversion, for his grandfather, finding the place overrun with rats, promised the boy a shilling a dozen for all that he could kill, so he gave up hymn-learning for rat-catching, which seemed to pay better. But I have heard him declare in later days that memorising the hymns paid the best, for he was able to use them to advantage in his sermons.
When he went home to Colchester, he found three children there, two sisters and a brother, and naturally he became their hero. Like many another boy, he wrote poems, and edited a magazine. One copy of it remains, in which its readers were reminded of a prayer meeting and were encouraged to attend it by the thought that blessings come through prayer. At first he attended a school kept by a Mrs. Cook, but, having mastered all that she could teach him, he was transferred in a little while to a more advanced establishment conducted by Mr. Henry Lewis. Here, when he was between ten and eleven years of age, he gained the First Class English prize, White’s Natural History of Selborne, a book which he treasured all his days.
It was in this school that he suddenly seemed to fail in his studies, going steadily down to the bottom of the class. The teacher was at first nonplussed, until it occurred to him that the top place was away from the fire and opposite a draughty door. He therefore reversed the position of the scholars, and very speedily young Spurgeon worked his way up again.
When Charles was about fourteen the two brothers were sent to All Saints’ Agricultural College (now St. Augustine’s) at Maidstone, where an uncle of his was one of the tutors. Here also Charles quickly mastered his studies. On one occasion he had a discussion with a clerical examiner on the subject of baptism, and as a result, though he came from a Congregational family and was a student in an Anglican college, he determined that if grace should ever work a change in him he would be baptised. At another time he pointed out an arithmetical mistake of his uncle’s, and as a result of this was told that he had better take his books and study under an old oak tree growing beside the banks of the Medway. His mathematical facility at this time was so pronounced that he was allowed to calculate the tables which are still in use in one of the life insurance societies of London. As I write, I have on my desk the copy of The Christian Year in calf, presented to him at this school at Christmas, 1848, “for proficiency in religious knowledge, mathematics, the languages, and the applied sciences.”
“How my father ever contrived to give us the training that he did puzzles me,” said his brother James. “I know that he burdened himself to pay for the best education nonconformity could command. If it was not better—I do not think it could have been—it was because no better was available.”
The Spurgeon country must include Cambridgeshire, for Newmarket, Cambridge and Waterbeach now come into the story. When Mr. E. S. Leeding died at Norwood in 1890, Mr. Spurgeon penned the following note: “Mr. Leeding was usher in the school of Mr. Henry Lewis of Colchester in 1845, and I was one of the boys under his care. He was a teacher who really taught his pupils, and by his diligent skill I gained the foundation upon which I built in the after years. He left Colchester to open a school in Cambridge, and I to go, first to Maidstone and then to Newmarket, for some two years. Then we came together again; for I joined him at Cambridge to assist in his school and, in return, to be helped in my studies. He has left it on record that he did not think that there was need for me to go to any of the dissenting colleges, since I had mastered most of the subject studies therein; and his impression that I might, while with him, have readily passed through the university, if the pulpit had not come in the way.”
Cambridgeshire seemed at first but like a cold stepmother to the lad who had migrated from Essex, but, when he was called to leave it, he left a great part of his heart behind. We may guess how the iron entered his soul in the early days by some references he made, in a moment of confidence, years afterward. Recalling the time when he taught in the school and was “not big enough to be a master and not small enough to be a boy,” he quoted Goldsmith as saying that a man had better be hanged than have such work to do, and declared that if the choice were given to him, though he might hesitate at first, in the end he would choose the alternative of hanging. “I had no college education,” he continued. “I do not say this by way of boasting, far from it. I would have learned more if I had had the opportunity, but, that not being the case, I made the very best of the opportunities I had.”
When at forty years of age, he lectured on “Young Men,” he said in all seriousness that he was an old one. “I might have been a young man at twelve, but at sixteen I was a sober, respectable Baptist parson, sitting in the chair and ruling and governing the church. At that period of my life, when I ought perhaps to have been in the playground, developing my legs and sinews, which no doubt would have kept me from the gout now, I spent my time at my books, studying and working hard, sticking to it, very much to the pleasure of my schoolmaster.” All that in Cambridgeshire.
But to the Spurgeon country Surrey must be annexed, the county where he won his great pulpit triumphs, about which he made this resolve early in his ministry: “God sparing my life, I will not rest till this dark county of Surrey be filled with places of worship.” And the lanes and villages of Surrey were known to him in after, years as to few others. “Give England to me for a country,” John Ploughman wrote. “Surrey for a county, and for a village give me —no, I shan’t tell you, or you will be hunting John Ploughman up. There is a glorious view from the top of Leith Hill in our dear old Surrey, and Hindhead and Martha’s Chapel and Boxhill are not to be sneezed at.” On Wednesdays, which were his rest days, he would generally seek out some of the county byways, visit some of its churches or historic sites, and drive along the courses of its rivers, the Wey, the Mole and the Wandle, for the last of which he had, like Ruskin, a peculiar affection.
“Twenty years ago there was no lovelier piece of lowland scenery in South England, nor any more pathetic in the world, by its expression of sweet human character and life, than that immediately bordering on the sources of the Wandle, and including the low moors of Addington, and the villages of Beddington and Carshalton, with all their pools and streams. No clearer or diviner waters ever sang with sweet, constant lips of the Hand that ‘giveth rain from heaven’; no pastures were ever lightened in springtime with more passionate blossoming: no sweeter homes ever hallowed the heart of the passers-by with their pride of peaceful gladness—fain hidden—yet full-confessed.”
Of course he travelled throughout Great Britain, and visited Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, Helgoland, Germany, France, but mostly he was a stay-at-home. There is, however, at Mentone one little bit of sunshine land, between the Alps Maritimes and the tideless sea, which, made fragrant and beautiful by its olive orchards, its orange groves, and its flower gardens, and memorable by his repeated visits, might almost be called his second home. There he passed, as he would have wished, from his life’s work, so well done, to that other land which is also Spurgeon country.
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- H. G. Wells, Mr. Britling Sees it Through, p. 6.
- Autobiography Vol. I, p. 8.
- W. Miller Higgs, The Spurgeon Family, pp. 8, 21, 30, 2.
- Thomas Spurgeon: A Biography, p. 269.
- G. H. Pike, James Archer Spurgeon, pp. 20, 23.
- Autobiography, Vol. III, p. 43.
- South London Press, Nov. 28, 1874.
- John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive, pp. 1-2.
Source: Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography by W.Y. Fullerton. This book was transcribed for The Spurgeon Archive by Dan Carlson. Collection administered by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.