Chapter 16: Some Minor Discussions
FOR YEARS Mr. Spurgeon was probably the most discussed man in the kingdom, and it was inevitable, when the tongues and pens of other people were so busy, that he himself should be drawn into the fray.
The first discussion began soon after his coming to London. It arose among the high Calvinists, and began by the publication in The Earthen Vessel of an article by Charles Waters Banks, who afterwards became his loyal friend. The article just raised the question as to Mr. Spurgeon’s standing in the Christian church. After recording the success of his ministry it proceeds: “But, then, very solemn questions arise. ‘What is he doing?’ ‘Whose servant is he?’ ‘What proof does he give that, instrumentally, his is a heart-searching, a Christ-exalting, a truth-unfolding, a sinner-converting, a church-feeding, a soul-saving ministry?'”
In the following month, January, 1855, “Job,” who was doubtless the Rev. James Wells of Surrey Tabernacle, a preacher then at the zenith of his power, wrote, expressing doubts as to the young man’s conversion, and declaring that though he spoke some truth, and had a partial moral influence, yet his hearers were likely to be fatally deluded. In later numbers of the magazine the editor could go no further than to ask prayer “for this young man whom we earnestly hope the Lord has sent among us.”
It makes quaint reading and, viewed in retrospect, most foolish. Probably some of the things discussed by others today will seem as quaint and foolish in the days to come. Mr. Wells and Mr. Spurgeon, after the building of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, were neighbours. It is said that they once met in the street, and Mr. Wells asked Mr. Spurgeon whether he had ever seen the inside of Surrey Tabernacle. He replied that he had not but would very much like to see it, upon which Mr. Wells said that if he would come some Monday morning he would show him round, and there would then be time enough to thoroughly ventilate the place before the next Lord’s Day. Upon that, Mr. Spurgeon asked Mr. Wells if he had ever seen round his tabernacle, and Mr. Wells answered that he had looked in one Saturday, giving the date. “Ah,” said Spurgeon, “that accounts for the delightful fragrance of the services the following Sabbath!”
Though Mr. Spurgeon did not belong to them, he had ever a great admiration for the Strict Baptists. One of the permanent influences of his career was, indeed, the early training he received among the Calvinists of the Eastern Counties. The wonder is that he broke away from the sterner school. Baptists in those days were a puzzle to outsiders, they were divided into “Particular”—those that believed in particular redemption—and “General”—those who affirmed that Christ died for all men. There was another division, “Strict Baptists”—those who admitted to the Lord’s Table only such as had been baptised—and “Open Baptists”—those who welcomed all believers to the communion service. Then, again, among the Open Baptists were, and are, those who grant church membership apart from baptism, and those who, though they have an open table, demand baptism before entrance to the church. The General and the Particular Baptists have long since united, but there are still those who, being high Calvinists, hold aloof, and indeed these again are divided into two sections. But the doctrinal and ecclesiastical lines do not necessarily agree.
Mr. Spurgeon’s position was Calvinistic, and he believed in open communion. He once told me with appreciation how he was worsted in argument by an American divine. During a drive, the visitor made a number of inquiries, and discovered the practice of the church at the tabernacle, how it admitted people to the Lord’s Table who were not baptised, and refused them membership unless baptised. “Which means that they are good enough for the Lord, and yet not good enough for you!” said his guest. And Spurgeon had to admit that the logic was not on his side. But, then, neither the world nor the Church can live on logic alone.
What is known as “The Rivulet” controversy rose over a little book of verse published by Rev. T. T. Lynch under that title. Here, again, in retrospect the controversy seems much hubbub about very little. Some of the poetry has found its way into our hymnbooks, some is forgotten. In The Christian Cabinet of May 23, 1856, Mr. Spurgeon wrote a lengthy article in which he good humouredly pointed out the weaknesses of the book. “If I should ever be on amicable terms with the chief of the Ojibewas, I might suggest several verses from Mr. Lynch as a portion of a liturgy to be used on the next occasion when he bows before the Great Spirit of the West Wind. Hark! O ye Delawares, Mohawks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Blackfeet, Pawnees, Shawnees, and Cherokees, here is your primitive faith most sweetly rehearsed—not in your own wild notes but in the white man’s language,” and then he quoted the verse, “My God in nature I confess.” The controversy was so fierce at the time that the autumn meeting of the Congregational Union was postponed because of it.
But in spite of this, perhaps because of it, in a speech at Exeter Hall, while the feeling was still bitter, Mr. Spurgeon said, “I am about to quote the words of a good man, who I think is very much misunderstood.” Then he gave the verse—
Let us with a wind-like song
Freshen all the air of life:
Singing makes the heart grow strong:
Now to win seems worth the strife.
And only a little while before his death he reviewed a volume of Lynch’s sermons and said that they contained “a great deal of the Gospel in solution.”
Four years afterward the storm raged around the head of Baldwin Brown, who had just published his volume The Divine Life in Man. Two articles by Howard Hinton in The Freeman condemning the book were so unfavourably reviewed by that journal that seven ministers, among them Mr. Spurgeon, wrote a protest, which, with gaucherie characteristic of the time, was itself criticised. This led to further discussion and a final letter from Mr. Spurgeon to two other papers, and a retort by Baldwin Brown. Even one of the papers that published Mr. Brown’s letter expressed surprise that the doctrines of Maurice, which he championed, could be counted compatible with the evangelic faith.
The next discussion was with Dr. Cumming, who, in the midst of his prophetic studies, was also known as The Times Bee Master. In a book on “Bees” in 1864 he made some strictures on the baptismal regeneration controversy, to which reference will be made in the next chapter, and said: “I wish somebody would send Mr. Spurgeon a supper of good honey. Three months’ diet on this celestial food would induce him to give up those shockingly bitter and unchristian tirades he has lately been making against the clergy of the Church of England.” In answer, Spurgeon in The Times advised his brother of Crown Court to give less honey and more salt in his public ministrations, reminded him that honey was prohibited in the ancient sacrifices, because it so speedily became acid, whereas salt was good. In the end, Dr. Cumming was offered a brick of the best salt, carriage paid, if only he would follow this reasonable advice.
On Monday, June 29, 1868, the Bishop of Oxford, speaking on the Irish Church in the House of Lords, amid much responsive laughter, referred to a letter Mr. Spurgeon had written in April to John Bright, who had presided at a meeting of the Liberation Society in the tabernacle, Mr. Spurgeon being too ill to be present. Bishop Wilberforce poked fun at Spurgeon’s rheumatic gout, and said that he had sent a written communication in which he said that the Irish clergy were the very best of the clergy of the Establishment, and that for that reason he thought that they should be the first to be favoured with the great blessing of disendowment. Their lordships would remember how Isaac Walton said they were to neat the frog, put it on the hook “tenderly, as if they loved it.” The Bishop then, amid further laughter and cheers, quoted another letter of Spurgeon’s, addressed to the Baptist churches, complaining of their niggardly support of their ministers.
To this Mr. Spurgeon made a spirited reply in The Daily Telegraph, which, in a leading article, sums up the situation and vindicates Spurgeon. Some sentences will bear quotation:
There are gleeful sounds of merriment in many a country rectory over the discomfiture of Spurgeon by Wilberforce; there is a grim smile of delight on the face of many a Dissenting Minister at the discomfiture of Wilberforce by Spurgeon.
Whether it was altogether decorous for a spiritual peer of the realm to caricature in his place in Parliament the voice and manner of a Dissenting Minister, we do not care to discuss. All we mean to say is that if Mr. Spurgeon mimicked the Bishop of Oxford in the Tabernacle, or on the platform of Exeter Hall, every Churchman in the Bishop’s School would have considered the act as a proof of “the vulgarity of Dissent.” We know, however, that it is impossible for a Bishop to be vulgar: he can’t manage it; the nature of his office prevents him; and accordingly we are convinced that the Bishop of Oxford was really very gentlemanly after a new fashion.
Mr. Spurgeon has displayed a creditable amount of good taste and good temper in his reply. Compared with the ordinary line of religious polemics his rejoinder is mildness itself. There is, however, an undercurrent of drollery in it which may make the Bishop tremble for his laurels. The sting of his adversary’s letter lies in the “Dr. Samuel Wilberforce” at the end of it, and in the date “Clapham.” As it happens, the world already associates those two names very intimately together; but a new and grotesque juxtaposition is suggested when we remember that the son of William Wilberforce, sitting in the House of Lords, does not miss an opportunity of sneering at the school with which his father used to work.
On April 25, 1890, there appeared in The British Weekly “An Open Letter—Parker to Spurgeon.” It was the week the Pastor’s College Conference was in session, and the letter aroused strong feeling among “Spurgeon’s men,” as well as among the general evangelical public. Mr. Spurgeon gave the word that no notice was to be taken of it, did not speak of it himself and, getting a hint that Mr. Hugh D. Brown of Dublin, who was to be one of the speakers at the college meeting that evening in the tabernacle, intended to speak of the open letter of Sanballat to Nehemiah, he deftly managed to crowd him out.
The letter was all the more astonishing because hitherto Dr. Parker had shown great friendliness to Mr. Spurgeon. In November 1865, on two successive Fridays he had lectured to large audiences in the Metropolitan Tabernacle on “Nonconformity in Relation to the Book of Common Prayer,” and on “Reasons for a Nonconformist Aggressive Policy.” On February 15, 1883, Parker and Spurgeon had exchanged pulpits, Spurgeon preaching in the City Temple on behalf of a Colportage Society for the City of London which Dr. Parker was founding. At the Orphanage Festival of June in the same year Parker offered to preach for the orphanage in his church, and afterward did so.
Spurgeon was scarcely as much surprised as some of his friends, for something had happened in between. The something was that on February 23, 1887, Dr. Parker wrote to him—
MY DEAR FRIEND,
There is nothing worth preaching but the old evangelical faith. The longer I live and work the more I see this to be the case. Upon this subject I want a public conference between ministers of all denominations—gathered from all parts of the country, and beginning, say, on October 25th. I want you to preach the opening sermon in your pulpit—or in my own. That is all. The occasion should be devoted to clear and simple testimony as to our faithfulness to evangelical doctrine. I earnestly entreat you to cooperate—make your own suggestions, fix your own time and place, lay down your own conditions, only let us unite in the holy and needful work. The God of heaven be your daily comfort and eternal hope!
To this Spurgeon replied the next day, February 24, 1887.
I agree with you that there is nothing worth preaching but the old evangelical faith, and I would gladly cooperate with all believers in the spread of it, but I feel I have no right whatever to question you about your course of procedure. You are a distinguished man with a line of your own, but your conduct puzzles me. I can only understand a consistent course of action, either for the faith or against it, and yours does not seem to exhibit that quality. I am sorry that frankness requires me to say this, and having said it, I desire to say no more.
I think that we had better each go his own way in brotherly friendliness, each hopeful of the other. To discuss your procedure would not be wise. In your letter just received I greatly rejoice, and if this line of things is to be followed up, you will find me the heartiest of friends, but at this present I had better say no more.
Yours with the kindest wishes, and great admiration of your genius,
C. H. SPURGEON.
Dr. Parker answered on March 1, 1887.
MY DEAR FRIEND,
I have no idea as to your meaning. If thou hast aught against thy brother, go and tell him his fault between thee and thy brother. But as your health is uncertain, I will so far modify the terms as to go to you at your house at any mutually convenient time. This strikes me as the Christian way—the Lord’s own way—why should we invent another?
You have no warmer friend on earth than
The next day, March 2, 1887, Mr. Spurgeon responded.
DEAR DR. PARKER,
If I had aught against you I would see you gladly; but I have no personal offense, nor shadow of it. Your course to me has been one of uniform kindness, for which I am most grateful.
The question is very different. You ask me to cooperate with you in a conference for the vindication of the old evangelical faith. I do not see my way to do this. First, I do not believe in the conference; and second, I do not see how I could act with you in it, because I do not think your past course of action entitles you to be considered a champion of the faith.
There is nothing in this which amounts to having aught against you. You have, no doubt, weighed your actions and are of age. These are not private but public matters, and I do not intend to go into them either in my house or yours.
The evangelical faith in which you and Mr. Beecher agree is not the faith which I hold; add the view of religion which takes you to the theater is so far off from mine that I cannot commune with you therein.
I do not feel that these are matters in which I have the slightest right to call you to account. You wrote to me, and I tried to let the matter go by. You write me again and compel me to be more explicit, altogether against my will. I do not now write for any eye but your own, and I most of all desire that you will now let the matter drop. To go further will only make you angry and it will not alter me. I do not think the cooperation sought would be a wise one, and I had rather decline it without further questioning.
To make this public would serve no useful end. I have told you of the matter alone, and now I must decline any further correspondence.
Yours with every good wish,
C. H. SPURGEON.
To which the same evening a postcard reply was written.
Best thanks, and best regards.
Then came the open letter. The first wonder is, why it was written. The second, why it was published. The references to Mr. Spurgeon’s doctrine may be omitted.
MY DEAR SPURGEON,
I know I may speak frankly, because I am speaking to a man whose heart is big and warm, a heart that has an immense advantage over his head. When people ask me what I think of Spurgeon, I always ask, which Spurgeon—the head or the heart—the Spurgeon of the tabernacle or the Spurgeon of the orphanage.
I will speak frankly as to a brother beloved. Let me advise you to widen the circle of which you are the center. You are surrounded by offerers of incense. They flatter your weakness, they laugh at your jokes, they feed you with compliments. My dear Spurgeon, you are too big a man for this. Take in more fresh air. Open your windows, even when the wind is in the east. Scatter your ecclesiastical harem. I do not say destroy your circle: I simply say enlarge it. As with your circle, so with your reading.
Other men will write you in a vein of condolent flattery, and will hold up their riddled gingham to save you from the refreshing shower, but you know as well as I do that their good offices are meant for themselves and not for you.
Good-bye, you sturdy, honest old soul. You have been wondrously useful, and wondrously honored. I would double all your honors if I could. Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth? In your inmost soul you know I am not your enemy, but your friend.
During Mr. Spurgeon’s illness Dr. Parker wrote another letter to him in The British Weekly of October 8, 1891, which somewhat atoned for the first. He said:
I tell you that your way of taking what seems to me a hard lot quite breaks me down into a new experience of love. I know how sadly I should have failed. What if, after all, you should prove to be the broadest-minded man among us?
And after Mr. Spurgeon’s death, Dr. Parker paid a generous tribute to him in The Times, in which occur the following sentences :
The only pulpit name of the nineteenth century that will be remembered is no longer the name of a living man. His simplicity, his constancy, his stand-stillness, won for him, through many difficulties, a unique and invincible position in Christian England. Mr. Spurgeon had but one sermon, and it was ever new. Other young preachers are naturally great in the treatment of Biblical narrative and anecdotes. They can handle drama better than doctrine. Mr. Spurgeon boldly went at once to the deepest and greatest themes. At nineteen he preached to countless thousands from such texts: “Accepted in the beloved”; “No man cometh unto me except the Father draw him”; “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” Some men have never ventured to take those texts even after a lifetime of service. Mr. Spurgeon took them at once, as the very seven notes that made all God’s music, and he did so by Divine right and impulse. As he began, so he continued: he never changed; he never went in quest of the fourth dimension or of the eighth note; his first and his last were one.
That great voice has ceased. It was the mightiest voice I ever heard: a voice that could give orders in a tempest, and find its way across a torrent as through a silent aisle. Very gentle, too, it could be, sweet and tender and full of healing pity.
And on December 8, 1902, Thomas Spurgeon wrote: “Dr. Parker has gone. I was at the funeral service. One forgets even ‘The Open Letter’ at the open grave.”
And now neither Spurgeon nor Parker has any need of controversy. They both know.
Subscribe to My Blog!
- Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 276.
- G. Holden Pike, Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. III, p. 113.
- Daily Telegraph, June 6, 1868.
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.