Chapter 17: Two Great Controversies
MR. SPURGEON was too earnest, too intent on the eternal meaning of things, too sure of his own standing, to be a good controversialist. His instinct led him to conclusions that others approached only by logic, and he was therefore not apt to be too patient with those who debated every step of the way, or lost themselves in details, failing, as he judged, to see the wood because of the trees, and the city because of the houses.
He was a witness, not a debater. He could plead nobly, but he had such faith in the truth that he preferred to trust it to do its own work. “The best way to defend a lion,” he frequently said, “is to let it out of its cage.” “I am no enemy, no disputant, no caviller,” he wrote to Charles Williams. “I only want to do the right thing, and if it should seem harsh, I want to do it in love and tenderness.” And at an earlier time: “A little anger costs me so much, and is so apt to blaze into a battle royal, that it is a calamity to be aroused, and an event memorably mournful.” But, speaking for the Baptist Missionary Society in Exeter Hall on April 28, 1864, he said: “When the gage of battle is thrown down, I am not the man to refuse to take it up.”
If we look at his life steadily, and endeavour to see it whole, we shall note that its two great unrelated controversies were, from his central evangelical standpoint, the complement of each other. Whatever heat they engendered at the time, together they complete his testimony. In the first he contended against superstition, and in the second against modernism, aiming one blow at Anglicanism, and another at Nonconformity; opposing first those who had a creed they did not believe, and then those who would not put their belief into a creed. He stood in the centre, and it was his jealousy of God which made him warn first the left wing and then the right wing of the army that they were in danger of being captured by the enemy. He went out to the fray in both cases with confidence, but in neither did he foresee what the result would be. In the first he was prepared to suffer, and things turned out to his advantage; in the second he expected sympathy, and he suffered. In both cases it was, at the time, a drawn battle, a stalemate; but the witness remains, and the scars of the conflict are to the combatant but signs of honour.
During the second controversy a suggestive comparison was made:
When Newman went abroad in 1832 with his consumptive friend, Hurrell Froude, his thought by day and his dream by night seems to have been the quickening of a church which would fight against the spirit of the day and fix the minds of its children upon the eternal realities, which the modern spirit of our own time is so anxious to soften, blanch, and water down. There was a passion at this time in all Newman said and did. He harps upon the lukewarmness of the age and the indifference to eternal truth which it displays. He felt to the bottom of his heart that he was doing a work of which he himself knew neither the scope nor the goal, and that so far as he was acquitted by his own conscience, he did not much care what man said of him.
The baptismal regeneration controversy was inaugurated by a sermon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle on June 5, 1864. Before he preached it, Mr. Spurgeon warned his publishers that he was about to destroy at a blow the circulation of his printed sermons, but the blow must be struck. He was mistaken, for there was never such a demand for any sermon as for that one. In these days, when newspapers circulate a million copies a day, it may seem a small thing to say that a sermon had at once a circulation of a quarter of a million, but in those days, and for a sermon in any day, such a sale is phenomenal.
The text was: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.” The preacher plunged at once into his protest:
If I should, through speaking what I believe to be the truth, lose the friendship of some and stir up the wrath of more, I cannot help it. The burden of the Lord is upon me, and I must deliver my soul. I have been loath enough to undertake the work, but I am forced to it by an awful and overwhelming sense of solemn duty.
I know of nothing more calculated to debauch the public mind than a want of straightforwardness in ministers. If baptism does regenerate people, let the fact be preached with a trumpet tongue, and let no man be ashamed of his belief in it. God forbid that we should censure those who believe that baptism saves the soul, because they adhere to a church which teaches the same doctrine. So far, they are honest men; and in England, wherever else, let them never lack full toleration. I hate their doctrine, but love their honesty.
“Never,” said Dr. Campbell, “has the error been exhibited to the public eye with colouring so vivid, and never was it pressed home on the clerical conscience with a force so thrilling, resistless, and terrible.”
“Oh, for a truly reformed Church of England and a godly race to maintain it!” the preacher cried. “The world’s future depends on it, under God, for in proportion as truth is marred at home, truth is maimed abroad.”
The sermon is sixteen pages long, so it must have occupied more than an hour in delivery. It is well worth reading today. On the day following, the students of the college united with Mr. Spurgeon in spending the whole afternoon in prayer for a blessing on the sermon when it should be printed.
Upon its appearance the whole religious world joined in the fray. Mr. Spurgeon’s pan in the controversy was to preach other sermons: one, three weeks later on “Let us go forth unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach”; a month after that a sermon on “Children Brought to Christ, Not to the Font”; and two months after that a sermon on “The Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balances of the Sanctuary.”
In these discourses he answered directly and indirectly the blizzard of pamphlets and sermons which his original sermon had called forth—there must have been a hundred and fifty of them. At my side as I write are nine volumes of pamphlets, leather-bound, and five of them contain those that were issued on this subject. In the corner of my room is another pile of them. Spurgeon himself looks down on me from his portrait on the wall in front of me, framed in the palm branches that came from France on his coffin, and as I think of the furor which his words aroused, of the friendship which later grew up between him and the leaders of that very church against which he then bore his witness, of the selfsame Church today still continuing in the selfsame way, I wonder at the seeming futility of it all. But then I remember that though the waves break, the tide comes surely in, and that no witness for Christ and the truth of Christ can be lost.
It must not be supposed that Mr. Spurgeon was much troubled in the midst of the conflict. “I hear you are in hot water,” said a friend to him at the time. “Oh, no,” he answered, “it is the other fellows who are in the hot water. I am the stoker, the man who makes the water boil.”
A quarter of a century afterward, the second controversy began, with result strangely similar to the first. Then it became necessary for Mr. Spurgeon to resign from the Evangelical Alliance, now he resigned from the Baptist Union. But as he afterward returned to the Alliance, it might have been hoped, had his life been spared, that he would again enjoy the fellowship of his Baptist brethren. We do not forget that he wrote: “Garibaldi complained that by the cession of Nice to France he had been made a foreigner in his native land, and our heart is burdened with a like sorrow; but those who banish us may yet be of another mind, and enable us to return.”
When Thomas Spurgeon and Archibald G. Brown were co-pastors of the church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, some question was raised as to whether the Baptist Union might meet in the building. Said Thomas Spurgeon: “The Baptist Union almost killed my father.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Brown, “and your father almost killed the Baptist Union.”
Yet until this severance Mr. Spurgeon had been most cordial towards the Baptist organisation. In the autumn of 1865, the Baptist journal The Freeman had lamented that “there are voices in our midst which would ring through the land, but which are silent except to their own congregation. There are men whom we should all gladly follow, but they carry no standard, and utter no call. Almost the only exception to this statement is Mr. Spurgeon. But through the peculiarity of his position Mr. Spurgeon has hitherto stood very much alone. He is the head of a denomination within a denomination. He takes little part in the concerns of the Baptist body as such. We believe this is not Mr. Spurgeon’s own desire. If we are not mistaken, he has expressed, again and again, the desire to unite more heartily with his brethren. Why should he not do so? Is there anything that keeps him apart from the Baptist body in spite of himself? No man would be welcomed more cordially by the denomination generally, as a counsellor and a brother beloved.”
In the metropolis there is another union of Baptists, “The London Baptist Association.” Mr. Spurgeon had preached for it, and his discourse was often referred to as its “Funeral Sermon,” for although crowds came to hear the preacher, the association itself languished for years. At length, in this same year, 1865, the new association, which still flourishes, was formed. The invitation asking for cooperation in its foundation was sent out by Mr. Spurgeon and a few other ministers. The first meeting was for ministers only, the second included deacons. Eighty were present at the first gathering, when Mr. Spurgeon presided. “The brethren assembled represented well nigh every shade of opinion among us, although, if any party predominated, we should say it was that of our strict Communion brethren. Still, it was most apparent that the ruling wish of all present was to give as little place as possible to differences of opinion, and rather to find the common basis on which they could practically agree. We are thankful, too, that the basis of this new Association is so broad,” wrote The Freeman. “It does not rest in a creed, but simply with wide basis of evangelical sentiment.”
It may be of interest to record that one of the first acts of the new association was to appoint a day of fasting and prayer. November 5 was chosen, and the brethren were reminded that intercession would be more profitable than bonfires and fireworks. Mr. Spurgeon was its president in 1869.
For many years Mr. Spurgeon preached at the Autumn Assembly of the Baptist Union in the provinces, and occasionally he took part in the spring meetings, especially in 1878, when he proposed the Rev. George Gould for the office of vice-president.
In 1881 he wrote to The Baptist newspaper a letter which appeared on May 27, in which occurs this sentence: “No one more heartily desires the prosperity of the [Baptist] Union than I do; no one is more satisfied with its designs and plans. If there be any mutterings of tempest, they certainly do not arise from me or from any of those who gathered with me at the conference.”
His last appearance at the Baptist Union meetings was at Liverpool in 1882, when he yielded to the twice-repeated invitation of Hugh Stowell Brown, protesting at the same time that it was unfair always to ask him to be the preacher, when so many others could fulfil the service. On this occasion, after the sermon, a spontaneous collection of some £131 was given to the orphanage.
During the assembly Mr. Spurgeon listened to the paper read by the Rev. T. Vincent Tymns on “Evangelistic Work in Large Towns.” In one passage he declared that the spirit of the cross was often manifested outside recognised Christian circles, and he illustrated his point by referring to the brawny English soldiers on the Egyptian battlefield, of whom they had read a few days before. “The terror-stricken army exclaimed, ‘The Nazarenes are coming,’ and expected immediate slaughter; but lo! the hated Nazarenes bound up their wounds, gave the sick their own day’s allowance of water in that dry and scorching land, and left the harvest of their fields to be gathered in unharmed. Truly, a little of the Nazarene was there in many a rude soldier who confessed Him not, and amid those scenes of carnage, I read a prophecy of victory for Him who first said: ‘If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.'” As Mr. Spurgeon listened, the tears rolled down his cheeks, and he later commended the paper by describing it as “All good.” That was his farewell to gatherings of the Baptist Union.
In March and April, 1887 there appeared in The Sword and Trowel two unsigned articles entitled “The Down-Grade,” dealing largely with the history of the past, and drawing attention to the insidious ways in which heresy creeps into the churches. A footnote was appended to the first: “Earnest attention is requested for this paper. There is need of such a warning as history affords. We are going downhill at breakneck speed.” That was the first shot in the campaign which is now known as “The Down-Grade Controversy.” In August an article by Mr. Spurgeon himself appeared in his magazine under the title “Another Word concerning the Down-Grade”; in the September magazine, “A Reply to Sundry Critics and Inquirers”; “The Case Proved” in October; “A Fragment upon the Down-Grade Controversy” in November; “Restoration of Truth and Revival” in December. In the Preface to the 1887 volume occur the words: “Something will come of the struggle over The Down-Grade. The Lord has designs in connection therewith which His adversaries little dream of. Meanwhile, it behoves all who love the Lord Jesus and His Gospel to keep close together, and make common cause against deadly error. There are thousands who are of one mind in the Lord; let them break through all the separating lines of sect, and show their unity in Christ, both by prayer and action.”
At first Mr. Spurgeon wrote in general terms as to the growing declension in faith, but gradually details were given and the Baptist Union was named. On October 8, he withdrew from it, and at a specially summoned meeting on December 13, the Council of the Union deputed four of its members to visit him at Mentone (whither he had gone for his winter’s rest), “that they may deliberate with him as to how the unity of our denomination in truth, and love, and good works may best be maintained.” Mr. Spurgeon telegraphed that he would prefer to see them when he returned to England, so on January 13, 1888, Dr. Clifford, Dr. Culross and Dr. Booth, the secretary, had an interview with him at Westwood.
At the meeting of the council on January 18, what has been termed “the vote of censure” was passed. “As Mr. Spurgeon declines to give the names of those to whom he intended them to apply, and the evidence supporting them, those charges, in the judgement of the council, ought not to have been made.” An answer which was more worthy of a pettifogging lawyer, a peevish woman, or a petulant child, than of a body of high-minded men. What the resolution said was the thing that Mr. Spurgeon himself ought to have been allowed to say. There was no principle involved: it was only a question of good manners; and if one clear, strong voice had said as much that day, I think the resolution would not have been passed. This is the vote which some of Mr. Spurgeon’s friends have since then sought to have erased from the Minutes of the Council. But Mr. Spurgeon himself wrote: “All questions about the vote of censure, as far as I am concerned, may be set aside, and let the one question be discussed in all good temper, and let the truth be contended for in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Shall the Baptist Union be a resort for men of every school of thought, or shall it be declared to be an evangelical institution?”
The issue at last was narrowed down to that, and though at the time I was unconnected with the Baptist Union, not being a pastor of a church, he wrote to me to the same effect. Had he lived, that was the point at which he would have aimed, and today we may rejoice that the Declaratory Statement was published with the Annual Report:
- That the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty to interpret and administer His laws.
- That Christian baptism is the immersion in water, into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who “died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried, and rose again the third day,”
- That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelization of the world.
At the council meeting of February 21 a Declaratory Statement was suggested; on April 23 it was altered as to the question of the interpretation of Matthew 25:46, which was cited with a footnote saying that some brethren “have not held the common interpretation of those words of our Lord.”
At the assembly in the City Temple on April 23, Charles Williams of Accrington moved the resolution accepting the declaration with the footnote, and made a speech dealing more with the footnote than with the resolution. Dr. James A. Spurgeon seconded the resolution, but not the speech, and so it was hoped that the difficulty had been solved.
In the February, 1888 Sword and Trowel there was an article on “The Baptist Union Censure,” and as a supplement to the May Sword and Trowel there was a statement modifying somewhat the “notes” that had been written and printed before the City Temple meeting. Mr. Spurgeon says: “In the declaration I rejoice, and still more in the kindly spirit which found joy in conciliating opponents; but the speech of Mr. Williams launches us upon a shoreless sea.”
That was written on April 27. On April 26, in a personal letter to a friend, he says: “My brother thinks he has gained a great victory, but I believe we are hopelessly sold. I feel heartbroken. Certainly he has done the very opposite of what I should have done. Yet he is not to be blamed, for he followed his best judgement. Pray for me, that my faith fail not.”
The Pastor’s College Conference this year was reorganised as The Pastor’s College Evangelical Conference. Some eighty of the old students held aloof, and a threat from one of them that he would force his way into the conference, of which he rightly said he was a member, led to the dissolution of the old body, and the inauguration of the new, on a basis which the minority were not willing to accept.
There was a wrong turning taken somewhere, when men whose hearts drew them together found themselves sundered. At the end, Mr. Spurgeon had no other honourable course than to withdraw, but a little prescience on the part of the Baptist Union might have avoided that dilemma. I venture to say that if, say, Dr. Shakespeare had then been secretary, the down-grade controversy would have taken a different direction. The protest would have been uttered, and rightly uttered, but the personal equation would have been different. The leading members of the Council felt that they could not submit to what they thought to be the tyranny of Mr. Spurgeon, while he would not trust what he thought to be the “trimming” of the council. The assembly voted for what they thought to be the settlement of the controversy; had they known the inwardness of the case, the union would have been rent in twain. The whole question was taken in hand too late. The Autumn Assembly at Sheffield was allowed to pass without any action; what was done the following spring might then have been anticipated. Mr. Spurgeon asserted that he had spoken and written to the leaders again and again; the officials declared that he had never made any representations to them on the subject—they probably meant that particular aspect of the subject; and he probably meant the whole case, and not the case only as it concerned the Baptist Union.
Could the lamentable result have been avoided? I cannot but believe that if Spurgeon himself could have come to the assembly and spoken face to face with the delegates, an atmosphere would have been created in which clearer vision would have been possible. But he had already resigned. Had there even been a telephone, things might have been different. Might have been. Who can say?
William Carey was separated for some years from the Baptist Missionary Society that he had, in effect, founded. The committee and he could not see eye to eye. If he had only met the committee it would have been different. But then, he never took a furlough. Happily it all came right in his case at last.
To Dr. Culross, Spurgeon wrote: “I am in fellowship with you—Union or no Union.” To Dr. Clifford, Spurgeon said: “You are a General Baptist, and you hold your own views: you and I understand one another.” Dr. Maclaren never took any part in the controversy, though he was one of the four appointed to interview Spurgeon. Dr. Booth, singularly enough, had consulted Spurgeon on down-grade matters even before Spurgeon had made any protest at all.
The outcome of the controversy has been both good and bad. In the fog of the moment the blows meant for one man fell on another, the protest against one thing branched out into something quite different; useless remedies were proposed; energy that might have been better directed was spent in pursuing shadows. But many a man wavering in the faith was recalled to his old allegiance, many a simple believer was encouraged, and the great heart who dared the hazard for the sake of his Lord and for the faith that was dear to him, though he suffered for it; did not suffer in vain. The last words he said to one of his dearest friends, on the platform of Herne Hill Station, before he went to Mentone for the last time, were: “The fight is killing me.” But he never for a moment thought of turning back. The man who had lived for Christ was also willing to die for Him, and he had so greatly won the love of his friends, that if it only might have been possible, many of them would have been willing to die instead.
The very Baptist Union from which he differed, when it built its church house, counted it its chiefest honour to put a commanding statue of Spurgeon in its entrance hall, and there the noble figure stands today, evidence to all that his memory is cherished and his name revered.
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- British Weekly, Feb. 17, 1888.
- Sword and Trowel, 1887, p. 515.
- Pike, Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. III, p. 140.
- W. J. Avery in The Baptist Union Magazine, 1892, p. 61.
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.