Chapter 2: The Search for God
JANUARY, 1845—JANUARY 6, 1850
THE BOY SPURGEON continued in quest of Christ for five years—from the time when he was between ten and eleven years old until he was between fifteen and sixteen. Into those years was crowded a world of experience which enabled him in his subsequent ministry to probe the secrets of many hearts. He learned more of the things that matter in those years than most men learn in a lifetime.
That one so young, so sheltered, trained from his babyhood in the ways of God, could have felt so much and have had such exercises of soul may seem impossible, his own account of his darkness and despair may appear exaggerated; but those who are versed in the ways of God will understand. “To make a man a saint,” says Pascal, “grace is absolutely necessary, and whoever doubts it, does not know what a saint is or what a man is.” Spurgeon early learned to know both. He arrived at some knowledge of his own heart and some knowledge of God’s heart. By his very wanderings he was assured that grace was seeking him all the while.
“I must confess,” he says, “that I never would have been saved if I could have helped it. As long as ever I could, I rebelled, and revolted, and struggled against God. When He would have me pray, I would not pray, and when He would have me listen to the sound of the ministry, I would not. And when I heard, and the tear rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away and defied Him to melt my soul. But long before I began with Christ, He began with me.”
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Cling to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, thunder-driven,
They clanged His chariot ‘thwart a heaven
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
It was to his mother he owed his first awakening. Her prayers, no less than her exhortations, aroused him to concern of soul. His father has told that once on the way to a preaching engagement his heart smote him that he was caring for other people and neglecting his own family. So he turned back home. On his arrival he was surprised to find no one in the lower rooms, but on ascending the stairs he heard the voice of prayer. Quietly listening outside the door, he discovered that his wife was pleading for her children, and specially interceding for Charles, her firstborn and strong-willed son. That son often repeated the story as it was told him by his father, adding, “My father felt that he might safely go about his Master’s business while the dear wife was caring so well for the spiritual interests of the boys and girls at home, so he did not disturb her, but proceeded at once to fulfil his preaching engagement.”
Ambrose might well tell Monica to comfort her heart about Augustine, that it was impossible for the child of such tears as hers to be lost. In this sphere the believing mother counts most. Ziegenbalg was sent to Tinnevelly by his mother’s prayers; they were not answered even when she lay dying but as she pointed to the corner of the room where she had so often knelt, her last cry to God was, “Father, remember what I said to Thee there.” And God remembered. The story of Ziegenbalg stirred the heart of the mother of the Wesleys, and she began in earnest to seek the salvation of her children. To her absent husband, Susannah Wesley wrote: “I am a woman, but I am also the mistress of a large family. And though the superior charge of the souls contained in it lies upon you, yet in your long absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my charge as a talent committed to me under a trust. I am not a man nor a minister, yet as a mother and a mistress I felt I ought to do more than I had yet done. I resolved to begin with my own children; in which I observe, the following method: I take such a proportion of time as I can spare every night to discourse with each child apart. On Monday I talk with Molly, on Tuesday with Hetty, Wednesday with Nancy, Thursday with Jacky, Friday with Patty, Saturday with Charles:” No wonder John and Charles Wesley, the two boys of the home, emerged from such influence as God’s heralds, and from similar influence, Charles and James Spurgeon, the two sons of another home!
Every Sunday evening Mrs. Spurgeon was accustomed to gather the children around the table, and as they read the Scripture, she would explain it to them verse by verse. Then she prayed, and her son declares that some of the words of her prayers her children never forgot. Once she said, “Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance they perish, and my soul must bear swift witness against them at the day of judgement if they lay not hold of Christ.” That was not at all in the modern vein, but it was the arrow that reached the boy’s soul. “The thought of a mother bearing swift witness against me pierced my conscience and stirred my heart.” There was enough in him to cause his mother anxiety. His father recalled that his wife once said to him, speaking of their eldest son, “What a mercy that boy was converted when he was young.”
In the first sermon he published in London, he said, “There was a boy once—a very sinful child—who hearkened not to the counsel of his parents. But his mother prayed for him, and now he stands to preach to this congregation every Sabbath. And when his mother thinks of her firstborn preaching the Gospel, she reaps a glorious harvest that makes her a glad woman.”
His father, too, shared in the training. When the boy returned home from his grandfather’s house, he greatly scandalised the congregation on Sunday by singing the last line of each verse twice. His father took him to task, but he said that his grandfather did it, and he would do it too. So his father told him that if he did it again he would give him a whipping that he would remember as long as he lived. Sunday came, and again the boy sang the last lines twice. It must have been amusing, for he had no singing voice. After the service his father asked him if he remembered what he had said. The boy remembered.
Father and son then walked into the wood, passing a wheat field on the way, the father trying to win his son to repentance. There they kneeled and prayed together, and both were greatly moved. Turning back to the wheat field, the father plucked a stalk of wheat, and told Charles to hold out his hand. The wheat stalk was laid gently across it. “I told you I would give you a whipping you would never forget. You will never forget that,” said his father. The gentle sternness of the punishment broke him down and won him over, and he never forgot it.
It must not be supposed that the lad became morbid during those years. He lived two lives, one keen, natural, bookish, observant; the other absorbed, fearful, doubting, insurgent. If he had spoken of his trouble, there were those round him who could, perhaps, have helped him out of it; but he battled alone, hiding his thoughts from them all, save once when he spoke to his grandfather of his fear of being a lost soul, and was somewhat comforted for a while. He would not believe because others believed; he must have an assurance of his own; he would not rest until he knew.
He bare witness that by restraining grace, and through the influence of his father and grandfather, he was kept from many outward sins, in which others indulged, and said that at times he thought he was quite a respectable lad. “But all of a sudden I met Moses,” he quaintly observed. “Then there came to my startled conscience the remembrance of the universality of law. I thought of what was said of the old Roman Empire, under the rule of Caesar: if a man once broke the law of Rome, the whole world was one vast prison to him, for he could never get out of the reach of the imperial power. So did it come to be in my aroused conscience.”
“Let none despise the stirrings of the Spirit in the hearts of the young,” he said in another place. “Let not boyish anxieties and juvenile repentances be lightly regarded. I, at least, can bear my personal testimony to the fact that grace operates on some minds at a period almost too early for recollection. When but young in years I felt much sorrow for sin. Day and night God’s hand was heavy on me. If I slept a night I dreamed of the bottomless pit, and when I awoke I seemed to feel the misery I had dreamed. Up to God’s house I went; my song was but a sigh. To my chamber I retired, and there, with tears and groans, I offered up my prayer without a hope and without a refuge, for God’s law was flogging me with its ten-thonged whip and then rubbing me with brine afterwards, so that I did shake and quiver with pain and anguish.
“It was my sad lot to feel the greatness of my sin without a discovery of the greatness of God’s mercy. I had to walk through this world with more than a world upon my shoulders, and I wonder to this day how it was that my hand was kept from rending my own body in pieces through the awful agony which I felt when I discovered the greatness of my transgression. I used to say, ‘If God does not send me to hell, He ought to do it.’ I sat in judgement upon myself and pronounced the sentence that I felt would be just. I could not have gone to heaven with my sin unpardoned, even if I had the offer to do it, for I justified God in my own conscience, while I condemned myself.”
In the midst of this “law work,” to use a phrase well understood by our fathers, he used to read the first thing when he woke in the morning from Alleine’s Alarm to Sinners, or Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, or Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, or James’ Anxious Inquirer, but about them all he says, “It was like sitting at the foot of Sinai.” He read the Bible through, but found that its threatenings seemed to be printed in capitals and its promises in small type. With perverse ingenuity, as with others in like case, he twisted everything to his own hurt, applied the cheering words to others, the woeful words to himself.
“Oh, the many times I have wished that the preacher would tell me something to do to be saved! Gladly would I have done it, if it had been possible. If he had said, ‘Take off your shoes and stockings and run to John o’ Groats,’ I would not even have gone home first, but would have started off that very night if I might win salvation. How often have I thought that if he had said, ‘Bare your back to the scourge and take fifty lashes,’ I would have said, ‘Here I am. Come along with your whip and beat as hard as you please, so long as I can obtain peace and rest, and get rid of my sin.’ Yet the simplest of all matters—believing in Christ crucified, accepting His finished salvation, being nothing and letting Him be everything, doing nothing, but trusting to what He has done—I could not get hold of it.”
Not every one who has a deep experience can describe it. In the extracts that follow no doubt allowance must be made for the preacher’s rhetoric. But there is reality behind the words, a sense of the actual that followed him all his life.
Without wonder we find him, when he had attained to peace, saying, “I love to bless God for every terror that ever scared me by night, and for every foreboding fear that alarmed me by day. It has made me happier ever since, for now, if there be a trouble weighing upon my soul, I thank God that it is not such a burden as that which bowed me to the very earth, and made me creep along the ground, like a beast, by reason of heavy distress and affliction.” And again, “Full often have I found it good when I have talked with a young convert in deep distress about his sin, to tell him something more of his anxious plight than he knew how to express, and he has wondered how I found it, though he would not have wondered if he had known where I had been, and how much deeper in the mire I had been than he. When he has talked about some terrible thought that he has had with regard to the impossibility of his own salvation, I have said, ‘Why! I have thought that a thousand times, and yet have overcome it by the help of God’s Spirit.'”
Let us try, then, to follow him as he seeks to follow himself during those dark years: “Once I, like Mazeppa, lashed to the wild horses of my lust, and bound hand and foot, incapable of resistance, was galloping on with hell’s wolves behind me, howling for my body and my soul as their just and lawful prey.”
But yet a deeper apprehension of the eternal is seen in this: “When I was in the hands of the Holy Spirit, under conviction of sin, I had a clear and sharp sense of the justice of God. Sin, whatever it might be to other people, became to me an intolerable burden. It was not so much that I feared hell as that I feared sin; and all the while I had upon my mind a deep concern for the honour of God’s name and the integrity of His moral government. I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience if I could be forgiven unjustly.” No shallow theology here.
He came to close grips, too, with the power of evil. “Ah! I recollect a dark hour with myself,” he says, “when I, who do not remember to have even heard a blasphemy in my youth, much less to have uttered one, found rushing through my mind an almost infinite number of curses and blasphemies against the Most High God. I specially recall a narrow and crooked lane in a country town, along which I was walking one day, while I was seeking the Saviour. On a sudden, it seemed as if the floodgates of hell had been opened; my head became a very pandemonium, ten thousand evil spirits seemed to be holding carnival within my brain, and I held my mouth lest I should give utterance to the words of blaspheme that were poured into my ears. Things I had never heard or thought of before came rushing impetuously into my mind, and I could scarcely withstand their influence. It was the devil throwing me down and tearing me. These things sorely beset me; for half an hour together the most fearful imprecations would dash through my brain. Oh, how I groaned and cried before God! That temptation passed away; but ere many days it was renewed again, and when I was in prayer or when I was reading the Bible these blasphemous thoughts would pour in upon me more than at any other time.”
There came a time when he even persuaded himself that he was an atheist. It was, of course, a passing phase, but it was real while it lasted. In one of his finest early passages, when he was preaching in London, he describes his brief apostasy. In passing, we may take this extract as a sample of the rush of his youthful oratory, somewhat flamboyant, it is true, but absolutely compelling. No wonder he gained the ear of the people.
“I have never been thoroughly an unbeliever but once, and that was not before I knew the need of a Saviour, but after it. It was just when I wanted Christ and panted after Him, that, suddenly the thought crossed my mind—which I abhorred, but could not conquer—that there was no God, no Christ, no heaven, no hell; that all my prayers were but a farce, and that I might as well have whistled to the winds or spoken to the howling waves. Ah! I remember how my ship drifted through the sea of fire, loosened from the anchor of my faith which I had received from my fathers. I no longer moored myself hard by the coasts of Revelation. I said to reason, ‘Be thou my captain’; I said to my own brain, ‘Be thou my rudder’; and I started on my mad voyage. Thank God it is all over now; but I will tell you its history. It was one hurried sailing over the tempestuous ocean of free thought. I went on, and as I went, the skies began to darken; but to make up for the deficiency, the waters were gleaming with coruscations of brilliancy. I saw sparks flying upward that pleased me, and I felt, ‘If this be free thought, it is a happy thing.’ My thoughts seemed gems, and I scattered stars with both my hands; but anon, instead of these coruscations of glory, I saw grim fiends, fierce and horrible, start up from the waters; and as they dashed on, they gnashed their teeth, and grinned upon me; they seized the prow of my ship, and dragged me on, while I, in part, gloried in the rapidity of my motion, but yet shuddered at the terrific rate with which I passed the old landmarks of my faith. I went to the very verge of the dreary realms of unbelief. I went to the very bottom of the sea of infidelity. As I hurried forward at an awful speed, I began to doubt if there was a world. I doubted everything, until at last the devil defeated himself by making me doubt my own existence. I thought I was an idea floating in the nothingness of vacuity; then, startled with the thought, and feeling that I was substantial flesh and blood after all, I saw that God was, and Christ was, and heaven was, and hell was, and that all these things were absolute truths. The very extravagance of the doubt proved its absurdity, and then came a Voice which said, ‘And can this doubt be true?’ Then I awoke from the death dreams, which, God knows, might have damned my soul and ruined my body if I had not awakened. When I arose, faith took the helm; from that moment I doubted not. Faith steered me back; faith cried ‘Away! Away!’ I cast my anchor on Calvary, I lifted my eye to God, and here I am alive, and out of hell. Therefore I speak what I do know. I have sailed the perilous voyage: I have come safe to land. Ask me to be an infidel! No. I have tried it; it was sweet at first, but bitter afterwards. Now, lashed to God’s Gospel more firmly than ever, standing as on a rock of adamant, I defy the arguments of hell to move me, for ‘I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him.'”
But not at once did he arrive at such assurance. His intellect seems first to have come to poise, for a month or two before the memorable day when he found God in Christ as a living experience, he wrote an essay entitled Antichrist and her Brood; or Popery Unmasked, the manuscript of which has been carefully bound and preserved. It has 295 pages, and is a distinct achievement for a lad of fifteen years. It was a kind of holiday amusement, and although it did not secure the prize in the competition for which it was entered, two years afterward a sum of money reached him in recognition of his effort from Mr. Arthur Morley of Nottingham, who had initiated the contest.
By that time he was an avowed Christian, and it is more than interesting to see how he used the unexpected gift that came to him. He said in a letter to his father from Cambridge on December 31, 1851: “When I wrote my essay on my knees in the little room upstairs, I solemnly vowed to give two tithes of anything I might gain by it to the Lord’s cause.” Then he mentioned that he wanted to send the remainder “as a little present to you and dear Mother.” “I know a lad in Christ,” he said long after, “who adopted the principle of giving a tenth to God. When he won a money prize for an essay on a religious subject, he felt that he could not give less than one fifth of it. He had never after that been able to deny himself the pleasure of having a fifth to give.”
But the lad was not in Christ yet, although it is significant that in his essay he quotes on the thirty-eighth page the very text that wrought his deliverance—”Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Little does the letter of Scripture avail without the Spirit of God.
The search for God now became intense. “Our own experience,” he said, “recalls to us the period when we panted for the Lord, even for Him, our only want. Vain to us were the mere ordinances—vain as bottles scorched by the simoom and drained of their waters. Vain were ceremonies—vain as empty wells to the thirsty Arab. Vain were the delights of the flesh—bitter as the waters of Marah, which even the parched lips of Israel refused to drink. Vain were the directions of the legal preacher-useless as the howling of the wind to the benighted wanderer. Vain, worse than vain, were our refuges of lies, which fell about our ears like Dagon’s temple on the heads of the worshipers. We had only one hope, one refuge for our misery. Save where the Ark floated, north, south, east and west were one broad expanse of troubled waters. Save where that star burned, the sky was one field of unmitigated darkness. Jesus. Jesus. JESUS! He alone, He without another, had become the solitary hiding place against the storm.
“I cried to God with groanings—I say it without exaggeration—groanings that cannot be uttered! And oh, how I sought, in my poor dark way, to overcome first one sin and then another, and so to do better, in God’s strength, against the enemies that assailed me, and not, thank God, altogether without success, though still the battle had been lost unless He had come who is the Overcomer of sin and the Deliverer of His people, and had put the hosts to flight.”
Then came the memorable sixth day of January, 1850. He rose before the sun, to pray and to read one of his bedside books. But he found no rest. As he says himself, God was plowing his soul, ten black horses in His team—the ten commandments—and cross-plowing it with the message of the Gospel, for when he heard it, no comfort came to his soul. Already he had been the round of the chapels, but in vain, and “had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning,” he might still have wandered in darkness and despair. The storm prevented him reaching the place of worship to which he was going, and instead he turned into the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Artillery Street, Colchester.
It was not the place of his choice, but it was the place that God had chosen; not the morning of his hope; but the morning of God’s deliverance; not the preacher appointed for the day, who was probably snowed up, but the messenger entrusted with the key that led into the light the lad who for five weary years had been groping in the shadows.
There were a dozen or fifteen persons in the chapel—no more, and the preacher was an unlettered man. The minister is unknown, though no doubt he knows now how great a deed he did that day.
The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Even though the preacher did not pronounce all his words correctly, there was a gleam of hope in them for the seeker in the side pew. As Spurgeon recalled it, and he had a remarkable verbal memory, the sermon ran on this fashion:
“My dear friends, this is a simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger. It is just ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look. Even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto me.’ Aye!” said he in broad Essex, “Many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by and by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto me.'”
Whether he had reached the end of his tether, having spun out about ten minutes, or whether he was lifted out of himself, and spoke words given to him at that moment, he fixed his eyes on the stranger, easily distinguished in the little company, and said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” It was a blow struck right home, and although the young man had never had such a personal word from the pulpit before, he was too much in earnest to resent it. The preacher continued, “You always will be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist of that time could, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”
What more he said young Spurgeon never knew, for in a moment he saw the way of salvation, and was possessed by the thought of the freeness and simplicity of it. “I had been waiting to do fifty things,” he said; “but when I heard the word look, I could have almost looked my eyes away. I could have risen that instant and have sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith that looks alone to Him.
“I thought I could dance all the way home. I could understand what John Bunyan meant when he declared he wanted to tell the crows on the plowed land all about his conversion. He was too full to hold. He must tell somebody.” In the light of the passion that constrained him to witness for Christ in the coming years, it is almost surprising that then and there he did not break out in testimony to the mighty change that had been wrought in him. There was no doubt about it. “As Richard Knill said, ‘At such a time of the day, clang went every harp in heaven, for Richard Knill was born again’; it was even so with me.” He felt that if beside the door of the place as he went out there had been a pile of blazing faggots, he could have stood upon them without chains, glad to give his flesh and blood and bones to be ashes, if only such action might have testified his love to Jesus.
“Between half past ten, when I entered that chapel, and half past twelve, when I returned home, what a change had taken place in me!”
He thought at first that he had never heard the Gospel before, that the preachers he had listened to had not preached it, but he came to see the difference between the effectual calling of God and the general proclamation of the Gospel. The word of the Lord came to him expressly that morning, as it did to Ezekiel, and he was nevermore separated from his Saviour.
I looked to Him, He looked on me,
And we were one forever.
A tablet was erected in the chapel in 1897 over the spot where Spurgeon sat, and the pulpit from which the sermon was preached was subsequently removed to the Stockwell Orphanage.
It is interesting that in the east window of the parish church at Kelvedon, the village of his birth, there is, under the figure of the Saviour on the Cross, the text, “Look unto me, and be ye saved.”
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1 Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven.
2 Autobiography, Vol. I, p..69.
3 Wesley’s Journal, Vol. I, pp. 386-87. Everyman’s Library Edition.
4 Autobiography, Vol. I, chaps. 9, 10, and 11.
5 Ezek. 1:3.
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.