Chapter 4: The Voice In The City
NOVEMBER 28, 1853—APRIL 28, 1854
WHILE THE YOUNG PREACHER of the Fens was busy at Waterbeach and content to stay there, a church in London was seeking, and apparently seeking in vain, for a pastor under whose ministry it might retrieve its fallen fortunes. It was one of the leading Baptist churches of the metropolis, one of the six that had a membership of over 300. The churches at Edgware Road and Dorset Square excelled it in numbers, but among the 113 churches of its own order at that time in London, most of them small, the church at New Park Street held an honoured and influential place, its chapel probably being the largest of all Baptist church buildings.
The situation of the chapel was very unfavourable, and as a consequence the congregation for years had been declining. An earlier building in Carter Lane was demolished to make way for the widening of the road to London Bridge on the south side of the river, and in a fit of parsimony a new site was chosen with a very inconvenient approach. The direct road from it led over Southwark Bridge, where a toll was charged, and no hackney carriages could be hired within half a mile. It lay so low that it was frequently flooded, and when factories and warehouses sprang up all around it, naturally the people moved their residences elsewhere. It was, in fact, what we would now call a downtown church. “A more dingy, uninviting and repelling region than where the chapel is situated I have seldom explored,” said one pastor. “It is in a gloomy, narrow street, surrounded by small, dirty-looking houses. Within a minute’s walk of the chapel you see written up at the corner of a little street ‘Bear Garden.’ ”
During its history of two hundred years the church had at least three notable preachers, whose portraits may still be seen in the vestry of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Benjamin Keach, who suffered in the pillory for his faith, and had left some writings on the metaphors and parables of Scripture, was pastor for thirty-six years, from 1668 to 1704. Dr. John Gill, who followed him, was minister for fifty-one years, from 1720 to 1771.
Ponderous in appearance and in utterance, his learned and laborious Commentary is still to be found in some libraries. For a long time his pulpit, preserved in one of the rooms of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was used by the students of the Pastor’s College for their trial sermons. He was a very pronounced Calvinist, and in his portrait his nose has a distinct tilt; Mr. Spurgeon was accustomed to say that he was turning it up at Arminians.
Dr. John Rippon, famous for his selection of hymns, the first issued by the Baptists, had a ministry of no less than sixty-three years, from 1773 to 1836. He came to the church when he was but twenty years old, and some of the older members left because of his youth. Subsequently three or four others ministered to the church, without distinction, until, in a building accommodating 1200 persons, there was a congregation of only 200. For three months the pastorate was vacant, and then they made the great discovery.
It was made very unexpectedly, but its genesis was quite simple. Mr. George Gould, a deacon of the church at Loughton, Essex, happened to be in Cambridge and attended the anniversary gathering of the Cambridge Sunday School Union in the guild hall. Young Spurgeon was one of the speakers. The manners of the time may be guessed from the fact that the two other speakers did not hesitate to declare their contempt for the young man. One of them asked why he had left his few sheep in the wilderness, and the other wished that boys would tarry at Jericho until their beards were grown before attempting to instruct their seniors. It rather looks as if young Spurgeon had been somewhat aggressive; he was certainly not lacking in confidence, for he asked permission to reply, and reminded the people that those who were bidden to stop at Jericho were not boys whose beards had not grown, but men whose beards had been shaved off by their enemies, and that an old minister who had disgraced his calling resembled them more than a young minister who was seeking to fulfil it. It was a random shot, but it hit the mark, for the description exactly fitted one of his detractors. The affair was unimportant save for the fact that it deepened the impression on the visitor’s mind which the address had made, and when, on Mr. Gould’s return to London, Mr. Thomas Olney, one of the New Park Street deacons, lamented that they could not find a suitable pastor for their church, Mr. Gould recalled the incident and suggested Mr. Spurgeon’s name.
It was not surprising that the first suggestion of the unknown preacher was forgotten, but on their next encounter the subject came up again; Thomas Olney then consulted his fellow deacon, James Low, and, willing to try the experiment, wrote to Waterbeach, the only address he knew, inviting Mr. Spurgeon to preach for a Sunday.
So on his arrival at the chapel at Waterbeach on the last Sunday of November, 1853, the invitation awaited Mr. Spurgeon. Such a thing was so little anticipated that, having read it, he passed the letter over to Robert Coe, one of the deacons, declaring that there must have been a mistake, the invitation was evidently meant for somebody else. But the deacon sorrowfully shook his head and replied that he did not think there was any mistake. What he had long dreaded had happened at last, but he was surprised that the Londoners had heard of their pastor quite so soon. “Had it been Cottenham, or St. Ives, or Huntingdon,” he said, “I should not have wondered at all; but going to London is rather a great step from this little place.” The modest doubts of the preacher were not, however, quite dispelled, so the next day, November 28, he sent a cautious answer to the invitation, expressing his willingness to come to London for a Sunday, but hinting that the invitation had probably been sent to him in error, that he was only nineteen years of age, and quite unknown beyond his own neighbourhood. A second letter from London set his mind at rest, and, still wondering, he arranged to preach at New Park Street on December 18, 1853.
It was with no sense of elation that he started for the great city. Indeed, his heart was heavy within him, and again and again he repeated to himself the text, “He must needs go through Samaria.” He felt that he was being forced along an undesired path, wished he had stayed at home, and in the midst of the preparations for Christmas in the big city he was somewhat bewildered.
None of the congregation offered him hospitality on the occasion of his visit. With scant courtesy, which was the measure of their expectation, they sent their preacher to a boarding-house in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury, a neighbourhood which has since decayed and has again risen to new respectability, and here he was given a bedroom, more like a cupboard, over the front door. The boarders looked askance at the new arrival, who was unversed in town ways; his very clothes proclaimed his country breeding. He had a great black satin stock round his neck, and in special honour of the occasion he produced a blue handkerchief with white spots. The young men gave him some tall talk about the wonderful preachers of London, and sent him to his little bedroom so depressed that, with the added noise of the street traffic, he was unable to sleep.
It was a most unsympathetic reception, and had not the preacher been conscious of his calling, assured that he had stirred neither foot nor finger to secure the invitation, he might have been tempted, even at the last moment, to evade the appointed task. Indeed, when he arrived at New Park Street the following morning and saw the building, which appeared to him very imposing, he was amazed at his own temerity.
But once in front of the congregation, which was very sparse, about eighty people, he gained confidence, and delivered his message from James 1:17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Neither preacher nor congregation guessed that he himself was the finest illustration of the text. Quite an unusual interest was aroused during the service. One of the deacons declared after the service that if the preacher were only with them for three months the place would be crowded. The news of the wonderful young man from the country spread, visits were paid to friends during the afternoon, urging them to come in the evening, and a greatly increased congregation then gathered, among them the lady who was later to become his wife, to listen to a discourse from Rev.14:5: “They are without fault before the throne of God.” The very choice of texts was unconsciously prophetic; the whole life of Spurgeon lay between them like a parenthesis. From God he came, to God at length he went, and his unceasing vocation all the while was to magnify God in the eyes of the people.
The people were so excited that they would not move until the deacons assured them that they would do their best to induce the young preacher to come again, and before Spurgeon left the building he was urged to repeat the visit. His own account of the day is worth recording: “The Lord helped me very graciously. I had a happy Sabbath in the pulpit, and spent the interval with warm-hearted friends; and when at night I trudged back to the Queen’s Square narrow lodging, I was not alone, and I no longer looked on Londoners as flinty-hearted barbarians. My tone was altered, I wanted no pity of anyone; I did not care a penny for the young gentlemen lodgers and their miraculous ministers, nor for the grind of the cabs, nor for anything else under the sun. The lion had been looked at all round, and his majesty did not appear to be a tenth as majestic as when I had heard his roar miles away.”
Writing to his father some days later, he says, “I spent the Monday in going about London, climbed to the top of St. Paul’s, and left some money with the booksellers.” In his Commentary and Commentators, he tells us that he bought the Commentary of Thomas Scott with his first pulpit fee in London, though he afterwards came to think of it as “nothing but milk and water.”
The London of that day was very different from the London of today. It lay largely on the north side of the Thames. On the west side it was practically bounded by the Edgware Road; Fulham, Hammersmith and Brompton were market gardens. On the east it reached to Stepney Green; Hackney and Bow were open country, and the Isle of Dogs a marsh seven feet below high-water mark. On the north side it included the district within a line drawn east and west from the top side of Regent’s Park; Kentish Town and Hampstead were still open. South of the river, gardens lay between Lambeth and Southwark; Newington, Kennington and Stockwell were hamlets; Rotherhithe, save for a row of houses backing onto the river bank, was open; Battersea was market gardens; Camberwell and Peckham New Town were villages; and Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich lay quite apart. Lines of villas, with fields behind, ran out beyond the city along the main thoroughfares—Clapham Road, Brixton Road, New Kent Road, Bow Road, Kingsland Road, Hampstead Road, Edgware Road, Bayswater Road—and these were chiefly occupied by retired people. The merchants of the day mostly lived in the squares of Bloomsbury, but such of them as had their homes further out rode into business on horseback, or drove in their carriages. It was estimated that about half a million workers came into the city every day.
Stagecoaches came into London from the surrounding suburbs in the morning and returned in the evening, and omnibuses ran from place to place within the limits, the front seats on either side of the driver being eagerly prized, though it was a somewhat perilous operation to clamber up the steep steps that led to them, and a person had to cling to a leather strap the while. The rotund drivers of these omnibuses, their faces generally bloated from beer-drinking, were the wits of the day, and made merry as they passed each other, or raced along the same roads. Hansom cabs were not yet invented, and the four-wheeled “growlers” were, like the omnibuses of the day, carpeted with straw.
There were no tramways, no underground railways, no tubes. St. Pancras, Liverpool Street, Victoria and Marylebone stations had no existence, and Hungerford Market was on the site now occupied by Charing Cross Station. There were no railway bridges across the river. The North-Western Railway ran into Euston, the Great Northern into King’s Cross and the South-Western into Waterloo, but the Great Western Railway found its terminus at Westbourne Park, the Eastern Counties Railway at Shoreditch, the Blackwall Railway at Fenchurch Street, and the Dover, Brighton and South Coast Railway at London Bridge. There was also a station of the South-Eastern Railway at Bricklayer’s Arms. There was no Holborn Viaduct. The Thames Embankment did not exist, save only the terrace of the Houses of Parliament.
That was the London to which Spurgeon came. The dull Georgian aspect of its architecture was just beginning to change, but its social condition was deplorable. There were great areas of slums. It was estimated that over three thousand children under fourteen years of age were living as thieves and beggars; more than twenty thousand over fifteen years of age existed in idleness, and at least a hundred thousand were growing up without education. Ragged schools were even then places of peril to their teachers, and the common lodging houses sheltered tens of thousands “in lairs fitter to be the habitation of hogs rather than of human beings.” But people were beginning to care; Lord Shaftesbury was leading a crusade against the exploitation of the poor. It was a time of transition; the city was ready for a voice, and was not too large to be reached by it.
No other preacher who supplied the pulpit at New Park Street during the vacant months had been invited a second time, but Spurgeon came again on the first, third, and fifth Sundays of January, 1854, and so great was the success of his ministry that on January 25 he was invited to occupy the pulpit for six months, with a view to permanent acceptance of the pastorate.
He had given the deacons scant encouragement from the beginning. Writing to his father after his earliest visit, he says that when it was suggested that he should come to them, he had told them that “they did not know what they were doing, nor whether they were in the body or out of the body, they were so starved that a morsel of the Gospel was a treat to them.” And when the definite call of the church reached him, given with only the votes of one man and four women against it, he replied from 60, Park Street, Cambridge, that he dared not accept an unqualified invitation for so long a time. “My objection is not to the length of the time of probation,” he added, “but it ill becomes a youth to promise to preach to a London congregation so long until he knows them and they know him. I would engage to supply for three months of that time, and then, should the congregation fail or the church disagree, I would reserve to myself the liberty, without breach of engagement, to retire, and you on your part would have the right to dismiss me without seeming to treat me ill. Enthusiasm and popularity are often like the crackling of thorns, and soon expire. I do not wish to be a hindrance if I cannot be a help.”
His first home in London was at 75, Dover Road, in the borough of Southwark. From this address on March 2, 1854, he wrote to his Uncle James at Stambourne a witty letter, in which occurs the following paragraph: “But to joke no more, you have heard that I am now a Londoner, and a little bit of a celebrity. No college could have put me in a higher situation. Our place is one of the pinnacles of the denomination. But I have a great work to do, and have need of all the prayers the sons of God can offer for me.” In a kind letter from the same address, which he wrote about the same time to the Misses Blunson, the ladies with whom he had lodged at Cambridge, he says, “I get on very well in my present lodgings, but not better than with you, for that would be impossible.”
One of the earliest presents from the deacons was a dozen white pocket handkerchiefs: a hint that it was time that the blue handkerchiefs with white spots were put away. The deacons in those days wore white cravats to be in keeping with their office, and they expected their minister to do likewise.
The suggested probation was cut short by a requisition to the deacons of the church, signed by fifty of the men members, asking for a special church meeting. Accordingly, the church gathered on April 19 and passed a resolution in which they record with thankfulness the esteem in which the preacher was held, the extraordinary increase in the congregations both on Lord’s Days and on weekdays, and “consider it prudent [mark the word] to secure as early as possible his permanent settlement among us.” On April 28 Mr. Spurgeon replied, “There is but one answer to so loving and candid an invitation. I accept it.” Then, asking for their prayers, he continues, “Remember my youth and inexperience, and I pray that these may not hinder my usefulness. I trust also the remembrance of these will lead you to forgive mistakes I may make, or unguarded words that I may utter.”
Neither he nor the church had any misgivings as to the future, but the Baptists of London seem either to have been unconscious of his coming, or to have tacitly agreed to ignore him. In the Baptist Manual of 1854 the minister of New Park Street is said to be “J. Spurgeon,” evidence enough that he was considered of no importance. The Baptist ministry of London at that time included such names as. Drs. Brock, Steane, Howard Hinton, Charles Stovel, Jabez Burns, W. G. Lewis, J. Aldis and C. W. Banks. Mr. Leechman was at Hammersmith, though that was not then counted as part of London. It is on record that at an early meeting, when Mr. Spurgeon was present, one of the London ministers prayed for “our young friend who has so much to learn, and so much to unlearn,” and that he took it quite pleasantly.
But there were men in the churches that had vision, among them Mr. Sheridan Knowles, the actor and playwright, who had been baptised by Dr. Brock about that time, and was appointed as teacher of elocution in Stepney College, now Regent’s Park. On the day a presentation was made to him by the students, he entered the classroom and immediately said, “Boys, have you heard the Cambridgeshire lad?” None of them had heard him; as a matter of fact, he had only been preaching two Sundays. Mr. G. H. Davies reports what followed. “Go and hear him at once,” he said. “His name is Charles Spurgeon. He is only a boy, but he is the most wonderful preacher in the world. He is absolutely perfect in oratory and, beside that, a master in the art of acting. He has nothing to learn from me or any one else. He is simply perfect. He knows everything. He can do anything. I was once lessee of Drury Lane Theatre; were I still in that position I would offer him a fortune to play for a season on the boards of that house. Why, boys, he can do anything he pleases with his audience! He can make them laugh and cry and laugh again in five minutes. His power was never equalled.” Then he asserted that Mr. Spurgeon would live to be the greatest preacher of the age, and that his name would be known everywhere.
If it were not so well attested, this incident might be received with some caution; it may be put alongside the earlier prediction of Richard Knill, and counted as a prophecy concerning the prophetic voice that had just been raised in the great city.
That it was prophetic cannot in the retrospect be gainsaid. As has been already hinted, the times were ripe for a message from God, and it cannot be doubted this was the prepared messenger. Here was a man whom God had prepared, whom God could trust. He had much to learn still of the ways of men, but in the ways of God his apprenticeship was over. He was a preacher full-grown—so mature, indeed, that not a few who listened to his earliest sermons in the villages imagined that they could not be his own.
If we seek to find the reason on God’s side why he was so much used, “we infer that it was due to the fact that there was nothing in him necessitating delay. He could be placed in the seat of honour, for he had the spiritual grounding requisite. He could serve the relative end, for the basis of it had been laid in his own heart. The light was there—it needed but a stand adequate to its power of illumination. And specially should be instanced this point—that he had the true Christian foil in respect of honour, namely, humility. He had, as we have just seen, forsworn the search of great things for himself, and what is this, in the economy of grace, but the forerunner of promotion?”
But if he had no great stalking ambition for himself, he felt within him a compulsion not to be resisted. On the previous September 27, while he was still at Waterbeach, he wrote to his grandfather: “I have a good field of labour here, but I want to do more if possible. I often wish I were in China, India, or Africa, so that I might preach, preach, preach all day long. It would be sweet to die preaching.” And it was not only the exercise of preaching that appealed to him, it was the result of it. “Souls, souls, souls,” he said, “I hope this rings in my ears, and hurries me on.”
On the human side one other quality fitted him for his great vocation. In his first letter to the London church he himself states it, when he writes with the simple emphasis of truth, “I have hardly ever known what the fear of man means.” It was almost a reincarnation of the spirit of John Knox. Words written of the Scottish reformer might as truly be written of Spurgeon: “Behind him was the Cross of Christ, before him the judgement seat of Christ, and between the two he stood watching for souls as one that must give account.” The spirit that inspired them was the same. W. T. Stead lamented at Melrose that England never had a John Knox in her pulpit. “Maybe not,” said the old lady who acted as guide, “but you have Mr. Spurgeon.”
Ten years afterward, in his great sermon on “Baptismal Regeneration,” he not only named his hero, he dared to speak as his hero would have spoken. “We want John Knox back again. Do not talk to me of mild and gentle men, of soft manners and squeamish words; we want the fiery Knox, and even though his vehemence should ‘ding our pulpits into blads,’ it were well if he did but rouse our hearts to action. We want Luther to tell men the truth unmistakably in homely phrase. The velvet has got into our ministers’ mouths of late, but we must unrobe ourselves of soft raiment, and truth must be spoken and nothing but truth; for of all lies which have dragged millions down to hell, I look upon this as being the most atrocious—that in a Protestant Church there should be found those who swear that baptism saves a soul. Call a man a Baptist, or a Presbyterian, or a Dissenter, or a Churchman, that is nothing to me; if he says that baptism saves the soul, out upon him, out upon him; he states what God never taught, what the Bible never laid down, and what ought never to be maintained by men who profess that the Bible, and the whole Bible, is the religion of Protestants.”
Let Carlyle describe both Knox and Spurgeon.
Reality is of God’s making: it is alone strong. How many pented bredds, pretending to be real, are fitter to swim than to be worshiped. This Knox cannot live but by fact; he clung to reality as the shipwrecked sailor to the cliff. He is an instance to us how a man, by sincerity itself, becomes heroic; it is the grand gift he has. We find in Knox a good, honest, intellectual talent, no transcendent one, a narrow, inconsiderable man, as compared with Luther; but in heartfelt, instinctive adherence to truth, in sincerity, as we say, he has no superior. Nay, we might ask what equal he has? The heart of him is of the true Prophet cast. ‘He lies there,’ said the Earl of Morton, at his grave, ‘who never feared the face of man.’ He resembles, more than any of the moderns, an Old-Hebrew Prophet. The same inflexibility, intolerance, narrow-looking adherence to God’s truth, stern rebuke in the name of God to all that forsake truth; an Old-Hebrew Prophet in the guise of an Edinburgh minister of the sixteenth century. We are to take him for that: not require him to be other.
Such a courage was constantly reinforced from its Source. An early example of the strengthening of his heart amid human weakness, although it slightly anticipates our story, may be given in his own words. It is especially valuable as illustrating the thoroughness and simplicity of his ministry, even from the beginning. In his exposition of the ninety-first Psalm in The Treasury of David, perhaps the noblest of his writing, he says:
In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighbourhood in which I lived was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave. I gave myself up with youthful ardour to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all quarters of the district by persons of all ranks and religions. I became weary in body and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it. As God would have it, I was returning mournfully from a funeral, when my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s shop in the Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore in a good bold handwriting these words: “Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” The effect on my heart was immediate.
Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil and I suffered no harm. The providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses on the window I gratefully acknowledge, and in the remembrance of its marvelous power I adore the Lord my God.
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- James Douglas, C. H. Spurgeon, p. 52.
- Review of Reviews, Feb. 1892.
- Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship, p. 137.
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.