Chapter 18: Two Importunate Questions
IN REVIEW of Spurgeon’s influential life two questions arise and insist on an answer. First, What was the secret of Mr. Spurgeon’s success? Second, Things being as they were, why did he not found a new denomination?
Let us take the second question first. If Spurgeon has not left behind him a body of Spurgeonites, it is not because the idea never occurred to him, nor because he lacked the opportunity of founding a sect; not because occasion did not arise when such a coterie seemed inevitable, nor that he was without prompting to establish it. In view of the peculiar position he occupied in relation to the ecclesiastical organisation of his day, and the extent of his following, it is surprising that he resisted the pressure, both from within and from without, toward the embodiment of his spirit in a church order all his own.
Considering that 1226 students had been trained in the college up to the outbreak of World War I, and that many of these were pioneers, often organising churches in new districts, it would have been comparatively easy to have formed them into a distinct regiment in the church of Christ, especially as at the beginning Spurgeon’s men were looked upon with some coldness, not to say suspicion, even among the Baptists to whom they were attached.
That some thought of organising his men into a body was in his mind, even in the early years, is evident by a reference in a letter to his first student, written probably in 1866: “I hope to see all our churches in one host. The time approaches for the formation of a distinct body or confederation. We will fill the nation with the Gospel, and then send our armies out the world over. Big words, but written in faith in a great God.”
When Spurgeon in later years withdrew from the Baptist Union, it seemed almost inevitable that he would attempt to realise his early dream. The thought and hope of many people at the time were voiced in the following paragraph:
Dr. Dale may be more intellectual, Dr. Maclaren more eloquent, and Dr. Parker more eccentric, but, for a variety of reasons, Mr. Spurgeon’s personality looms bigger on the horizon than any of his contemporaries. Now that he has ceased to belong to the Baptist Union, he will feel that it is more than ever his duty to use plain words about solemn truths. His secession is condemned by those who differ from him, but has he lost a single member of his congregation? Spurgeon may not endeavor to bring into existence a new sect: he cannot help his followers calling themselves by his name. Spurgeonism will have no infancy and no childhood, it starts in the vigor of manhood; and bearing in mind its origin, it would not be rash to predict that it will supplant the creed it repudiates, for there is no room in the constitution of Nonconformist organization for Catholic theologians.
On June 1, 1868, at the Stockwell Orphanage, where there was so great a gathering that a ton of bread was cut up for the visitors, Mr. Spurgeon said:
I have often been suspected of sinister designs. A little time ago I was talking to a brother who himself told me the reasons why he used to dislike me. He said he was afraid, for one reason, that I was going to start a new denomination. “Well,” I said, “I could have done it had I liked, could I not?” “Undoubtedly,” was the answer, “and many would have followed you.” “But I did not do it.” The thought of doing such a thing might have been pleasing to human flesh, but I consider that there are sects enough without making another.
There can be no doubt that if after his “down-grade” protest he had had inclination and vigour enough to come out into the open and call people to his own standard, there would have been a large response, not only from the Baptists but from all evangelical denominations, including Anglicans, and many of those called Brethren would probably have joined too. He must have been strongly tempted to make the venture. But he maintained his charity and sanity on the subject.
Here are some words of his, uttered in the very thick of conflict:
Why not found a new denomination? It is a question for which I have no liking. There are denominations enough, in my opinion, and if there is a new denomination formed, the thieves and robbers who have entered other gardens walled around would climb into it also, and nothing would be gained. Besides, the expedient is not needed among churches which are each self-governing and self-determining; such churches can find their own affinities without difficulty, and can keep their own coasts clear of invaders. Oh, that the day would come when, in a larger communion than any sect can offer, all those who are one in Christ may be able to blend in perfect unity! This can only be by way of growing spiritual life, clearer light upon the more eternal truth, and a closer cleaving to Him who is the Head, even jesus Christ.
All the time, even when he withdrew from some of his brethren, his heart was crying out for fellowship with all the saints. He never was a sectarian, scarcely even a denominationalism. The great increase in the body of Baptists during his lifetime was due chiefly to his influence, but always his sympathies reached far beyond that church. It was a singular irony that he who loved all who loved Christ in sincerity should find himself at last isolated from those who were nearest to him. That was the iron that entered into his soul.
“There is no word,” he wrote long before, “so hateful to our heart as Spurgeonism: no thought further from our soul than attempting to form a new sect. We preach no new Gospel, desire no new objects. We love the truth better than any sect, and are in open unison with the great body of Baptists because not able to endure isolation. ‘Let my name perish, but let Christ’s name endure for ever,’ said George Whitefield, and so has Charles Spurgeon said a hundred times.”
The way was open for him to follow John Wesley, and he had the opportunity and ability to take it, but he deliberately chose the way of George Whitefield, his hero from earliest days; and though Whitefield’s name is not borne by any Church, his influence, especially among the Calvinistic Methodists of Wales and among the Presbyterians of America, is probably as lasting as Wesley’s; Spurgeon’s influence, too, not only among the Baptists, but in the evangelical ranks of all the churches, will endure forever. He greatens with the years.
What, then, was the secret of his success? I have asked the question of many, and the most remarkable answer was given by Sir William Robertson Nicoll. He must often have asked it of himself, for without an instant’s hesitation he answered: “The Holy Ghost.” That is inclusive and all-sufficient. Spurgeon was not alone. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man,” we read, or, as Tyndale puts it, “he was a luckie fellow.” That, too, is the explanation of Spurgeon’s achievements. And if he was the fit and chosen instrument for God, we must believe that he was raised up at the right moment and trained in the best way for the work he had to do; that God, who was with him from his infancy, chose also his heredity, and endowed him with the powers and grace that fitted him for his task.
Spurgeon himself ascribed his success not so much to his preaching of the Gospel as to the Gospel he had to preach. To him it was the truth that prevailed, but, then, others preached the same truth without the same success, so there must be added reasons for the result in Spurgeon’s case. Often he said that the reason of the blessing was “My people pray for me,” but, then, other churches pray for their pastors too.
The silvery voice has again and again been credited with the drawing power of the preacher. It suited him perfectly, it was a trumpet, clear, startling, arresting—not a violin. But opinion was not unanimous even on this subject. “In point of compass and richness, the voice of Mr. Spurgeon is not to be mentioned,” says an early writer, “in comparison with that of Mr. James of Birmingham, or with that of Dr. Raffles; and to compare his power in this way with that of the late agitator, O’Connell, would indeed be to compare small things with great. It is a comparatively level voice. So that, while Mr. Spurgeon has made the pulpit more attractive than any living man, he has done so by means of a voice which can scarcely be called oratorical.”
Another early critic who set himself to fathom the problem said:
If I cannot discover the secret of your popularity in what you preach, can I find it in any peculiarity in your mode of preaching? Here is, in my judgment, the explanation of the secret. You have strong faith, and, as a result, intense earnestness. In this lies, as in the hair of Samson, the secret of your power.
Years afterward another observer stumbled on the same explanation: “Mr. Spurgeon’s most striking characteristic was in his extraordinary earnestness. It is not for nothing nowadays that one meets a man so desperately in earnest as he is.”
Still another wrote: “One who is as great a teacher with his pen as Mr. Spurgeon is with his tongue has told us ‘that there is no substitute for thoroughgoing, ardent, and sincere earnestness.’ Spurgeon’s earnestness was indeed Zeal, and there were many in those early days who called him Zealot, and questioned the sincerity of such apparently consuming ardour.”
“Were we asked to give in half a dozen words the secret of Mr. Spurgeon’s commanding influence over the hearts of men,” says another, “we should attribute it first to his courage and earnestness, and secondly to his practical common sense.”
The leading English newspaper said:
Mr. Spurgeon’s art was to put old truths into a new dress, or to present them in a new form, in which they were more likely to come home to the apprehension and to the hearts of his hearers. In all this his want of learning was in one way a distinct advantage to him. His range of view was narrowed by it, but his standing ground was more secure.
With equal confidence another verdict is given:
Undoubtedly the great secret of Mr. Spurgeon’s success has been his utter indifference to popularity, combined with manly sincerity, and the genius for commanding an audience.
An interviewer has added another quality to the list:
He might be a great orator—one could almost detect that by the music in his voice and the play of his mouth, even if we had not known it before—but I judged that it was his inestimable quality of good-fellowship, as well as his greatness as a preacher and philanthropist, that had won him such wide-spread affection and regard.
“What was the secret of this great man’s success in life?” asks The Speaker, and gave the following answer:
Unquestionably the foundation of Mr. Spurgeon’s success was his wonderful gift as a preacher. Some are inclined to belittle his oratorical powers. It can only be because they have not themselves been “under the wand of the magician”—of its own kind there was nothing to equal it in the pulpit of any church in the land.
But other churches have had preachers of an eloquence hardly inferior to that of Mr. Spurgeon. How comes it that they never won the hearts of the people of Great Britain as he did? Canon Liddon’s name occurs so naturally when we speak of pulpit eloquence; Bishop Alexander, Archbishop Magee, and many others might fairly have competed, so far as mere gifts of speech were concerned, with the pastor of the tabernacle. Yet not one of them held his place in English life, or anything approaching to it. We mean no disrespect to these eminent men when we say that Mr. Spurgeon’s triumph, his unrivaled success in holding the hearts of so large a body of his fellow countrymen, was distinctly a triumph of character. The British public had arrived at the conviction that he was absolutely sincere, simple, unpretending and straightforward.
In this triumph of personal character, and in one other feature of his life’s work we may read the secret of his astonishing success. That other feature was the stern fidelity he showed, from first to last, to the Puritan creed of his forefathers. Never for a moment did he waver in the conviction that the truth he learned as a boy was everything. Is it wonderful that when the old Puritanism was preached, not merely with eloquence, but with such genuine fervor of conviction, the preacher should have rallied round himself thousands, and scores of thousands, who found him the very champion and leader for whom they had long been hoping and praying? Narrow-minded, bigoted, crude, ignorant, all these terms of reproach were flung in turn at Mr. Spurgeon, and they hurt him no more than did the passing breeze.
Nor can those who knew him, and who knew his preaching, forget that, despite the stern fidelity which he showed to a creed that was no longer that of the world, he had a heart filled with love for his fellow-creatures, with compassion for the sinner, with the burning desire that when the end of all things had come, and the Great Account was closed, no human soul which had found itself moved by the Divine Spirit might fail of salvation. And with it all he was no priest. Never once were the sympathies of a priest-hating people ruled by the slightest assumption of spiritual authority on the part of their teacher.
In all these estimates it is taken for granted that there was a secret to be discovered in Spurgeon’s life. The thing was so inexplicable along ordinary lines, so different from that of ordinary people, and yet the product was so simple and inevitable that it is natural to ask if there was not behind it something occult and unusual.
I asked his son the secret, and he was inclined to ascribe it to the fact that he was always working, never off duty, putting all his powers under tribute to one end. That indeed is true. Here, for instance, is the record of a day as related by Mr. Spurgeon:
Leaving home early in the morning, I went to the chapel, and sat there all day long, seeing those who had been brought to Christ by the preaching of the Word. Their stories were so interesting to me that the hours flew by without my noticing how fast they were going. I may have seen some thirty or more persons during the day, one after the other, and I was so delighted with the tales of mercy they had to tell me, and the wonders of grace God had wrought in them, that I did not know anything about how the time passed. At seven o’clock we had our prayer meeting. I went in and prayed with the brethren. After that came the church meeting. A little before ten I felt faint and I began to think at what hour I had my dinner, and I then for the first time remembered that I had not had any! I never thought of it. I never even felt hungry, because God had made me so glad.
His friend, W. P. Lockhart of Liverpool, tells how he introduced him on one occasion to Mr. Alexander Balfour of the city. Mr. Balfour, sitting down beside him, said with that intensity of manner which always characterised him, “Mr. Spurgeon, I want to know how you get through the work you do. Tell me how you manage it.”
Mr. Spurgeon, looking up with a smile, said: “I suppose you think that a man who works twelve hours a day can get through a good deal of work?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Balfour.
“Well,” said Spurgeon, “I work eighteen!”
We can no more tell why Mr. Spurgeon was a great preacher than why Turner was so great a painter, Napoleon so great a general, or Pitt so great a statesman.
If you come to analyze the success of most men you cannot do it, for success defies analysis. It depends, primarily, of course, on a man’s integrity and ability, but it is the little touches—what M. Thiers called the negligences—which make a picture complete.
A sporting paper praised Mr. Spurgeon’s voice, but added:
Of course it is not enough to have a fine organ to discourse excellent music. You must have the music too, and this was supplied in Spurgeon’s case by his bluff common sense, his humor, and his fluency of speech, combined with a faith that was almost childlike in its simplicity and freedom from guile. In Spurgeon’s case one of the first circumstances prepossessing the auditor in his favor was that he had no Sunday voice.
There is considerable divergence in these estimates of the man. On the human side the reasons assigned for his greatness are his voice, his faith, his earnestness, his courage, the novelty of his presentation, his indifference to popularity, his sincerity, his good fellowship, his character, his fidelity to Puritan doctrine, combined with love to the people and the absence of priestism, his powers of work and devotion to the task in hand, his common sense, his fluency of speech, his freedom from guile.
Which of them is right? None. Nor if we single out other qualities not named in the list shall we be any nearer the solution. It was not the possession of one outstanding characteristic which worked the miracle but the combination of all—and one other thing beside.
How often some brilliant endowment in a man is neutralised or weakened by the absence of some balancing characteristic. And how frequently a man of mediocre talents who holds them in poise succeeds where the man of outstanding genius fails. Once in a century there is given to us the balanced man of genius, the brilliant man who is a whole man, and then the world wonders. We may say it is this or that which accounts for his career. As a fact it is this, and that, and a dozen other things in combination, in proper proportion, in living unity, that create the wonderful result.
One newspaper wrote:
We shall not again see the singular combination of qualities that made Mr. Spurgeon such a pioneer. His distinguishing traits were leonine courage, perfect sincerity, thorough conviction, and a manly determination to do the work that he specially felt himself called to.
I quote again Mr. Spurgeon’s friend, W. P. Lockhart, a man of lesser gifts but similar character:
It was not his voice nor his fertility of illustration, the richness of his Bible knowledge nor the abundance of his Puritanic lore, his seer like faculty nor his power to express in lusty Saxon exactly what was passing before his mind’s eye, his mother wit (used as a servant, and never allowed to become a master), his lion-hearted boldness, nor his tearful tenderness. Not one of these, nor all of them put together, made him what he was.
“Nor all of them put together!” His neighbour, Dr. W. Wright of the Bible Society, says:
Mr. Spurgeon had a marvelous combination of gifts which contributed to his greatness, a voice that you heard with pleasure and could not help hearing, a mind that absorbed all knowledge; whether from books or nature, that came within his range, an eye that took a wide angle and saw everything within view, a memory that he treated with confidence which never disappointed him, a great, large heart on fire with the love of God and the love of souls. And then he showed a practical common sense in doing things both sacred and secular, and a singleness of aim, joined with transparent honesty, that ensured the confidence of all who knew him. You could not help loving him if you came within his spell. But the chief secret of Mr. Spurgeon’s power was his faith in the living God and in the power of His Gospel. He had as real a belief in the Gospel as a merchant has in his money.
But he might have had all these and yet missed the mark.
It is possible, say the men of science, to produce separately by chemical means every constituent of a glass of vintage port. The one thing science cannot do is to mix them so as to make a glass of port. Put them together and only a nauseous mess results. Some gifted human beings are as mysteriously deficient. There is a type of man who possesses most of the qualities of greatness, but lacks the one quality of all—the mysterious force that fuses them into a living whole. The Italian Eclectic school of painting illustrated this imperfect synthesis. It aimed at perfection by the apparently rational plan of combining all possible perfections. It strove at once for the fire of Michel Angelo, for the design of the Roman school, for the glowing color of Lombardy, the action and light and shade of the Venetians, for Correggio’s grace and the symmetry of Raphael. It failed. The Caracci were, no doubt, great painters, but leagues behind the greatest.
The great man is not an aggregation of qualities, however luminous or beautiful. He is, as we have seen, a living unity, and his great qualities are but the expression of something greater within.
His life was gentle, and the elements
so mixed in him, that nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man.
It is the living mixture that produces the result, and when, as in Spurgeon’s case, there is added to the great gifts of nature the power of the Spirit of God dwelling within the man as in a holy temple, who can be surprised at the result, at once so natural, so singular, and so creative? It has been well said that “Spurgeon was born with the key to the heart of humanity in his hand.”
- G. Holden Pike, Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. II, p. 363.
- Figaro, Nov. 7, 1887.
- Samuel Smiles, George Moore: Merchant and Philanthropist, p. 450.
- Sword and Trowel, 1887, p. 560.
- Christian Commonwealth, Feb. 4, 1892.
- Review of the Churches, Vol. I, p. 349.
- Pike, Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon, Vol. II, p. 206.
- Pictorial World, Feb. 6, 1892.
- Daily Telegraph, Feb. 1, 1892.
- The Times, Feb. 1, 1892.
- Daily Chronicle, Jan. 1, 1879.
- Christian World, Feb. 4, 1892.
- The Speaker, Feb. 6, 1892.
- Autobiography Vol. II, p.137.
- Baptist, Feb. 11, 1892.
- Daily News, Feb. 2, 1892.
- Referee, Feb. 7, 1892.
- Reynolds’ Sunday Newspaper, Feb. 7, 1892.
- British Weekly, Feb. 4, 1892
- E. T. Raymond, All and Sundry, p. 27.
- British Standard, March 4, 1864.
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.