The noted German pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke once said, "Sell all [the books] that you have and buy Spurgeon."
Todaynearly a century after Spurgeon's deaththere is more material in print by Charles Haddon Spurgeon than by any other Christian author, living or dead.
What was it about the Victorian London orator that enabled him to captivate the minds and hearts of multitudesthen and now?
Speaking to the Masses
Charles Spurgeon came to London as a mere lad, and no preacher received more criticism than the 19-year-old "boy preacher," as he was called. Becoming pastor of the historic New Park Street Baptist Church, he found the press virtually at war with him. The Ipswich Express said his sermons were "Redolent of bad taste, vulgar, and theatrical."
Spurgeon replied, "I am perhaps vulgar, but it is not intentional, save that I must and will make the people listen. My firm conviction is that we have had quite enough polite preachers, and many require a change. God has owned me among the most degraded and off-casts. Let others serve their class; these are mine, and to them I must keep."
Spurgeon saw the value of preaching to the common people in their own language and in a way that captivated their interest. He well understood the sophistication of the Established Church and its irrelevance to his own social setting. One editorial cartoon depicted an Anglican rector driving an old stagecoach with two slow horsesnamed "Church" and "State." Racing ahead, however, is a young preacher with flowing hair, speeding on a locomotive engine. The title of the second cleric's locomotive? "The Spurgeon," of course.
Even British evangelicalism tended to be an upper-middle-class institution. With his "vulgar" style, however, Spurgeon spoke to the people of the street. Actually, Spurgeon's church became known as a "church of shopkeepers," but the criticism still mounted. Spurgeon finally said in exasperation, "Scarcely a Baptist minister of standing will own me." But multitudes came to hear him preach.
It would not be fair to say that Spurgeon was the only evangelical preacher who took this approach and was criticized for it. Yet Spurgeon was the most successful in preaching to the common culture. When Spurgeon was 20 years old, he wrote to his future wife, Susannah Thompson, about an open-air sermon to a multitude: "Yesterday I climbed to the summit of a minister's glory the Lord was with me, and the profoundest silence was observed; but oh, the closenessnever did mortal man receive a more enthusiastic ovation! I wonder that I am alive! Thousands of heads and hands were lifted, and cheer after cheer was given. Surely amid these adulations I can hear the low rumbling of the advancing storm of reproach. But even this I can bear for the Master's sake."
When it came to declaring the gospel in a relevant fashion to the common masses, Spurgeon was a master. He was a nineteenth-century reflection of George Whitefield.
Focusing on Christ
Spurgeon once described his approach to preaching by saying, "I take my text and make a bee-line to the cross." He burned with a desire to preach the Good News and see people won to faith in Jesus Christ. Spurgeon declared that "Saving faith is an immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, resting upon Him alone, for justification, sanctification, and eternal life by virtue of the covenant of grace." He fervently urged people to enter into this faith relationship.
What may seem paradoxical to some today is that theologically, Spurgeon tenaciously clung to traditional Calvinism. Evangelistic appeals came from this preacher who adhered to the traditional five doctrinal points of the Synod of Dort, including unconditional election.
Spurgeon was once asked how he could reconcile his stance between Calvinistic theology and his fervent preaching of the gospel. He replied, "I do not try to reconcile friends."
Spurgeon stood on the precarious razor's edge between High Calvinism and Arminianism and preached the Word of God as he understood it. Thus, The World Newspaper reported that "Mr. Spurgeon is nominally a Calvinist." He was rejected by many of the high Calvinistic churches. The pastor of the Surrey Chapel, for example, spent time every Sunday criticizing Spurgeon's previous sermon because it was not Calvinistic enough. At the same time, Spurgeon was certainly not admitted to Arminian circles because he was far too Calvinistic for them.
Why this paradox? Spurgeon preached what he found in the Word of God and was not overly concerned to systematize everything. A reading of just a scattering of his sermons makes it obvious that when Spurgeon took a text, he took it seriously. And he used it to point people to Christnot to establish or reestablish a formal doctrinal system.
Developing Dramatic Gifts
Spurgeon was endowed with a beautiful speaking voiceit had melody, depth, and a resonance that could be heard by many thousands of people. Yet he never seemed to be straining.
He also had a dramatic flair and style that was captivating. The manager of London's Drury Lane Theater said, "I would give a large amount of money if I could get Spurgeon on the stage." Not that Spurgeon was superficially theatrical; it was his real self that gave him such a dramatic style in his preaching.
Spurgeon also had an eloquence that gives the impression he labored hours over his similes, metaphors, and dramatic illustrations. Yet he prepared his Sunday morning sermon Saturday night, and his Sunday night sermon on Sunday afternoon. He would walk into the pulpit with a simple, small outline, sometimes written on the back of an envelope, and from that extemporaneously pour forth eloquence almost equal to Shakespeare's.
At the same time, it is only fair to say that Spurgeon studied diligently and read avidly. He amassed a personal library of over twelve thousand volumes, and he had a virtually photographic memory to call up his hours of study when he needed them in the pulpit.
The question is raised, Was Spurgeon an innovator in his preaching?
Spurgeon broke with tradition and convention; he would not preach stilted sermons. As pointed out he spoke in common language to common peoplein a dramatic, eloquent, even humorous way. He painted word pictures.
If there was "newness" about Spurgeon's method, it was that he strove to be a communicator. Spurgeon never forgot that if a preacher fails to communicateregardless of ability, sincerity, theology or natural giftsa preacher has failed. So he addressed people where they were and spoke simply to their deepest needs. That is innovation at its best and would make a preacher effective in any age.
Drawing on a Deep Spirituality
Foremost of all, Spurgeon was a man of God. The depth and breadth of his spirituality was profound. He quoted medieval mystics as well as John Law, John Wesley, and other spiritual giants of European Christianity. He was devoted to prayer.
When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle (as New Park Street Church became known), Spurgeon would take them to a basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then the pastor would declare, "Here is the powerhouse of this church. "
Devoted to the Scriptures, to disciplined prayer, and to godly living, Spurgeon exemplified Christian commitment when he stood in the pulpit. This itself gave power to his preaching.
The One Thing He Lacked
Perhaps it is correct to say that as a preacher, Spurgeon had everythingexcept good health. He suffered constantly from various ailments and fell into serious depression at times. He had rheumatic gout that eventually took his life at the age of 57.
Yet Spurgeon overcame physical limitations and relentless criticism to be established as the greatest Victorian preacher. He went to New Park Street Baptist Church as a teenager and on his first Sunday preached to eighty people. Yet during his thirty-seven years of ministry there, the congregation grew to become the largest evangelical church in the world.
When one considers Spurgeon's great heart, biblical exposition of the gospel, cultural relevance, dramatic flair, and eloquence, it's little wonder he took the country by storm.
He preached a relevant gospel in such a way that common people heard him gladly. This is the essence of great preaching, and it was the genius of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available atChristianHistory.net. Subscriptionsto the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
Preaching Augustine | The Christian Classics Ethereal Library came to my rescue in a homiletical emergency. (May 27, 2005)
Victorian Skeptics on the Road to Damascus | Former atheist Antony Flew's admission of the existence of God shocked believers and skeptics alike, but such a turnaround is far from unique. In the 19th century, many leading intellectuals who had once lost their faith ended up reconverting. (May 20, 2005)
In Search of the Real Balian | In Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott turns Balian of Ibelin into an agnostic, but what do we know of the Balian of history? (May 13, 2005)
How Could Christians Crusade? | Why followers of the Prince of Peace waged war. (May 06, 2005)
Uwe Siemon-Netto: Ignore History at Your Own Peril | UPI religion columnist decries the shallow Christianity of those who neglect the past. (April 15, 2005)
Signs of the Reformation's Success? | Reformation scholar Timothy George discusses Pope John Paul II's historical significance and this 'momentous' era of Catholic-evangelical dialogue. (April 8, 2005)
'Hymn for Easter Day' | Charles Wesley's 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today' brings alleluia's historical significance to modern audiences. (March 24, 2005)
The Jewishness of the Nicene Creed | It was the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that shaped the theology of the Nicene bishops. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Still Fighting over Nicaea | The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Dostoyevsky's Disregarded Prophecy | The famous Russian author shows us what's to fear in a world without God. (Feb. 11, 2005)
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