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Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Charles Haddon Spurgeon

V.

CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON.

"God forgive me if ever I
 Take aught from the Book of that Prophecy,
 Lest my part, too, should be taken away
 From the Book of Life on the Judgment Day!"

FROM Professor Beesly's Comtism to the Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon's Christianity, what a distance to travel! Mr. Beesly once somewhat uncharitably accused Mr. Gladstone of being more concerned about his "contemptible superstitions than about politics." What would he not say of the views of the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle? You might search the whole world and find no one whose mind was more thoroughly under the domination of theological ideas than Spurgeon's. To a positivist the reverend gentleman must appear like a survival, not of the fittest, but of the unfittest,—a painful anachronism to remind good positivists and advanced thinkers generally of the lowly estate from which they have emerged. Not even reached the metaphysical stage; and yet Mr. Spurgeou has thousands and thousands of excellent men and women who hang on his every word, spoken and written, as if it were the very bread of life.

With hardly an attempt at direct political propagandism, Mr. Spurgeon contrives to be the greatest single influence in South London in favor of Liberalism. At elections, school board and parliamentary, his followers display an energy and discipline which leave nothing to be desired. They are men of faith, who do not lose heart in times of adversity and re-action. Their human sympathies, as well as their spiritual, have been warmed by the flame which burns in the bosom of the devout and fearless Great Heart of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

If the common characteristic of men of progress, of genuine Radicals, be that they "live not for themselves but for others," then it would be hard to find a better Radical than Mr. Spurgeon. As his Divine Master" went about doing good, so has His disciple ever struggled hard to follow in His footsteps. So much I readily grant. My heart is entirely with this pure-minded, unsophisticated believer; but my unsanctified head will not, alas! follow it. I go to the Tabernacle, and I admire the vastness of the audience, the simple unconventional eloquence of the preacher, the pith and mother- wit of many of his sayings; but, on the whole, the phraseology, if not strange, is almost meaningless to me, and I return to my place about as little edified as if the good man had been talking in some dead language to which I had no key. Instead of attracting me, his familiarity with the Almighty and His ways repels me. He is more intimate with Him than I am with my dearest friend. Is this the unredeemed condition of the theologically -minded spoken of by the Prophet Comte? I ask myself; or what is it?—

"It is growing dark! …
 I come again to the name of the Lord!

 Ere I that awful name record,
 That is spoken so lightly among men,
 Let me pause a while and wash my pen:
 Pure from blemish and blot must it be
 When it writes that word of mystery,"

To Mr. Spurgeon there is no mystery at all. He knows the decrees of God, and he has escaped the wrath to come. Hallelujah! Mr. Spurgeon is a converted man; and that makes all the difference.

Now, how was he converted? This becomes an important question; for on his early conversion hangs the whole of Mr. Spurgeon's future career. He is one of the elect, and in regard to so important a matter I much prefer that he should speak for himself. The event took place on Dec. 15, 1850, in the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Colchester, in Mr. Spurgeon's sixteenth year:—

"It pleased God in my childhood to convince me of sin. At last the worst came to the worst. I was miserable; I could do scarcely any thing. My heart was broken in pieces. Six months did I pray,—prayed agonizingly with all my heart, and never had an answer. I resolved that in the town where I lived I would visit every place of worship, in order to find out the way of salvation. I felt I was willing to do any thing and be any thing if God would only forgive me. I set off, determined to go round to all the chapels, and I went to all the places of worship; and though I dearly venerate the men that occupy those pulpits now, and did so then, I am bound to say that I never heard them once fully preach the gospel. I mean by that, they preached truth, great truths, many good truths that were fitting to many of their congregation, spiritually minded people; but what I wanted to know was, How can I get my sins forgiven? And they never once told me that. I wanted to hear how a poor sinner under a sense of sin might find peace with God; and when I went I heard a sermon on 'Be not deceived: God is not mocked,' which cut me up worse, but did not say how I might escape. I went another day, and the text was something about the glories of the righteous; nothing for poor me. I was something like a dog under the table,—not allowed to eat of the children's food. 1 went time after time, and I can honestly say that I don't know that I ever went without prayer to God; and I am sure there was not a more attentive hearer in all the places than myself: for I panted and longed to understand how I might be saved. At last one snowy day—it snowed so much I could not go to the place I had determined to go to, and I was obliged to stop on the road, and it was a blesssd stop to me—I found rather an obscure street, and turned down a court, and there was a little chapel. I wanted to go somewhere; but I did not know this place. It was the Primitive Methodists' Chapel. I had heard of these people from many, and how they sang so loudly that they made people's heads ache; but that did not matter. I wanted to know how I might be saved; and, if they made my head ache ever so much, I did not care. So sitting down, the service went on; but no minister came. At last a very thin-looking man came into the pulpit, and opened his Bible, and read these words: 'Look unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.' Just setting his eyes upon me as if he knew me all by heart, he said, 'Young man, you are in trouble.' Well, I was, sure enough. Says he, 'You will never get out of it unless you look to Christ.' And then, lifting up his hands, he cried out as only, I think, a Primitive Methodist could do, 'Look, look, look! It is only "look,"' said he. I saw at once the way of salvation. Oh, how I did leap for joy at that moment! I knew not what else he said. I did not take much notice of it, I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, they only looked and were healed. I had been waiting to do fifty things; but, when I heard this word 'Look!' what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away; and in heaven I will look on still in my joy unutterable."

Here, then, is an authentic narrative of the election of Charles Haddon Spurgeon; and what could be more ingenuous? He was converted by the word "look," as the sinful old Scotchwoman was brought from nature to grace by the solemn emphasis with which Dr. Chalmers pronounced the word Mesopotamia. In a similarly unhappy frame of mind George Fox sought advice from a clergyman, and was admonished to "drink beer and dance with the girls." There is in truth a great variety of cures for such spiritual maladies. Edward Spencer Beesly finds great joy in believing in Comtism, John Henry Newman in embracing Romanism, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon in flying to the iron rock of Calvinism. They are all converted from uncertainty to certainty. O ter quaterque beati! I would to Heaven I were as sure of any thing as these men are of every thing. Similar phenomena are common among Mohammedans and Buddhists. The great mistake that is made by such religionists as Mr. Spurgeon is to suppose that there is no law of conversions as of other mental moods. A true grammar of spiritual assent has yet to be written; and when that has been fairly executed by some competent investigator of psychological phenomena like Professor Bain, for example, there will be nothing startling or abnormally significant in the experience of the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The element of mystery will inevitably be eliminated, and evangelical conversions will come perchance to be classified as a sort of measles or smallpox of the intellect.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born at the village of Kelvedon, in Essex, in June, 1834. Like so many other families who have left their mark on the religious life of England, the Spurgeons are the descendants of pious Continental refugees. Driven from the Netherlands by the persecutions of Alva, they settled in Essex, and produced a line of pastors—each of them remarkable in his own way—which has remained almost without a break until now. Preaching has become quite a hereditary occupation or passion with the Spurgeons. In the phraseology of the sects, "They have never wanted a man to stand before the Lord in the service of the sanctuary." Mr. Spurgeon's grandfather, James Spurgeon, was for over half a century pastor of the Independent Church at Stambourne, in Essex. "Like Luther," says his grandson in an article in "The Sword and the Trowel," "he had a vivid impression of the reality and personality of the great enemy, and was accustomed to make short work with his suggestions."

An extraordinary narrative follows, which I fear must be ranked with "contemptible superstitions." He had been converted under a particular tree in a wood; and the Devil, appearing to him in a dream, threatened to tear him to pieces should he venture to repair to the hallowed spot by a particular path. Greatly daring, he went; and discovering, of course, no fiend at the tree, he exclaimed, "Ah, cowardly Devil! you threatened to tear me in pieces, and now you do not dare to show your face." Instead, however, of finding Satan at the rendezvous, his eye lighted on what was much to be preferred; viz., a massive gold ring, for which, mysteriously enough, there was no claimant. But the sequel to the story is the best. The old man continued annually to visit the spot for devotional exercises, till at last a wheat-field occupied the site of the wood. He then knelt down among the wheat to pray, but had hardly commenced when he was sternly reminded that his sacred grove had not been cut down for nothing, and that he must seek the Lord elsewhere. "Maister," cried a harsh voice on the other side of an adjoining hedge, "thayre be a creazy man a-saying his prayers down in the wheat over thajre!"

John Spurgeon, the son of this venerable grove-worshipper, and father of the subject of this sketch, was the second of a family of ten. For many years he was engaged in business in Colchester; but, like so many of his family, he eventually drifted into the ministry, doing duty successively at Tollesbury; Cranbrook, Kent; Fetter Lane, Holborn; and at Islington. When a mere child, his son, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, became an inmate of his grandfather's house at Stambourne, and at once came under the most pietistic influences. When ten years of age (see "Sword and Trowel"), a man of God, the Rev. Richard Knill, made him the subject of a prophecy, which of course came to pass:—

"Calling the family together, he took me on his knee, and I distinctly remember his saving, ' I do not know how it is, but I feel a solemn presentiment that this child will preach the gospel to thousands, and God will bless him to many souls. So sure am I of this, that, when my little man preaches in Rowland Hill's Chapel, as he will do one day, I should like him to promise me that he will give out the hymn commencing,—

'God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.'"

This sort of half-insinuated miracle is of not infrequent occurrence in Mr. Spurgeon's writings, and it is by no means the most satisfactory feature. Whenever I stumble on such things, I recall the stor3' of the unsanctified Yankee politician, who said he did not so much object to twaddle as to the people who ignominiously believed in it. Twaddle, he admitted, might have its uses. There were two taverns, in this shrewd man's town, of unequal repute. One of them was the headquarters of the anti-Masonic leaders (anti-Masonry was the "cry" of the hour); the other was the resort of the body of their followers. At the beginning of the legislative session our politician had taken up his quarters at the tavern frequented by the anti-Masonic rank and file. After a little while, however, he astonished the anti-Masonic leaders at the other tavern by presenting himself at their table. "What brings 3'ou here?" they asked: "we thought you had cut us to go to the other place."—"So I did," he replied; "but I can't stand, the nonsense of your d—— anti-Masons down there!"—"Well," they laughingly responded, "how have you bettered yourself here? for we are all anti-Masons too."—"True enough," said the clear-headed legislator; "but there is a great difference. Those d—— fools down yonder believe in it!"

It is this unfaltering "believing in it," nevertheless, that is at once the source of Mr. Spurgeon's weakness and of his strength. When Robespierre made his first appearance in the Assembly, he was derided by all but Mirabeau, who, more discerning, observed, "That man will go far: he believes every word he says." So it is with Mr. Spurgeon. He has gone a long way, and will continue to go a long way; for he believes ever}' word he says. So has it been with Newman, who, firmly mooring his bark to the rock of papal infallibility, has become a prince of the Roman Church. One only requires to shut one's eyes and walk by faith in order to achieve great things; yet there are disadvantages connected with this contemning of one's sight. I have, for example, been at pains to glance at most of the productions of Mr. Spurgeon's prolific pen, and I can find nothing that does not bear an utterly ephemeral impress. His mind, it is true, is thoroughly saturated with the ideas and the literature of the Hebrew race,—the least scientific of all the great nations of antiquity; but I cannot discover that he is abreast of any other kind of knowledge. The sacred writings of other peoples are seemingly sealed books to him. Neither by the development hypothesis, nor by the comparative historical method,—the two great clarifiers of modern thinking,—has Mr. Spurgeon apparently benefited in the least.

In a lecture on "The Study of Theology," delivered before the Young Men's Christian Association at Newington, he explained the manner in which he dealt with refractory texts. When books failed him, he offered, he said, this prayer: "O Lord! teach me what this means." And he added, "It is marvellous how a hard, flinty text struck out sparks with the steel of prayer." I admit the sparks: but I desiderate the light of a genuine scholarship; and, though it would be most unjust to speak slightingly of Mr. Spurgeon's acquirements, I cannot but think that his influence for good would have been immensely more lasting had he acted on his father's sensible advice, and subjected himself to a sound collegiate training before becoming a teacher of other men.

The motive which determined him to reverse the sound maxim, Disce ut doceas, was characteristic. "Still holding on to the idea of entering the collegiate institution, I thought of writing, and making an immediate application; but this was not to be. That afternoon, having to preach at a village station, I walked slowly, in a meditative frame of mind, over Midsummer Common to the little wooden bridge which leads to Chesterton; and in the midst of the common I was startled by what seemed to me to be a loud voice, but which may have been a singular illusion. Whichever it was, the impression it made on my mind was most vivid. I seemed very distinctly to hear the words, 'Seekest thou great things for thyself, seek them not!' This led me to look at my position from a different point of view, and to challenge my motives and intentions. … Had it not been for these words, I had not been where I am now," &c.

Either a loud voice or a singular illusion, but in any case good enough to prevent a lad of eighteen, already acting as a pastor at Waterbeach, from seeking to complete his legitimate studies! "Backed like a weasel, or very like a whale,"—it is all the same. Well, one might think such things; but if I were Mr. Spurgeon I should not say them. However they may affect the unthinking mass, they cannot but make the judicious grieve. They are a direct incentive to ignorant spiritual self-sufficiency.

What is the consequence to Mr. Spurgeon himself? He began to preach when he was sixteen, and between his earliest and his latest discourses there is but little to choose, whether as regards matter or manner. From the first he was popular,—a great preacher, but a very indifferent thinker,—the prophet of incipient reflection, the high priest of emotional religion. He had scarcely passed his nineteenth year when he was appointed pastor of his present metropolitan charge. His first London sermon, in December, 1853, was addressed to two hundred hearers; in three months' time he counted auditors by the thousand. Since then he has touched nothing which has not prospered, and his industry has been enormous. In 1859 was laid the first stone of the vast Metropolitan Tabernacle, which, completed in 1861 at a cost of $156,660, accommodates with ease an audience of six thousand persons. In connection with the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and owing its origin to Mr. Spurgeon's persistency, is the Pastors' College, an institution maintained at great cost for the education of Baptist preachers; the Stockwell Orphanage, the Colportage Association, and a great variety of other benevolent institutions, large and small, which bear eloquent testimony to the enduring zeal of Mr. Spurgeon in promoting what he regards as the truest interests of humanity. In addition to all these achievements, Mr. Spurgeon's publications of one kind or other have been innumerable. Of his sermons some twenty-two volumes have already been published, and single copies have been known to attain a circulation of two hundred thousand.

Who shall say that the theological age of the world has yet been outlived? And it is not because Mr. Spurgeon preaches soothing doctrines to his flock that they are attracted by him. He is the mainstay of Calvinism in England. The elect few alone are to be saved; the rest go to eternal perdition. He will not hear of the smallest limitation to their torments. This diabolic dogma, worthy of the man who betrayed the noble Serve tus to the stake,—a man head and shoulders above Calvin, both as a theologian and as a man of science,—is not worthy either of the head or heart of the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Were it true, the creature would then indeed be more just than the Creator, and all but the vilest reprobates would refuse to become "breeders of sinners." Virtuous men would everywhere conspire to bring the race to speedy extinction, so as to balk the malevolent Demiurgus of his prey. The doctrine is rendered forever incredible by its very enormity. I took some exception to the religion of humanity in the preceding article; but this may be called the religion of inhumanity, and it I totally repudiate. "A plague on both your houses!" more especially the latter. Burns was more humane, and peradventure not less Christian, when he wrote of the "arch enemy"—

"But fare ye weel, auld Nickie-Ben!
 Oh, wad ye tak' a thought and men',
 Ye aiblins might, I dinna ken,

  Still ha' e a stake:
 I'm wae to think upon yon den,
  E'en for your sake."

At the London School Board election of 1870, Mr. Spurgeon materially aided in cementing the compromise by which Scripture-teaching has been retained in rate-supported schools. He forgot the admonition of Christ, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." He called in the arm of the flesh to levy rates from atheists and all manner of unbelievers for the support of what was delusively termed non-sectarian education. In but too many instances those who have most urgently demanded the disendowment of religion in the Church have rushed with the greatest haste to endow it in the schools. They have abolished church formularies, and made every teacher a formulary unto himself or herself. Instead of one creed being taught, we have at present twenty or more in full swing; for I defy Mr. Spurgeon or any other to impart non-sectarian biblical instruction. The thing is impossible.

Mr. Spurgeon's recent discourse on the crisis now passed or passing was what may be described as a model political sermon. "'But,' saith one, 'we hope we shall have national prayer. 'I hope so, too; but will there be a national confession of sin? If not, how can mere prayer avail? Will there be a general desire to do that which is just and right between man and man? Will there be a declaration of England's policy never to trample on the weak, or pick a quarrel for our own aggrandisement? Will there be a loathing of the principle that British interests are to be our guiding star instead of justice and right? Personal interests are no excuse for doing wrong. If they were so, we should have to exonerate the worst of thieves; for they will not invade a house until their personal interests invite them. Perhaps the midnight robber may yet learn to plead that he only committed a burglary for fear another thief should take the spoil, and make worse use of it than he. When our interests are our policy, nobility is dead and true honor is departed. Will the nation repent of any one of its sins? If stern reformation went with supplication, I am persuaded that prayer would prevail; but, while sin is gloried in, my hopes find little ground to rest upon. It may be that my text will be the sole answer of the Lord: 'I will go and return to my place till they acknowledge their offence and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early.'"