In 1934 Winston Churchill, in the midst of his “Wilderness Years,” was six years from becoming Prime Minister. Rudyard Kipling and William Butler Yeats were winning awards in poetry and Samuel Taylor Coleridge died. However, beyond politics and poetry, the attention of rich and poor, government leaders and servants, was riveted on the life of a Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who had died forty-two years earlier.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born on June 19, 1834, in Kelvedon, England, first child of seventeen, to John and Eliza. Nine of Charles’s siblings died in early childhood. Think of that, nine times John and Eliza watched as the soil fell from a gravedigger’s spade for the burial of the lifeless body of one of their children.
At 18 months of age, for reasons unknown, Charles was sent to live with his grandparents James and Sarah Spurgeon and his aunt Ann in the village of Stambourne where James served as pastor of the Independent Chapel. There Charles remained until he was six years old when he returned to his parents, then living in Colchester.
Charles was converted on a Sunday in January 1850 when a snowstorm drove him into a Methodist church building on Artillery Street in Colchester. There he answered the call to look to Christ and be saved. In May he was baptized in the River Lark near Cambridge. October 1851, seventeen-year-old Spurgeon became the pastor of Waterbeach Baptist Chapel. In April 1854 he was formally installed as pastor of the New Park Street Chapel (in 1861 relocated and named the Metropolitan Tabernacle) and there he remained for 38 years. He married Susie Thompson, January 8, 1856 and they had twin sons, Charles and Thomas in late September.
By 1856, Spurgeon was a household name around the globe. Visitors from the United States had two aims when visiting London, to get a glimpse of Queen Victoria and to hear Spurgeon preach. By the time of his death, January 31, 1892, Charles Spurgeon was not only the most famous preacher in the world; he was one of the most important people of the Victorian-era.
On April 25, 1934, a capacity crowd swelled the Royal Albert Hall to remember (two months early) the one-hundredth birthday of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Ironically, the celebration was held under the auspices of the Baptist Union and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Such is ironic because in October 1887, during the Down Grade Controversy, Spurgeon withdrew from the Baptist Union over the Union’s theological slippage. On January 18, 1888, he was censured by the Union. It was Spurgeon’s battle for truth during that time and the resultant loss of friendships, including many men whom he had trained for the ministry, that was most taxing on his already wearied body and mind. Susie believed that the controversy was the reason for his early death at age 57.
Though the controversy had separated old friends, leaders in the Baptist Union understood the importance of Spurgeon and helped to lead the way in celebrating the centenary of his birth in 1934. No doubt, extolling the once censured Spurgeon was beneficial to the Baptist Union in 1934.
The National Centenary Celebration began at 6:30 PM with a choir of 800 voices led by Dr. Joseph E. Green, organist and choirmaster of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
At 7 PM, Prime Minister J. Ramsay MacDonald took the chair and the celebration was officially called to order.
The speaker for the evening was George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas Texas. He delivered a 55 minute address heralding the life and accomplishments of Spurgeon. This address was later given at the Southern Baptist Convention, May 19, 1934. Truett opened,
These assembled thousands are of one mind that this occasion is one of the most significant and challenging of our generation. It calls to remembrance the tribute paid by Joseph Cook when Wendell Phillips went away: “ Whom God crowns, let no man discrown. We cannot crown him; the memory of his great career crowns our civilization.
Truett referred to Spurgeon as a “Greatheart of the pulpit” when he declared:
Although he came to London in an era of eminent statesmen, scholars, and preachers, he soon became far-famed above them all. There were Gladstone, John Bright, Disraeli, Browning, Tennyson. Huxley, Darwin, Dickens, Thackery, Watts, Holman Hunt, Alexander McClaren, Joseph Parker, Canon Liddon, and John Clifford. In America were Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks, John A. Broadus, and B. H. Carroll. It is no disparagement of any of these to say that Mr. Spurgeon held and holds the primacy as a preacher.
Another Centenary celebration was held on June 14 at the Stockwell Orphanage that Spurgeon founded (boys orphanage opened 1868, girls 1879). This great event was attended by Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother to the present Queen, Elizabeth II). Crowds packed the streets and the grounds in front of the orphanage houses. A choir was raised, children marched, speeches were made all in tribute to Spurgeon, the great lover of orphans. Over 5,000 children had been cared for at Spurgeon’s orphanages by the time of his centenary celebration.
During Spurgeon’s ministry, every Londoner knew his name. In 1934, 100 years after his birth, thousands gathered on numerous occasions to remember the great preacher, prolific author, and influential leader. His centenary celebrations were met with praise from preachers, commoners, and royalty. Multiplied thousands remembered, many wept and cheered, and all recognized that a giant had once lived in London, one, they imagined, would never be forgotten.
Today one might walk through the streets of London and seldom meet a person who has heard of Spurgeon. Though his influence lives on in the great city, via the Metropolitan Tabernacle, other churches that he was influential in planting, as well as various institutions such as Spurgeon’s College, most people do not know him. Thousands pass by his church each day at the busy Elephant and Castle intersection having no knowledge of Spurgeon. Sadly, however, the great preacher, once beloved by pauper and prince, sought by politicians and preachers, and heard by crowds from all classes of people, is now mostly forgotten in England. As he predicted, he is more remembered in the United States than his native land. The remainder of Spurgeon’s collection of books reside, not in London, but at the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon must not be forgotten and he will not be forgotten. Doctoral students and authors will continue relying on Spurgeon for their dissertations and books. Pastors will seek out Spurgeon for inspiration and example. And Christians across the globe will continue reading Morning and Evening for daily devotions. Though his influenced has waned in public view, in many ways it is inestimable.
George W. Truett at the Centenary celebration honed in on the central work of Spurgeon’s ministry.
“The supreme thing for which Mr. Spurgeon spoke, wrote, and wrought was to point people to the Lamb of God. This is the supreme business of every preacher and every church. We must not, dare not, be indifferent to the spiritual welfare of any soul anywhere.”
The best way to remember Spurgeon on his 186th birthday is to follow his example of speaking, writing, and working in such ways that much is made of Jesus Christ, the only hope for the world.
Ray Rhodes, Jr. is author of Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon and the upcoming, Yours Till Heaven: The Love Story of Charles and Susie Spurgeon, both from Moody Publishers. Ray is also pastor of Grace Community Church of North Georgia. Ray is a conference speaker and author of numerous books. Contact him at www.rayrhodesjr.com