"I will ask any sensible man, above all, any serious Christian here, whether there have not been certain times in his life when he could most distinctly see that indeed God did 'choose his inheritance for him'?... I do not know whether all of you can go with me here; but I think you must in some instance or other be forced to see that God has indeed ordained your inheritance for you. If you cannot, I can. I can see a thousand chances, as men would call them, all working together like wheels in a great piece of machinery, to fix me just where I am; and I can look back to a hundred places where, if one of those little wheels had run away—if one of those little atoms in the great whirlpool of my existence had started aside—I might have been anywhere but here, occupying a very different position. If you cannot say this, I know I can with emphasis, and can trace God's hand back to the period of my birth through every step I have taken; I can feel that indeed God has allotted my inheritance for me. If any of you are so wilfully beclouded that you will not see the hand of God in your being, and will insist that all has been done by your will without Providence; that you have been left to steer your own course across the ocean of existence; and that you are where you are because your own hand guided the tiller, and your own arm directed the rudder, all I can say is, my own experience belies the fact, and the experience of many now in this place would rise in testimony against you, and say, 'Verily, it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.'—'Man proposes, but God disposes;' and the God of heaven is not unoccupied, but is engaged in over-ruling, ordering, altering, working all things according to the good pleasure of His will."—The New Park Street Pulpit, i. 255.
Many hands have tried to do what I shall certainly not attempt in this volume—to write the life of Mr. Spurgeon. To accomplish such a task would be as impossible to-day as it will be in the future. No great man can be worthily preserved on paper—not even by the most perfect Boswellian mode of treatment; and what the Pastor has been heard to threaten he will do, should he ever be approached by a first cousin of Johnson's biographer, may well intimidate the boldest member of that inquisitive tribe. I am not a Boswell; I am not a biographer. I shall not impertinently pry behind the scenes of private life to annoy a worthy family on the one hand, and to gratify a morbid public curiosity on the other hand. All that is purposed to be done is, to produce a series of sketches different from anything which has, as yet, been put together in a volume, and which shall be sufficiently true to life not to mislead outsiders, and not to shock the sensibilities of friends.
In case any reader should need them for reference, I shall, in this opening chapter, put down a few commonplace facts such as are widely known and are everybody's property. Mr. Spurgeon was born at Kelvedon, in Essex, on the 19th of June, 1834; and, as the world is fond of comparing the events in the life of one great man with those belonging to the course of another great man, it may be remarked that on that auspicious day Thomas Babington Macaulay "crossed the frontier of Mysore." It was in that year, moreover, that the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire.
During several generations, the Spurgeons have been engaged in the Christian ministry. The Pastor's grandfather spent half a century among a flock at Stambourne, and this old worthy's son is a valued minister of the Independent denomination at the present time. One of the earliest custodians of the popular preacher was an affectionate maiden aunt, who, with others, could not fail to detect a precocious talent in her youthful charge. We have all heard how Richard Knill looked upon the boy with admiration, to express hopes in regard to the future which have not been disappointed.
Some years ago the Rev. W. Osborne, who is now pastor of a flourishing Baptist Church at Eastbourne, supplied me with the following reminiscence of the Rev. James Spurgeon of Stambourne:—
The day preceding that on which he entered on college work in London, Mr. Osborne preached at Stambourne for old Mr. Spurgeon, who was then an octogenarian, and showed the strongest possible partiality for Dr. Watts's hymns. This deep-rooted prejudice on the part of the old gentleman was a trait in his character with which the neighbours and regular hearers were familiar; but it was something of which the young preacher had never heard even the slightest whisper. Mr. Osborne arrived at Stambourne, he entered the chapel, to receive the first intimation of a coming disagreement when a member of the congregation expressed a hope that the hymns were selected, and that all were of Dr. Watts's composition. On turning to the book it was at once seen that the unlucky youth had missed his way in each selection, every hymn being the production of an unappreciated poet, for none would suit the old gentleman but those of Isaac Watts. Time was pressing, however, and the hymns were allowed to pass; but as the service went on, the effects of the strange verses on the mind of the old pastor were striking, and calculated to create trepidation in the heart of an inexperienced preacher. Like a master in Israel the old man took a seat in the table-pew, and, as occasion required, he cast a searching glance towards the pulpit. When the first hymn was announced he signified his disapproval by gravely shaking his head; when the second was given out, with no improvement, he expressed his disgust by simply closing the book; but when the third came, and was still by a forbidden author, he raised his fist as though he would chastise the offender. At the conclusion of the service there was an explosion, not of wrath, but of pent-up feeling. "Young man!" cried the aged pastor, with a genial twinkle of the eye, while he raised a stout stick to give emphasis to his words—"Young man! if you do not want your brains knocked out, you must sing Dr. Watts's hymns!" If he was not actually terrified into compliance with these forcible demands, Mr. Osborne took particular care not to repeat in the afternoon the mistake of the morning. At this second service hymns by Dr. Watts were quietly introduced; old Mr. Spurgeon according the preacher a nod of approval as soon as the first was announced. When the second and third hymns were such as could be commended, former chagrin gave place to extreme satisfaction. "Right, sir, right!" cried the pastor, after listening admiringly to a sermon on the fall of Jericho, "I am glad to see you can appreciate the best authors so quickly. Go now and get your ram's horn ready, like those men, and God may make you the means of hurling to the ground walls as strong and stubborn as those"—i.e., of Jericho. On the following day Mr. Osborne removed to London, joined the Pastors' College, and thus got his "ram's horn ready" for future service in a manner that won the approval of his honest, outspoken preceptor.
It is generally understood that Mr. Spurgeon showed his ministerial proclivities almost as soon as he could walk and speak. His earliest recollections are of reading religious books; and in childish days he would address an audience, corresponding in age to his own years, with more force than some adults can command in the pulpit. Very strong tendencies in a certain direction in childhood, are always interesting; they must have been doubly so in a case where the subject was endowed with one of the finest voices of which we have any example. Though thus piously brought up, he was not converted until he was sixteen, and the great change occurred at Colchester, in which town he purposed to visit one sanctuary after another in search of saving light. He turned into one of the humblest of chapels, and there heard a thin, pale man preach from the words, "Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." The manner in which the preacher cried, "Look! Look! LOOK!" was peculiarly striking, and, what is better, relief came instantly, the simplicity of the Gospel being at once appreciated. The pulpit in which this memorable "Look" sermon was preached may now be seen at the Stockwell Orphanage.
On a certain occasion, Mr. Spurgeon's father, in speaking of his family to Dr. Ford, of America, is reported to have remarked:—"I had been from home a great deal, trying to build up weak congregations, and felt that I was neglecting the religious training of my own children while I toiled for the good of others. I returned home with these feelings. I opened the door, and was surprised to find none of the children about the hall. Going quietly up the stairs, I heard my wife's voice. She was engaged in prayer with the children. I heard her pray for them one by one by name. She came to Charles, and specially prayed for him, for he was of high spirit and daring temper. I listened till she had ended her prayer, and I felt and said, 'Lord, I will go on with Thy work. The children will be cared for.'"
Of his education after this date, little needs to be said. He plodded as a schoolboy at Colchester. He studied for a time at Maidstone, in an agricultural college of that town. He subsequently accepted an appointment in a school at Newmarket, the principal of which was a Baptist; but I am not aware that this fact in any way accounts for the change of sentiment—the transition from Psedobaptist to Baptist views—which about this time occurred. That change was brought about by a close study of the Bible; for Mr. Spurgeon's mind is of an independent cast, that would not brook the interference of any lower authority than Scripture. Thus early his mind was active, while his industry was great. A slight brochure of those days, called "Antichrist and her Brood," has never been published, although I believe that the MS. is still in the possession of the Rev. John Spurgeon. A poem called "The Fall of Jericho" was printed, and afterwards republished in the first number of The Sword and the Trowel.
Before his conversion, and as a mere youth, Mr. Spurgeon was tempted to become an unbeliever; and while preaching at Exeter Hall, on Sunday evening, March 18th, 1855, he gave some vivid reminiscences of that unhappy time, e.g.—"There may be some one here to-night who has come without faith, a man of reason, a freethinker. With him I have no argument at all. I profess not to stand here as a controversialist, but as a preacher of things that I know and feel. But I too have been like him. There was an evil hour when once I slipped the anchor of my faith; I cut the cable of my belief; I no longer moored myself hard by the coasts of revelation; I allowed my vessel to drift before the wind; I said to reason, 'Be thou my captain;' I said to my own brain, 'Be thou my rudder;' and I started on my mad voyage. Thank God it is all over now; but I will tell you its brief history. It was one hurried sailing over the tempestuous ocean of free thought. I went on, and as I went the skies began to darken; but to make up for that deficiency the waters were brilliant with coruscations of brilliancy. I saw sparks flying upwards that pleased me, and I thought, 'If this be free thought, it is a happy thing.' My thoughts seemed gems, and I scattered stars with both my hands. But anon, instead of these coruscations of glory, I saw grim fiends, fierce and horrible, start up from the waters, and as I dashed on they gnashed their teeth and grinned upon me; they seized the prow of my ship and dragged me on, while I, in part, gloried at the rapidity of my motion, but yet shuddered at the terrific rate with which I passed the old landmarks of my faith. As I hurried forward with an awful speed, I began to doubt my very existence; I doubted if there were a world, I doubted if there were such a thing as myself. I went to the very verge of the dreary realms of unbelief. I went to the very bottom of the sea of infidelity. I doubted everything. But here the devil foiled himself; for the very extravagance of the doubt proved its absurdity. Just when I saw the bottom of that sea, there came a voice which said, 'And can this doubt be true?' At this very thought I awoke. I started from that death-dream, which God knows might have damned my soul, and ruined this my body, if I had not awoke. When I arose faith took the helm; from that moment I doubted not. Faith steered me back; faith cried, 'Away, away!' I cast my anchor on Calvary; I lifted my eye to God; and here I am alive, and out of hell. Therefore, I speak what I do know. I have sailed that perilous voyage; I have come safe to land. Ask me again to be an infidel! No; I have tried it; it was sweet at first, but bitter afterwards."
I will now briefly allude to the pastor's first sermon, and then return to some other things which were providentially overruled to produce the best results in after days.
On a certain day, between twenty and thirty years ago, two young men might have been seen walking out of Cambridge towards a village lying in the suburbs of that town, for the purpose of holding a cottage service. Neither of the two pedestrians had ever preached a sermon in his life; but more singular was the fact that each marched forward along the green level lanes while harbouring the comfortable mistake that the other was the preacher for the day. They talked as they travelled, and, after a time, the younger ventured to intimate to his companion that he hoped the Lord would bless his—the companion's—labours. Those words as they fell appear to have produced something akin to an electric shock. "Oh, dear!" cried the elder youth, eagerly, desirous of correcting an inconvenient error—"Oh, dear, I never preached in my life. I never thought of doing such a thing. I was asked to walk with you, and I sincerely hope God will bless you in your preaching." "Nay," cried the younger, apparently growing nervous, "but I never preached, and I don't know that I could do anything of the sort." The elder had thrown off the burden; the younger walked on, filled with fear and trembling. There was the cottage, there were the people assembled, and a sermon would have to be preached to them. The effort was made; the younger of the two novices made that effort, succeeded beyond his expectations—and his name was Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
For years before this eventful day in his history he had shown himself to be of a strongly inquisitive mind. Having once set his heart on knowing a thing, he would persevere until he came at the truth, nor would he allow his reasonable curiosity to be evaded either by the friendly "Pooh, pooh!" or by sterner rebuke. In an autobiographical article, published more than ten years ago, we are supplied with some juvenile reminiscences far too characteristic to be overlooked. When as a child he was living with his grandfather, it was the custom for Charles Haddon to read the Scriptures at family worship, and on every occasion he was allowed the licence of asking any question he chose on the portion for the day. On a certain morning the inconveniently-inquisitive reader came to the "bottomless pit" of the Revelation, and immediately asked, "Grandpa, what can this mean?" "Pooh, pooh! child, go on," replied the old man, regarding the question as too trivial to call for serious reply. To a child, however, every subject of interest is important; and in this instance Charles determined to read the same chapter morning after morning until a satisfactory explanation should be offered. "Well, dear, what is it that puzzles you?" asked the grandfather, after he had heard about the Beast, the Mother of Harlots, etc., etc., etc., as often as he thought desirable, or perhaps profitable. The question was then put in a more definite form, "If the pit aforesaid had no bottom, where would all those people fall to who dropped out at its lower end?" The query was too deep to be answered at once; it seems to have disturbed the gravity of the little circle, and to have been a sample of the "difficulties" that were propounded for elucidation at family worship.
The late sainted Mr. Knill, of Chester, was a friend of the family in those early days, and he happened to be drawn in an extraordinary manner towards the child whose singularities were sufficiently marked to make him an object of more than ordinary interest. One fine morning Mr. Knill awoke his protégé at an early hour, and for some time they walked together in the garden. They conversed about books and reading, and about the privilege of winning souls for Christ. Then they knelt together in the arbour, where the elder prayed for the younger, and did so in a manner that brought a blessing and left a lifelong impression. Afterwards, in the midst of the family circle, Mr. Knill placed the child on his knee, and remarked, "I do not know how it is, but I feel a solemn presentiment 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 beginning
"'God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.'"
That rather striking prophecy was completely fulfilled; but Mr. Spurgeon is of opinion that the words themselves were instrumental in bringing about their own fulfilment.
The "first sermon" has been already mentioned. When the ice was once broken, the neighbourhood of Cambridge was the scene of the young Christian's evangelistic efforts. On arriving at a village on an unpropitious wintry night he has found the chapel empty, and has, lantern in hand, gone round to the houses to collect a congregation. It is quite a mistake to suppose that he was not popular before coming to London; for he was a favourite with the Cambridgeshire peasantry before he became so conspicuous a figure in the outer world and the leading member of his denomination. When stationed at Water-beach, his services began to be in excessive demand, and invitations to preach were cordially responded to. The more shrewd even among the common people must have perceived that one who was something more than a rising man was in their midst.
In youth he did not altogether set his face against going to college, though in later life he has "a thousand times thanked the Lord very heartily for the strange providence which forced his steps into another and far better path." Truth to say, Mr. Spurgeon missed a collegiate training consequent on one of those singular mishaps which, at the time, are as annoying as they are unavoidable. While he was carrying all before him at Waterbeach his judicious seniors thought that the pastor would never become all he was capable of becoming unless he went to London and sat the prescribed number of times at the feet of a duly-qualified professor. This advice was listened to, and arrangements were made for a meeting of Dr. Angus on the one part and Mr. Spurgeon on the other part, the rendezvous appointed having been the house of the well-known publisher, Mr. Macmillan, of Cambridge. The young pastor arrived at the time specified, was ushered into a drawing-room by the maid, and, after waiting for two hours, he rang the bell to learn the reason of the protracted delay. In the meantime, Dr. Angus had arrived, had been shown into another room, but not being so well able to exemplify the virtue of patience as his younger friend, the learned doctor departed for London, doubtless wondering why young aspirants to the ministry were not more eager to seize fleeting opportunities. Thus the two sat in adjoining rooms until patience had "had her perfect work," neither suspecting that the other was near. What momentous consequences sometimes hang on small matters! how much may occasionally depend on the remissness of a half-witted servant-maid! Still, the Church would have gained nothing by C. H. Spurgeon's admission into Regent's Park College.
Writing in 1881, Mr. Spurgeon thus referred to his own days of early plodding:—
"My college course was after this fashion. I was for three years a Cambridge man, though I never entered the University. I could not have obtained a degree, because I was a Nonconformist; and, moreover, it was a better thing for me to pursue my studies under an admirable scholar and tender friend, and preach at the same time. I must have been a singular-looking youth on wet evenings. During the last year of my stay in Cambridge, when I had given up my office as usher, I was wont to sally forth every night in the week except Saturday, and walk three, five, or perhaps eight miles out and back again on my preaching work; and when it rained I dressed myself in waterproof leggings and a mackintosh coat, and a hat with a waterproof covering, and I carried a dark lantern to show me the way across the fields. I had many adventures... but what I had gathered by my studies during the day I handed out to a company of villagers in the evening, and was greatly profited by the exercise. I always found it good to say my lesson when I had learned it. Children do so, and it is equally good for preachers, especially if they say their lesson by heart. In my young days I fear I said many odd things and made many blunders, but my audiences were not hypercritical, and no newspaper writers dogged my heels; and so I had a happy training-ground in which, by continual practice, I attained such a degree of ready speech as I now possess. There is no way of learning to preach which can be compared to preaching itself. If you want to swim you must get into the water, and if you at the first make a sorry exhibition, never mind, for it is by swimming as you can that you learn to swim as you should. Hence we ought to be lenient with beginners, for they will do better by-and-bye. If young speakers in Cambridge had been discouraged and silenced, I might not have found my way here, and, therefore, I hope I shall be the last to bring forth a wet blanket for any who sincerely speak for Christ, however humble may be their endeavours. The fear of there being too many preachers is the last that will occur to me. I rejoice in that passage of the psalm, 'The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those that published it.' Go forth, young man, and proclaim among the people of this vast city all the words of this life. Among these millions you will all be few enough.... Fill your baskets with living seed, and in due season bring them back laden with many sheaves. My heart is with you; my soul rejoices in your successes; and I look to the great Head of the Church, through your means, to gather in His blood-bought ones."
Speaking at the laying of the first stone of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, August 16th, 1859, the Rev. John Spurgeon thus referred to his son's early days:—
"I always thought my son did wrong in coming to London; now you see that I was wrong. I always thought he was wrong in not going to college; I tried three or four hours with him one night with a dear friend that loved him, but it was no use; he said, 'No, I will never go to college, only in strict obedience to you as a father.' There I left the matter; and I see that God has been with him, though I thought it was a wrong step in him to go to London. And I thought it was a wrong step for me to come here to-night; but perhaps I may be mistaken again. I can tell you it is one of the happiest days of my life. I feel beyond myself when I think of the kindness that has been shown to him when but a youth. I ascribe it all to God's goodness and the earnest prayers of his people. He has been exposed to temptation from every source, and even now, my friends, he is not free from it. You have prayed for him, and God has sustained him. Oh! let me entreat you to continue your prayers. Every one here to-night, go home and pray for your pastor. A meeting like this is enough to carry a man beyond himself and fill his heart with pride; but the grace of God is all-sufficient. Several persons said to me—I do not know what their motive was—'Your son will never last in London six months; he has no education.' I said, 'You are terribly mistaken; he has the best education that can possibly be had; God has been his teacher, and he has had earthly teachers too.' I knew, as far as education went, he could manage London very well. Then they said his health would fail; but it has not failed him yet. He has had enough to shake his constitution, it is true, but God has been very merciful to him. I think if there is one thing that would crown my happiness to-day, it would have been to see his grandfather here. I should have loved to see him here. He said, 'Boy, don't ask me to go, I am too old; I am overcome with God's goodness and mercy to me.' He is always talking about him. Old people like to have something to talk about, so he always talks about his grandson. And next to that I should like, my dear friends, to have seen his mother here. I believe, under God's grace, his mother has been the means of leading him to Christ. You are well aware that I go and talk in the best manner I can to a few poor people on the Sabbath day, and God has blessed my labours. I thought, however, I ought not to go out on the Sabbath day, as God's people should train up their children in the best way they can; I thought I was neglecting my children, and as I came home one evening about seven o'clock, and went upstairs, I heard the voice of a mother pleading for her boy Charles, and talking to him and the others, and pouring her heart out in prayer in such a way as I never did in my life, and as I never heard before. It is for the encouragement of mothers that I mention this, that you may pray for your children, for God is a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God."
Whilst taking a retrospect of a third of a century of work, we become conscious of feeling unwontedly curious about the youthful associations of one whom we may pronounce to be the first preacher of this age without fear of contradiction. What signs of unusual genius, of future distinction, were visible during youth? Who were his friends? where may we trace the footprints of his first travels as a preacher? Feeling more than ordinary interest in these minutiæ, I some years ago asked a friend, whose fortune it was to reside near "Ouse's silent tide," if he would collect such ana as he could relating to Mr. Spurgeon's early days in that vicinity.
I believe there are about a score of Houghtons in the British Empire; but to myself the one interesting member of a numerous family is that Houghton which lies low and snug among the tall trees luxuriating on the banks of the broad, slow-rolling Ouse, midway between Huntingdon and St. Ives. It is not a spot whereon one would at first expect to find any religious memories of more than common interest; but in this case appearances are, happily, deceptive. Near Houghton, Dr. Brooke, an able preacher, and father of the well-known Rev. Stopford Brooke, was for some time stationed. Here also laboured Mr. Edward Cressell, a minister of the Independent denomination, and whose ministrations were heartily appreciated by the homely village folk of the neighbourhood, and by lovers of good preaching farther away. Above all, it was at Houghton in his early days that Mr. Spurgeon became the guest of the eccentric Potto Brown, called by Elihu Burritt, in one of his books, "The Miller of Houghton." Mr. Brown was thoroughly eccentric, but he was still a kind-hearted man, who grew hot-house grapes for the sick poor, and who could commend the Wesleyans for saving souls at a cheaper rate than was done by any other denomination. On this question, as well as on others, the youth and the veteran were far from being agreed, and consequently some lively discussions came off between the two which for smartness would not have disgraced the Literary Club in its palmiest days.
I will now give what my Ouse-side friend says about Houghton, its famous miller, and the youthful preacher, C. H. Spurgeon:—
"It has been with much interest that I have traced, by the aid of the memories of my acquaintances, the early teachings and appearance of one who has taken and maintained an honoured place in the vineyard of Jesus Christ, and one who has well borne the burden and heat of the day. A gentleman, whom I took to be a relative, informed me that he heard Mr. Spurgeon preach his first sermon when about fourteen years of age, and he then read, prayed, and expounded the Word, being attired in a round jacket and broad, turndown collar, such as I remember to have seen in fashion at that period.
"Mr. C. D. tells me that he remembers C. H. Spurgeon preaching at Somersham about twenty-six years ago, and when he would be about seventeen years of age. He was then wearing a round jacket and turn-down collar. He remembers the words of the text, though not their place—'Fear not, thou worm Jacob.' The boyish voice of the preacher afforded a striking and impressive contrast to the tones of the aged minister who was accustomed to occupy the pulpit.
"Mr. Spurgeon was then living at some place near Cambridge, and his mode of preaching afforded promise that he would become a powerful and popular speaker. One old man, who was a Particular Baptist, and, I believe, difficult to please, went to hear him, and was careful to repeat the visit.
"One old minister, for whom Mr. Spurgeon preached, was. plagued with a bad wife, and she must needs go to America; but with great patience the husband waited for her return, never fastening the door of the house nor suffering others to do so till she came back to him.
"Mrs. J. A. remembers Mr. Spurgeon preaching at Houghton when quite a lad. She remembers the sermon was a very impressive one, and could it have been heard without seeing the boyish preacher, any one would have taken it to be the discourse of a staid and experienced Christian. She believes this was one thing that led Mr. Potto Brown to look upon the youthful orator with less favour than he might otherwise have done, because he thought that the sermon could not have been his own composition.
"Mrs. B. appears to me to have a more vivid recollection of the impression of what Mrs. J. A. felt at the time above stated. There was much conversation between the youthful preacher and Mr. Potto Brown, and evidently much contention, too; for each would hold firmly to his own opinion.
"Mrs. C. tells me that her husband, who was the schoolmaster at the time, was struck by the precocious talent of the young preacher, and with his general style of preaching."
The above notes were collected for me by the late Edward Cressell, whose friendship I highly valued, and who, as pastor of the Congregational Church, Houghton, Hunts, was one of the best preachers in the neighbourhood. The information is now, I believe, regarded as common property by quidnuncs in both the Old and the New World.
In regard to Mr. Spurgeon and the late Potto Brown, the Pastor on one occasion himself referred to that memorable meeting—"How he shocked our Calvinistic propriety!... We recollect his telling us that our preaching was very well for an apprentice boy, which was no doubt a correct estimate, but after he had spoken in that style one felt quite at home with him, and gave him a Roland for his Oliver without the slightest compunction. It was a battle royal, and both the old gentleman and the 'prentice boy grew sufficiently warm; but no scars remained on either combatant. Mr. Brown walked with us to Huntingdon in loving conversation, and afterwards sent us Haldane's Life as a present."
—Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Preacher, Author, and Philanthropist