He is history's most widely read preacher outside of Scripture. More written material exists from him than from any other Christian author, living or dead. It's estimated he preached to more than 10 million people during his lifetime. The ripple effect of his life and ministry is immeasurable.
And he got his theology from an old school cook.
Mary King was the stout and sturdy cook at Newmarket Academy in Cambridge, England, when a young teenager named Charles Haddon Spurgeon enrolled in the fall of 1849. Over the next two years "Cook," as the students affectionately called her, would feed the boy far more than food. In his autobiography Spurgeon recounts:
She was a good old soul [and] liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine. . . . Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.
While her handle on Scripture was impressive, King didn't live and move and have her being in the realm of ideas alone. She was a woman of vital godliness, one who "lived strongly" as well as "fed strongly." As Spurgeon reflected, "There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days." King, he said, was one of those people.
The cook's appetite for spiritual nourishment was voracious. Once when young Charles asked why she kept attending a particular church from which he himself gleaned nothing, King replied there were no other options. He then quipped it'd be better to stay home than to hear such insipid teaching. "Perhaps so," she said, "but I like to go out to worship even if I get nothing by going. You see a hen sometimes scratching all over a heap of rubbish to try to find some corn; she does not get any, but it shows she is looking for it, and using the means to get it, and then, too, the exercise warms her."
Spurgeon's unlikely mentor had a sense of humor, too. On one occasion when he bemoaned not finding so much as "a crumb" in the minister's whole sermon, she said, "Oh! I got on better tonight, for to all the preacher said, I just put in a not, and that turned his talk into real gospel."
The Prince of Preachers never forgot King and the formative role she'd played in his life. "A cook taught me theology!" he would often say. In fact, upon learning of her financial straits years later, the world-renowned pastor sent regular checks to support her from a distance.
After Spurgeon himself died in 1892, a professor in Belfast who'd known him wrote to The Christian World: "[Charles told me] it was 'Cook' who had taught him his theology. I hope I am not violating his confidence in mentioning this fact. It is no discredit to the memory of a great man that he was willing to learn from the humblest sources."
Mary Kings Today
We don't know when Mary King died, but her descendants live on among us. We may not notice them, quote them, or follow them on Twitter, but these faithful plodders are seen and honored in the sight of heaven. Indeed, Christians have always served a God who delights to use those whom the world ignores. As the apostle Paul put it to that ragtag band in Corinth:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
King's influence makes little sense in the world's economy, but Scripture reveals and experience confirms its value in God's kingdom. So who are the unsung heroes in the story of your life? Whose quiet service has the Lord used to touch and shape you? Are you still eager to learn from the humblest sources?
You're a Theologian
Mary King didn't have a theology degree, but she was a theologian. And so are you. In fact, the moment you think or say anything about God, you're doing theology. It may be bad theology, no doubt, but theology it is.
King was a fine theologian because she relished studying her Savior.
We study what we love, don't we? When I was a kid I studied Michael Jordan statistics, not because I loved stats, but because I loved Jordan. Or imagine if today you were to ask about my wife, and I responded, "Oh, she's incredible—the most amazing girl I've ever known! She's from Oregon, has beautiful red hair, and hates chocolate." Would my chocolate-loving brunette who hails from Virginia feel honored and loved by this description? Of course not. I can gush about her all day long, but unless my words reflect who she really is, she'll be insulted. Does it make sense for us to operate with careless indifference when it comes to how we think and talk about God?
Mary King is proof that theology is intensely practical and absolutely crucial—the joy of those who cherish him. As the psalmist put it, "Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them" (Ps. 111:2).
You Could Be Next
Countless thousands are spiritually indebted to the Prince of Preachers. He was indebted to a cook. "From her I got all the theology I ever needed," he wrote in his first published book in 1857.
But what if King hadn't known her Bible? What if she'd felt knowing doctrine was irrelevant, impractical, not part of her job description? What if she'd sighed, I'm just an uneducated school cook, not some Bible scholar. What do I have to offer?
Don't begrudge obscurity, don't avoid opportunity, don't underrate faithfulness. And don't overlook Mary King figures—those inconspicuous heroes of whom this world isn't worthy.
Who knows? God might just call you to be one.