Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) remains a perennially popular figure with pastors and other Christian leaders. Biographies of Spurgeon abound, nearly all of which are pastoral in tone and written for a sympathetic readership eager for inspiration. His autobiography, compiled by his wife following his death, is still the best starting place to learn about his life and legacy.
Spurgeon’s own writings have remained accessible because of reprints. Today, many believers continue to benefit from his published sermons, especially The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (63 vols.) and The New Park Street Pulpit (6 vols.). They read his classic books such as The Treasury of David (1870), Lectures to My Students (1875), and The Soul Winner (1892), among numerous others. The “Prince of Preachers” lives on through the influence of his prodigious output!
In recent years, Spurgeon has also drawn increased attention from scholars in the English-speaking world. Several dissertations have been defended in the past decade or so, many of which will likely be published in the coming years. At present, the “center of gravity” for Spurgeon studies is the Spurgeon Center for Biblical Preaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, home to Spurgeon’s library. The Spurgeon Center is also behind The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon project, published by B&H Academic.
One of the interesting facets of Spurgeon’s legacy is his appeal to a wide audience. Baptists of every theological stripe love the man who is arguably the most famous pastor in their tradition. Non-Baptist Calvinists claim him as one of their own, too. Spurgeon has long been a popular figure among fundamentalists. In a way that isn’t true of every noteworthy figure from Christian history, contemporary appreciation for Spurgeon transcends tribes.
Spurgeon the Baptist
Charles Spurgeon was a convictional Baptist. Though raised an Independent (Congregationalist) and converted in a Primitive Methodist chapel, he received believer’s baptism and joined St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Chapel in Cambridge. For the rest of his life, Spurgeon remained committed to basic Baptist distinctives such as believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational church polity, local church autonomy, and religious liberty for all. Spurgeon firmly believed that Baptist churches were New Testament churches, which has been a common way for Baptists to speak of their congregations.
In a way that isn’t true of every noteworthy figure from Christian history, contemporary appreciation for Spurgeon transcends tribes.
Though Spurgeon preached in various types of churches and other venues, his own pastoral ministry took place in Baptist congregations. After gaining some experience as an itinerant village preacher, by age 17 he was pastor of the Baptist chapel in Waterbeach. In January 1854, he became the pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in London, once the church of such Baptist luminaries as Benjamin Keach, John Gill, and John Rippon. He would serve there until his death, though the church changed its name to the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861. Spurgeon was also active in wider Baptist denominational life in England, especially the work of the Baptist Missionary Society.
Spurgeon the Calvinist
Spurgeon wasn’t just a Baptist. He was a Particular Baptist who affirmed the “five points” of Calvinism throughout his life. He was raised by his paternal grandparents; his grandfather, James Spurgeon, was an Independent pastor with a large library of mostly Puritan works. The younger Spurgeon drank deeply from the writings of authors such as John Foxe, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, and Joseph Alleine. Shortly after becoming pastor of the New Park Street Chapel, Spurgeon republished a lightly revised edition of the Second London Confession, a Calvinistic statement first drafted in 1677 with deep roots in the Westminster confessional tradition of Reformed theology.
Calvinism is evident throughout Spurgeon’s sermons, and many of his books address the “doctrines of grace” overtly. He was critical of the Church of England in part because he believed it remained too influenced by Catholicism and was thus insufficiently Reformed.
Spurgeon wasn’t just a Baptist. He was a Particular Baptist who affirmed the ‘five points’ of Calvinism throughout his life.
He was concerned about creeping Arminianism among British Particular Baptists, especially as the Baptist Union took steps throughout the Victorian Era that eventually led to the formal merger with General Baptists in 1891. Though a committed Baptist, Spurgeon found numerous ways to cooperate with other Calvinistic evangelicals. To this day, it’s not uncommon to hear Spurgeon referred to as the last of the Puritans because of his firm commitment to experiential Calvinism.
Spurgeon the Fundamentalist
Years later, the denominational controversies of the 1920s and 1930s led many evangelicals to call themselves fundamentalists, because they believed they stood for the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. By about 1950, fundamentalism had come to be identified more narrowly with theological conservatives who had separated from their denominations because the latter tolerated modernist/liberal theological trends. This was decades before Western journalists attributed the Iranian Revolution to “Islamic fundamentalism,” which unfortunately resulted in fundamentalism becoming simplistically identified with ultraconservative, potentially violent, religious beliefs and practices. Thus, mid-century conservative separatists considered the title “fundamentalist” to be a badge of honor and a sign of faithfulness to Scripture.
It would be anachronistic to call Spurgeon a fundamentalist, since that movement didn’t take definitive shape until the generation following his death. Nevertheless, fundamentalists have always looked to him as a sort of “founding father” of their tradition. During his final years, he was embroiled in what came to be called the Downgrade Controversy in the Baptist Union. Spurgeon was concerned that too many British Baptists—and especially the General Baptists whom the Baptist Union was wooing—were tolerant of liberal views on biblical interpretation, the atonement, and the exclusivity of Christ.
It would be anachronistic to call Spurgeon a fundamentalist, since that movement didn’t take definitive shape until the generation following his death.
Following a period of controversy in print and failed efforts at personal reconciliation, Spurgeon and many of those in his circle of influence broke ties with the Baptist Union. Fundamentalists understood Spurgeon’s principled separation from his denomination a generation earlier to be a precursor to their own controversies in the 20th century.
Spurgeon the Influencer
More could be written about Spurgeon’s appeal. His ability to balance strong Baptist convictions with a willingness to cooperate with believers in other traditions made him an appealing figure within the postwar evangelical movement. Likewise, the fact that he pastored a church that exceeded 5,000 regular attenders at its height has won him a special place in the heart of modern megachurch pastors. Contemporary pastors who have started Bible colleges and seminaries as ministries of their churches often resonate with Spurgeon because he took that same step with his Pastor’s College.
Charles Spurgeon was a larger-than-life figure whose identity was shaped by various influences and experiences that make it natural for various contemporary Christians to identify with him. For that reason, he’ll likely remain an inspiring figure to pastors and a fruitful topic of study for historians and theologians for many years to come.