Why are modern Christians fascinated with the 19th-century British preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon? I grew up in the United Kingdom and am a student of church history, so it’s impossible for me to ignore Spurgeon’s impact.
In 1892, Spurgeon died the same month as a Cardinal and a prince. The Cardinal lived a life of privilege, status, and great power. The prince enjoyed all the opportunities and luxuries his bloodline could afford. Spurgeon had none of those benefits. In a world where class and lineage still carried great weight, he was the poorly educated son and grandson of ministers.
Yet when Spurgeon died at the age of 57, all of London mourned. Spurgeon lay in state at the Metropolitan Tabernacle for three days—as 60,000 mourners filed past. On the day of his burial, shops and pubs shuttered their doors. Flags flew at half-mast. As the hearse made its way to the cemetery, 100,000 people lined the way to witness a funeral procession that stretched more than two miles long.
All this for a man who once remarked of his own reputation:
If to be made as the mire of the streets again, if to be the laughingstock of fools and the song of the drunkard once more will make me more serviceable to my Master, and more useful to his cause, I will prefer it to all this multitude, or to all the applause that man could give.
When Spurgeon was only 10 years old, a visiting missionary said he’d one day preach to thousands. This prophecy came true. One Sunday morning, when he was only 15, Spurgeon set out to attend services at a local Congregational church, the denomination in which both his father and grandfather were ministers. On his way, a fierce snowstorm forced him down a side street. He sought refuge from the storm in a Primitive Methodist Church, and he credited the sermon he heard that morning with his conversion.
Despite his limited formal education, Spurgeon possessed an insatiable thirst for learning. He read an average of six books per week. As an adult, his personal library would reach a staggering 12,000 volumes. Spurgeon was just a boy when he began his ministry, but he was a boy with a brilliant mind and a remarkable gift for oration. When he stepped behind the pulpit, his listeners were astonished to find the slight youth delivering messages of power and complexity far beyond his years but always in a manner that was both engaging and accessible. Soon, worshipers from miles around traveled to hear him.
Eighteen months after the teenaged preacher accepted his first pastoral position, he was invited to preach at New Park Street Chapel in London. The congregation was so in awe of his message that they voted to have him continue preaching for the next six months. Nineteen-year-old Spurgeon moved to London. The crowds grew and grew. Within the span of a few years, the boy preacher from the country was known throughout England and around the world.
Spurgeon’s captivating delivery conveyed the message that burned in his heart—the absolute authority and sufficiency of the Bible, the omnipotence of a loving God, and the life demanded of those who claimed salvation in Jesus Christ. It was a firm foundation of theology, but it didn’t stop Spurgeon from suffering many hardships in his life.
Despite his tremendous popularity with the masses of London, his dramatic preaching style drew sharp criticism from his contemporaries. “Down on my knees have I often fallen,” he said, “with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well nigh broken.” Fellow ministers routinely verbally assaulted him, calling him a “pulpit buffoon.” Such vicious condemnation was incredibly painful for a man who struggled throughout his life with dark bouts of depression.
During one of his sermons, the congregation—believing the building was on fire—stampeded for the exits, killing seven worshipers. In the wake of the disaster, Spurgeon descended into a deep depression. From that point forward, dark seasons of melancholy stalked him relentlessly. Reflecting on one such episode, he said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.”
In addition to his profound emotional and mental anguish, Spurgeon also carried the burden of physical infirmity. At times, he suffered gout so painful that he couldn’t walk or sleep. His illness often confined him to bed for weeks at a time.
Comfort of a Changeless God
Spurgeon preached to more than 10 million people in his lifetime. Those sermons, as well as his writings, have affected millions more since his death. Even so, there is no sermon more relevant for today than the one Spurgeon preached with his life, as he faced suffering within the bounds of faith.
There is no sermon more relevant for today than the one Spurgeon preached with his life, as he faced suffering within the bounds of faith.
Ultimately, his unwavering belief in God’s omnipotence brought comfort in his darkest moments. The knowledge that in the middle of his pain, a loving God was unwaveringly in control gave him the courage he needed to persevere. In Spurgeon’s last sermon, he testified to God’s faithful love amid suffering:
He is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders.
In a world where madmen enter houses of worship to destroy the faithful, and each day’s tidings bear news of “wars and rumors of wars,” Spurgeon’s final sermon holds forth a light in the darkest night. Our shepherd King is in control, Spurgeon proclaims to those who suffer, and his love will never fail.