by Christian George
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born into an age of upgrade and downgrade. Over the course of his life, lightbulbs replaced gas lamps, engines replaced animals, and with the publications of Essays and Reviews, The Life of Jesus, and On the Origin of Species, nineteenth-century evangelicalism sparked as much controversy as electricity. A crisis of faith—or better yet, a crisis of doubt—walked the aisles of England’s newly lit chapels. Was Jesus God? Did miracles happen? Can faith and science coexist?
By the time Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838, the world of Wesley and Whitefield was vanishing. Gear-driven gadgets and inventions of all types alleviated the discomforts previous generations had tolerated. It was the age of rubber bands and safety pins. Sewing machines could stitch an astonishing 1,000 yards of fabric each day. Lawn mowers and “clod crushers” revolutionized agriculture. Photography, still an industry in infancy, captured history as it happened.
In medicine, bloodletting became widely discredited. Hypodermic syringes improved disease control. Symbolic and Boolean algebras expanded the eld of mathematics. Calculation machines like Charles Babbage’s “difference engine” laid the groundwork for later inventions like the modern computer. In music Beethoven and Schubert gave way to the rising talents of Wagner, Chopin, Strauss, Debussy, and Liszt. In 1846, Adolphe Sax invented a brand-new instrument that combined all the power of brass with all the complexities of a woodwind.
In the home, new appliances lessened labor-intensive duties. Dishes could be washed by cranking a lever. Meats could be refrigerated; vegetables, canned. In 1851, it took only one minute to chill a bottle of water in the “cooling funnel.” The population was eating better and living longer. The life expectancy of William Carey’s generation was thirty-four years. For Andrew Fuller’s, that number rose by four. Spurgeon was promised forty years when he was born in 1834 (he outlived his life expectancy by seventeen years). By the end of the nineteenth century, a newborn baby could hope for fifty long years of life.
London was due for a makeover. Public executions, once a social pastime, had fallen out of fashion. The decapitated grimaces of traitors and criminals, displayed in previous generations, no longer greeted visitors. Founded in AD 43, the Roman fort of Londinium overtook Peking (now Beijing) in the 1820s to become the largest and most powerful city in the world, an accomplishment surpassed only by New York City a full century later. Spurgeon’s claim in 1871 that London was a “three-million city” proved accurate with 3.2 million in London County and 3.8 million in greater London. By the end of Spurgeon’s life, an urban superpower had emerged, adding new meaning to William Cowper’s famous line “God made the country, and man made the town.”
But forging a nineteenth-century metropolis with an eighteenth-century infrastructure would not be easy. Sustainability became the question of the day, one technology was sure to answer. Gardens replaced marshy mews and greens. Public squares were paved and historic monuments erected. In Trafalgar Square, four bronze lions were tasked with guarding Horatio Nelson’s towering statue. Even cemeteries like “Bone Hill” (later named Bunhill Fields) were landscaped and memorialized. All three of Spurgeon’s pastoral predecessors were buried there—John Gill, John Rippon, and Benjamin Keach. He likely visited their tombs on May 21, 1860, before giving an address at the unveiling of John Bunyan’s refurbished tomb.
London’s pilgrimage to urbanization witnessed some sectors progressing more slowly than others. Even up until the mid-nineteenth century, human excrement was still deposited in “dry closets” (essentially buckets) that were emptied beneath the floorboards of houses. “Wet closets” improved sanitation, but their pipes concluded in cesspools instead of sewers. With the Nuisance Removal and Contagious Diseases Act in 1848 and additional legislation, Londoners were encouraged to rid their houses of “nuisance.” As a result, the River Thames—once blue and brimming with salmon—became an open sewer. During Spurgeon’s first year in London, a cholera outbreak killed 10,000 people. The pandemic, originally thought to be the result of airborne disease, actually spread through contaminated water and devastated Spurgeon’s congregation. He recounted:
All day, and sometimes all night long, I went about from house to house, and saw men and women dying, and, oh, how glad they were to see my face. When many were afraid to enter their houses lest they should catch the deadly disease, we who had no fear about such things found ourselves most gladly listened to when we spoke of Christ and of things Divine.
Biographers have yet to realize fully how Spurgeon survived the pandemic. Instead of drinking from the 60 million gallons of river water pumped into neighborhoods surrounding his church, Spurgeon’s water came from deep wells tapped by the Kent Company near Greenwich—the only unpolluted source in Southwark. When cholera struck again in 1866, Spurgeon stated:
It seems to me that this disease is to a great extent in our own hands, and that if all men would take scrupulous care as to cleanliness, and if better dwellings were provided for the poor, and if overcrowding were effectually prevented, and if the water supply could be larger, and other sanitary improvements could be carried out, the disease, most probably, would not occur.
The Thames that once “glideth at his own sweet will,” as William Wordsworth wrote in 1802, had, in Spurgeon’s day, soured. In 1858, exactly one century after Robert Binnell called its water “exceeding wholsome [sic],” the satirical paper Punch depicted a skeleton rowing down the river in search of life to steal. Spurgeon painted a similar picture in his 1866 sermon “Fields White for Harvest”:
You may look upon this great city as the harvest-field, and every week the bills of mortality tell us how steadily and how surely the scythe of death moves to and fro, and how a lane is made through our population, and those who were once living men are taken like sheaves to the garner, taken to the graveyard and laid aside. You cannot stop their dying.
The newly installed sewage system of 1870 could not have come soon enough. The welcomed addition unburdened the metropolis of her odoriferous reputation and assured the population that sweltering summers like the “Great Stink” of 1858 would never happen again.
The currents of language were also shifting. In rural and religious communities where the King James Bible and Puritan literature prevailed, archaic pronouns could still be heard. But in nineteenth-century cities, “thy” had become “your,” “thine” had become “yours,” and “thou” (the informal of “you”) had, for the most part, abandoned the vocabulary. Joseph Worcester updated Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary, and by the end of the century, a cluster of colorful idioms had been grafted into the vernacular.
If a Victorian desired to ride in a three-horsed carriage, a “unicorn carman” was summoned. One might fancy a glass of “balloon-juice” (a carbonated beverage) or “belly-washer” (lemonade). Instead of saying “Excuse me,” a Victorian might mumble, “Mind the grease.” A well-dressed lady was said to be “afternoonified.” If a woman was too talkative, she was a “church-bell.” Poor breeding could produce a “half-hour gentleman” or a “broad faker” (a dubious card player). A mediocre carpenter was a “wood-spoiler”; a policeman, a “mutton shunter.” If an actor forgot his lines, the audience might say he is a “Captain Macfluffer.” To thrash about was to “batty-fang,” and too much batty-fanging could produce “enthuzimuzzy.” A Victorian might “chuck a dummy” (faint), “give beans” (chastise), or “face the music” (accept a challenge). In courtship, no proper gentlemen would “tip the velvet” (kiss) with his “sauce box” (mouth) before he could “hang up the ladle” and marry.
Another word—“progress”—became the quintessential Victorian virtue. One year before Spurgeon was born, the Slavery Abolition Act passed in the UK. The first prepaid postage stamp, the “Penny Black,” entered circulation when Spurgeon was five; the word “dinosaur” was coined around his eighth birthday. At eleven, Spurgeon could walk on pavement instead of cobblestone, and as a teenager he might have even flushed the first public toilet at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which he attended in June of that year.
Two years after Spurgeon “hung up the ladle,” Victoria telegraphed US President James Buchanan via a copper cable that stretched from Ireland to Newfoundland. Spurgeon was twenty-eight when the world’s first subway wormholed its way beneath the streets of London. He could place a telephone call by age forty-two, read by an incandescent lightbulb by forty-three, and by 1885, he could ride the new “safety bicycle” instead of the high-wheeled “penny farthing”—a daunting challenge for the man who stood only five feet and five inches tall. The advances of the age astonished him. When Spurgeon heard Thomas Edison’s voice emerge from the tubes of the phonograph in 1888, the pastor “felt lost in the mystery.”
There is, of course, a temptation to overromanticize the Romantic Era—to view it through rose-colored glasses and ignore the dark smog that settled over the century. The Industrial Revolution promised exciting possibilities, but poorer populations absorbed its cost. Demand for labor widened class divisions. Social, economic, and administrative challenges went unsolved. Child labor, overpopulation, slum life, and crime were still very much part of the Victorian experience.
Three years into Spurgeon’s pastorate in London, there were 8,600 known prostitutes, or “fallen” women, living in his city. England’s brilliant inventions needed hardworking hands to manufacture them. By the ages of three and four, children often labored alongside their parents in textile factories, mills, and coal mines. Cleaning London’s narrow flues and chimneys required small bodies. Cancers, ulcers, and respiratory illnesses shortened the lives of “sweeps.” According to a prison report from 1837, a “ragged, barefoot” chimney sweep was incarcerated for committing a misdemeanor. When forced to take a bath, the sixteen-year-old was “delighted.” When offered socks and shoes, he was filled with “most amazement.” “Am I really to wear this?” he enquired. When escorted to his cell, the teenager’s “joy reached its height” when he saw the bed and realized he would sleep the night in comfort.
Charles Dickens aptly described the life many Victorians were forced to live in his 1854 publication Hard Times. Congested neighborhoods struggled to cope with expanding populations, especially when Irish immigrants fled the famines caused by phytophthora infestans—a water-born fungus that decimated Ireland’s potato crop. Economic disparity and systemic poverty prevailed throughout the nineteenth century.
However, even in the midst of London’s growing pains—especially in the decades between the hungry 1840s and the Great Depression of 1873—there was a real sense that life was improving. The opening lines of Dickens’s 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, though written about the French Revolution, might also describe Spurgeon’s London: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” England was not yet Edwardian, but nor was she Georgian. A new day had dawned for the empire on which the sun never set.