In the spring of 1854, Susannah Thomson received a book from the pastor of New Park Street Chapel. It was a copy of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress inscribed with these words: “Miss Thompson, with desires for her progress in the blessed pilgrimage. From, C. H. Spurgeon, April 20, 1854.”[i]
C. H. (Charles) Spurgeon, the new pastor of the prominent London chapel, was only nineteen years old when he displayed remarkable insight in the gift that he chose for Miss Thompson. Susannah was, in many ways, the opposite of Charles Spurgeon. He was from the country, and she was a refined city-girl. He was confident and bold in his Christian faith, and she, a relatively new Christian, was experiencing a spiritual trial. When, through a mutual friend, the new pastor received word of Susannah’s struggle, he responded by sending her the book that had been a regular source of encouragement to him from the time of his childhood.
It was at his grandparents’ home in Stambourne that six-year-old Charles Spurgeon first encountered The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it became a staple in Spurgeon’s reading regimen for the rest of his life. After Charles died in 1892, his son Thomas wrote:
He [Charles] has spoken of him [John Bunyan] over and over again as ‘my great favorite,’ and has left it on record that he had read The Pilgrim’s Progress at least one hundred times. The reason for his liking is not hard to see. They both loved “The Book of Books.”[ii]
Why did Spurgeon give a copy of Bunyan’s book to Susannah instead of a copy of the Bible with passages highlighted to address her particular situation? Growing up in a Christian home, Susannah had long enjoyed access to the Bible. She had also heard the Scripture expounded numerous times at New Park Street. What Susannah most needed was not another Bible, but instead, biblical counsel. Understanding Spurgeon’s attitude towards John Bunyan generally and The Pilgrim’s Progress specifically provides hints as to why he chose this classic work for Susannah.
Feeling a great affinity for a fellow lover of “The Book of Books”[iii] Spurgeon wrote of Bunyan:
Read anything of his [Bunyan’s], and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems—without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.[iv]
Spurgeon valued The Pilgrim’s Progress for its thoroughly biblical description of the Christian life. He wrote: “It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures. It is really Biblical teaching put into the form of a simple yet very striking allegory.”[v] Peter Morden argues that Bunyan’s writing influenced Spurgeon by providing “a framework for understanding the Christian life” and by offering a way for Spurgeon to “make sense of particular experiences that occurred along a Christian’s journey.”[vi]
It seems probable, then, that Spurgeon chose to give Susannah The Pilgrim’s Progress for several reasons. First, Bunyan’s classic had a shaping influence on Spurgeon himself. Second, Spurgeon believed that The Pilgrim’s Progress faithfully communicated Scripture. Third, it was accessible to readers in a way that other excellent but more challenging works of theology were not.[vii]
Spurgeon knew that The Pilgrim’s Progress was an aid that provided a pathway for Scriptural teaching to percolate down deep into Susannah’s heart. Susannah wrote: “I do not think my beloved had, at that time, any other thought concerning me than to help a struggling soul Heavenward; but I was greatly impressed by his concern for me, and the book became very precious as well as helpful.”[viii]
Spurgeon’s pastoral interest in Susannah soon grew to romantic love for her. In August of 1854, Charles and Susannah were engaged, and in January of 1856 they were married. The Pilgrim’s Progress served as a road map that helped two young pilgrims navigate through the challenges of marriage, ministry demands, health issues, and attacks on their Biblical convictions.
i C. H. Spurgeon, C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife, and His Private Secretary (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897–99; reprint, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1992), 2:6-7.
ii C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 5.
iii C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures, 5.
iv C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures, 5–6.
v C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures, 11.
vi Peter Morden, Communion with Christ and His People: The Spirituality of C. H. Spurgeon (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 29.
vii C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures, 6.
viii Spurgeon, Autobiography, 2:7
Ray Rhodes, Jr. is president of Nourished in the Word Ministries (www.nourishedintheword.org), pastor of Grace Community Church of North Georgia (www.gracechurchdawsonville.org), author of Family Worship for the Christmas Season, Family Worship for the Thanksgiving Season, Family Worship for the Reformation Season, The Marriage Bed, and The Visionary Marriage, and he has edited two other booklets. Rhodes is the author of numerous articles, especially related to marriage and family. He is also a regular contributor to The Dancing Puritan (www.dancingpuritan.com). He is a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is writing a thesis: “The Role of Bible Intake and Prayer in the Marriage of Charles and Susannah Spurgeon.” He plans to continue his research in hopes of writing a book about Spurgeon’s marriage. Ray is married to Lori and they are blessed with six daughters, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren. Lori blogs at www.nitw4ladies.blogspot.com. You can visit Ray on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ray.rhodes.52, and https://www.facebook.com/NourishedintheWord?ref=hl