by David Bebbington
In 1856 Elias Lyman Magoon, pastor of Oliver Street Baptist Church, New York, published a collection of the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Magoon had visited Britain in the previous decade and continued to be supplied with newspapers from the United Kingdom. He had written two books on oratorical achievements past and present. The New York pastor was therefore fascinated to discover that a youthful preacher of his own denomination had taken London by storm.
Spurgeon, though only a teenager when he accepted the pulpit of New Park Street Baptist Chapel, Southwark, in 1854, was the talk of the British capital. His chapel was thronged every Sunday; his services were sought throughout the land; and his sermons flooded from the press. Magoon decided to publish a sample for consumption in the United States. Spurgeon, according to the American, was “as original in his conceptions as he is untrammeled in their utterance.” Over the years down to his death in 1892, Spurgeon was to prove to be the greatest preacher of the century. What, asked Magoon, was the explanation of his powers?
In the first place, Magoon explained, there was Spurgeon’s intelligence. Mental ability, honed by a dedication to education, allowed the London preacher to provide a wealth of rich illustrations. Magoon’s estimate has been confirmed by later scholarship. Spurgeon was an avid reader, amassing a personal library of over 12,000 volumes. Each month his church magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, contained perceptive critical evaluations of his latest reading. It is true that he did not overvalue the classical authors of antiquity, then the basis of an elite education, remarking that “Wisdom does not always speak Latin.” Yet, as Magoon noticed, Spurgeon could allude knowledgeably in a sermon to Homer and Virgil.
Later, in 1869, he was to be held up to ridicule by the essayist Matthew Arnold as a man who did not appreciate the sweetness and light to be derived from classical sources, a denier of the value of culture. Yet that was entirely unfair. Spurgeon respected learning and had imbibed a great deal of it. Magoon was nearer the mark when he declared that the London preacher acquired an “early and varied culture.”
Secondly, according to Magoon, Spurgeon was notable for his independence. The American contrasted the originality of Spurgeon’s sermons with the standard views expressed in the pulpit by the bulk of preachers. He was willing to speak his mind, expressing sturdy opinions that diverged from the predominant views of the day. He was a product of rural East Anglia, gladly challenging the values of the capital where he preached.
“As a general rule,” Spurgeon was to tell the students at the college he founded, “I hate the fashions of society, and detest conventionalities.” He repudiated the notion that ministers should belong to a refined class, distinct from the common people. His students were required to live in the homes of ordinary church members rather than together in a residential college so that they should not adopt the airs of a separate class of men. The Victorian idea of a gentleman, possessing a polished lifestyle superior to that of his fellows, was anathema to him. Against the model of the gentleman Spurgeon set the image of a man. “Scarcely one man in a dozen in the pulpit,” he complained, “talks like a man.” That quality brought him condemnation in many quarters, but it appealed to his congregations.
In the third place, Magoon singled out Spurgeon’s honesty of purpose. He was a preacher of the gospel with a “frank, open-heartiness of manner.” Unlike most of his contemporaries, Spurgeon was prepared to introduce humor into the pulpit. “There is no commandment in the Bible,” he observed, “which says ‘Thou shalt not laugh.’” He was also prepared to denounce views which he considered wrong. He often censured the clergy of the Church of England, even criticizing evangelicals within its ranks for remaining loyal to an institution which taught that infants were born again in baptism. He was particularly hostile to the Roman Catholic Church as a sinister force in the world, past and present. If people are often best understood through their heroes, it is useful to note that Spurgeon lavished praise on Martin Luther, a man “always himself.” Luther was unafraid to voice his authentic opinions whatever the cost. That was true of Spurgeon too.
This remarkable preacher—intelligent, independent, and honest in purpose—is still widely read. This series of volumes includes 400 hitherto unpublished sermons, the earliest that Spurgeon preached. He was a precocious genius, his first sermon delivered when he was only sixteen. The volumes will print not just what Spurgeon wrote, for the commentary will set the sermons in their context. Detailed notes will allow the reader to understand Spurgeon’s developing mind.
It is shown in this first volume, for example, that Spurgeon drew 44 percent of his earliest texts from the Old Testament. A comparison with a sample of American evangelical sermons in the twenty-first century, when only 31 percent were based on Old Testament texts, suggests food for thought. Perhaps Spurgeon was more familiar with his whole Bible than many preachers of a later date.
The editor, Christian George, as the curator of The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is uniquely qualified for his task, for he has many of Spurgeon’s own volumes in his care. Magoon imagined himself telling Spurgeon that through his selection of sermons published in the United States, the English preacher would “soon . . . be read . . . from the Eastern Atlantic to the great Pacific of the West.” Now Spurgeon’s first addresses will be available to the same audience—and to an even wider one.
Editor’s note: For a limited time, order a copy of The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon, Vol 1 for just $20.99 (a 65% discount) at LifeWay.