Crowds lined the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the olivewood casket as it made its way through the streets of south London. On top was a large pulpit Bible opened at Isaiah 45:22: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” It was Thursday, February 11, 1892, and the body of Charles Haddon Spurgeon was being taken for burial. Eighteen years before, Spurgeon had imagined the scene from his pulpit:
When you see my coffin carried to the silent grave, I should like every one of you, whether converted or not, to be constrained to say, “He did earnestly urge us, in plain and simple language, not to put off the consideration of eternal things. He did entreat us to look to Christ.” (C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, 4:375)
“Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” – back in January 1850, those were words that had first shown Spurgeon the way of salvation.
“I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him.” (Autobiography, 1:106)
For 42 years, then, from his conversion to his death, looking to Christ crucified for life remained the touchstone of Spurgeon’s own life and ministry. He dedicated his days to entreating all others: “look to Christ.”
Spurgeon was born in 1834 in Kelvedon, Essex, in the southeast of England. Sent to live with his grandparents as a young boy, Spurgeon spent his formative childhood years in the village of Stambourne, in the heart of what was once England’s Puritan country. Here, his grandfather, James, himself an Anglican minister and well-regarded preacher, baptized Spurgeon as an infant and raised him in the manse in the Calvinistic and Puritan legacy.
The young Spurgeon would retreat into the dark rooms of the house to rummage through a library of Puritan works: Bunyan, Alleine, and Baxter. Yet he was not at that point a believer. By the time he was 10 years old, he had fallen under a strong sense of guilt for his sin. He devoured those Puritan books for answers and yet for five years felt himself to be like Bunyan’s pilgrim, carrying a heavy and depressing burden. He was trapped in darkness and despair.
“What I wanted to know was, ‘How can I get my sins forgiven?’ . . . I panted and longed to understand how I might be saved” (Autobiography, 1:105).
Then, when he was 15, in January 1850, walking to an unnamed place of worship in Colchester, he was caught in a snowstorm. He turned down Artillery Street and walked into a small primitive Methodist chapel. The preacher’s text was Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (KJV), and after about ten minutes, with only twelve to fifteen people present, the preacher fixed his eyes on Spurgeon and spoke to him directly: “Young man, you look very miserable.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” At that, Spurgeon later wrote:
“I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said, – I did not take much notice of it, – I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me.” (Autobiography, 1:106)
Spurgeon’s life was changed, and within months he had preached his first sermon. The following year, he accepted his first pastorate. In 1854, he became pastor of New Park Street, the largest Baptist Church in London at the time. The Church outgrew its building twice before the Metropolitan Tabernacle was dedicated on March 18, 1861. In the meantime, in 1856 Spurgeon married Susannah Thompson, and their children, the twins Thomas and Charles, were born on September 20, 1857.
In his opening sermon at the new Church, Spurgeon announced, “I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ.” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 7:401). This was, indeed, the great theme of his preaching and wider ministry.
On top of his preaching and pastoral ministry (he preached up to thirteen times a week), he established and oversaw a host of ministries, including a pastors’ college, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen alms-houses for poor and elderly women, and a day school for children. He was involved in the planting of 187 Churches. Then there was the Evangelists’ Association, established in 1863, to put on services in mission halls, chapels, and the open air. Within fifteen years there were five permanent missions, and hundreds of meetings were being held every year. None of that is yet to have mentioned his books. In print he published some 18 million words, selling over 56 million copies of his sermons in nearly 40 languages in his own lifetime.
Such a busy ministry was a burden for him, a mental and emotional load that often weighed very heavily on him, sometimes nearly overwhelming him. Yet, for all that, he confessed,
“I would sooner have my work to do than any other under the sun. Preaching Jesus Christ is sweet work, joyful work, Heavenly work. Whitefield used to call his pulpit his throne, and those who know the bliss of forgetting everything beside the glorious, all-absorbing topic of Christ crucified, will bear witness that the term was aptly used.” (Autobiography, 2:165)
He was emphatic that keeping Christ central, prominent, and clear was the reason for the fruitfulness of his ministry.
“If I had preached any other than the doctrine of Christ crucified, I should years ago have scattered my audience to the winds of heaven. But the old theme is always new, always fresh, always attractive. Preach Jesus Christ.” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 29:233–34).
It comes as a surprise to some that Spurgeon had a lifelong battle with depression. His reputation as a famed and powerful preacher, his cheery wit, and his cigar-smoking manliness might lead us to imagine there could never be a chink in his Victorian Englishman’s armour. It shouldn’t be a surprise, of course: life in a fallen world must mean distress, and Spurgeon’s life was indeed full of physical and mental pain.
Aged 22, while preaching to thousands in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, pranksters yelled “Fire!” starting a panic to exit the building which killed 7 and left 28 severely injured. His mind was never the same again. Susannah wrote,
“My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent, that reason seemed to totter in her throne, and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again” (Susannah Spurgeon: Free Grace and Dying Love, 166).
Severe illness, fierce opposition, and bereavement all made their mark on the great preacher’s life, so much so that today he would almost certainly be diagnosed as clinically depressed and treated with medication and therapy.
In all this, Spurgeon believed that God had a good purpose in all his suffering, and because of it felt he had become a better prepared and more compassionate pastor. Spurgeon believed that our heavenly Father ordains suffering for believers, and indeed the suffering the Lord granted to Spurgeon tenderized him and allowed him to be a doctor of souls in a unique way.
He shared with his congregation that, in seasons of great pain, “the sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 19:124). Again and again he returned to the theme of Christ’s compassion for his suffering people. In an 1890 sermon, he spoke, while feeling his own weakness, about Christ as the High Priest who feels for us in our infirmities. “This morning,” he said,
“ …being myself more than usually compassed with infirmities, I desire to speak, as a weak and suffering preacher, of that High Priest who is full of compassion; and my longing is that any who are low in spirit, faint, despondent, or even at the point of total despair, may take heart to approach the Lord Jesus …
Jesus is touched, not with a feeling of your strength, but of your infirmity! Down here, poor, feeble nothings affect the heart of their great High Priest on high who is crowned with glory and honour! As the mother feels the weakness of her babe, so does Jesus feel with the poorest, saddest, and weakest of His chosen! (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 36:315, 320)
Spurgeon’s last words from the pulpit, dated June 7, 1891, are a fitting summary of his relentlessly Christ-centred vision.
“Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ, either self or the Saviour. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters, but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. 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. If He bids us carry a burden, He carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yes lavish and super abundant in love, you always find it in Him.
These forty years and more have I served Him, blessed be His name! And I have had nothing but love from Him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below if it so pleased Him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen.” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 37:323–24)