Biography of Charles Spurgeon, Prince of Preachers

Pulpit Buffoon or Finest Preacher of His Day?

Lithograph of Charles Spurgeon
Lithograph of Charles Spurgeon from The Modern Portrait Gallery.

The Print Collector / Getty Images

Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century English Baptist minister, was one of the most influential and extraordinary preachers of his era. Spurgeon’s theology could best be summarized as evangelical Calvinism. Today he is remembered as the “Prince of Preachers.”

Charles Spurgeon

  • Full Name: Charles Haddon Spurgeon
  • Known For: 19th century English Baptist minister known for his masterful preaching
  • Born: June 19, 1834, in Kelvedon, Essex, United Kingdom
  • Died: January 31, 1892, in Menton, France
  • Parents: John and Eliza Spurgeon
  • Spouse: Susannah Thompson Spurgeon
  • Published Works: The Treasury of David; The Sword and the Trowel; Lectures to My Students; The Greatest Fight in the World.
  • Notable Quote: “I am perhaps vulgar, but it is not intentional, save that I must and will make people listen. My firm conviction is that we have had enough polite preachers.”

Child of the Manse

Charles Spurgeon was the firstborn of 17 siblings, although only eight survived into adulthood. His parents were John and Eliza Spurgeon. His father, John Spurgeon (1810–1902), was the pastor of an independent (non-Anglican) Congregational church in Tollesbury, near Colchester. Owing to economic hardship, Charles spent his early boyhood with his grandparents in the small village of Stambourne, Essex. He was profoundly influenced by his grandfather, James Spurgeon (1776-1684), a highly esteemed preacher and minister of a Puritan congregation.

Later in life, Charles would fondly recollect his years growing up in the church’s parsonage. There, surrounded by sermons, prayers, hymns, and devotional classics, he developed deep spiritual convictions. He loved to read, and two books captivated Spurgeon as a boy and produced a permanent impact on his faith: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Spurgeon’s formal education was limited. He attended two local schools but never earned a university degree. He trained as a junior tutor at an Anglican school where he gained moderate proficiency in Latin, Greek, and philosophy. Next, he took an assistant teaching post at a school in Cambridge, which he held until 1851.

The informal education he gave himself as an avid reader and lover of learning is perhaps what most prepared him for his life’s work as a preacher of the gospel. Over his lifetime, Spurgeon amassed more 12,000 works in his personal library.

Breaking Family Tradition

At age 15, Spurgeon made a firm profession of faith. On January 6, 1850, he was caught in a raging snowstorm and blown off course from his original destination. He entered a Primitive Methodist chapel, and while listening to the sermon, experienced a remarkable vision of Christ as Savior. Within a few months, after studying the Scriptures and re-evaluating his beliefs, Spurgeon was baptized and became a member of Saint Andrew’s Baptist church.

Charles Spurgeon preaching in London
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Great London Preacher (circa 1882). Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Spurgeon was only 16 when he preached his first sermon as pastor of Waterbeach Baptist Chapel near Cambridge. Within two years, the little congregation grew from 40 to 400. He spoke in chapels, cottages, and open-air meetings in the countryside surrounding Cambridge. Spurgeon’s energy, enthusiasm, and preaching skill earned him so much attention that he was eventually invited to speak in London. On December 18, 1853, the 19-year-old Spurgeon delivered his first sermon at the famous New Park Street Chapel in London. Soon he was called to be the pastor. From then on, Spurgeon stayed in London.

Spurgeon married Susanna Thompson in 1856 and within a year had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. Both became Baptist ministers.

Preaching Sensation of London

Practically overnight Spurgeon became a preaching sensation, drawing multitudes in the tens of thousands. By age 22, he was quite possibly the most famous orator in the world. His youthful appearance contrasted startlingly with his mature sermons, which were published regularly in the London Times and newspapers around the world. In 1861, at the famous Crystal Palace, Spurgeon preached to the largest enclosed gathering ever recorded. The event was the national day of fasting and prayer, and the crowd numbered nearly 24,000. In March of that same year, the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington opened. The new building, with its seating capacity of 6,000, would be home to Spurgeon’s flock and the hub of his preaching ministry until his death in 1892.

Critics and Controversy

Spurgeon’s razor-sharp memory allowed him to speak unrehearsed and freely. “Dramatic to his fingertips,” is how one friend described him. Spurgeon wandered the platform, acting out Bible stories with graphic, emotion-packed language. Some who were offended by his sentimentalism and charismatic sensationalism called him “the pulpit buffoon.”

With popularity comes jealousy and controversy, and Spurgeon learned to live with both. The most disastrous storm of Spurgeon’s career was the “Down-Grade Controversy,” which took an emotional toll at a time when his health was declining because of age and long-time battles with rheumatic gout and depression. Starting in 1887, Spurgeon began accusing some of his associate Baptist ministers of downgrading the essentials of the Christian faith. In his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon wrote, “Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith.” The result of the year-long debate was a bitterly divided Baptist Union, which ultimately voted to censure Spurgeon.

Charles Spurgeon
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 - 1892) the English Baptist preacher. The poster is an appreciation of his life, printed following his death. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Unconventional Theology

Never ordained, Spurgeon opposed the use of the title Reverend and sought to replace it with Pastor. His preaching was always saturated with Scripture and centered on loving people and winning them to faith in Jesus Christ. A constant stream of souls came to salvation throughout his years preaching and publishing sermons.

Spurgeon’s theological emphasis, described as “biblical, unsystematic, and spiritual,” was different from most evangelicals of his day. He was determined to think through his beliefs and form his own theological conclusions. In his words, “I like to read my Bible so as never to have to blink when I approach a text. I like to have a theology which enables me to read [the Bible] right through from beginning to end, and to say, ‘I am as pleased with that text as I am with the other.’ ”

Spurgeon wrestled with the opposing doctrines of human responsibility and election. Eventually, he determined that both were clearly taught by God in Scripture. Thus, neither doctrine could be done away with: “If God teaches it, it is enough. If it is not in the Word, away with it! Away with it! But if it be in the Word, agreeable or disagreeable, systematic or disorderly, I believe it.”

Charles Spurgeon's Orphanage
Orphanage founded by English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon in Stockwell, Lambeth, London, 1867. Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Lingering Legacy

Spurgeon’s contributions to Christianity extend far beyond his era. In 1855, he established his Pastors’ College. Spurgeon sought to train men who had limited formal education, so he enforced no academic requirements for admission. More than 150 years later, the theological center still exists today. He also founded an orphanage at Stockwell in 1867.

Spurgeon wrote copiously, authoring more than 100 books, including many that are widely popular today. The Treasury of David, a seven-volume commentary on the Psalms, is regarded by many as Spurgeon’s greatest written work. Presently, over a century after his death, there are more titles by Spurgeon in print than any other Christian author, living or dead.

The “Prince of Preachers” delivered his final sermon in June of 1891. Six months later, he died. Today, Charles Spurgeon is regarded by many as the greatest preacher in all of church history.

Sources

  • “The Life and Times of Charles H. Spurgeon.” Christian History Magazine-Issue 29: Charles Spurgeon: England’s “Prince of Preachers.”
  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 102).
  • “Spurgeon, Charles Haddon.” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (p. 625).