The Sure Source of Spurgeon's Success
The Baptist chapel in New Park Street, Southwark was situated in a "dim and dirty" district of London close to the south bank of the Thames. Although its congregation had a long and prosperous history going back two hundred years to the Puritan era, it now looked like one of the barges in the nearby mud when the tide was out. The church had been in decline for some considerable time and the greatly reduced congregation must have rattled around in the chapel which could accommodate more than four times its current number.
Into this house of public worship came a young, nineteen year-old pastor from the Baptist chapel in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. The cold and dull weather of that December Sunday morning in 1853 must have done nothing to lift the spirits of the young preacher at the sight of so depressing a scene. However, we all know what happened next. The young C.H. Spurgeon preaches with such power that the church soon invites him to become their next pastor, and almost immediately a long and fruitful pastorate commences. The rest, as they say, is history.
New Park Street saw sweeping changes within the first few months. The regular attendance at the weekly prayer meeting quickly grew to about five hundred. On Sundays the crowded chapel soon reached breaking point; it was to be enlarged on more than one occasion, but even then still proved inadequate. Something was clearly happening in the nation’s capital which had not been seen since the days of the Great Awakening a century earlier under Whitefield and Wesley. Eyewitness accounts from the period speak of vast crowds gathering outside the chapel waiting for admission long before the stated times of service. Although a ticketing system was introduced to prevent overcrowding, the chapel, which seated 1,500, was regularly swamped with more than 3,000 people.
In fact, there seemed to be no limit to those who wanted to hear Spurgeon preach. The church resorted to the hiring of the 4,000-seater Exeter Hall on London's Strand, for their Sunday evening services. When this became unavailable, the deacons turned to Surrey Gardens Music Hall, which could accommodate 10,000, and Spurgeon filled it, much to the annoyance of his bitterest critics who sneered at his preaching “Particular Redemption in saloons reeking with the perfume tobacco.”
A spiritual awakening was taking place and Spurgeon found himself at its center. A question that has intrigued many over the years as they have looked back upon this movement of the Spirit in mid-nineteenth century London is, What factors made Spurgeon the instrument of this revival?
Various answers have been offered. Most have concentrated on Spurgeon’s outstanding natural talents, which were all devoted to the pursuit of his calling as a preacher of the gospel. Spurgeon’s powers of imagination and description were truly remarkable and he employed these to the full in presenting familiar truths with a vividness that arrested those who heard him. Such vivid language made his congregations sit up and listen. While others preached in monochrome, Spurgeon preached in “glorious Technicolor!” For him there was nothing worse than a dignified, unfeeling, and cold presentation of the gospel. He spoke to his hearers as though shaking their hands and talking to them in the street. In this familiarity and naturalness he revelled:
It is delicious to put one’s foot through the lath and plaster of old affectations, to make room for the granite walls of reality. This has been a main design with me, and may God send success to the effort.
Spurgeon was particularly brilliant at taking doctrines which had come to be regarded as dull, boring, and heavy, and presenting them in such clear and forceful language that men could not but be gripped by what they heard.
If you preach the truth in a dull, monotonous style, God may bless it, but in all probability he will not; at any rate the tendency of such a style is not to promote attention but to hinder it. It is not often that sinners are awakened by ministers who are themselves asleep.
Without doubt Spurgeon’s greatness to a certain degree lay in his ability and great courage to break through long established conventions of his day whatever his actions might arouse. In this he resembled his great hero, George Whitefield, the leading evangelist of the eighteenth-century revival. But there was something about Spurgeon that was not true of his renowned and worthy predecessor. Spurgeon’s mental powers were such that he was able to take in, distil, and then popularize almost everything he read. As a child and grandchild of the manse he had free access to the very best of Christian books. By the time he arrived in London in 1853, he had read more in his nineteen years than most read in a lifetime. In particular he was well versed in the writings of the seventeenth-century Puritans. But above all, like Timothy, he had known the Holy Scriptures from childhood. What Spurgeon said of Bunyan was equally true of himself:
He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” And again, “Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline.
While it would be foolish to pass over Spurgeon’s outstanding natural gifts and theological learning, it would be absolutely unforgivable to argue that these things alone supply the reasons for the success of his remarkable ministry. For Spurgeon himself traced the source of his success to divine rather than human strength. As the young preacher looked upon the gloomy conditions facing the believers in New Park Street chapel, he was conscious that God had been hiding His face from His people. The Bible and the history of the church taught him that, compared to what the church had good reason to expect, the Spirit of God was in great measure withdrawn. If God should continue to hide His face, he declared to his people, then nothing could be done to extend His kingdom. It is not one’s knowledge, talent, zeal even, that can perform the work of God.
Yet, brethren, this can be done we will cry to the Lord until he reveals his face again.
All we want is the Spirit of God. Dear Christian friends, go home and pray for it; give yourselves no rest till God reveals himself; do not tarry where you are, do not be content to go on in your everlasting jog-trot as you have done; do not be content with the mere round of formalities. Awake, O Zion; awake, awake, awake!
Before many months had passed it was clear that the New Park Street congregation was awaking, and a common burden for the outpouring of the Spirit of blessing spread from pastor to people. Looking back on those early years in London, Spurgeon wrote in glowing terms of the prevailing spirit of prayer in the church.
Every man seemed like a crusader besieging the New Jerusalem, each one appeared determined to storm the celestial city by the might of intercession; and soon the blessing came upon us in such abundance that we had not room to receive it.
What prayer meetings we have had! Shall we ever forget Park Street, those prayer meetings, when I felt compelled to let you go without a word from my lips, because the Spirit of God was so awfully present that we felt bowed to the dust?
And what listening there was.... The Holy Spirit came down like showers that saturate the soil till the clods are ready for the breaking; and then it was not long before we heard on the right and on the left the cry, ‘What must we do to be saved?’
An indication of the seriousness with which Spurgeon believed his success depended on the Spirit, is seen in the very solemn warnings he gave to his people about the danger of no longer depending upon God in prayer.
May God help me, if you cease to pray for me! Let me know the day and I must cease to preach.
We should not put such warnings down to the eloquence of the preacher. No, he truly believed that without the Spirit of God nothing could be done. This concern he kept in his heart throughout the long and fruitful years of his ministry.
Here then is the primary explanation of Spurgeon’s success in preaching the gospel. “I believe in the Holy Spirit” was for Spurgeon more than just a creed.