Spurgeon, speaking himself, of one of the romantic incidents in his remarkable life, said "to me it was a wonderful thing, and I no more understood at that time how it came to pass, than I understand today, why the Lord should be so gracious to me."
The whole history of this remarkable man, through all the various scenes of his eventful experiences, certainly presents one of the most miraculous records to be found in modern or ancient times, and yet his manner has been so quiet and his mode of life so modest that many of our most intelligent readers are wholly unconscious of the fascinating character of his interesting story.
Many writers, whose wisdom in other respects seem to be unquestionable, declare that the day of miracles has passed; but taking another view of the same thought, we can but come to the deliberate conclusion that the day of miracles is by no means passed, but that they are of daily occurrence and that they fail to make the startling impression they formerly did, because of their great frequency.
But the life of Spurgeon contains so much that is strange, unusual, wonderful, and even truly miraculous, that it will require most careful statement and most conservative reasoning to convince the reader that the record is literally true.
To separate such a story from the superstitions which are naturally thrown about it by the ignorant, and from the criticisms which are thrown over it by the fastidious scholastics is a most difficult undertaking. It makes one tremble to look into the conflicting mass of material, with the purpose of arranging the events so as to make a continued and reasonable history.
His life has never been written as a consecutive story, except in the most condensed form ; and then many of those who have undertaken to set forth his history have omitted or glossed over the most startling things connected with his experiences.
To tell the truth fearlessly, to meet the criticisms of those who are ready to accuse the writer of superstition, and to make the world see that the most romantic things are in real life and that miracles are not confined to the days long since buried in tradition, requires some little hardihood and a Spurgeon's determination to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Any life has in its very inception a miracle far beyond the scrutiny of the most microscopic philosophy and in its unaccountability baffles even the most searching imagination. A human life is in itself a divine miracle, filling the thoughtful student with awe, and compelling him to bow in reverence before that mysterious power which though inscrutable, must nevertheless be distinctly recognized.
Spurgeon's life is a continued series of remarkable events, even when considered in the most prosaic manner.
His parentage, his birthplace his country, his relation to his time, his marvelous success under most adverse circumstances combine a variety of causes and consequences beyond the logical arrangement of the most analytical mind. Every life has its romance, every life its mysterious impulses, every life its strange events, every life its unaccountable results. But here is a life which is romantic beyond precedent in the walks of life where we find it. The greatest preacher of the world, made so by causes unusual and strange, is lifted to his lofty position by miraculous events for which there is no reasonable accounting in accordance with anything that is called the law of nature.
In any biography we need to take into account the effect of hereditary traits, of the molding character of scenery, association, and climate; but these in the life of Spurgeon do not account for all the mysterious results which we find in the work of his life. There are strange turning points in his history, the causes of which are beyond our understanding, and which he himself often declared "real miracles beyond hope of explanation."
His life is a romance, which if, instead of being real, was produced in a work of fiction would be regarded as an altogether improbable story.
Mr. Spurgeon and his friends have always felt that it would be dangerous to attempt to assert the unexplainable side of his success or present it fully to the public, lest it should bring hindering detraction, criticism, and unbelief in connection with his great work of preaching the gospel. Yet in the old days such manifestations of the miraculous unknown were regarded as confirmations of the gospel, and paraded as the best evidence of the fact that the speaker was endowed by the unusual power of God. Why then should they not be presented now? For "God still moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." Looking at his life from the point of view which we now occupy since his death, and looking back upon the crowded audiences, the masses people in the public squares, the ragged thrones on the quays; upon the Orphanage, College, Hospitals, Schools, and Chapels, the world-wide benevolences, the missionary enterprises, the thousands of public and private ministrations, Mr. Spurgeon seems like a giant of intellect and superhuman in his industry.
But we will begin with his life at his humble home and trace it through the varying scenes where it was touched with the modifying circumstances of his surroundings, and thus be better able, step by step, to ascend to the position which he held when he died. No man can comprehend Spurgeon without taking that method in examining his life. It is a record which is as inspiring as it is wonderful, which is as lovely as it is marvelous. Not that we believe Mr. Spurgeon to be a saint, or an angel from heaven sent unto earth by a definite and special dispensation, for he had his human faults and committed his errors as other men have done. His mistakes and shortcomings rather serve to make more prominent and distinct the remarkable achievements of his career. He seems more like one of the minor prophets,-human yet often inspired.
How it makes one ache to be able to present the story clearly, concisely, and yet comprehensively for the instruction of thousands who have heard of Mr. Spurgeon, but who know but little about the facts of his inner life. Could his story be told with the pen of a Macaulay, or with the talented friendship of a Boswell, it would necessarily take its place in the standard literature of the English-speaking people. But whether told with eloquent terms and vivid descriptions, or in rude and blundering phraseology, it certainly ought to be told, and the more often it is related and the greater the variety of ways in which it is presented the better for the generations that are to be.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born at Kelvedon, county of Essex, June 19th, 1834. His father at that time was engaged in business at Kelvedon, the pursuit of which does not seem to have been very lucrative. His parents were in humble circumstances, his mother during these years frequently in ill health. His father and his Grandfather were both successful preachers of the Gospel, but both of them received an early education in practical business through the first part of their lives. His father did not enter the ministry until his life was nearly half finished. But his father was poor, and his grandfather had a comfortable living and sufficient property to keep him altogether above want.
And in the story of the life of Charles H. Spurgeon we need to understand quite fully the circumstances in connection with the history of his parents, their traits, customs, and home, that we may ascertain the influence these things had upon the young boy's nature. But it cannot truthfully be said that Charles came from a family of great men. For though his ancestry for several generations were known among their neighbors as pious persons of excellent character, yet they were never regarded by their contemporaries as possessing any remarkable genius or special claim for the niche in which the world places its great individuals. All the more the wonder is it that he should accomplish what he did accomplish and all the more prominent become the. singular events which led to this remarkable promotion.
Charles was especially "his grandfather's boy." For, as early as he could recollect, he was sent from the home of his parents to that of his grandfather and grandmother at Stambourne in Essex, near the borders of Sussex, ;and there, through the most formative years of his childhood, was trained by these most excellent people. His grandfather was a most instructive preacher, who for fifty-four years occupied the same pastorate and lived in the same house.
What a misfortune it often is for a child to be trained by his grandparents! For some reason they are usually more indulgent, more lax in every kind of discipline, and see in their grandchild a prodigy when no one else dreams of such a thing. His grandparents were not an exception to this general rule, but he had a most excellent aunt, living also at his grandfather's house, named "Aunt Ann," to whose care he was largely committed, and who seems to have been a most talented woman, both in moral character and in the wisdom of her daily common sense.
His grandfather's house was considered a mansion for that day. It was very large and situated in most lovely natural surroundings. His grandfather was a staid, scholarly gentleman, rather quaint but scrupulously neat in his attire; courteous in his demeanor, kindly in all his intercourse with his equals or inferiors; a noble specimen of the old English country gentleman. It is said that he wore the old-fashioned breeches, buckled shoes, and silk stockings; adhering with rigid formality to the attire of the generation before him. He was born at Halstead in Essex, September 29th, 1776. He followed business occupations until he was twenty-six years of age, when he determined to enter the ministry. Taking then two years of study at an Academy, he entered upon the work of preaching to a very weak, poor and small congregation, at Clare in Sussex. That church grew to be a healthy, spreading, and prosperous pastorate in the four years he remained there. He belonged to the Independent or Congregational Church connection, and is said to have never preached in any places outside of Clare and Stambourne; yet he was widely known as a genuine Christian and a faithful friend, and the sight of his frilled shirt, long vest, and dress cravat always brought caps from the heads of the reverent rustics. He loved children and delighted in the company of young people, having his pockets filled with confections for the one and his mouth filled with words of cheer for the other.
Mrs. Spurgeon, the grandfather's helpmeet, was a fine, industrious woman, who made it her conscientious duty to be a sincere and persevering helpmeet to her husband. She was quiet in her manners and retiring in her disposition, yet found her way into the most useful works of charity, and often occupied positions of honor on the boards and committees of benevolent enterprises. She was one of those lovely old ladies who win the affection of every one, who seem to be able to go through this world accomplishing a great deal in silence and without friction.
She and her daughter, "Aunt Ann" cared for the great house, with its large hallway, its cozy bedrooms, its long sitting-room, library and dairy and enormous dark closets, with a neatness that was surprising and with a regularity that was like clock work.
It was in this old manse, standing adjacent to the one-story meeting-house, that Charles spent the early and most important years of his boyhood.
Although its external appearance is somewhat imposing and was evidently a well-lighted and comfortable home when it was constructed; many portions of it, at the time Charles went there to live, were like a prison, owing to the fact that the windows had been walled up to avoid the taxes which the government placed upon windows. Mr. Spurgeon has often during his life referred to the absurd custom which they had in his boyhood days of taxing the sunlight and assessing an individual in proportion to the number of windows which he enjoyed in his home. So this old house had a great many rooms in it which were perpetually dark, into which the boy only peered with fright, and which to his boyhood's imagination were probably peopled with hobgoblins, ghosts, spirits, and an occasional fairy. In the hall of the house, which seems to have led from the wide front doors all the way through to the back yard, there was a large fireplace, about which Charles often. played through his years of childhood. Over the fireplace in the wide hallway there was a large, old-fashioned painting of David contending with Goliath which was far more indelibly painted upon the mind of the boy than it was upon the fading canvas.
It was at this fireplace that he sat many a night poring over some simple story written in the dullest manner, trusting to the flickering light from the hearth rather than to the tallow candle and its accompanying labor with the snuffers.
Dear old fireplace! Who that hath enjoyed the luxury of lying flat upon the floor and gazing into its brilliant embers can cease to call down blessings on its sweet associations. Inspiring old hearth! Around which the faces of loved ones gathered in youth, and about which they never will cease to gather while memory retains its control. Lovely hearth of an affectionate household! What paintings artists have seen in its rising flames, what armies young conquerors have seen in conflict in the battle of its crackling fagots, what sweet and inexpressible lines of pathos the poets have seen written in the coals or heard sung in the hum of its rising gases. Dear, old-fashioned fireplace! Who was the vandal that banished such a boon, such a scene of comfort, such a source of inspiration from the civilized world?
Charles never forgot the lessons inculcated by that inspired teacher,, the brilliant fireplace. Again and again in his speeches, addresses, sermons, and editorials, sparks from that old fireplace appear with vivid distinctness and reveal, unconsciously to the writer, the source of his beautiful thoughts.
It was on that hearth-stone that he made the little sleighs, struggled with toy wagons, rude and rough and uncouth and laughable; but which, to his childish mind, were marvels of mechanical achievement. It was there that he cut patterns in that rough brown paper which was preserved for that, purpose by his economical grandmother from the wrappings brought from the store. It was there that he drew with charcoal strange caricatures of the individuals he had met. It was there that he listened to the folk lore of the neighborhood, from which was always carefully and conscientiously culled anything which was injurious in its influence upon a childish mind, There he saw his grandfather and grandmother night after night through the rolling years, sitting with the great Bible opened on their laps and poring over its paces with a fascination never found in any other volume. It was there that he learned to revere the taste and affectionate kindness of his dear "Aunt Ann," who was continually approaching the hearth to brush up the ashes or arrange the fire.
Then there was the large sitting-room into which guests were ushered on state occasions. The magnificent apartment, to his youthful eyes, where persons were greeted with such forms as to make him feel in the presence of the Queen.
There also was the dining-room with its old well-worn table, its chairs which had come down through more than one generation, the little cupboard in which was so neatly sorted all those wonderful treasures of tarts and cakes and sweet-meats so enticing to the taste of every boy. Doughnuts and cookies made specially for him by the dear old grandmother and often molded into rough images of hares or elephants. How often he clambered upon the chair and sometimes upon books placed in the chair, that he might be able to gaze in upon those stately dishes which were only brought forth on occasions of unusual festivity. Next to the upper shelf were kept the bright snuffers, and how proudly he set down that day in the red-letter calendar of his life, when he was able, for the first time, to reach to that shelf and take down the snuffers.
Then there was the bed-chamber with its high-posted bed for the elder people and its low, square trundle bed for the boy.
There in the upper story of the old manse, was that dark room into which once the brilliant light of day was allowed to come, but upon which the horrid tax-master had drawn his permanent curtain. In it were deposited a large number of old theological musty volumes never of interest to any save to those who wrote them. Yet among this rubbish of useless, dusty books the boy did find, so early that he could not remember when, the Pilgrim's Progress, with its grotesque illustrations of Pilgrim's journey on his way to heaven. There also he found a story of the martyrs and especially the history of Bishop Bonner, whose cruelty sent so many to the stake, and whose own end gave the childish reader great satisfaction because of its poetic justice. It was only on an exceedingly bright day, when the inner door allowed some reflected light to enter from another room, that the boy would venture into its dusty precincts.
But no closet, no dark room, no apartment whatever of the great, homestead was intentionally shut out from the investigation of the boy by his indulgent Grandparents. Nothing was too good for him. No house too large. No closet too secret, to be closed from his prying mind.
What an influence this dear old home, with its quaint, queer associations had upon the character or disposition of the boy, of course no philosopher can say. It is easy to surmisingly attribute a flash of genius to some particular circumstance, event, or scene in the history of a great man, but it is utterly impossible to connect with certainty the cause and effect in such relations.
Charles' own mother attributed to the associations exterior to the old manse more credit for the molding influences which affected his early years than she did to anything within, except the teaching and kindness of the grandparents and aunt. But all of these associations must have been parts of the mental and moral discipline which Providence used to make the man.
Starnbourne was not a village, but a mere collection in more or less close proximity of little farms, and indulged only in a blacksmith shop and a small store in a dwelling-house, for its professional and business life. The roads crossed near the old meeting-house, and the yards of the dwellings were enclosed with hedges, and often sweetly shaded with ancient limes and strangely-trimmed yews.
The school-house where Charles began to receive his education is said to have been a. part of a dwelling-house, held in a room with a rickety floor, having one window sadly out of plumb, where the plaster was falling from the walls, and where the rain seems to have come in during unusual thunder-storms.
In none of these early years in school or at home did he exhibit those precocious qualities which are often erroneously attributed to the opening years of great men. Some writers have claimed that Charles showed those startling evidences of genius in the first years of his school life. But one of the teachers has justify upon record the statement, shown in her reports, that he was rather dull, slow but persistent, doing thoroughly whatever he had in hand.
He was a very awkward boy, short, thick, with a very heavy head of hair, eyes not especially brilliant, nose short, and mouth large. No one esteemed him to be a handsome child, and it is said that both in form and feature he greatly changed during the days of his boyhood.
His school study was characterized by nothing of especial interest to others, except the fact that he showed an unusual inclination to make close and comprehensive inquiries concerning any subject presented, either in books or in conversational discussion. He always desired to know "the why and the wherefore," and not being, especially brilliant, it was sometimes quite difficult to make him comprehend the length and breadth of the answer for which his questions called. But he was a good-natured, kindhearted, open-handed boy, always willing, to divide with his schoolmates any sweets with which he had been favored, ever alert to assist any school-boy who was behind in his lessons, seeking eagerly to run upon errands for the teacher, and, withal, remarkably truthful.
The statement which some seemingly cautious biographers have made concerning his unusual precociousness in childhood appear to have been founded upon his after life or upon local traditions. It seems to be very clear, however, that in truth he gave no special promise in his early school-days of the greatness which afterward crowned his life.
Stambourne is situated at the very headwaters of the Colne River, and the spring which furnishes the source of that river is situated not far from the old parsonage where Charles spent his youthful days. As a boy he often waded in the brook, which played such fantastic tricks about his feet, and laughingly chattered to the mosses, ferns, and evergreens which laced the banks. There he eagerly sought the shining pebbles, which his imagination often magnified into diamonds and inestimable gems, or watched alone, its banks for the lizard and dwarf-fish for which he had a strong passion. That brook and two others which united with it a short distance below the manse, were to him an inspiration lasting to the very latest day of his life. There were books in these running brooks which he alone could read. There were voices in these falling waters which he alone could understand. There was a benign influence in their shadows which prophesied to him the future. There was a refreshing in their coolness which was peculiarly gratifying to a child of his imaginative temperament. He loved the sparkling waters. Again and again has he used them as illustrative of gospel truth and the glittering brooks of Stambourne rippled, sang, and flashed through much that he said, and through vastly more that he thought. The far-spreading trees which bowed over the banks, with benedictions of holy peace, the weeds, and brush, and undergrowth, with the rocks and stones on which he often stood, all these, glorified by sacred memory, were inseparably connected with the living waters of the river of Life. They seemed to lose none of their charms for him through the varied experience of a working life.
That his mother was right in attributing so much to the influence of the rural scenery surrounding Charles' young days is apparent to the student of his writings as well as to his personal friends, because of the unmistakable suggestions of waving fields of grain, of fruit-laden arbors, of blooming, trellises, of outstretching trees, of hills and dales, of pastures, of verdantly arched highways, of mist-covered meadows, of clear sunshine, of simple, homely talk, of frank, pleasant manners, of hardy toil, of broad common sense, which continually shone forth in his conversation and in his public addresses.
The country boy is the favored boy. Alas, for the child of the city. Alas, for him whose early years are spent in the city's prison of brick and mortar, stone sidewalks, harsh pavements, smoky skies, ceaseless din, unnatural cries, tainted atmosphere, and heated rooms. If the early associations of childhood do make or unmake genius, then it is interesting to note that the majority of the great men and women of all the civilized ages have passed the early years in rural surroundings, in country homes, or amid scenes like that of the "Cotter's Saturday Night," Whatever else may be attributed to the influence of natural scenery and rural life, it may be safely assumed that the strong physique which carried Spurgeon through so many years of the most arduous labor, was due, at least in part, to the fresh air, and out-door exercises, simple garb, and rustic manners of that farming hamlet of Stambourne, in Essex.
His childhood does not show any peculiar traits in connection with his boyish sports. Like any other boy he greatly enjoyed his rocking-horse, which stood in the hall in the old parsonage, and to which he often referred in after years when speaking to children. Like every other English boy he was greatly excited by all out-door sports, and was wonderfully fascinated with the fox chase. Once a year was permitted to stand by the roadside and see the fox-hunters pass. That was a day long to be remembered, and was of greater interest to him then than some of those transactions were to him afterward, which shook the foundations of the nations. He was a homely, natural boy.
His grandfather seems to have had the same difficulty in keeping the boy quiet at seasons of devotion which other grandfathers have had with other boys, and especially arduous the task on those Puritanical Sabbath days when it seemed to be so sacrilegious for a child to indulge in any worldly amusement. It appears that Charles was often placed in the room with his grandfather, while the women of the household were absent or were engaged in some special labor, in order that he might be kept from mischief. Those were hours of hardship fully as painful to him as they have been to many other boys.
In after years he often facetiously referred to the Evangelical Magazine, which was always put into his hands by his grandfather, with the hope that the two pictures, one of the celebrated minister and one of some mission station, might serve to keep him in peaceful meditation. His grandmother or his aunt very frequently informed him with great solemnity that if at such times he did not keep very quiet, he might so disturb his Grandfather that the old gentleman would be unable to preach, and consequently famishing souls would die for the need of gospel food. Those were solemn hours in the history of his the child, when sitting there with his Grandfather in the shadowy room in silence so chillingly wierd, and fearing to speak or move his little foot lest his Grandfather and God should see him and be displeased. Yet about this feeling there seems to be no singular feature such as would in any way account for the after extraordinary results of his religious life.
Some of the social events, however, connected with his home at Stambourne must have made a very deep impression upon his thoughts and consequently upon his character. His dear old grandmother one Sabbath morning, remarked to her husband that she did not feel able to attend services, and so would remain at home and read her Bible there, while he was preaching the gospel in the Chapel. She seated herself in that old arm-chair not far from that dear old fireplace and spreading the Bible out upon her lap, adjusted her spectacles and began its devoted perusal. They justify her sitting, there and went across the yard into the old church. But when they returned after the service, walking into the house without premonition of harm, they found the sweet old Christian woman with her head bowed upon her breast, her spectacles lying across the Bible and her finger pointing to the words "the hand of God hath touched me." She was dead! Her spirit had ascended to her long expected home.
Mr. Spurgeon has frequently, too, referred to his boyish experiences in three places which were ever especially dear to his memory. One being the Sunday-school room, in which he says his Sabbath school companions "frequently kicked up the dust and sometimes kicked the teachers." It was there that he learned Watt's Catechism, and heard the homely stories related as illustrations of Bible truth in a manner peculiar to the humble people of that day, but wonderfully expressive and correct in, their exegesis.
Another place was the old tombstone in the churchyard near his home, which was placed over the grave like a reversed box, bottom upward. It was made of marble and one side was loose, so that he could easily remove it and, crawling into the box over the grave, replace the slab at the side thus hiding himself securely beyond discovery. Often he lay there in hiding and thought on many childish air castles; and sometimes remained there past his dinner hour, even when he had distinctly heard the call. He says that he often lay there facetiously holding his breath while the household searched the churchyard, and while some of them, frequently standing directly above his head, searched vainly for the truant. Another place dear to his childish heart was the horsing-block, which also was constructed in the form of a box, although made of wood, and much larger than the tombstone. One side of this horsing-block, used also as a hitching-post, was partially open, and into it the farmers pressed the falling leaves which were swept up from the neatly-kept highway. Those lime-.tree leaves were crisp, dry, and warm, and made a most comfortable nest into which the boy crawled clandestinely.
There, secure from observation, warmly ensconced in a luxurious bed, richer to the boy than the couches of palaces are to the man, he would lie and repeat his lessons, which Mrs. Burleigh, the day-school teacher had assigned him, or sang over and over a verse of Scripture which he was expected to repeat at the next Sunday's prayers.
But he was like a wild bird in that retreat, and on the approach of any footstep, became quickly silent, and even became an unwilling or willing, listener to neighborhood gossip, carried on by persons seated while on the horsing-block, or leaning against it, they stopped for conversation.
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