committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

The Great Tabernacle

SEPTEMBER 29, 1856—APRIL 10, 1861 AND AFTERWARD

by W. Y. Fullerton

THE BUILDING of the tabernacle was itself a romance, but there was a romance within a romance—which first of all deserves mention. It was known only to a few at the time of its occurrence and was not told in public till the meeting which celebrated, on May 19, 1879, the twenty-fifth year of Mr. Spurgeon's ministry. I heard him tell it then as a notable instance of the way God encourages His servants by "hidden evidences," as well as by those that are open to all the world.

There were not wanting those who opposed the venture. They "wished to keep the eagle in a small cage, but there was no use doing that; the eagle would either break his wings or break the cage." Happily it was the cage and not the wings that got broken. But if the warmest exponents of the building of what even then was spoken of as "the largest chapel in the world" had known what was before them, they might have hesitated. Fortunately faith often goes to its greatest exploits blindfolded.

When on Michaelmas day, 1856, New Park Street Chapel was crowded to discuss the suggestion, a sum of ?12,000, or at most ?15,000, was considered adequate to provide such a structure as appeared necessary. The building actually cost ?31,322. At the close of 1859 a sum of ?16,868 had been collected, and about as much again was needed. Mr. Spurgeon never had any misgivings on the matter, and his spirit sustained others when they were about to faint. His faith was accompanied by works, for before the tabernacle was opened he had contributed over ?5,000 to the project himself, and it was through his personal effort that much of the rest was gathered.

If he sustained the faith of others, his own faith was sustained in a remarkable way, as remarkable as the visit of the ravens to Elijah by the brook Cherith. One day in 1859 he was driving with a friend to preach in the country, when a carriage overtook him, and the gentleman in it asked him if he would get out of his vehicle and ride with him in his gig, as he wanted to speak to him. It was evident that he had started in pursuit of the preacher. When they were together, the stranger told him that as a businessman he was sure he would succeed in the great enterprise he had in hand—it was God's work and could not fail. But he added, "You will have many friends that will feel nervous about it. I want you never to feel anxious or downcast." Then he said, "What do you think will be required at the outside to finish it off altogether?"

Spurgeon replied, "?20,000."

"Then," said he, "I will let you have ?20,000, on condition that you keep only so much of it as you need to finish the building. I only expect to give ?50, but you shall have bonds and leases to the full value of ?20,000 to fall back upon."

The securities were duly delivered to Mr. Spurgeon, and during the next two years, when many wise heads were wagging at the extravagance of the project and the hopelessness of carrying it through, Spurgeon had the means in hand to finish it even if everybody deserted him. "They little knew," he exclaimed on that silver-wedding evening, "how much reason I had for my assurance, nor how my faith had been strengthened by this token of God's favour." The generous benefactor knew his man, for he was only called upon to give his ?50; from the beginning Spurgeon had determined that he should not be required to give any more.

For a moment we may pause and ask whether in fact faith with such a token is easier or more difficult—faith, remember. George M?ler on one occasion had ?3000 balance in the bank, and someone asked him whether he did not now find it easy to trust God. With true insight he said, "No, I find myself apt to trust the ?3000!"

What need of faith, if skies were always clear?
'Tis for the trial-time that this was given.
Though skies be dark, the sun is just as near,
And faith may find him in the heart of heaven.1

Clear sky or dark sky, Spurgeon was conspicuous for his faith. And faith evoked faith; his trust in God led others to trust him. In the after years it was no uncommon thing for those who wished to bestow money on worthy objects and scarcely knew what objects to choose, to say, "Let us send it to Spurgeon, he will know how to make the best use of it."

Even he had his fits of nervousness, especially when he was ill. On one occasion when his recovery was being hindered by his doubt as to whether he would be able to meet all the obligations entailed on him by the things for which he had made himself responsible, one of his deacons, after a visit to the invalid, whom he had been unable to comfort, returned in a little while to his bedside bringing with him the scrip that represented all his investments, and pouring the papers on his bed he said, "There! I owe everything that I have in the world to you, and you are welcome to all that I possess. Take whatever you need, and do not have another moment's anxiety."

It was the best of medicine. "It seemed to me," Spurgeon wrote afterward, "very much as the water from the well of Bethlehem must have appeared to David." Of course he used none of it.

The selection of a site for the new tabernacle was a matter of difficulty. Holloway, Clapham and Kensington were discussed, but at length the Fishmongers' Company were persuaded to sell part of their land where there were some almshouses "at the Butts of Newington." In the olden days, 1546 or thereabouts, three Anabaptists had been burned near the spot. A special Act of Parliament was needed to ensure the legality of the transfer of the freehold, and Mr. William Joynson of St. Mary Cray deposited sufficient money to carry it through. The new tabernacle was destined to be built near the Surrey Gardens Music Hall.

An architectural competition was opened for the best plans for the new building, and at the end of January 1859, sixty-two sets of drawings and one model had been received. These were exhibited for public inspection. Twenty-eight of them were described in The Builder of February 12, 1859, which also stated that "considerable excitement, of course, prevails." The design which gained the first prize was not accepted, but the eighth in the list, by Mr. W. W. Pocock, to which the Committee allotted the second prize, after some alterations to reduce the cost, was adopted. In sitting space the accommodation was larger than the Surrey Hall which, with three galleries, contained 19,723 feet, while the tabernacle, with two galleries, contained 25,225 feet. There were thirteen bidders for the building, the highest being ?26,370, the lowest being that of Mr. William Higgs, ?21,500. The foundation stone was laid by Sir Samuel Morton Peto on August 16, 1859, beneath it being placed a Bible, the Baptist Confession of Faith, Dr. Rippon's Hymn Book, and a declaration by the deacons of the church. An invalid sent from Bristol ?3000 to be put on the stone, with a challenge that if twenty others would give ?100 each he would add ?2000 to match theirs. Before many weeks his challenge was accepted and the extra ?2000 paid.

"It is a matter of congratulation to me," Mr. Spurgeon said in his speech, "that in this city we should build a Grecian place of worship. There are two sacred languages in the world, the Hebrew of old, and the Greek that is dear to every Christian's heart. The standard of our faith is Greek, and this place is to be Grecian. Greek is the sacred tongue, and Greek is the Baptist's tongue. We may be beaten in our own version sometimes; but in the Greek never. Every Baptist place should be Grecian, never Gothic"2 So, at the beginning of the sixth year of his ministry in London, this young man of twenty-five saw his dreams materialise. "Long ago," he said, "I made up my mind that either a suitable place must be built or I would resign my pastorate. You by no means consented to the latter alternative. Yet I sternly resolved that one or the other must be done—either the Tabernacle must be erected, or I would become an evangelist, and turn rural dean of all the commons in England and vicar of all the hedgerows."3

It would have been little wonder if his heart had been lifted up in pride. Instead of that we find him one evening after the workmen had justify encountering the secretary of the Building Committee on the site. When they had walked about for a while, Spurgeon proposed that they should seek God's blessing on the work. So, kneeling down, those two "in the twilight, with the blue sky over them, and piles of bricks and timbers all around them," committed the building and the men engaged on it to God's care. And there was not a single serious accident during the whole progress of the work.

On August 21, 1860, a meeting was held on the floor of the unfinished building, when Spurgeon justified the name chosen for it. It was truly "metropolitan," because more than a million people had contributed to it, and it was but a "tabernacle," because God's people are still in the wilderness. On March 18, 1861, a prayer meeting was held at seven o'clock in the morning in the building, then almost completed, and a week later another morning prayer meeting was held. On the afternoon of that day, March 25, Mr. Spurgeon preached his first sermon in it, the text being, "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ." In the evening Dr. Brock discoursed on the words, "Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." On Good Friday, March 29, Spurgeon preached twice, and was able to announce that all the money needed for the building had been given and that the tabernacle was therefore ready, free of debt, for worship on the following Lord's Day, March 31. On the following Tuesday there was a baptism; on Wednesday, April 10, a great communion service; and so for three weeks the opening services and meetings continued, a prelude to the marvellous ministry to be maintained there until, on June 7,1891, thirty years later, worn out with labours abundant, with pain and weariness, Spurgeon stood in his accustomed place and preached in the tabernacle for the last time. The building itself was burned to the ground on Wednesday, April 20, 1898, the facade and outer walls being the only part of the original structure justify. Under the ministry of Thomas Spurgeon, one of his twin sons, it was re-erected at a cost of ?45,000, with smaller seating capacity, and was again opened for worship free of debt on Wednesday, September 19, 1900. It has been widely discussed whether, when the great tabernacle was destroyed, it was wise to build another: whether it would not have been better to have built four or five places of worship in the suburbs. Such a question is pointless; the attachment of the people to the old place, and the sentimental interest attaching to the site, made only one course possible.

After the building of the first tabernacle, an attempt was made to continue services in New Park Street Chapel, but it became apparent that there was no need for such a large church building in the district, and it was eventually sold for business purposes.

The original tabernacle was, outside the walls, 174 feet in length, the auditorium being 146 feet long, 81 feet broad and 62 feet high. There were 3600 seats, but by side seats and flap seats in the aisles there was accommodation for about 1000 more. Times without number another 1000 somehow found some sort of accommodation within the walls. On the evening of Mr. Spurgeon's jubilee, when Lord Shaftesbury presided, one of the deacons who had charge of the building, and who always personified it, said, "We counted eight thousand out of her; I don't know where she put 'em, but we did."

I may be permitted again to quote from my biography of Thomas Spurgeon:

It is almost impossible for the present generation to realize how great was the renown of Spurgeon at his zenith. He was not only followed and admired, he was trusted and loved beyond his fellows. Thomas Binney was London's greatest preacher when Spurgeon arrived, and at first he was inclined to deride the boy in the pulpit as a charlatan, but he quickly saw his mistake, and to a gathering of students he said: "I have enjoyed some amount of popularity; I have always been able to draw together a congregation; but in the person of Mr. Spurgeon, we see a young man, be he who he may (be) and come whence he will, who at twenty-four hours' notice can command a congregation of twenty thousand people. Now I have never been able to do that, and I never knew of anybody else who could do it."

D. L. Moody had not then appeared upon the scene, but mighty as was his influence, his verdict on Spurgeon was: "In regard to coming to your tabernacle, I consider it a great honor to be invited; and, in fact, I should consider it an honor to black your boots, but to preach to your people would be out of the question. If they will not turn to God under your preaching, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." He did, however, preach in the tabernacle afterward, and in his London campaign he got Spurgeon to preach for him. In writing to thank him, he said: "I wish you could give us every night you can for the next sixty days. There are so few men who can draw on a week-night." Remember that this was twenty-two years after Spurgeon had come to London, and that during all that time he was able at any time to command a crowd as great as Chrysostom in Constantinople or Savonarola in Florence, though each of them commanded it for a much shorter time.

That was the wonder of it: he built a Tabernacle seating between five and six thousand persons, able to contain over seven thousand, and for thirty-eight years he maintained his congregation there and elsewhere in London. Francis and Bernard, Wesley and Whitefield gathered as great throngs, but they passed from place to place, while Spurgeon remained rooted to the metropolis. Henry Ward Beecher and Canon Liddon were as popular, but they did not preach so continuously nor so long. There are, indeed, not wanting some who trace back through the history of the church and only find Spurgeon's peer in Paul.4

"How many thousands have been converted here!" he exclaimed at the prayer meeting on May 26, 1890, as he looked round the building. "There has not been a single day but what I have heard of two, three or four having been converted; and that not for one, two, or three years, but for the last ten years!" Surely that is a thing unmatched in the history of the church. The membership of the church when he came to it in New Park Street in 1854 was 232; at the end of 1891 there had been baptised and added to the church 14,460 others; and the membership then stood at 5311. At one communion service 100 persons were admitted to membership and 150 at another; the greatest number added to the membership in any one year was 571, in 1872; in 1874 there were 509, and 510 in 1875. It is notable that directly the tabernacle was occupied the additions to the church year by year were double the additions at New Park Street, showing that the size of the fishing pond bears some relation to the number of fish caught.

Every Sunday, with few exceptions, for thirty years that great building was crowded morning and evening, and the Thursday evening congregations, often overflowing into the top gallery, were more wonderful than all. "Somebody asked me how I got my congregation," he once said. "I never got it at all. I did not think it was my duty to do so. I only had to preach the Gospel. Why, my congregation got my congregation. I had eighty, or scarcely a hundred, when I preached first. The next time I had two hundred. Everyone who heard me was saying to his neighbour, 'You must go and hear this young man!' Next meeting we had four hundred, and in six weeks, eight hundred. That was the way in which my people got my congregation. Now the people are admitted by tickets. That does very well; a member can give his ticket to another person and say, 'I will stand in the aisle; or 'I will get in with the crowd.' Some persons, you know, will not go if they can get in easily, but they will go if you tell them they cannot get in without a ticket. That is the way congregations ought to bring a congregation about a minister. A minister preaches all the better if he has a large congregation. It was once said by a gentleman that the forming of a congregation was like the beating-up of game, the minister being the sportsman. But," he added, "there are some of our ministers that can't shoot! I really think, however, that I could shoot a partridge if I fired into the midst of a covey, though I might not do so if there were only one or two."

His biographer was for some time a seat-holder in the tabernacle, and well remembers the astonishment and excitement of strangers who came for the first time. I remember especially one lady who had gained early admittance, and was quietly settling in the place I had offered her, when the doors were opened to the public, and the rush began all over the building. She rose in alarm, thinking some dreadful thing had happened, and then, realising the situation, she asked with panting breath, "Is it always like this?"

There are three realistic descriptions of tabernacle services given by outsiders which will perhaps give a more vivid idea of them than any account written from within. The first refers to a Sunday morning in 1879:

It was high time to go and hear Spurgeon. We had procrastinated long enough about the matter, and now it must be put off no longer. What if the tabernacle were a Sabbath-day's journey distant? We ought to be able to manage that exertion for once in a way; and anything was better than the grave reproach under which we lay as long as it could be said of us that we lived in London and yet had never been to hear the foremost, if not the most remarkable, of London preachers. So we made the effort and went.

We had heard so much about the magnitude of the congregations at the Metropolitan Tabernacle that we were determined, at any rate, that it should not be our fault if we missed an eligible seat. Accordingly we found ourselves in the enclosure rather more than half an hour before the stated time of service. A few people were passing the gates with us, but as yet there was no indication of "the crush." Congratulating ourselves on being thus beforehand, we pushed boldly forward, with a view to enter the building by one of its fifteen doors, when there confronted us no less than three scandalized individuals whose faces wore every expression of horror and indignation. "You cannot get in without a ticket," was the hopeless announcement.

"Tickets!" we exclaimed. "We have none."

"Then take your place on the steps," was the chilling rejoinder.

"The general public is admitted at five minutes to eleven." It was bad enough to have our zeal thus damped at the outset, but to be reminded that we were nothing better than a portion of "the general public" was a hard blow. We did not, however like to forego the advantage due to our punctuality without an effort. If this had been a concert now, or a theater, we had about us a silver key which would doubtless have gained us admission; but the janitors of a place of worship, we considered, were surely not "tippable" subjects.

While we were rather in a dilemma, a fourth individual came up with a packet of small envelopes in his hand. "I can give you a ticket," said he, "if you wish to go in."

We were ready to fling our arms round his neck as we gasped, "How much?"

"We make no charge," replied he with the envelopes, loftily, handing us one. "But you can put what you like in this toward the support of the tabernacle, and drop it in yonder box!" 'This, then, was the incantation, the "open sesame" we had been seeking. Seizing the welcome envelope, we retired to a corner, and followed the direction given us; after which, with a proud sense of being rather better than one of the general public, we marched triumphantly forward, inwardly reflecting that whatever the fervor of the spirit animating the authorities of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, their diligence in business was exemplary.

The great clock on the platform points to ten minutes to eleven, and then suddenly we hear three smart claps from the other end of the building. The effect of the signal is magical. We rise from our seats, and next moment find ourselves in the longed-for pew. There is a buzz of conversation, which is at first quite alarming. Is this a place of worship or a concert hall? one mentally inquires. People talk in unabated voices and even laugh; and one of the old ladies in one pew waves her umbrella affectionately to her crony in another. It doesn't seem very reverential, but we put it down to the disturbing effect of a great number of people. But all are not here yet. The clock crawls on to five minutes to eleven, and we think of "the general public" outside. A glance shows that there are still a fair number of empty places for them; and at the thought, lo! here they come. The aisles resemble for the moment the platform of a railway station on an excursion day—at least as far as the eagerness of the candidates for the seats goes. The noise, happily for our reputation as a body of worshipers, is not quite so great. And now every seat is full. The flaps along the aisles are let down and occupied, the gangways in the galleries are packed, the back pews up in the ceiling are tenanted, and we know that at last we are here assembled. But how can any one voice make itself heard here, above this hubbub of shuffling and talking and laughing? We are within twenty yards of the platform, and even yet have our misgivings about hearing; and what of those poor "general publicans" away there as far as one can hurl a ball?

It is eleven o'clock. The door at the back of the platform opens, and a stout, plain man, with a familiar face, advances haltingly to the table, followed by some dozen deacons, who proceed to occupy the stalls immediately behind the pastor's seat. Mr. Spurgeon is not a young man now, and to us he looked feeble in body and not in health. We rather envied his feeling as, having spent a moment in prayer, he looked round the vast assembly, and were by no means disposed to grudge him an iota of the pride which, mingled with thankfulness, must assuredly have filled his breast at the sight. "Now let us pray," he said, and in an instant there fell a hush over that entire company which, had we not witnessed it, we could scarcely have imagined possible. The first sentence of Mr. Spurgeon's prayer was delivered in absolute silence; and we had no difficulty in setting at peace, once for all, our misgivings as to the possibility of hearing. Dropping coughs presently broke the stillness of the congregation, which sometimes conspired to make an absolute tumult; but from first to last Mr. Spurgeon's voice rose superior to all, nay, even seemed to gain power from these very oppositions.

He read through the opening hymn while a tardy batch of the general public was thronging the aisles and bustling into seats, without strain or effort, and in a voice which must have penetrated to every corner of the building. Mr. Spurgeon, we understand, has on more than one occasion said that he can whisper so as to be heard in every part of the tabernacle, and that he can shout so as to be heard nowhere. In this art lies the secret of his mechanical power as a speaker. It is not by stentorian exertion, but by well regulated modulation and studied articulation, that he succeeds as he does in bringing all within the compass of his voice. The process is exhausting neither to his audience nor (it would seem) to the speaker—the former are talked to rather than shouted at, and the latter, instead of waging a hopeless struggle with space, is mainly concerned to keep his voice at a sufficiently subdued pitch during the service.

To anyone who has not been in a similar scene, a hymn sung by a full congregation at the Metropolitan Tabernacle has a thrilling effect. It is no ordinary thing to see 4500 people rise simultaneously to their feet, still less to hear them sing. For a moment during the giving out of the hymn it occurred to us to look wildly round for the organ, which surely must be the only instrument which could lead all those voices. There is none; and we are sensible of a pang of hurried misgiving as we nerve ourselves to the endurance of all the excruciating torments of an ill—regulated psalmody. A gentleman steps forward to Mr. Spurgeon's side as the last verse is being read, and at once raises a familiar tune. What is our delight when not only is the tune taken up in all its harmonies, but with perfect time and expression! The slight waving of the precentor's book regulates that huge chorus, as a tap will regulate an engine. The thing is simply wonderful. We feel that tight sensation of the scalp and that quiver down the spine which nothing but the combination of emotion and excitement can produce. We are scarcely able for a while to add our voices to that huge sea of melody which rises and falls and surges and floods the place. If Mr. Spurgeon's powers of voice are remarkable, those of his precentor are, to our thinking, marvelous. His voice can be heard above all the others, he holds his own, and is not to be run away with, and in the closing hymn he is as unflagging as in the first. "Now, quicker," cries Mr. Spurgeon, as we reach the last verse; and it is wonderful to notice the access of spirit which this produced. We sit down, deeply impressed. After all, what instrument or orchestra of instruments can equal in effect the concert of the human voice, especially in psalmody?

The reading of Scripture followed, accompanied by a shrewd, earnest running commentary, which, though sometimes lengthy, never became wearisome. Mr. Spurgeon is not one of those who believe that Holy Scripture is its own expounder, and certainly in carrying out this view he manages to present the lesson selected in a good deal less disconnected manner than many who, with less ability, attempt a similar experiment. Another hymn, chanced, followed, and then a prayer. Mr. Spurgeon's prayers are peculiar, their chief characteristic being, to judge by the specimen we heard, boldness. We do not mean to insinuate that he rants, or becomes vulgarly familiar in his addresses to the Deity. But he wastes no words in studied ornament, his petitions are as downright as fervent, and his language is unconventional. "This is Thy promise, O Lord," he exclaims towards the close of this prayer, "and Thou mayst not run back from it " We have rarely heard this style of address adopted more freely than by Mr. Spurgeon, and we must confess that it does not exactly accord with our prejudices. Still we may safely say the earnestness of his prayer went far to atone for what struck us as the minor defects of language, which, after all, may have been the reverse of defects to the uncritical portion of our fellow worshipers.

The most remarkable part of the whole service however, was the sermon. And here we may as well observe at once that any one who goes to the Metropolitan Tabernacle expecting to be entertained by the eccentricities of the preacher is doomed to absolute disappointment. We could not help admiring his choice of words. It is pleasant to hear once more half an hour of wholesome Saxon all aglow with earnestness and sparkling with homely wit. You yield yourself irresistibly to its fascination, and cannot help feeling that after all this is better stuff than most of the fine talking and Latin quotations and elaborate periods heard elsewhere. Mr. Spurgeon told a story in the course of his sermon. It was an extremely simple one about a simple subject, but the effect was remarkable. The coughing gradually died away, or became very deeply smothered, and a complete silence fell on the audience. With masterly skill the speaker worked up the narrative, omitting nothing that could give it power, and admitting nothing that would weaken it. You saw the whole scene before you; you heard the voice of those who spoke; you shuddered at the catastrophe; you sighed when all was over. "And so it is with us," said the preacher, and not another word was necessary to apply the moral.

While the sermon was going on, we could not resist the impulse to look round and see how our old ladies were enjoying it. It did one good to see one nodding her approval of each sentence, and sometimes lifting her hand to her telltale eyes. Other two sat close together, and we are certain that their ribs must have ached by the time it was all over from the amount of mutual nudging that went on. Indeed as we looked round galleries and basement, and saw that sea of attentive faces, we felt reproved for our own inattention, and gave over taking observation to listen.

Punctually to the time (and nothing can exceed the punctuality of everything connected with the tabernacle) Mr. Spurgeon closed his Bible, and with it his address. As if relieved from a spell, the congregation coughed and fidgeted and stretched itself to such an extent that, for the first time that morning, the preacher's voice seemed at fault. But the concluding hymn gave ample opportunity for throwing off the pent-up energies of his listeners, and the final prayer was, like the first, pronounced amid a tense silence.5

The second description is of a Sunday evening when the regular congregation vacated their places, as for some years they did once a quarter, to give outsiders a better opportunity of hearing Mr. Spurgeon. The writer says:

At 6:15 we find ourselves in Newington, opposite the most stolid and matter-of-fact-looking place of worship. Nothing can be more practical-looking than this vast edifice. Not an inch of space is devoted to idle ornament, not a ton of stone is sacrificed to effect. There is a Greek portico, no doubt; but the portico of the Greeks was useful to keep the sun from the philosophers who taught, and the portico of the tabernacle is useful to keep the rain off those who come to learn.

People are crowding in at about the rate of 200 a minute, quite as fast as the businesslike doors can swallow them up. Tramcars and omnibuses come up to the gates, set down their swarm of serious-looking folk and pass away empty. Now and then a hansom cab rattles up, drops a commonplace bride and bridegroom, or a commonplace elderly couple, and departs. But the vast majority of those who come arrive on foot, and toil up the steps with laggard feet, as though they had walked from a great distance. We do not observe any of the very poor. The waifs and strays of many shires remote from London, and the usual visitors from the two cities, twelve towns, and the 147 villages that make up the metropolis, appear all to be in the social zone between the mechanic and the successful but not fashionable tradesman. We find no one as low as a workingman, no one who follows any liberal or learned profession. [Here the narrator is wrong, but not so wrong as if it had been a morning service.] There is a steady persistence in the way these people come up these steps, as though they were quite sure of finding within exactly what they seek. There is no hesitancy or loitering. Each one has come to hear Spurgeon preach, and each one is resolved to get as good a seat as possible. The congregation does not look superspiritualized or superdepraved. It is Sunday, and its worldly work for the week is over, and this day has been laid aside for rest and the business of the other world, and this congregation has come to look after its work for the other world or to rest.

At twenty minutes past six we enter. All places on the floor have been occupied for some time; all seats on the first tier are full, so we climb up the steep, high stone steps through the square, desolate-looking stairwell. Everything here, as outside, is practical, except the steps, which are so high as almost to be impracticable. In a moment we are in the spacious body of the church. Beyond all doubt, this is one of the most novel sights in London. The vast lozenge-shaped space is paved with human heads and packed "from garret to basement" with human forms. "Over the clock" there is a little room to spare, but in less than five minutes the seats there are appropriated, and for fully five minutes before the hour at which the service is announced to begin there is not a vacant seat in the church.

Inside, too, all is practical and businesslike in the arrangements. The light is capital, the color is cheerful, the seats are comfortable and commodious. There is no attempt to produce a dim religious light, no subduing or dulling of spent tertiary colors, no chance of any one posing as a martyr because of occupying one of the seats. When the acoustical properties of the building are tested they are found to be most admirable. The place was evidently designed and built that the congregation might sit in comfort, and hear and see without strain to the senses.

Fortune favored me, and we got a place in the first row, about halfway down the justifyhand side of the platform. Upon the seat to be occupied by each person is a half sheet of paper, printed on one side, and bearing the heading "Hymns to be sung at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on Lord's Day evening, August 11, 1878." Under the heading comes the following paragraph preceding the hymns: "It is earnestly requested that every sincere worshiper will endeavor to join in the song, carefully attending to time and tune; and, above all, being concerned to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. The hymns are selected from Our Own Hymn Book, compiled by Mr. Spurgeon. It is a special request that no one will attempt to leave the tabernacle until the service is quite concluded, as it creates much disturbance, and renders it difficult to hear the preacher." For the present, each person has the half sheet of paper folded up, or is studying it, or using it as a fan.

On a level with the first tier of seats is Mr. Spurgeon's platform. It protrudes into the well of the amphitheater, so that it is visible from all parts of the church. Upon it are a table, chair, and sofa. On the cable rests a Bible. From the platform to the floor runs down each side a semispiral flight of stairs leading to a lower platform, situated immediately under and in front of the higher. The carpet of the platform and the cover of the sofa are of the same hue—deep red, approaching plum color.

Precisely at thirty minutes past six several men come down the passage directly behind the platform. First of these is a stout, square-built, square-jawed man of between forty and fifty. Although most of those present this evening are strangers, there is no commotion upon the entry of the famous preacher. There are two reasons for the apparent insensibility, one physical, one mental. The physical reason is that the building is so admirably constructed, so successfully focused upon the small patch of platform, that every man, woman and child in the house can see the preacher from the moment he reaches the parapet of his balcony. The mental reason is that at the root of the attendance of this vast concourse here this evening lies the business idea. There is no personal enthusiasm toward the preacher. The people have come on business, and are too good business people to jeopardize their businesslike calm by a disturbing interest in anything whatever but the subject matter of the evening's service. It is rarely that a preacher of such wide and lasting popularity exercises so little personal magic over a congregation.

The service opens with a prayer. Looking down from the height at which we sit, the great number of bright-colored hats and bonnets of the women on the floor of the house look like a parterre of flowers, and, higher up, the first tier sloping from the back to the front, presents the appearance of flowers on a vast stand. At the beginning of the prayer the whole multitude bend forward with one impulse, the bright hats and bonnets and bald and grey heads are lost to view, and in their stead appears a dark grey surface, made up of broadcloth-clad backs of the men and dark shoulder articles of the women.

When the prayer is concluded, there is a faint rustling sound and looking down again we see the heads are now uplifted, and close to each head a half-sheet of paper held at a convenient distance for reading. We glance carefully round, and as far as we are able to see, no one is without a paper and every one seems studying his own. There are four hymns in all and one is about to be sung. Mr. Spurgeon gives it out slowly and with enormous distinctness. The effect of his voice in giving out the hymn is very peculiar. The words come separately and individually, and take their place, as it were, with intervals between them, like men who are to assist at a pageant, arriving one by one and marching to their posts. The first stanza having been read over and the first line repeated, all rise to their feet by one act of accord. The choir start the hymn [a special band of singers for this particular evening], and between five and six thousand voices take it up with great precision as to time and great accuracy as to tune. The vast volume of sound does not deafen or disgust. It is mild and suppressed. You know it has the strength of a giant, but you feel it is not using it tyrannously. At our back is a poor, slender looking man with a red-brown beard. He is like a shoemaker out of work. His voice comes in with clear, sharp edge, a countertenor. By our side is a woman, a maid-of-all-work we guess her to be. She strikes in only now and then with a few low contralto notes she is sure of; she never risks a catastrophe up high. She has only about three and a half notes, but she never loses a chance of contributing them when the occasion offers. On our other side is a fresh-colored schoolgirl home for the holidays. Her voice is a thin soprano, and seems to roughen the edges of the countertenor's. But when this happens there floats in upon our exercised ears the dull, low boom of a rolling bass. Who the owner of the bass is we cannot find out. We look around vainly endeavoring to discover. Now we fix on one, now on another, but this ignis fatuus of a voice eludes our most exhaustive efforts to run it to—flesh. Meanwhile abroad in the hollow roof of the building the confluent concord of five thousand voices swells the hymn to an imperial paean.6

Ten years later this description of the preacher, rather than of the service, appeared in The Globe:

Mr. Spurgeon's text was, "I will give you rest," and he got a number of headings out . . . by means of an ingenious device well known to grammarians, by a changing of the emphasis in this way—

I will give you rest.
I will give you rest.
I will give you rest.
I will give you rest.

Besides that, he got a fresh effect in the course of his sermon by reading it very staccato, in the manner of Uncle Tom, who had to spell painfully through his Bible, thus: "I-will-give-you-rest." Indeed, from what he said, he appears to think that if we could unlearn our spelling lessons we should get a better idea of what we read by being forced to go more slowly over it, an idea which is not to be ridiculed. I know that on the same principle I often seem to get a clearer view of the inner meaning of a passage in a foreign author, which I have had a difficulty in translating. What seemed to hold the interest of his audience most was Mr. Spurgeon's frequent ad captandum little touches of pathos, such as, "If your mother-ah! you have no mother now—were to give you a little book with her name in it, you would not part with it for its weight in silver." Then there were little personal touches, as when he told of the sleepless nights he had spent through headaches, and how he got rid of worries. "God knows," he added, "I have more than most." And there was a touch of romantic sadness, the sadness of age which looks back on youth, as he told how merry he used to be in the early days of his Christian life, and how a grave comforter had said, "The black ox has not gored you yet," and truly, I thought to myself, atra cura, the grim, haunting figure behind the horseman, grows more constant in his attendance as we grow older, be we Christians or not. And again, when relating a touching little incident about an old friend who had "gone home," he said that among that huge congregation there were some who would be gone before they met again, and he added, with a sadness that drove home his previous reflection, "I could wish it were my lot to go first among you." But I cannot say that his personal appearance gave the impression that these gloomy thoughts came from bad health; on the contrary, except that he is a little stiff in the legs, the preacher looks as strong and energetic as ever he did, and made, as he spoke, all the usual marchings and countermarchings between the rails of the platform, the Bible stand and the chair, which he now and then balanced on his hand.7

It would be impossible to recall all the associations of the sanctuary which to so many was as the very gate of heaven. It became the rendezvous of seeking souls as well as one of the showplaces of the metropolis. Visitors to London went as naturally "to hear Spurgeon" as they went to St. Paul's or to Westminster Abbey. "To far the larger number of Americans who crossed the Atlantic there were two desires; one was to visit Shakespeare's tomb in the lovely church by the river at Stratford-on-Avon; the other to listen to Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle." One of these distinguished Americans who came over prejudiced against the preacher told me recently that in a few minutes after the service at the tabernacle began he was completely won over in his favour, and with a wide knowledge of American life, he added that the only voice he ever heard comparable to Spurgeon's was that of James G. Blaine, once candidate for the presidency of the United States. General Garfield, recalling his visit in 1867, wrote in his diary: "God bless Mr. Spurgeon! He is helping to work out the problem of religious and civil freedom for England in a way he knows not of."

"For a generation no country trip to town has been complete," wrote a friendly critic, "without a visit to the great religious theatre—we use the word in no individual sense—where Mr. Spurgeon so completely filled the stage. And yet the man who wielded and maintained this tremendous influence was at no pains to accommodate his teaching to new light, to soften its inexorable conclusion, to shade off its pitiless dilemmas. The web of his speech was as simple as that of John Bright's, and the effect he produced on his hearers strikingly similar. The mere mental refreshment of such a method to men and women must have been enormous, apart from the moral stimulus. The sight of the strong face, and the homely figure moving easily about the platform, the flow of simple Saxon speech, the rich, deep voice that penetrated to every spot of the vast oval of the tabernacle, one can recall, but never completely realise the attraction they had for thousands and tens of thousands of Englishmen."8

The place the tabernacle had in English life may be guessed from the fact that at the Crystal Palace on August 2, 1877, it was the great set piece in the fireworks display, and there was included a "fire portrait" of C. H. Spurgeon.

"He was one of the two most delicate elocutionists I have ever heard," wrote a visitor. "The other is Lord Coleridge. What made the elocution of both so extraordinary is that they both spoke without the slightest apparent effort. There was no motion of the body, scarcely even a visible movement of the lips; yet the voice penetrated to the remotest fringe of the audience; not a cadence, not a half tone, was lost."9

"While they were worshipping with him," wrote R. W. Dale, "the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and this has never been to the same extent their experience in listening to any other man. Never again will they listen to a preacher at whose word God will become so near, so great, so terrible, so gracious; Christ so tender and so strong; the divine Spirit so mighty and so merciful; the Gospel so free; the promises of God so firm; the troubles of the Christian man so light; his inheritance in Christ so glorious and so real. Never again. It is wonderful that such large numbers of Christian men should, in the divine order, be made so dependent on one man."

Two men from the same country town once encountered each other under the portico of the tabernacle as they waited for the doors to open. The one, an avowed Christian, expressed to the other, a person whose life was apparently engrossed with the things of this world, his astonishment at meeting him there. "Ah!" he answered in a tone of unfeigned solemnity, "every man has his own tale told here."

In the after years Moody himself commanded no greater crowds when he conducted a mission in the tabernacle. In company with Manton Smith, I also conducted several missions there, and on occasion had crowds that blocked the road and stopped the tramcars, and at the Watch Night services for many years saw the great building thronged, but that was only occasional, and was, of course, the reflex of Spurgeon's own influence. A popular temperance mission, too, was once held in the building, the audience cheering for many minutes when Spurgeon donned the blue ribbon. Missionary meetings often attracted overflowing congregations, and for many years the Liberation Society drew crowds there for its annual demonstration until Lord Morley was one year announced a speaker, and because it was felt that the religious character of the movement was compromised, the tabernacle was denied to the Society.

Two of the greatest occasions, apart from the preaching services, were at the silver wedding of pastor and people, and at Mr. Spurgeon's own jubilee. On the first, on May 20, 1879, as the result of a great bazaar, a sum of ?6476 was presented to the pastor, the bulk of which he promptly gave as an endowment to the almshouses long connected with the church, and the balance to other good works. The jubilee meetings were held on June 18 and 19, 1884, and again a presentation was made; this time the sum reached ?4500. It would, no doubt, have been considerably more if it had been known that it might have been for the pastor's own use; but people expected that he would give it all away—as he practically did, paying first for the jubilee house behind the tabernacle, sending some help to his son toward the building of his tabernacle in New Zealand, giving Mrs. Spurgeon some for her book fund, making a donation to St. Thomas' Hospital, which so often received poorer members of the church, helping the almshouses again, the Colportage Association, the fund for poor ministers, and so on. This action was only in keeping with his whole career. "Literally he gave away a fortune, walking through life from day to day with open heart and open hand."

From the beginning of 1868 until the end Mr. Spurgeon had the help of his brother, Dr. J. A. Spurgeon, in church, college and orphanage, indeed in everything to which he put his hand his brother was there to second his efforts. A very deep affection existed between the two. James Archer Spurgeon was pastor at Southampton for some years, then at Notting Hill, and while he helped at the tabernacle he established the church at West Croydon, one of the most flourishing churches near London today. For two years after his brother's death he remained as acting pastor at the tabernacle, resigning in favour of his nephew when he was called to the pastorate.

So the years passed. At the tabernacle there was almost a monotony of success until there came the day—Tuesday, February 8, 1892—when only the body of the great preacher was on the platform, his voice silent, and his eye unseeing, as the crowd of sixty thousand people passed in solemn procession before his coffin. Other crowds filled the building four times the next day, and once again on the l0th for the funeral sermon, preached by Dr. A. T. Pierson, whose presence there, for months before and after, attracted crowds as great as even Spurgeon commanded.

For seven years the tabernacle also witnessed the ministry of Thomas Spurgeon: the great scenes associated with his welcome, the services bravely sustained in spite of bodily weakness, the Spurgeon tradition constantly upheld, until the fire demolished the structure that had been founded in faith and had so fully answered the purpose for which it had been erected. It would have been scarcely fitting if so revered a structure had ended in an ordinary way.

 

NOTES

1 Gerald Massey.
2 The British Standard, Aug. 19, 1859.
3 Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 313.
4 Thomas Spurgeon: A Biography, pp. 3-5.
5 Leeds Mercury, Nov. 15, 1879.
6 The Hornet, April 4, 1878.
7 The Globe, March 4, 1889.
8 Daily Chronicle, Feb. 1, 1892.
9 Irish Times. Feb. 16. 1892.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved