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Spurgeon in History

by W. Y. Fullerton

GREATNESS NEEDS DISTANCE. Close at hand little things sometimes appear great—"the black fly on the windowpane looks like the black ox on the distant plain." And great things are often dwarfed by nearness. Mont Blanc cannot be properly appreciated from the village of Chamonix. To crown Mont Blanc the monarch of the mountains you must either climb it or get farther away. Jerusalem cannot be seen in its glory by the easy approach from the west. You must get across the Valley of the Kedron and stand on the Mount of Olives before the majestic picture bursts on your view.

Heroes are generally exaggerated or appreciated by the estimates of their own generation. The calm judgement of history, though not infallible, is fairer. Some of earth's great ones have no doubt sunk into oblivion, but among those whom history remembers only those are great whom history greatens. Spurgeon is among that number.

It will be conceded without argument that he was greater than any of his pulpit contemporaries. In an earlier chapter the comparison has been made, and the fan is so evident that it needs no insistence. There is perhaps no detail in which he was not excelled by others of his time, but none approached him in the sum of his gifts. He himself was much impressed by the oratory of Morley Punshon and once, after hearing him, declared, "If I could speak like that, I would turn the world upside down." At the same time, he was quite aware that such excessive rhetoric was apt to pall. Rhetoric, too, was the chief characteristic of Canon Liddon in the pulpit. "When he closed his manuscript, the congregation, after an hour's rapture and breathless attention, appear as if a weight had been lifted off their spirits." It has been well said that Liddon was the Jeremiah of that age and Spurgeon its Isaiah. The present verdict as to these three pulpit orators is clear, and equally clear when comparison is made with Henry Ward Beecher, who in his time was judged by many to be a greater preacher than Spurgeon—"a man who always comes out of the front door when he wishes to give his opinions an airing"-or with Thomas Guthrie, that other polished orator, who himself, in speaking of Spurgeon, unconsciously described the difference between them in this way: "One man is a Boanerges and another a Barnabas."

It would be tedious to attempt to characterise all the eminent preachers of the Spurgeon era. However, we shall say that Alexander Maclaren was more intense but less human; R. W. Dale was a deeper thinker with a much smaller orbit; Dean Stanley was more influential but with less abiding influence; Canon Farrar was more florid and fugitive; Phillips Brooks was as pictorial but not as popular; Joseph Parker had a more modern accent but had less of the eternal speech; Boyd Carpenter was beyond compare the great preacher of his own church in his own time, but was not as incessant nor as far-reaching as Spurgeon; Alexander Whyte was a greater spiritual surgeon, but a less skilful physician.

The fact that Cardinal Manning died a fortnight before Spurgeon suggested a comparison of their respective places in the life of their epoch. It was freely said that Manning was as great a loss to the Catholic world as Spurgeon was to the Protestant. Today Manning has less influence than Newman, but the savour of Spurgeon's life and ministry abides.

As for the leaders of the church in other ages, Spurgeon's saying has been already quoted: "You may take a step from Paul to Augustine, then from Augustine to Calvin, and then-well, you may keep your foot up a good while before you find such another." When he visited the Simplon Hospice, he said, "I was delighted to find that they are Augustine monks, because, next to Calvin, I love Augustine. I feel that Augustine was the great mine out of which Calvin digged his mental wealth; and the Augustine monks, in practising their holy charity, seemed to say: 'Our Master was a teacher of grace, and we will practice it, and give without money and without price to all comers whatsoever they need.'"1

This seems to suggest that he himself would have stepped from Augustine to John Calvin, and the references in chapter 6 strengthen that conviction. But he would first have stopped, perhaps, at Martin Luther, and Gustav Kaweran has told us that "his knowledge of Luther was much more accurate than that of many of Luther's fellow countrymen." The same author believes that, as in the case of Luther, one of the secrets of his influence was "the violence of his preaching, the rock-like conviction of the power of the Word to save souls. He was unmatched in the history of preaching, the most original of modern preachers, his style a bold departure from traditional usage, unconscious unstudied oratory, not the rhetoric of the schools; his art concrete, not abstract, it is given content and body; the men of whom he speaks are men of flesh and blood, not shades whom no man has ever seen evolved from the preacher's inner consciousness. His attraction consists in the force with which he witnesses to the power of the Gospel to renew personality and to create cheerful and courageous human beings, and that witness is borne with all the spontaneity of one who has himself lived and experienced that power, and daily realises it afresh."2 Words from the land of Luther, equally true of Luther and of Spurgeon.

Another great stride brings us to John Wesley. We pause over John Knox, who was, as we have seen in chapter 4, one of Spurgeon's heroes. But glorious as he was, we find him scarcely big enough to find a place among the worthiest. The name of John Bunyan is among those of the immortals, but his influence depends altogether on his books. Spurgeon was strongly attracted to George Whitefield, as is evident in chapter 5, but Wesley was undoubtedly the greater man. He stands in the apostolic succession, and influences people to the ends of the earth today. But though Spurgeon steadfastly refused to found a new denomination, and so far fails to perpetuate his name, it can scarcely be doubted that he made as great a mark on his own age as Wesley, and began a movement which will influence all future time. Both appealed to the common people.

Our steps are next arrested at the name of William Carey, the greatness of whose contribution to the kingdom of God is not yet appreciated by the church of Christ. Carey and Spurgeon had both learned of God, both appealed to the whole world, both were indefatigable workers, and both were perfected by suffering.

While Carey in India gave a new impulse to the Christian faith, Thomas Chalmers, the greatest man that Scotland has ever produced, fought at the same time for the freedom of faith in his own land. "If ever a halo surrounded a saint it encompassed Chalmers," declared Lord Rosebery. As a pulpit orator he was unrivalled in his own day, and between his life and Spurgeon's there are other points of contact—their personal experience of grace, their unceasing contest for the crown rights of Christ, their chivalrous care for the poor, and their realised desire for the training of men for the ministry of the Gospel.

Other men of the same period arrest us only for the moment: Robert Hall was the greatest preacher in England of his day, of whom it is recorded that sometimes the businessmen of Leicester who heard him on Sunday were unable to attend to their business on Monday. Spurgeon no doubt was greatly influenced by him when he joined the church at Cambridge of which he had been the pastor. Edward Irving was a popular preacher whose meteoric career blazed with great brilliance, compared with whom Spurgeon shone as a fixed star. F. W. Robertson was one of the great pulpit names of the Victorian age, as Mr. Asquith has reminded us in his Romanes Lecture, "Some Aspects of the Victorian Age," but he was in an altogether different category from Spurgeon, who was more nervous and less telling. J. B. H. Lacordaire invented a new form of religious service, the "conference," and attracted crowds at Notre Dame, Paris, and at Toulouse, and, speaking of his own unexpected call to preach, said: "Moreover, it is with the orator as with Mount Horeb: before God strikes him he is but a barren rock, but as soon as the divine hand has touched him, as it were with a finger, there burst forth streams that water the desert." But his sermons were only occasional as contrasted with Spurgeon's sustained ministry. Thomas Binney was London's most popular preacher before Spurgeon's appearance in the metropolis and was soon transformed from a critic of the new minister into his ardent defender.

D. L. Moody belongs to another order, is to be remembered as one of the great spiritual forces of the world, and is, I suppose, to be classed with Chrysostom, Savonarola, and Tauler, who in a previous chapter have been ruled out of comparison with Spurgeon. Patrick, Bernard, Francis, Xavier, and William Booth are of the same noble company, and yet do not rise to the highest in the mountain range of church history.

It may be difficult to determine the heights of the eight majestic peaks our dim eyes discern above the rest as, white and glistening, they pierce the blue, but there they stand, a series of mighty summits, still catching earliest the morning light, and still at eventide with the rosy glow upon them when others are in the shadow—Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Carey, Chalmers, Spurgeon—and the last is not the least.

It is not for us to apportion greatness to them: the primacy must, of course, be given to the Apostle Paul. But it may be affirmed with some assurance that as many troubled souls looked to Spurgeon for comfort as to any man that ever lived; and since his departure countless others have been influenced by his words, and blessed through the agencies he set in motion. What service is permitted to those who have passed, we may not know. Whether the spirits of just men made perfect are allowed to help the saints on earth or not, we know not, but if that is possible, his ardent desire would be to minister to the heirs of salvation. However, we may be sure that in some sphere he is still actively witnessing to the grace of his Lord, since that was ever his theme while he was here.

To me he is master and friend. I have neither known nor heard of any other, in my time, so many-sided, so commanding, so simple, so humble, so selfless, so entirely Christ's man. Proudly I stand at the salute!

 

NOTES

1 The Times, August 22, 1860.
2 C. H. Spurgeon ein Prediger von Gottes Gnaden, pp. 23, 42-48.

 
 
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