SPURGEON AND THE DOWN-GRADE CONTROVERSY
John F. MacArthur, Jr.
Excerpted from Ashamed of the Gospel
copyright 1992 by John F. MacArthur, Jr.
(Wheaton: Crossway). All rights reserved. Used by permission.
[At the end of the Puritan age] by some means or other, first the ministers, then the Churches, got on "the down grade," and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old Puritan godliness of life, and the old Calvinistic form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.
In March 1887, Charles Spurgeon published the first of two articles entitled "The Down Grade" in his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. The articles were published anonymously, but the author was Robert Shindler, Spurgeon's close friend and fellow Baptist pastor. Shindler wrote the articles with input from Spurgeon, who footnoted the first article with a personal endorsement: "Earnest attention is requested for this paper. We are going down hill at breakneck speed."
Tracing the state of evangelicalism from the Puritan age to his own era, Shindler noted that every revival of true evangelical faith had been followed within a generation or two by a drift away from sound doctrine, ultimately leading to wholesale apostasy. He likened this drifting from truth to a downhill slope, and thus labeled it "the down-grade."
"Down Grade" I
"Down Grade" I
In that first article, Shindler recounted the history of the major Protestant denominations in England since the beginning of Puritanism's decline in 1662. He noted that in the first generation after the Puritan era, virtually every non-conformist (non-Anglican Protestant) denomination in England drifted from orthodoxy toward an ancient form of theological liberalism called Socinianism. Shindler recounted how hundreds of post- Puritan churches had abandoned sound doctrine in favor of rationalistic skepticism, Unitarianism, and other liberal beliefs. The downward slide usually began slowly, almost imperceptibly. He suggested that denominations often "got on the down-grade" when they abandoned Calvinism (which emphasizes God's sovereignty in salvation) in favor of Arminianism (which makes human will the decisive factor). Other groups embraced Arianism (which denies the full deity of Christ). Still others simply became enamored with scholarship and worldly wisdom; consequently they lost their zeal for truth.
"The Presbyterians were the first to get on the down line," Shindler wrote. They took the route of worldly wisdom: "They paid more attention to classical attainments and other branches of learning. . . . It [was therefore] an easy step in the wrong direction to pay increased attention to academical attainments in their ministers, and less to spiritual qualifications; and to set a higher value on scholarship and oratory, than on evangelical zeal and ability to rightly divide the word of truth."
Shindler further stated:
Shindler further stated:
As is usual with people on an incline, some who got on "the down grade" went further than they intended, showing that it is easier to get on than to get off, and that where there is no brake it is very difficult to stop. Those who turned from Calvinism may not have dreamed of denying the proper deity of the Son of God, renouncing faith in his atoning death and justifying righteousness, and denouncing the doctrine of human depravity, the need of Divine renewal, and the necessity for the Holy Spirit's gracious work, in order that men might become new creatures; but, dreaming or not dreaming, this result became a reality.
Some who abandoned the faith did so openly, Shindler said. But many purposely concealed their skepticism and heresy, preferring to sow seeds of doubt while posing as orthodox believers. "These men deepened their own condemnation, and promoted the everlasting ruin of many of their followers by their hypocrisy and deceit; professing to be the ambassadors of Christ, and the heralds of his glorious gospel, their aim was to ignore his claims, deny him his rights, lower his character, rend the glorious vesture of his salvation, and trample his crown in the dust."
Many of those who remained true to the faith were nevertheless reluctant to fight for what they believed in. Evangelical preaching was often cold and lifeless, and even those who held to sound doctrine were careless about where they drew the line in their associations with others: "Those who were really orthodox in their sentiments were too often lax and unfaithful as to the introduction of heretical ministers into their pulpits, either as assistants or occasional preachers. In this way the Arian and Socinian heresies were introduced into the Presbyterian congregations in the city of Exeter."
Thus within only a few decades, the Puritan fervor that had so captured the soul of England gave way to dry, listless apostate teaching. Churches became lax in granting membership privileges to the unregenerate. People who were, in Shindler's words, "strangers to the work of renewing grace" nevertheless claimed to be Christians and were admitted to membership even leadership in the churches. These people "chose them pastors after their own hearts, men who could, and would, and did, cry 'Peace, peace,' when the only way of peace was ignored or denied."
Shindler concluded that first paper on "The Down Grade" with these words: "These facts furnish a lesson for the present times, when, as in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that, that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true."
"Down Grade" II
"Down Grade" II
In April, The Sword and the Trowel carried a second article entitled "The Down Grade." In it, Robert Shindler continued his overview of the history of the decline of Puritanism. He laid the blame for the downhill slide at the feet of the church leaders. Even those who were orthodox in their teaching were not earnestly contending (Jude 3), but were weak in defending the faith, Shindler said. As one example, he cited Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), best known today as the hymn writer who penned "O Happy Day" and "Grace, 'Tis a Charming Sound." Doddridge, according to Shindler, "was as sound as he was amiable; but perhaps he was not always judicious; or more probably still, he was too judicious, and not sufficiently bold and decided."
Doddridge had been principle of the academy where most non- conformist ministers went for training in the mid-1700s. Shindler's judgment was that "[Doddridge's] amiable disposition permitted him to do what men made of sterner stuff would not have done. He sometimes mingled in a fraternal manner, even exchanging pulpits, with men whose orthodoxy was called in question. It had its effect on many of the younger men, and served to lessen in the estimate of the people generally the growing divergence of sentiment." In other words, Shindler felt that Doddridge's tolerance of unorthodox teachers obscured from his ministerial students the awful reality that these men were guilty of serious error, and left the students exposed to the deadly effects of their heresy. But, Shindler hastened to add, no one could "insinuate even the suspicion of heresy" against Doddridge himself.
Because of the attitude of tolerance implanted by Doddridge, the academy at last succumbed to Socinianism, then was dissolved in the generation after Doddridge's passing.
Shindler paraphrased Hosea 4:9: "Like priest, like people," and wrote, "Little good can be expected of such ministers, and little hoped for of the hearers who approve their sentiments." He warned against such tolerance, suggesting it is better to err on the side of caution:
In too many cases skeptical daring seems to have taken the place of evangelical zeal, and the husks of theological speculations are preferred to the wholesome bread of gospel truth. With some the endeavor seems to be not how steadily and faithfully they can walk in the truth, but how far they can get from it. To them divine truth is like a lion or a tiger, and they give it "a wide berth." Our counsel is Do not go too near the precipice; you may slip or fall over. Keep where the ground is firm; do not venture on the rotten ice.
He gave specific examples of how tolerance had led to disaster, noting that the "tadpole of Darwinism was hatched. . . [in a pew] of the old chapel in High Street, Shrewsbury," where Charles Darwin had first been introduced to skepticism by a pastor who was enthralled with Socinianism. And he noted that the chapel once pastored by Matthew Henry, author of the famous commentary on the whole Bible, had for years been teaching "full-blown Socinianism."
The Baptists, Shindler noted, had seen their share of churches on the down- grade. He named several churches in the county of Kent that had embraced Socinianism: those at Dover, Deal, Wingham, and Yalding.
But, he noted, there were a few notable exceptions to the rule. Those churches willing to fight for the faith and uphold the doctrines of grace and God's sovereignty had managed to avoid the fate of those on the down-grade. They were singular illustrations of the up-grade, Shindler said, showing the down- grade in bold relief.
How did so many Bible-believing churches go astray? And why does this happen again and again in human history?
Shindler raised these questions:
Shindler raised these questions:
In the case of every errant course there is always a first wrong step. If we can trace that wrong step, we may be able to avoid it and its results. Where, then, is the point of divergence from the "King's highway of truth"? What is the first step astray? Is it doubting this doctrine, or questioning that sentiment, or being skeptical as to the other article of orthodox belief? We think not. These doubts and this skepticism are the outcome of something going before.
What was that "something"? What was the common denominator between all those who started on the down-grade?
The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God's Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching. "To the law and to the testimony," is his appeal concerning every doctrine. He esteems that holy Book, concerning all things, to be right, and therefore he hates every false way. But let a man question, or entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and he is without chart to guide him, and without anchor to hold him.
In looking carefully over the history of the times, and the movement of the times, of which we have written briefly, this fact is apparent: that where ministers and Christian churches have held fast to the truth that the Holy Scriptures have been given by God as an authoritative and infallible rule of faith and practice, they have never wandered very seriously out of the right way. But when, on the other hand, reason has been exalted above revelation, and made the exponent of revelation, all kinds of errors and mischiefs have been the result.
Shindler noted a correlation between Calvinistic doctrine and a high view of Scripture, suggesting that the great majority of those who remained committed to the authority of Scripture were "more or less Calvinistic in doctrine." In the "Notes" section of that same issue of The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon added this: "We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth." The clear implication to both Spurgeon and Shindler was that a high view of Scripture goes hand in hand with a high view of divine sovereignty. Moreover, Shindler noted, those churches that held firmly to sound doctrine remained healthy and flourished, while those that embraced Socinianism inevitably began to dwindle and die. Shindler quoted the Rev. Job Orton, a man who evidently had Socinian leanings himself but nonetheless wrote a warning to pastors flirting with liberal theology:
"I have long since found," says [Orton] "(and every year that I live increases my conviction of it), that when ministers entertain their people with lively and pretty things, confine themselves to general harangues, insist principally on moral duties, without enforcing them warmly and affectionately by evangelical motives; while they neglect the peculiars of the gospel, never or seldom display the grace of God, and the love of Christ in our redemption; the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by a constant dependence on the Holy Spirit of God for assistance and strength in the duties of the Christian life, their congregations are in a wretched state; some are dwindling to nothing, as is the case with several in this neighborhood, where there are now not as many scores as there were hundreds in their meeting-places, fifty years ago. . . . There is a fatal deadness spread over the congregation. They run in 'the course of this world,' follow every fashionable folly, and family and personal godliness seems in general to be lost among them. There is scarcely any appearance of life and zeal."
Shindler wryly added, "It would seem that Orton had seen the folly of 'the down grade' course, and was anxious to bear his testimony, to deter others."
Then he closed that article with an appeal to the centrality and sufficiency of God's Word:
But leaving men and their opinions, the Word of the Lord stands fast forever; and that Word to every one who undertakes to be God's messenger, and to speak the Lord's message to the people, is "He that has my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord."
"The Lord help us all to be 'steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as we know our labor shall not be in vain in the Lord.'"
With that the two-part series ended. Shindler appended it with a third article for the June Sword and Trowel. The June article offered an analysis of a heresy trial in America involving some professors from Andover Theological Seminary, Andover, New York. Andover had been founded less than a hundred years earlier in response to Socinianism at Harvard. Andover's founders, Shindler wrote, "were sound Calvinists of the Cotton Mather type, and the College was instituted for the special purpose of training men in that faith." Shindler accused "the five gentlemen who now fill professorial chairs" with having "seriously departed from the faith of the founders." They did this by deceit, Shindler said. Having subscribed to the school's doctrinal statement, they were now undermining it by their teaching, which had been labeled "Progressive Orthodoxy" by some. Shindler had his own assessment:
"Indeed the progression is so considerable that the "orthodoxy" is lost sight of. He went on to chronicle the heresies taught by these men, which, though considered subtle in the late nineteenth century, were indeed serious defections from the faith.
Shindler saw the Andover disaster as an object lesson on the dangers of the down-grade, and he did not hesitate to make the point, using American Baptists as an illustration, that The Baptist Union in England was headed down the same road.
Three months later, Charles Haddon Spurgeon himself would write about "the down-grade." The controversy was only beginning to heat up.
Down Grade III
Down Grade III
In August The Sword and the Trowel carried an article by Spurgeon entitled "Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade." The tone of this article was more urgent than Shindler's had been. The earlier articles had evidently provoked two basic responses displeasure from those who believed Shindler's analysis was too pessimistic, and hearty agreement from many who were also troubled about the trends in British evangelicalism.
Those who agreed with Shindler's warning blasts responded by offering more proof of apostasy and compromise in formerly sound churches. Spurgeon read these responses and his outrage grew. One man reported that "two ministers had derided him because he thought we should pray for rain." A woman told Spurgeon that "a precious promise in Isaiah which had comforted her had been declared by her minister to be uninspired." The editorial office of The Sword and the Trowel was inundated with such accounts.
From the opening paragraph, Spurgeon's tone was more militant, more intense than Shindler had been in the earlier articles. In the weeks since those first two articles were published, Spurgeon had evidently come to feel that The Sword and the Trowel had underestimated the gravity of "The Down- Grade":
Our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward. Read those newspapers which represent the Broad School of Dissent, and ask yourself, How much farther could they go? What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching.
In place of gospel preaching, this "new-and-improved" variety of Christianity was substituting amusements. Spurgeon warned that many were turning the church into a "play-house," allowing the values and techniques of the theater to invade the sanctuary of the Lord.
Spurgeon noted that many churches were no longer having prayer meetings. Spiritual fervor was dwindling, congregations were thinning, and enthusiasm for the gospel was quickly becoming extinct. "Alas! many are returning to the poisoned cups which drugged that declining generation. . . . Too many ministers are toying with the deadly cobra of 'another gospel,' in the form of 'modern thought.'"
Who was chiefly to blame for the decline? Spurgeon believed it was the preachers: "The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith. . . . Germany was made unbelieving by her preachers, and England is following in her tracks."
Spurgeon made no effort to disguise his contempt for the modernists: "These destroyers of our churches appear to be as content with their work as monkeys with their mischief. That which their fathers would have lamented they rejoice in: the alienation of the poor and simple-minded from their ministry they accept as a compliment, and the grief of the spiritually-minded they regard as an evidence of their power."
To those who might be put off by such frankness, Spurgeon wrote, "A little plain-speaking would do a world of good just now. These gentlemen desire to be let alone. They want no noise raised. Of course thieves hate watch-dogs, and love darkness. It is time that somebody should spring his rattle, and call attention to the way in which God is being robbed of his glory, and man of his hope."
At the end of the article, Spurgeon fired this shot, which for the first time raised the issue that would become the focus of all the subsequent controversy:
It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel. Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth? It is a difficult question to answer so as to keep the balance of the duties. For the present it behooves believers to be cautious, lest they lend their support and countenance to the betrayers of the Lord. It is one thing to overleap all boundaries of denominational restriction for the truth's sake: this we hope all godly men will do more and more. It is quite another policy which would urge us to subordinate the maintenance of truth to denominational prosperity and unity. Numbers of easy-minded people wink at error so long as it is committed by a clever man and a good- natured brother, who has so many fine points about him. Let each believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up; for, under color of begging the friendship of the servant, there are those about who aim at robbing the Master.
Spurgeon was now suggesting that true believers might have reason to sever their organizational ties with those who were promulgating the new theology. In his estimation the truth of the Word had been so seriously compromised that true Christians needed to consider the command of 2 Corinthians 6:17: "'Come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord. 'And do not touch what is unclean.'" This was not a call for a new denomination. Spurgeon clearly distrusted earthly organizations:
We fear it is hopeless ever to form a society which can keep out men base enough to profess one thing and believe another; but it might be possible to make an informal alliance among all who hold the Christianity of their fathers. Little as they might be able to do, they could at least protest, and as far as possible free themselves of that complicity which will be involved in a conspiracy of silence. If for a while the evangelicals are doomed to go down, let them die fighting, and in the full assurance that their gospel will have a resurrection when the inventions of "modern thought "shall be burned up with fire unquenchable.
The article rocked the evangelical world. Spurgeon, who for decades had been almost universally revered by evangelicals, was suddenly besieged with critics from within the camp. What he was proposing was diametrically opposed to the consensus of evangelical thought. All the trends were toward unification, harmony, amalgamation, and brotherhood. Suddenly here was a lone voice but the most influential voice of all urging true believers to become separatists. The church was neither prepared nor willing to receive such counsel not even from the Prince of Preachers.
Down Grade IV
Down Grade IV
Despite pleas from some of the brethren that he soften his rhetoric or tone down his complaints, Spurgeon ratcheted up the intensity in a September Sword and Trowel article. Reader response to the earlier articles vindicated his position, Spurgeon believed. Letters had been pouring in to corroborate his worst allegations. In fact, he was now wondering if his alarm had been too little, too late:
According to the best of our ability we sounded an alarm in Zion concerning the growing evils of the times, and we have received abundant proof that it was none too soon. Letters from all quarters declare that the case of the church at this present is even worse than we thought it to be. It seems that, instead of being guilty of exaggeration, we should have been justified in the production of a far more terrible picture. This fact causes us real sorrow. Had we been convicted of misstatement we would have recanted with sincerely penitent confessions, and we should have been glad to have had our fears removed. It is no joy to us to bring accusations; it is no pleasure to our heart to seem to be in antagonism with so many.
Instead of answering Spurgeon's charges, the critics had declared them vague (although both Shindler and Spurgeon had been anything but vague). Spurgeon was now struggling with recurring kidney ailments and had been absent from the pulpit. Some insinuated that the Down-Grade articles were the rantings of someone who was desperately sick. Clearly, Spurgeon was personally grieved by that allegation:
Our opponents have set to work to make sneering allusions to our sickness. All the solemn things we have written are the suggestions of our pain, and we are advised to take a long rest. With pretended compassion, but with real insolence, they would detract from the truth by pointing to the lameness of its witness. Upon this trifling we have this much to say: In the first place, our article was written when we were in vigorous health, and it was in print before any sign of an approaching attack was discoverable. In the second place, if we were in a debate with Christians we should feel sure that, however short they might run of arguments, they would not resort to personalities.
His opponents had attacked him personally, though he and Shindler both had taken extreme care to avoid making personalities the subject of his censures. What is more, Spurgeon's adversaries utterly ignored the substance of his strictures. "No one has set himself to disprove our allegations," Spurgeon wrote. No one had denied any of his charges. Indeed, no one could. Though few wanted to admit it, English evangelicalism was indeed on the down-grade.
Employing the vivid imagery that was the hallmark of Spurgeon's preaching, he wrote, "The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars; they are even half vexed that a certain noisy fellow will spring his rattle, or cry, 'Thieves!'"
Spurgeon was beginning to think more seriously and speak more explicitly about breaking fellowship with those whom he believed were opposing the gospel. For several decades Spurgeon had been the most visible and influential member of the Baptist Union. Yet it seemed he was now seriously pondering withdrawal from the Union as a matter of conscience.
The divergence is every day becoming more manifest. A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture. Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the "larger hope." One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour.
Neither when we have chosen our way can we keep company with those who go the other way.
Spurgeon apparently hoped the evangelical leaders of the Baptist Union would see his side and opt for reform. The Union had never required adherence to a doctrinal statement of any kind. From the beginning, it had more or less been the assumption that members of the Union were all evangelical. The only point of doctrine required for membership, therefore, dealt with the mode of baptism. Spurgeon believed that was an insufficient guard against the erosion of truth, so he appealed to the Baptist Union to affirm a new structure that would ensure doctrinal integrity among its members.
Faced with the possibility of losing Spurgeon versus the certainty of splitting the Union, denominational leaders began looking for a way of compromise. But Spurgeon refused to compromise:
Let those who will keep the narrow way keep it, and suffer for their choice; but to hope to follow the broad road at the same time is an absurdity. What communion hath Christ with Belial? Thus far we come, and pause. Let us, as many as are of one mind, wait upon the Lord to know what Israel ought to do. With steadfast faith let us take our places; not in anger, not in the spirit of suspicion or division, but in watchfulness and resolve. Let us not pretend to a fellowship which we do not feel, nor hide convictions which are burning in our hearts. The times are perilous, and the responsibility of every individual believer is a burden which he must bear, or prove a traitor. What each man's place and course should be the Lord will make clear unto him.
And thus Spurgeon ended his article. He had thrown down the gauntlet. His mind and heart were set. He would not be moved.
Down Grade V
Down Grade V
The October issue of The Sword and the Trowel carried the third of Spurgeon's articles about the down-grade. This article, entitled "The Case Proved," consisted mostly of excerpts from letters and reviews Spurgeon had received in response to the earlier articles. These fell into two categories. The first were from readers who saw controversy brewing and wanted to still the storm. Spurgeon characterized them as "esteemed friends" who wanted to "rush in between the combatants, and declare that there was no cause for war, but that our motto might continue to be 'Peace, peace!'" Spurgeon accused such people of being "so supremely amiable that they see all things through spectacles of tinted glass."
The second category were responses from people affirming Spurgeon's assessment of the dismal state of affairs. Many described specific examples of compromise and false teaching among those who classified themselves as evangelical.
Again Spurgeon asked the question "Are brethren who remain orthodox prepared to endorse such sentiments by remaining in union with those who hold and teach them?" Believing that the Baptist Union would take up these issues at their annual autumn meetings at Sheffield, Spurgeon made his position clear one final time:
What action is to be taken we leave to those who can see more plainly than we do what Israel ought to do. One thing is clear to us: we cannot be expected to meet in any Union which comprehends those whose teaching is upon fundamental points exactly the reverse of that which we hold dear. . . . To us it appears that there are many things upon which compromise is possible, but there are others in which it would be an act of treason to pretend to fellowship. With deep regret we abstain from assembling with those whom we dearly love and heartily respect, since it would involve us in a confederacy with those with whom we can have no communion in the Lord.
But at Sheffield the issue never even came up.
Withdrawal from the Union
On October 28, 1887, Spurgeon wrote to Samuel Harris Booth, General Secretary of the Baptist Union:
DEAR FRIEND, I beg to intimate to you, as the secretary of the Baptist Union, that I must withdraw from that society. I do this with the utmost regret; but I have no choice. The reasons are set forth in The Sword and the Trowel for November, and I trust you will excuse my repeating them here. I beg you not to send anyone to me to ask for reconsideration. I fear I have considered too long already; certainly every hour of the day impresses upon me the conviction that I am moving none too soon.
I wish also to add that no personal pique or ill-will has in the least degree operated upon me. I have personally received more respect than I desired. It is on the highest ground alone that I take this step, and you know that I have long delayed it because I hoped for better things.
Yours always heartily,
Spurgeon evidently had already written his November Sword and Trowel article when he wrote the letter to Booth. He began the article, "A Fragment upon the Down-Grade Controversy," with these words: "By this time many of our readers will be weary of the Down-Grade controversy: they cannot be one-tenth so much tired of it, or tried by it, as we are." The controversy had consumed Spurgeon's thoughts and emotions as he deliberated whether to withdraw from the Union. But Spurgeon felt he was left no choice. Severing ties with the enemies of the gospel was no option as far as he was concerned: "Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin." The force of his rhetoric is an insight into Spurgeon's heart: "To be very plain, we are unable to call these things Christian Unions, they begin to look like Confederacies in Evil. Before the face of God we fear that they wear no other aspect. To our inmost heart this is a sad truth from which we cannot break away."
Spurgeon saw no reason true Christians should accommodate those who doubted the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. "If these men believe such things, let them teach them, and construct churches, unions, and brotherhoods for themselves! Why must they come among us?"
He felt he had no choice other than the course of action he had taken: "During the past month many have put to us the anxious question, 'What shall we do?' To these we have had no answer to give except that each one must act for himself after seeking direction of the Lord. In our own case we intimated our course of action in last month's paper. We retire at once and distinctly from the Baptist Union."
That announcement must have come as a jolt to many readers. Few had believed Spurgeon would carry through with his threats. Peace and unity were almost universally esteemed as the highest of Christian virtues. It was unthinkable that Charles H. Spurgeon, the most visible and popular British evangelical of his day, would become a schismatic. Yet that was the popular perception of the course Spurgeon had pursued.
Spurgeon and the Baptist Union
Spurgeon and the Baptist Union
But Spurgeon had not withdrawn capriciously or hastily. On November 23 he wrote from the south of France to explain his actions to a fellow pastor, Mr. Mackey: "It was incumbent upon me to leave the Union, as my private remonstrances to officials, and my repeated pointed appeals to the whole body, had been of no avail.
My standpoint had become one from which, as an earnest man, I could see no other course but to withdraw."
The private letter to Mackey was shared with the hundred- member Council of the Baptist Union. Eighty of these men met December 13 to discuss Spurgeon's charges. Most of them were outraged at Spurgeon's charges and his subsequent withdrawal from their group. They accused him of making charges based on inaccurate information, and the officers of the Union flatly denied that Spurgeon had ever come to them with "private remonstrances" or concerns of any kind about the doctrinal state of the Union.
One officer in particular, General Secretary Booth, knew better. Booth and Spurgeon had, had many private conversations and exchanged many letters about the deplorable state of the Union. In fact, Booth himself had urged Spurgeon to speak out against the modernism that was running rampant in the Union. Booth evidently had even given Spurgeon details about the widespread compromise and names of men whose orthodoxy he had reason to doubt. But Booth had sworn Spurgeon to secrecy about their correspondence.
"My letters to you were not official but in confidence," Booth wrote when he thought Spurgeon was about to blow the whistle on him. "As a matter of honor you cannot use them."
The Council minutes show that Booth misled the Council as to the nature of his conversations with Spurgeon. He told them, "Again I say that whatever conversations I have had with Mr. Spurgeon were not of a kind to formulate charges against brethren in order that I might submit them to this council. It never entered my mind that Mr. Spurgeon intended the things which passed in conversation to be brought here and formulated as charges." While strictly speaking that was true, it was far from the whole truth. Booth, after all, had first come to Spurgeon with concerns. Their dialogue on the issues was far more than passing conversation. Booth more than anyone else had known about and as far as Spurgeon believed, shared the great preacher's profound concern over the drift of the Union.
But even when the Baptist Union Council including Booth himself accused Spurgeon of misrepresenting the truth, Spurgeon honored Booth's wishes to keep their correspondence confidential. "Spurgeon could have summarily proved the extent of his prior consultation with Union officials by producing correspondence from Booth." Instead, he bore the abuse and false accusations even when Booth himself became one of the accusers.
"For Dr. Booth to say I never complained, is amazing," Spurgeon wrote his wife. God knows all about it, and He will see me righted.
But as one biographer pointed out, "Spurgeon was never righted. The impression in many quarters still remains that he made charges which could not be substantiated, and when properly called upon to produce his evidence he resigned and ran away.
Nothing is further from the truth. Spurgeon might have produced Dr. Booth's letters. I think he should have done so."
The Baptist Union Council accused Spurgeon of having breached Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18 by failing to go privately first to those with whom he had grievances. In another letter to his wife, Spurgeon responded to that charge: "What a farce about my seeing these brethren, privately, according to Matthew. xviii. 15! Why, I saw the Secretary and the president again and again; and then I printed my plaint, and only left the Union when nothing could be done."
To Dr. James Culross, president of the Union, Spurgeon wrote,
I have followed out our Lord's mind as to private remonstrances by seeing Presidents and Secretary on former occasions, and I have written my remonstrances again and again without avail. I had no course but to withdraw. Surely, no sane person thinks that I should have made a tour to deal with the individual errorists. I have no jurisdiction over them, and should have been regarded as offensively intrusive if I had gone to them; and justly so. My question is with the Union, and with that alone. I have dealt with it all along.
By raising the Matthew 18 question, and by accusing Spurgeon of failure to bring his concerns properly before the Union's leaders, the Council was clearly evading the real issues. They proposed sending a delegation of four men to confront Spurgeon and wrote him to try to arrange a visit while Spurgeon was in France. Spurgeon declined, saying he would meet with the men when he returned to England.
Spurgeon saw the Council's response as a transparent attempt to make him the issue, and to draw the controversy away from the doctrinal drift within the Union. Furthermore, he had carefully avoided making any of his attacks personal, and now the Council was using even that against him, claiming that since he had not mentioned specific names and details, his charges were too vague for them to address. In an uncharacteristically defensive letter, Spurgeon sent a letter to the editor of the main organ of the Union:
To the Editor of "The
To the Editor of "The Baptist."
DEAR SIR I would not occupy your columns with a personal matter were it not of considerable importance that I should do so. In the letter to Mr. Mackey I wrote: "It was incumbent upon me to leave the Union, as my private remonstrances to officials, and my repeated pointed appeals to the whole body, had been of no avail." This is not untrue, nor inaccurate. After a painful occurrence at Leicester [in 1883 a Unitarian minister was permitted to preach at the Baptist Union meetings there] I made serious complaint to the secretary, the president (Mr. Chown), and others of the Council. At the Orphanage, to which he kindly came, Mr. Chown made to me a pathetic appeal to regard it as a solitary incident, and hoping that I had been mistaken. I did not go further with this matter, for which, possibly, I am blameworthy.
Since then I have repeatedly spoken to the secretary [Booth] upon the subject, as he will willingly admit. I think each year either himself or Mr. Baynes has waited upon me to preach for the Union, or to preach at the mission services connected with the Union gatherings. On each occasion one or other has heard my complaints till they must, I fear, have been wearied. Here I beg to add that I do not confound the mission with the Union; but it so happens that these good secretaries call upon me while making arrangements for the same series of meetings, and therefore I have regarded that which I said to one as said to both. The fact has remained that I have declined to take a public part in the meetings, because I could not feel sure that I should not be compromised thereby. This is surely an action which spoke more loudly than words. With Mr. Williams and Dr. Maclaren I had considerable correspondence, which on their part, at any rate, was most admirable.
My friend Mr. Williams says my letters were marked "Private," and that is just what I said to Mr. Mackey. Mr. Booth did not regard my communications as made to him officially, neither did I ever say that he did. The complaints were, however, made by me to him, while I tried to compromise the matter with my judgment by joining in the work, and not in the talk, of the Union, and I wish it could have been a possible middleway. I will not venture to say definitely how many of the Council knew my views and feelings by hearing me utter them at various times, but more than enough to justify my statement to Mr. Mackey.
Please note that the first clause of the sentence only is taken, and it is made to be more prominent than I intended by the remainder being left out "my repeated pointed appeals to the whole body." My letters on "The Down-grade" do not deal exclusively with the Baptist denomination, which I have all along admitted to be far less tainted than another; but they did so far concern it that the republished articles were submitted to the entire ministry and posted to all. "The organ of the Baptist denomination" likened the affair to a "big gooseberry," and stated that certain ministers on the road to Sheffield regarded it as a "great joke." At the meetings no public notice was taken except to assail me before a public meeting, where there was no opportunity of reply. Of other expressions of an unkind character then used by individuals I will not write; but the whole together made it clear to me that no one thought my appeals worthy of notice. Had any one of the brethren judged them to be serious he could have mentioned them to the Council, and could have asked that private statements should become public ones; but no one thought this wise. Of this I am not complaining; but it must not be said that I have not spoken the truth in the lines quoted above.
The fact seems to be that the question asked was not, "Is that statement made by Mr. Spurgeon true?" but the real inquiry made was, "Has he so written that the officials felt bound to lay the matter before the Council ?" This is quite another subject, as anyone can see with half an eye. Thus I can exonerate questioners, repliers, and others by the theory that they meant one thing and I meant another; and I at once do so.
But this is a sad beginning for a brotherly conference. The charge was not that I was knowingly untruthful, but that I said what was not true I suppose through the failure of my mental powers. The inference should be that it is a waste of time to send a deputation to confer with so imbecile a person. I will not, however, draw the inference. I have not descended, I trust, to personalities. I do not even impute motives; but I hope I may write thus much without seeming to be disrespectful to the honored brethren who request a conference with me.
C. H. SPURGEON Menton, December 19.
The letter was never published.
The Baptist Union Censure
Spurgeon's reluctance to meet with the Union delegation in France stemmed from his fear that they were simply trying to make him appear disagreeable and obstinate. He wrote Susannah, "Think of four doctors of divinity coming all this way to see me! I was in great perplexity, and knew not what to reply. I don't quite see what it all means. I lay awake till one o'clock . . . I do not fear four doctors, but I think it a very wise move on their part. If it means they will surrender, it is well; but if it is meant to fix on me the odium of being implacable, it is another matter."
On January 13, 1988, Spurgeon was back in London and met with the Union delegation at the Tabernacle. The group included General Secretary Booth, outgoing President James Culross, and President-elect John Clifford. Alexander Maclaren, the fourth member of the appointed panel and the most likely to be sympathetic to Spurgeon was ill and did not attend. The men asked Spurgeon to reconsider his withdrawal. Spurgeon proposed that the Union adopt an evangelical statement of faith. The delegation refused. Neither side felt anything was accomplished by the meeting.
Five days later the full Baptist Union Council met again. This time they voted to accept Spurgeon's withdrawal. Then they voted to censure him.
Only five of the nearly one-hundred members supported Spurgeon in the vote. A surprisingly lopsided majority approved the censure against their best-known member. The Council passed this resolution:
The Council recognizes the gravity of the charges which Mr. Spurgeon has brought against the Union previous to, and since, his withdrawal. It considers that the public and general manner in which they have been made reflects on the whole body, and exposes to suspicion brethren who love the truth as dearly as he does. And as Mr. Spurgeon declines to give the names of those to whom he intended them to apply, and the evidence supporting them, those charges in the judgment of the council, ought not to have been made.
One writer at the time, Richard Glover, accurately assessed the issues in the Evangelical Nonconformist:
The policy which they adopted was to attempt to put the responsibility for disturbing the peace of the Union back on Spurgeon. They took the position that his charges were too vague to merit serious investigations, that he had failed to substantiate them by naming any ministers who were guilty. However useful this policy might have been politically, it can only be described as dishonest trifling with the subject.
The fact is, as we have seen, Spurgeon could have named names. He could have produced Booth's letters and thereby not only exonerated himself but also forced Booth into the role of a second witness against the heretics. Moreover, Spurgeon could have simply cited the published works of some of his fellow Baptists. "Spurgeon had plenty of evidence; there were the utterances of well-known men which had been published in the pages of the Christian World, and the Independent, the Freeman, the British Weekly, and the Baptist. Reference to the files of these journals for 1887 and 1888 can still be made, and will provide ample proof of the truth of Spurgeon's general charge."
Why didn't Spurgeon simply name those who had abandoned evangelicalism? For one thing, he did not want to wage a dispute over individuals. He feared that the debate would degenerate into a personal war: "If we were not extremely anxious to avoid personalities, we could point to other utterances of some of these esteemed writers which, if they did not contradict what they have now written, would be such a supplement to it that their entire mind would be better known." "The warfare has been made too personal; and certain incidents in it, upon which I will not dwell, have made it too painful for me to feel any pleasure in the idea of going on with it."
But more important, Spurgeon felt the clamoring for names was simply an attempt to deflect from the real issue, which was the policy of the Baptist Union. As he pointed out, the Union had no doctrinal statement, and therefore no authority to discipline anyone for false teaching: "No one can be heterodox under this constitution, unless he should forswear his baptism." So even if he had named names, nothing could be done about the heretics unless the Union was willing to adopt an evangelical statement of faith and require all members to abide by it. That is precisely what the Union had heretofore refused to do.
Spurgeon sincerely hoped that the Down-Grade Controversy would stir the Union's rank and file membership to demand that the Council institute such a policy.
The Final Compromise
The Final Compromise
"No creed but Christ" was a popular sentiment among evangelicals in Spurgeon's day. There were many who felt creeds and doctrinal statements were somehow sub-Christian. And there is a legitimate sense in which we ought to guard against elevating any creed above Scripture. When that happens, the creed itself can become an idol, something that actually hinders true worship.
But Spurgeon pointed out that if the creed itself is true that is, if it is in harmony with Scripture and subject to Scripture no such danger exists:
To say that "a creed comes between a man and his God," is to suppose that it is not true; for truth, however definitely stated, does not divide the believer from his Lord. So far as I am concerned, that which I believe I am not ashamed to state in the plainest possible language; and the truth I hold I embrace because I believe it to be the mind of God revealed in his infallible Word. How can it divide me from God who revealed it? It is one means of my communion with my Lord, that I receive his words as well as himself, and submit my understanding to what I see to be taught by him. Say what he may, I accept it because he says it, and therein pay him the humble worship of my inmost soul.
I am unable to sympathize with a man who says he has no creed; because I believe him to be in the wrong by his own showing. He ought to have a creed. What is equally certain, he has a creed he must have one, even though he repudiates the notion. His very unbelief is, in a sense, a creed.
The objection to a creed is a very pleasant way of concealing objection to discipline, and a desire for latitudinarianism. What is wished for is a Union which will, like Noah's Ark, afford shelter both for the clean and for the unclean, for creeping things and winged fowls.
In the theological climate of late nineteenth-century England, it was impossible not to see that Spurgeon had a point. Even after their censure of Spurgeon, the Union Council knew it would have to deal with the issue of a creed at the April 23 Assembly meeting.
Spurgeon had guarded hopes for the Union Assembly meeting. In the April Sword and Trowel "Notes," he wrote, Prayer should be continually offered by the people of God at this time. The Baptist Union meets in full assembly on April 23, and the great question then before it will be "Is this Union to have an Evangelical basis or not?" We trust the question will be discussed with good temper, and that the decision will be of the right kind. Surely, as every other body of Christians avows its faith, the Baptist Union should do the same. Whatever its belief is, let it own it.
Spurgeon appealed for clarity above all. He sent a letter to the editor of the Baptist that said in part, "Whatever the Council does let it above all things avoid the use of language which could legitimately have two meanings contrary to each other. Let us be plain and outspoken. There are grave differences let them be avowed honestly."
In Iain Murray's words, "This was almost precisely the policy which the council did not follow." Meeting before the April Union Assembly, the Council prepared a brief, somewhat vague, but essentially evangelical, doctrinal statement. When the statement was read at the Assembly meeting, however, it was introduced with a statement disclaiming that the Union had any authority to enforce doctrinal standards on its members. Worse, a footnote had been appended that said some "brethren in the Union . . . have not held the common interpretation" on passages regarding the resurrection and final judgment.
Nevertheless, many evangelicals at the Assembly meetings, Spurgeon's brother James included, believed the statement as read was an acceptable compromise. Certainly it was clear that the Union would go no further.
A proponent of the "New Theology," Charles Williams, moved that the Assembly adopt the compromised statement. Williams took the opportunity to deliver a passionate plea in favor of liberal ideas. James Spurgeon "seconded Mr. Williams's resolution, but not his speech." The Baptist reported that "The sincerity, the courage, and manliness of Mr. Spurgeon's speech deeply impressed the audience, and did much towards gaining substantial unanimity in the subsequent vote." The resolution passed 2,000 to 7.
Henry Oakley was there that day. Years later, he recalled the bedlam in the auditorium:
I was present at the City Temple when the motion was moved, seconded, and carried. Possibly the City Temple was as full as it could be. I was there very early, but found only a "standing seat" in the aisle of the back gallery. I listened to the speeches. The only one of which I have any distinct remembrance was that of Mr Charles Williams. He quoted Tennyson in favor of a liberal theology and justification of doubt. The moment of voting came. Only those in the area were qualified to vote as members of the assembly. When the motion of censure was put, a forest of hands went up. "Against," called the chairman, Dr Clifford. I did not see any hands, but history records that there were seven. Without any announcement of numbers the vast assembly broke into tumultuous cheering, and cheering and cheering yet. From some of the older men their pent-up hostility found vent; from many of the younger men wild resistance of "any obscurantist trammels," as they said, broke loose. It was a strange scene. I viewed it almost with tears. I stood near a "Spurgeon's [College] man," whom I knew very well. Mr Spurgeon had welcomed him from a very lowly position. He went wild almost with delight at this censure of his great and generous master. I say it was a strange scene, that, that vast assembly should be so outrageously delighted at the condemnation of the greatest, noblest, and grandest leader of their faith.
It is almost certain, however, that most evangelicals present that day did not see as clearly as Oakley. They could not have understood the vote as another censure of Spurgeon. Certainly James Spurgeon intended no affront to his brother when he seconded the motion. But like most of the evangelicals there that day, James was so eager for reconciliation that he mistakenly believed a doctrinal statement, any statement at all, was something of a victory for their side.
Charles Spurgeon knew otherwise. He wrote to a friend, "My brother thinks he has gained a victory, but I believe we are hopelessly sold. I feel heart- broken. Certainly he has done the very opposite of what I should have done. Yet he is not to be blamed, for he followed his best judgment. Pray for me, that my faith fail not."
G. Holden Pike wrote, "As the sequel proved, the peace gained [by the Assembly vote] was not that abiding peace which many had anticipated. The rupture with the Union . . . was never to be repaired." Just as Charles Spurgeon had warned all along, nothing was to be gained by compromising with the enemies of the gospel. The Baptist Union's decline was, if anything, accelerated. Those who embraced the "New Theology" were emboldened after the Union Assembly. They now held the reins of the Union.
The resolution, with its footnote, with the interpretation of its mover, and the reelection of the old council, fairly represent the utmost that would be done when everybody was in his best humor. Is it satisfactory? Does anybody understand it in the same sense as anybody else? Does not the whole virtue of the thing lie in its pleasing both sides a little? And is not this the vice and the condemnation of it?
Spurgeon understood what most evangelicals who voted at the Assembly meeting did not: that the last-minute modifications utterly negated the whole point of having a doctrinal statement:
The points mentioned were certainly elementary enough, and we did not wonder that one of the brethren exclaimed, "May God help those who do not believe these things! Where must they be?" Indeed, little objection was taken to the statements which were tabulated, but the objection was to a belief in these being made indispensable to membership. It was as though it had been said, "Yes, we believe in the Godhead of the Lord Jesus; but we would not keep a man out of our fellowship because he thought our Lord to be a mere man. We believe in the atonement; but if another man rejects it, he must not, therefore, be excluded from our number."
Spurgeon hated schism. He did not want to be divisive. But his conscience would not permit him to align with the enemies of the gospel. In the end he concluded that separating from the Union was actually the best way to promote true unity: "Nothing has ever more largely promoted the union of the true than the break with the false."
Spurgeon saw separation as a biblical necessity for himself. "Whether others do so or not, I have felt the power of the text, 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate," and have quitted both Union and Association once for all. . . . This is forced upon me, not only by my convictions, but also by the experience of the utter uselessness of attempting to deal with the evil except by personally coming out from it."
Spurgeon did not actively seek to pull others out of the Union, but he could not understand why men who wanted to remain faithful to the Scriptures would continue to belong to an organization that was so obviously barreling down the down-grade:
Numbers of good brethren in different ways remain in fellowship with those who are undermining the gospel; and they talk of their conduct as though it were a loving course which the Lord will approve of in the day of his appearing. We cannot understand them. The bounden duty of a true believer towards men who profess to be Christians, and yet deny the Word of the Lord, and reject the fundamentals of the gospel, is to come out from among them. If it be said that efforts should be made to produce reform, we agree with the remark; but when you know that they will be useless, what is the use? Where the basis of association allows error, and almost invites it, and there is an evident determination not to alter that basis, nothing remains to be done inside, which can be of any radical service. The operation of an evangelical party within can only repress, and, perhaps, conceal, the evil for a time; but meanwhile, sin is committed by the compromise itself, and no permanently good result can follow. To stay in a community which fellowships all beliefs in the hope of setting matters right, is as though Abraham had stayed at Ur, or at Haran, in the hope of converting the household out of which he was called.
Complicity with error will take from the best of men the power to enter any successful protest against it. . . . Our present sorrowful protest is not a matter of this man or that, this error or that; but of principle.
The Down-Grade Controversy was a perpetual grief to Spurgeon until his death on January 31, 1892. Close friends, and even some of the students from his Pastors' College, turned against him. But Spurgeon declared to the end that he did not regret the stand he had taken.
It was surely difficult for Spurgeon himself, and even his early biographers to assess the value of the Down-Grade Controversy. In those last years of Spurgeon's life, the strife was so much in the foreground that it obscured for most observers the real importance of the stand Spurgeon had taken. Spurgeon was the first Evangelical with international influence to declare war on modernism.
The Baptist Union was never the same. But the Evangelical Alliance, an interdenominational fellowship, stood with Spurgeon and gained strength. Spurgeon's actions helped alert evangelicals worldwide to the dangers of modernism and the down-grade.
Robert Shindler, author of those original "Down Grade" articles in The Sword and the Trowel, wrote a biography of Spurgeon which was published the year of the great preacher's death. Recalling a scene in those final, tumultuous years when Spurgeon was invited to address the Evangelical Alliance, Shindler wrote,
The reception given by the audience to Mr. Spurgeon when he rose to speak was almost overpowering in its fervor and heartiness. We occupied a seat on the platform near enough to witness the powerful emotions that agitated his soul, and the tears that streamed down his cheeks as he listened to previous speakers; and though only a very few of his Baptist brethren were present, there was not wanting such a display of hearty sympathy as must have been cheering to his heart, and comforting to his soul. Since then time has revealed much; and following months and years will, no doubt, make more and more evident how needful was the protest which fidelity to God and to the gospel would not allow him to withhold.
The Lord graciously purge His Church of all false doctrine, all false teachers, and all who are traitors in the camp of Israel! And may the Spirit from on high be poured out upon all flesh, that all the ends of the earth may see, and own, and rejoice in, the salvation of our God!
Footnotes:1. Robert Shindler, "The Down Grade," The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887), 122.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved