Some time ago I was given the then-new volume of “missing sermons” of C.H. Spurgeon published by Day One Publishers. C.H. Spurgeon has always been be my “preaching hero,” and I have read far more of his sermons than those of everyone else combined. His autobiography shaped me like nothing else in the early days of my ministry. We who are Calvinists often claim that his success was due to his Puritan Calvinism. In the 1990’s I argued in an unpublished paper that it was Spurgeon’s plain speech, not just his Calvinism, that made him so successful. Here is an excerpt from that paper.
What fails in the theological interpretation of Spurgeon is its inability to explain how many other English preachers who had held as tenaciously to Calvinistic tenets as Spurgeon did were not nearly as successful as he was! Furthermore, it fails to explain the tremendous appeal of preachers like his contemporaries Joseph Parker in London and Russell Conwell in Philadelphia—who were not Calvinists! What Spurgeon brought to the pulpit, along with an effective evangelical Calvinism, was a populism born out of his own personal experience. One of the ways in which this was manifested was his commitment to plain speech.
Spurgeon felt that the secret of his own success was that he preached the old doctrines of the Puritans in the language of the nineteenth century marketplace. He often boasted that no one needed to bring a dictionary to the Tabernacle, and he admonished his students to stick to plain, Saxon speech if they wished to be understood. (Patricia Stallings Kruppa, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon, A Preacher’s Progress” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1968: 167)
Consider the following words of the “Governor” himself:
Our common people like to hear that which their mind can grasp, but they shun the jargon of the schools. We must talk like men if we would win men. Scarcely one man in a dozen in the pulpit talks like a man. The British artisan admires manliness, and prefers to lend his ear to one who speaks in a hearty and natural style. (Sword and Trowel, XIX, 1883: 423, 168)
Perhaps this helps to explain why the membership of the Tabernacle was drawn mainly from the working-class of South London/Southwark. While other Calvinistic clergy proclaimed the doctrines of the Puritans, Spurgeon did so in a manner that even the Puritans might have considered brash and even vulgar. He urged his students in the Pastors’ College to “seek the fire of Wesley and the fuel of Whitefield” (Lectures to My Students, London, 1875: 83).
Spurgeon’s most popular work in his lifetime was not one of his theological, biblical, or sermonic tomes, but rather the little John Ploughman’s Talk, Being Plain Talk for Plain People in Pure Saxon. It sold over 400,000 copies before 1900 and is the source for most of the proverbs associated with Spurgeon’s name. The book’s homely wisdom served as a sort of Victorian Poor Richard’s Almanac and was immensely popular with Englishmen of hardy stock, who formed the bulk of Spurgeon’s congregation and followers. Conwell was so impressed with John Ploughman that he excerpted forty pages and included them in his biography of Spurgeon as an example of the style he so admired and used in his own speaking and preaching. (Russell Conwell, Life of Charles H. Spurgeon, Edgewood Publishing Company, 1892: 493-505).
While Spurgeon was occasionally criticized as a “cultural Philistine” and a “boor” beside some of the more polished clergymen of his day, it was perhaps for that very reason that his influence was so much wider than that of his more erudite contemporaries.
I applaud and affirm Spurgeon’s Calvinism, but those who explain his success as due to his soteriology can’t explain why we who share those same doctrines of grace fall so far short of him. I submit that he was “successful” because he communicated those doctrines in the language—not even of the man in the pew—but of the man in the street.
Aren’t there some lessons here for us?