Why Was Spurgeon So Successful?

Spurgeon at age 23

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 In the 1990’s I argued in an unpublished paper that it was Spurgeon’s plain speech, not just his Calvinism, that made him so successful.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?

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There are 13 Comments

David R. Brumbelow's picture

While I do not necessarily applaud Spurgeon’s Calvinism, he was certainly an outstanding preacher. Among non-Calvinists it has often been said that Spurgeon is their favorite Calvinist.

As to his plain speaking, I fully agree.

Too often preachers are trying to impress seminary professors and other preachers, rather than speaking the language of the people. If the people don’t understand your preaching, why waste their time and yours?

I’ve always admired a Bible scholar, who doesn’t act like a Bible scholar.

David R. Brumbelow

Bert Perry's picture

I've always believed that the mark of a truly educated man is whether he can explain what he does to a kindergartner.  On the flip side, we had the proverb in college "If you can't blind them with brilliance, baffle them with.....".  Sadly, I've seen that, too.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Nelson's picture

 

Just last week I was looking at a local church's website.  It's an IFB church plant about 8 years old that is located in a growing exurb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. 

Their attendance on the previous Sunday morning (per the online bulletin) had been 45.  (And that includes the pastor's family & the charter members who helped plant it, presumably.) 

Since I knew that other equally-new, gospel-preaching churches near it are experiencing a higher rate of numerical growth (i.e. reaching the influx of people in their growing community), I was initially surprised.  Then I looked at the sermon title that week.  (I'll not reproduce it here; I don't intend to cause embarrassment to anyone.)  Granted, it was by a guest speaker, but the sermon title made me squirm.  Not because it was was doctrinally flawed or troublesome, or because of anything intrinsically wrong with it; but because of its (IMO) needless obfuscation.  It would have made (perhaps) a fine (if somewhat stilted) title for a Th.D. dissertation, but what it would mean to someone without a strong background in theology eluded me.  I understood it, but to the average, unchurched Joe off the street, it likely would have little meaning.  (Perhaps the sermon itself was more accessible...)

G. N. Barkman's picture

As an admirer of Spurgeon, and one who has read hundreds of his sermons, I was a bit surprised to read that some Calvinists attribute Spurgeon's greatness to his Calvinism.  Although I am a committed Calvinist, I have never heard that assertion.  What Spurgeon's Calvinism did for me in those early years when I was searching for theological footing, was convince me that it was possible to be both a Calvinist AND a fervent evangelist.  Spurgeon's Calvinism served to destroy some of the straw men arguments I had embraced about Calvinism.

As to the reason for Spurgeon's greatness, I'm surprised that any Calvinist would attribute it to anything other than the sovereign working of God.  God gave him his gifts.  God ordained his background and preparation for ministry, and God blessed his labors with unusual effectiveness.  "All praise to Him Who reigns above in majesty supreme!"

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

Spurgeon's success was predestined. It had nothing to do with him. Carry on as usual, gents...

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

G. N. Barkman's picture

I don't suppose I should read any sarcasm into this comment?

But let's try to frame it properly.  Spurgeon's success was predestined, as are all our good works.  (Ephesians 2:10)  And, it was God working in Spurgeon to will and do of His good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:13)  As in all the efforts of God's people, we work for God, knowing that it is God Who enables, or else our efforts are in vain.  Who makes us to differ from one another?  (I Corinthians 4:7)

Did Spurgeon work hard at preaching and every other area of ministry?  Yes, like the Apostle Paul, Spurgeon worked harder than most others.  But many ministers work very hard, and see nothing similar to Spurgeon's success.  Ultimately, any man's success is traced to the sovereign throne of God, and He alone receives the glory.

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

It did strike me as funny. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

I liked Don's quip.  :^)   Agreed 100%, though, that debates over the doctrines of grace can continue forever and disrupt just about anything, especially among those who have never read a word that either Calvin or Arminius wrote.  I once led a Bible study where I could always count on two guys debating that instead of interacting with Hebrews--their loss, I guess.  (couldn't rebuke one guy TOO harshly because we were in his house, sigh)

But that said, it strikes me that parallel to Spurgeon's plain-spoken presentation was the monstrous library he had and used.  Plain-spoken, non-degreed, but able to go toe to toe, intellectually speaking, with just about anyone.  Good role model for all of us.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Don Johnson wrote:

It did strike me as funny. 

I didn't quite LOL but I did enjoy it.

As for CHS' plain spokenness, I never really noticed it before reading this piece. But maybe that's the what Dr.V. and others mean: when I read Spurgeon, what I notice is the content, not really how he's saying it. Which I'm pretty sure was his goal.

Don Johnson's picture

I think Spurgeon's appeal in his day was as a man of the people. His words to me sound like he was speaking to the ordinary man, which is something I would strive to emulate, though I am sure I fall far short. Part of the curse of too much education? Or obsession with details? I don't know. I wish I could write and speak more plainly than I do.

It is interesting how many people of various theological persuasions still find Spurgeon's sermons compelling. I think it actually speaks to the relative weight of the things that divide us. The particulars of soteriology are important for each individual to sort out, but if one's system is rooted in justification by faith alone through grace alone, the conclusions we come to on the details are somewhat peripheral.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

jreeseSr's picture

In his book "wild at heart" the author asks the rhetorical question "what has happened to "Men" in the church and his answer "we have turned them all into women" may be appropriate here:

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

I once heard a Baptist preacher say that his deacons were his "helpmeets" just like God gave him his wife. Whatever his intentions of that remark he has had an issue with men submitting for the position since. 

Jim

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