We all think of the great English Baptist C. H. Spurgeon as a mighty and powerful preacher. And that he was, but he was also so much more. While preaching the truths of the gospel was his driving passion and mainstay, he was also up to his ears in very practical help for the poor, the destitute, and the needy.
Critics of Christianity will claim that it is all ‘pie in the sky’ stuff with no relevance to people here on earth. Try telling that to the many thousands of people who were helped in very tangible ways by Spurgeon and his church. They knew how real and tangible Christianity is.
I have already spent some time discussing one new book on these matters. I refer to Spurgeon and the Poor: How the Gospel Compels Christian Social Concern by Alex DiPrima (Reformation Heritage Books, 2023). See my earlier remarks on this very helpful volume:
But this book is worth looking at in more detail. Early on he speaks to what I just said above: we all know of Spurgeon the preacher, but… he says this:
“Ask many evangelicals today about Spurgeon, and they can likely tell you something about his storied preaching. However, how many have heard of Spurgeon’s activities as a philanthropist, activist, or friend of poor orphans and needy widows? How many would imagine that Spurgeon, the famous Prince of Preachers, whose preaching commanded the rapt attention of tens of thousands, took appointments to pray hand in hand with sick children? Yet this is the Spurgeon who was and who must again be reintroduced to the church today.”
This book, based on his doctoral thesis, tells that story. All that Spurgeon did in terms of practical help to others, including his own personal generosity, and speaking out on issues like slavery, was based on his understanding of Scripture. First and foremost people must hear the gospel, but a life of faith is evidenced by a whole raft of good works.
For Spurgeon, social ministry was not an optional extra, but an integral part of the Christian calling. And yet, he did NOT follow things like the social gospel, where doing good works with little or no proclamation of the gospel to sinners was the emphasis. Speaking forth the gospel was always his emphasis, but the social works were proof of a right standing with God. Says DiPrima:
“Spurgeon never preached anything approximating a social gospel. Social renewal and economic betterment were not at the heart of the gospel for Spurgeon. Rather, the gospel Spurgeon preached was one of personal salvation and spiritual renewal, leading to a transformed life that expresses itself in good works of benevolence.”
And DiPrima reminds us how busy this man was, with multiple sermons preached each week, 150 books written, his own family to tend to, and a ‘megachurch’ to run. Yet he had time to do so much personal work in helping the needy. Spurgeon felt that a Christian with no concern for the poor and needy was a walking contradiction.
He made sure that the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London was a “working church”. It was involved in dozens of voluntary societies and mercy ministries. And he wanted all his members to have a role to play in all these various activities.
As to direct political involvement, at least from the pulpit, Spurgeon tended to shy away from this. However, he was not averse to using his sermons and writings to sometimes address various political and social issues, including slavery, concern for the poor, and so on. And he did ardently support Gladstone and the Liberals.
But this needs to be teased out a bit further. The situation in his time and place was different from our own. So what I said in my earlier article bears repeating here. I believe he would be involved in the culture wars if he were with us today. I believe he would stand against things like abortion, and he would encourage his people to support politicians and candidates who are pro-life.
Indeed, this would follow from his strong denunciations of slavery. And as DiPrima reminds us, Spurgeon did distinguish the church from parachurch groups. I think we can be certain that he would eagerly support things like parachurch groups that work on pro-life causes and the like.
But Spurgeon wanted the pulpit to mainly be about proclaiming the good news of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection for lost sinners. That was always his focus and something he sought to do in every sermon he preached. So while he tended to avoid party politics, he would speak to political matters when the need arose.
He was happy to use other mediums to do so, and he encouraged his people to let the Christian worldview inform their political thinking. But he felt that changed hearts lead to a changed society, and not the other way around. Thus he fully opposed things like ‘Christian socialism’.
In the second half of this book, DiPrima looks at all the ways Spurgeon was personally involved in helping the poor and needy. His own personal wealth was very much used in all this. Because of his immense popularity, and the popularity of his printed sermons, Spurgeon got quite a bit of income. DiPrima says in today’s terms he earned over $25 million in his lifetime. And most of that he gave away and/or spent on social ministry activities.
By 1870 some 25,000 copies of his sermons per week were being sold. Some 56 million were sold in his lifetime, with perhaps 100 million sold by 1899. The income from this was overwhelmingly used by Spurgeon for a whole range of social ministries, from orphanages to direct help for the poor, as well as helping to train and support pastors, missionaries and church plants.
His important work, the Pastors’ College, was designed to raise up hundreds of pastors who would proclaim the gospel far and wide. And the Stockwell Orphanage helped look after countless children. All up he was involved in 66 different benevolent ministries, all operated under the auspices of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. (A full list of these 66 works are found on p. 137.)
I mentioned how his large church was a “working church.” It was open seven days a week, from 11am to 11pm. It was a beehive of activity – just as Spurgeon wanted it to be. Its aim was to serve London and beyond and demonstrate the real practical fruit of lives transformed by Christ.
As DiPrima states: “Spurgeon wanted his members to feel empowered to work for the Lord and to feel they each had a part to play in service to Christ. To work for Jesus is a privilege and responsibility belonging to every Christian. Further, Spurgeon wanted all of his hearers to feel as though a great deal rested on their shoulders.”
He says this in his concluding chapter:
To do good was, in a sense, the theme of Spurgeon’s life. Of course, he believed the greatest good he could do was to introduce sinners to a Savior in whom they could find everlasting life. But he also sought to do good through thousands of acts of charity, both small and great, that truly benefited scores of needy people. Tens of thousands of poor Londoners had a benevolent champion in Charles Spurgeon. He rescued orphans from the streets, widows from grinding poverty, and the poor from utter ruin. Spurgeon rose each morning, put on his overcoat, and stepped out of his door in the direction of London with the singular aim of doing good to others.
We sure can use some more Charles Spurgeons today.