C.H. Spurgeon's Autobiography
by Tony Reinke (7/02)
In America, reformed theology is on the rise. Less than one year ago this phenomena captured the attention of Christianity Today in a cover story titled, "Young, Restless, Reformed" and featured a cover photograph of a man wearing a "Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy" t-shirt. The popularity of Edwards' writings is nothing fresh, but the noun "homeboy" does signify a significant cultural shift in Edwardian readership, dude.
This past week, Mark Dever began a series of posts at the 9Marks blog to answer the growing question: "Where'd All These Calvinists Come From?" He began the series by pointing to the profound and sustained influence of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) through his published works. Nearly 100 volumes from Spurgeon are still in print today, and many of these are heavy hardcover editions. Just one copy of each volume still in print would be enough weight to crush a grown man!
Spurgeon remains today as one of the most widely published authors in literary history, both in his breadth of published material and in copies sold. Within the massive corpus of published works, Spurgeon's 2-volume autobiography must certainly rank among the most important.
Why read it?
Why anyone would sit down and read a 1,100-page biography is closely tied to another question: What made Spurgeon so interesting? There are a number of factors.
First, and most obvious in his life, Spurgeon was thoroughly humbled under the Cross. From his initial conversion at age 15, he was willing to serve his Savior in any way. He worked selling cheap tracts to anyone he could find (an early form of distributing the Gospel). As he walked along the roads, he would write passages of Scripture on pieces of paper and litter them along the way, in hopes an inquiring soul would be blessed (1:156). He wrote that he wished he could serve the church by being a welcome mat for the saints to wipe their feet clean before entering church. This would be for him, an honorable service to Christ. As a newly converted teen, Spurgeon walked from house to house in the country to serve families in various ways, and walked many miles in horrible weather to preach to a farmer's house to about 20 souls. Any ministry was joyful and humbly pursued. So when Spurgeon is called to London as a country boy into a large city of already well-established preachers, he was and ever remained humbled. Do I have this humility?
The Cross of Christ always remained at the center of his conversations, friendships, letters, and sermons. He was as thoroughly Cross-centered as any man since the Apostles. He was fully aware that a Man -- not doctrine -- saved the soul (1:93-94). Because of his love for Christ's glory, Spurgeon was motivated to fight hard against those redefining the atonement (1:488-489): "books now appear which teach us that there is no such thing as the vicarious sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. They use the word atonement, it is true; but, in regard to its meaning they have removed the ancient landmark." He remains for us today a great model of humble Cross-centered faithfulness in preaching and controversy. Am I Christ-centered, contending for His glory; or doctrine-centered, fighting for correct definitions?
He was an imminently busy man, preaching 10 times a week, leading prayer meetings, traveling, editing his weekly sermons for print, editing a magazine, writing books, training pastors, caring for widows and orphans, raising his two sons with his wife, maintaining a massive London congregation, and battling physical sickness and depression. He was a quintessential multitasker. At the end of his life, it can be doubtful there was more he could have done for his Savior. Will they say that about me?
What also shines in these volumes (and certainly to be accounted for in his lengthy popularity) is Spurgeon's bold and witty candor. This humor produced untold numbers of stories, retold in the autobiography by the consummate storyteller himself. Here are a few of the amusing stories to illustrate my point. The first story I have filed away in the 'Don't try this at home unless you are Spurgeon' folder:
"Our Wesleyan brethren have a notion that they are going to be perfect here on earth. I should be very glad to see them when they are perfect; and if any of them happen to be in the position of servants, wanting situations, I would be happy to give them any amount of wages I could spare, for I should feel myself highly honored and greatly blessed in having perfect servants; and what is more, if any of them are masters, and need servants, I would undertake to come and serve them without any wages at all if I could but find a perfect master. I have had one perfect Master ever since I first knew the Lord, and if I could be sure that there is another perfect master, I should be greatly pleased to have him as an under-master, while the great Supreme must ever be chief of all. One man, who said he was perfect, called upon me once, and asked me to go and see him, for I should receive valuable instruction from him if I did. I said, 'I have no doubt it would be so; but I should not like to go to your house, I think I should hardly be able to get into one of your rooms.' 'How is that?' he inquired. 'Well,' I replied, 'I suppose that your house would be so full of angels that there would be no room for me.' He did not like that remark; and when I made one or two other playful observations, he went into a towering rage. 'Well, friend,' I said to him, 'I think, after all, I am as perfect as you are; but do perfect men ever get angry?' He denied that he was angry, although there was a peculiar redness about his cheeks, and a fiery flash in his eyes, that is very common to persons when they are in a passion" (1:229).
Or take this story:
"I had once to deal with a man who assented to everything I said. When I talked about the evil of sin, he agreed with me, and said that I was very faithful. When I set before him the way of salvation, he assented to it, but it was evident that his heart was not affected by the truth. I could almost have wished that he had flatly denied what I said, for that would have given me the opportunity of arguing the matter with him, and pressing him to come to a decision. At last, I felt that it was quite hopeless to talk to hint any longer, so I said, 'The fact is, one of these days you will die, and be damned,' - and I walked away without saying another word. As I expected, it was not very long before he sent for me, and when I went to him, he begged me to tell him why I had said such a dreadful thing to him. I answered, 'It seems quite useless for me to talk to you about the salvation of your soul, for you never appear to feel the force of anything that I say. I might almost as well pour oil down a slab of marble as expect you to be impressed by the truth that I set before you, and my solid conviction is that you will be damned.' He was quite angry with me for speaking so plainly; and I went away again, leaving him very cross. Before many hours were over, he was in all awful state of mind; the Holy Spirit had convinced him of his state as a sinner, and he was in an agony of soul. That sharp sentence of mine was like the hook in a fish's gills, but that fish was landed all right. The man was brought to repentance and faith; he was baptized, joined the church, and a few years ago went home to Heaven" (1:381-382).
Spurgeon started a Pastors College to train the many men who wanted to learn directly from the Prince of Preachers himself. These men needed first the recommendation of their local pastors. Here is a humorous story that illuminates the character of Spurgeon.
"I had a curious experience with one applicant. His pastor had given him an open letter, warmly commending him to me as a man called to the ministry; but, in another communication, sent to me by post, the minister wrote that the young man was not at all likely ever to become a preacher, and that he had only written the recommendation because the candidate's father was his chief deacon, and he feared to offend him by telling him the truth. I felt that it was quite unjust to put upon me the onus of refusing the young man; so, when he arrived, I gave him the epistle I had received, and left him and his father to settle the matter with their pastor in the best way they could" (2:101).
We can only imagine the pastor's surprise when father and son return home with the letter! And in a rare wedding sermon, Spurgeon addressed the bride with these words:
"According to the teaching of the apostle, 'The husband is the head of the wife.' Don't you try to be the head; but you be the neck, then you can turn the head whichever way you like" (2:442).
Space does not permit for the humorous ways he makes fun of his publishing friend Joseph Passmore, whom he called "His Royal Highness." I found myself openly laughing at many of the stories throughout Spurgeon's life. An entire chapter is devoted to Spurgeon's lightheartedness (ch. 26: "Pure Fun," 2:435-452) but in some way the humor runs into every chapter.
Constructing a patchwork
Spurgeon's autobiography is hardly an autobiography. The chapters written directly by Spurgeon were written piecemeal over the years. Preaching the Gospel, editing his weekly sermons for print, editing his Sword and Trowel magazine, and writing commentaries were his priorities over any autobiography. When moments allowed, Spurgeon would recount some time of his life and then put the pen down for another opportunity in the future - which, in the end, left far too little material for a straight autobiography. A large portion of this final work was the constructive efforts of editors piecing together historical details and timely excerpts from sermons, letters, and articles where they fit in Spurgeon's timeline. His beloved wife, Susanna, wrote some of the chapters covering Spurgeon's childhood and a number of chapters covering his personal and family life. She proves to be open and candid with her firsthand recollections. One of their two sons, Charles Spurgeon Jr., wrote one chapter ("A Son's Memories," 2:267-279). Although Spurgeon's two sons are noticeably absent from the rest of the autobiography.
The original editors dumped too much information into the original edition. The final "autobiography" was gigantic and published in four volumes between 1897-1900. In 1962, the editors of the Banner of Truth set out to edit out as much material as possible to bring the autobiography down to a more readable two volumes. This included removing some sections of sermon outlines and an essay on "Popery" (no, not the smelly flower stuff). The final edition published by the Banner in 1962 (volume 1) and in 1973 (volume 2) are a well-groomed conclusion to a very long and tedious editorial task. As with other Spurgeon volumes, there are "unabridged" editions of this autobiography, but that only means the mountain of editorial additions remain, not that Spurgeon's words themselves have been removed. The Banner edition bears the marks of thoughtful trimming and excellent editing.
There are some particular highlights of these precious two volumes. I'll mention them only briefly.
- The volumes contain 66 glossy black-and-white photos, many handwritten facsimiles, and other charts and timelines throughout. As we have come to expect, the Banner volumes are printed in a high-quality red cloth binding and Smyth-sewn for durability.
- Spurgeon's conversion is dramatic and the account of the event is particularly moving (1:79-96), as is reading the letter of the 16-year-old to his father, saying he desires to be a gospel minister (1:116).
- The descriptions of the massive transformation of souls in Waterbeach, England, the site of Spurgeon's first pastorate at the age of 17, were incredible (1:193-203).
- Spurgeon enjoyed walking in the fields during thunderstorms: "I like to hear my Heavenly Father's voice in the thunder" (1:187). The country-folk didn't share Spurgeon's love of thunder, and so he would walk to farmhouses and speak comforting words to the discomforted. Always, Spurgeon was looking to serve others.
- I especially enjoyed an early chapter titled, "A Defense of Calvinism" (1:163-175). Calvinism has a sanctifying effect, he argues (1:174).
- A particularly moving exhortation for mothers is not to neglect the souls of their children (1:198-199).
- Spurgeon speaks assurance to a doubting Christian by pointing him to the Cross (1:202-203).
- What is his advice to church planters? "Cling tightly with both your hands; when they fail, catch hold with your teeth; and if they give way, hang on by your eyelashes" (2:114).
- Spurgeon shares a beautiful picture of marriage (1:410).
- No autobiography would be complete without focusing on his library and reading. Spurgeon was a speed-reader with near perfect recollection of everything he read. He loved to collect books and author autographs. An entire chapter is devoted to his reading and library that will appeal to those bibliophiles like myself (2:333-348).
- He has sharp words for those who borrow books, but don't return them (2:333-334).
- His address to pastor's wives is sensitive and exceptional (2:443).
- Spurgeon was constant amazement at the power of doctrine preached. God will bring surprising results when we preach His word. He writes,
"My experience goes to show that there have been persons converted to God by doctrines that some might have thought altogether unlikely to produce that result. I have known the doctrine of the resurrection to bring sinners to Christ; I have heard of scores brought to the Savior by a discourse upon election, -- the very sort of people who, as far as I can see, would never have been reached if that truth had not happened to be an angular doctrine that just struck their heart in the right place, and fitted into the crevices of their nature. I have often preached a terrible sermon upon the law, and afterwards found that sinners had been comforted by it. God frequently blesses the Word in the very opposite manner to that in which I thought it would be blessed, and He brings very, very many, to know their state by nature by doctrines which I should have thought would rather have comforted believers than awakened the unconverted" (2:241-242).
The highlights could extend on for many pages.
I will take a moment here to note that while the autobiography is wonderful, it is no replacement for also reading a biography on Spurgeon. For example, the "Down-Grade Controversy" gets very little explanation in the autobiography. There is a chapter on Spurgeon's response, but nothing in the way of background to explain the details. Arnold Dallimore's biography, Spurgeon (Banner of Truth: 1985), and Iain Murray's, The Forgotten Spurgeon (Banner of Truth: 1973), are both must-reads for the Spurgeon enthusiast.
Let me address who will benefit from Spurgeon's autobiography and then quickly conclude.
Who will benefit?
As Dever has shown, the works of Spurgeon have benefited a wide audience of readers, even among those hostile to Calvinism! Really, any Christian who seeks spiritual nourishment in Christ will find much value in these volumes. There is a Cross-centeredness in Spurgeon that can be seen as he interacts with his critics, his wife, his friends, his work, even his vacation - and each encounter unfolds the beauty of a life boasting only in the Cross.
But in particular, these volumes will be treasured by Gospel ministers, evangelists and youth pastors.
For preachers and evangelists, this volume will spur you on the same way Arnold Dallimore's biography of George Whitefield will spurn you on to seek God's gracious hand upon your labors. The eternal fruit of personal conversions surrounding Spurgeon's sermons, personal conversations, and writings are undeniable and irrefutable. This was no spiritual manipulation or slight-of-hand maneuvering. In 25 years of ministry in London over 9,000 souls were converted under Spurgeon's preaching and 150,000,000 (that's 150 million!) individual sermon manuscripts printed and sold around the world in dozens of languages (anyone know what this number is to date?!). God's hand was heavy upon Spurgeon, and Gospel ministers will return to these volumes for more than one read.
These volumes would also make a great gift for a young pastor. The first volume in particular will be of great use to pastors just getting their feet wet in the ministry. Spurgeon, a country-boy with a white-hot zeal for the Gospel, travels around the countryside seeking to minister to anyone in any way possible. The first volume left me thinking I had just completed a priceless internship at Spurgeon's side.
I say it will especially be useful for youth ministers because it reveals the heart of a Cross-centered teenager (Spurgeon was converted at 15). Spurgeon recounts his conversion in a full chapter (1:79-96). And in case we think these are simply the exaggerated memories of an old man reflecting on his distant childhood, Susanna opens and inserts the contents of a private diary written by Spurgeon as a newly-converted young man to prove otherwise (1:123-143).
How many 15-year-old's journals read like this? "Let not my first love chill. I have no fire within to keep it alight, Thou alone canst so this, my Lord and my God" (1:130). "I have the seeds of all evil in my own heart; pride is yet my darling sin, I cannot shake it off" (1:143). "Life of my soul, forgive me when I am so blind as to look upon an earthly object, and forget Thine own Divine beauties! Oh, for a love as strong as death, fierce as hell, and lasting as eternity!" (1:137). "How is my soul a battlefield between the corruptions of nature and the principle of grace! They tear up the earth of my soul with the trampling of their armies; but I cannot be destroyed" (1:137). Youth ministers will sift through Spurgeon's teen years to find many helpful quotes to spur youth to think seriously about eternal truths.
Mark Dever in his post on the rise in Calvinism wrote, "Spurgeon seemed about as healthy and balanced as a Bible-believing Christian can be. In his preaching He exalted God's grace, centered on the cross of Christ, instructed Christians and pled with sinners." Nowhere is this balanced Christian life better revealed than in Spurgeon's autobiography. He has certainly influenced generations of Christians, and has profoundly impacted the contemporary rise in Calvinists with his irrefutably genuine Christian life and Gospel ministry. A firsthand glimpse into his life and ministry is here in this excellent autobiography and should be on the shelves of every reading Christian.
Title: Autobiography: (vol. 1) The Early Years 1834-1859; (vol. 2) The Full Harvest 1860-1892.
Author: C.H. Spurgeon
Editors: Susannah Spurgeon (wife) and Joseph Harrald
Reading level: 2.2/5.0 > popular level
Boards: cloth (red and black with gold embossing)
Pages: 1,082 (562 + 520)
Dust jacket: yes
Binding: Smyth sewn
Topical index: yes (at end of each volume)
Scriptural index: no
Text: facsimile of 1962/1973 Banner of Truth editions
Publisher: Banner of Truth
Years: first edited volume published in 1962 and second in 1973
Price USD: $59.00 / $46.80 from Monergism
ISBN: Set: 9780851517285. Vol 1: 0851510760, 9780851510767. Vol 2: 0851511821, 9780851511825.
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All content including reviews and photographs are copyright (c) 2007 Tony Reinke. If you steal them you will be hunted, arrested and housed in a dark prison cell.