Taken from the “British Monthly,” 1903.
Written by William Robertson Nicoll.
THERE is a touching passage…
…in George Eliot’s great story “Janet’s Repentance.” She tells how Janet looked on Mr. Tryan at first, little thinking that she would follow him to his grave. “That second time Janet Dempster was not looking on in scorn and merriment; her eyes were worn with grief and watching, and she was following her beloved friend and pastor to the grave.”
When Mr. Spurgeon appeared in London, this is how the most distinguished organ of the Church of England spoke about him: “We have just now an opportunity of testing the contrast. There has lately appeared in London a young man named Spurgeon. He or his friends for him, give out that he is a second Whitefield. They speak of him as a ‘concentrated embodiment of the most unusual and lovely ornaments of our pious parents, as one possessed of a capacious and elastic and telegraphic mind’; and as we hear, there can be no question of his popularity in certain so-called religious circles. He is followed by thousands. “Exeter Hall cannot nearly contain,” it is said, “the herds who throng to his preaching.”
From accounts that reach us there has been little like the excitement during the present century. All this parson’s sermons are taken down in shorthand, and are printed in more than one series. we have looked through several, and they certainly give rise to curious and serious reflections upon the state of society and the results of the march of intellect and education here in London which in the middle of the nineteenth century finds this sort of thing to its taste.”
The years went on, nearly forty years, and when Mr. Spurgeon was in his last illness archbishops and bishops vied with one another in expressing their concern. The great newspapers that support the Church of England recognized in him one of the most powerful and beneficent figures who had ever appeared in London. The West End evening papers put the latest news of him in the most prominent place on their bills. He fell like a tower, and no one was found so base as to say one word against this manly, godly, devoted life, and his unparalleled ministry.
Nearly ten years have passed since “Mr. Spurgeon’s death, and now we are left with his memory, and with the great collection of his sermons that is ever being added to. Is his influence declining? It might very well have declined, for he was almost the greatest of our orators, and an orator’s power is cut short by death. His sermons, however, were independent of his oratory. They are as great to the reader as they were to the listener.
The reader, it is true, cannot listen to that marvelous voice, clear as a silver bell, and winning as a woman’s, which held the mighty congregations enthralled. On the other hand, he has the advantage of being able to pause on passages of reading, of turning back again and yet again. We do not know more refreshing, awakening, suggestive, warning, and comforting pages in religious literature than those of the “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.”
For ministers and teachers they are simply indispensable. The preacher who does not possess some volumes of the “Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit” –the more the better –who does not read them to kindle his own soul, is poorly furnished for his work. It is by those who speak in the spirit of Spurgeon that England will be raised from its religious lethargy. Better part with all commentaries, German and otherwise, and be content with the Bible of Spurgeon, than neglect this signal trumpet-voice.
If we have a preference, it is for the sermons preached in the sixties, [1860’s] and for the morning sermons above the evening. One ardent admirer of Spurgeon whom we knew long ago said to us, that in the morning sermon the first page was nearly always more nobly phrased than in the evening sermon. Yet after these years we are not so sure. There is a ripe and tender humanity in the discourses of the last ten years which is very endearing. I have spent an afternoon and evening in reading through a whole volume of the sermons, and I shall set down my fresh impressions.
1. In the first place, Mr. Spurgeon is always wooing the soul. What was said of Richard Cameron, the Lion of the Covenant, is true of him: “He had a bias towards the proposing of Christ.” All his preaching is persuading. He is always pleading, warning, wrestling; he is bent upon the soul’s salvation. There is so much preaching nowadays and in all days which completely lacks tliis element. The preacher sets himself to defend some theory or to destroy it, but there his work is done. He never gets into close contact with the hearer. “I have a message from God to thee” is the note of the true preacher. Mr. Spurgeon takes hold of his hearers, urges them, implores them, threatens them, promises them, and cannot bear to let them go until he has blessed them. Never were any sermons preached more full of that zeal for souls which should be the first characteristic of a true minister. It is very difficult to reach and maintain this height. Every one knows that before he can plead effectively they must be under the influence of strong feeling.
Pleading in the true sense is not natural to human nature. But when a man pleads for a woman’s love, when a man is face to face with his errings on and trying to draw him away from the brink of ruin, when a friend implores a friend to refrain from some madness that will wreck him, we are in the element in which the seeker for souls must move, and in that element Mr. Spurgeon lived and moved and had his being.
It is, perhaps, in this way that he will be most useful to preachers. As we have said, it is not natural for any one to plead, and in addition the preacher has temptations that draw him away from pleading. He can never plead well unless he is in deep and passionate earnestness, and he cannot be sure of the mood. On the other hand, he may argue well, he may picture well, he may expound well, in the lower, easier frame. Besides, pleading is apt to spoil the peroration or the artistic close. All care for such considerations Mr. Spurgeon had expelled from his mind. Every time he spoke he was wooing souls impressed not only by the urgency of their need, but also by the great provision for that need in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
If before going to the pulpit, preachers would read some of Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, they would find it far easier to feel and manifest that concern for souls without which the preacher cannot hope to achieve anything permanent.
2. I am impressed also with the fact that Mr. Spurgeon above all other preachers, preached the Word. So many preach from the Gospels or the Epistles, or the New Testament, or favorite parts of the Old Testament. Take a volume of the ” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit,” or, better still, look at the exhaustive index to the sermons published by Messrs. Passmore and Alalaxter, and you will see how Mr. Spurgeon ranges over the whole Bible. I take up a volume at random, that for 1892, containing sixty sermons, and I find that they are taken from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Zechariah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Hebrews, and James.
He rightly divided the Word of Truth. Nor did he read into his texts –at least,he read no more into them than Christ and the Apostles did. He interpreted the Old Testament from their standpoint. If they were wrong, he was wrong; if they were right,he was right. At present in many pulpits the Old Testament has fallen into almost complete disuse, or at least many parts of it are neglected. There was no part of it where Mr. Spurgeon could not find the Bread of Life. For him the two Testaments interpreted one another. This gave an astonishing freshness to his preaching. For the multitude of Christians in all ages the Bible must be its own commentary. Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. Any views that prevent such an interpretation are stamped with falsehood.
I note another characteristic, perhaps the most striking of all. Preachers nowadays as a rule avoid great subjects. They are afraid of great texts. They prefer some quaint unexpected text, and a subject which may be illustrated from literature and the common experiences of human life. I do not deny for a moment that there is a great place for such sermons. If a preacher can put himself on common ground with the thoughts of the hearer during the week, he has a much better chance of being listened to and remembered. Nevertheless, there are some preachers who do not need this, and of such was Mr. Spurgeon. He moved among the last awful secrets of the Christian redemption like a child at home. It was not merely that he was a great and trained theologian –he was that in the most eminent degree from the commencement of his London ministry. He had thoroughly mastered great theological system –mastered ‘it in all its bearings –and was never carried away by the exaggerating of separate aspects of the Faith. He saw the truth in all its breadth and in its manifold connections.
He did not, for an example, preach Christ in us apart from the truth Christ for us. Neither did he preach Christ for us and forget to speak of Christ in us. But with him theology was a matter of experience. He never taught it in dry dogmatic propositions. The greatest and profoundest faiths he had passed through the fires of life. He could sing about them as well as preach about them. Ministers may ask themselves (and this is a very good test) Can I preach from the words “Accepted in the Beloved,” or “Not having mine own righteous”? The preacher to whom those texts suggest nothing does not know the burning heart of Christianity. But if he is carried away into the depth of these texts, and is able to preach on them from living experience, he has an unction from the Holy One, and is greatest when he speaks of the stories of spiritual experiences.
When he deals with the ordinary griefs of life, especially with bereavement, he is less helpful than in other places, for he himself perhaps never quite understood the agony of loss. On the other hand, he knew as few have known what it was to be in the valley of spiritual humiliation. I wish it were possible that his expositions on the Psalms could be published separately; they are quite alone, so far as I know, in our literature. Mr. Spurgeon cast his plumbline marvelously far.