This is only the second biography ever written about the wife of the famed 19th century preacher. Those familiar with Charles Spurgeon are aware that his wife was a semi-invalid, seldom leaving the house for 23 years (1868-1891). Fewer are aware that prior to her illness she was an energetic, well-traveled young woman. All that seemed to change with the birth of her twins at age 36. Some painful physical condition, one apparently never described in the historical record, began at that time. Two surgeries, and other treatments could not cure her, yet she was not idle in seclusion. She raised the twins, largely in the absence of her husband, and spent most of her ministry time administering a book fund by which she ultimately gave away 200,000 books, mostly Spurgeon’s, to poor pastors who could not afford to purchase them. This and her contributions to her husband’s autobiography have become her (and to some extent Charles’) legacy (pp. 245-249). The book fund ceased functionally about 10 years after her death (p. 245). In addition, Susie published several books of her own and was instrumental in founding a Baptist church after Charles’ death (p. 210).
As might be expected, Rhodes writes of the Spurgeon romance, a bit about their family background, marriage, homes and children. However, as I the finished the book, I was left with many dangling questions and only hints of what family life was like for the Spurgeons. The twins admired their parents but apparently had a strange aloofness with their father, which might be expected since he was seldom home. But the dynamics within the home are left to our imagination. Perhaps no more information is available. The Spurgeons’ marriage also raised unanswered questions. Although they definitely loved one another, by modern standards Susie was a neglected wife. She had servants, a beautiful house, plenty of money, but her husband was traveling throughout in England preaching, heading not only a megachurch but numerous ministries such as a pastor’s college and orphanage, and spent three months every winter in sunny France while Susie sat at home mostly confined to her room. The couple were people of their times, nevertheless such neglect seems unconscionable. Spurgeon was a man dedicated to his ministry; Susie and the boys were clearly not his priority. While the church has greatly benefited from Charles’ dedication and genius, this is a biography about his wife and, as a curious reader, I would be interested in more insight into such matters. Once again, perhaps there are no records available to help us know more.
The author is very charitable to Susie, attributing good motives to her questionable habits. Twice Rhodes wrote that Susie “denied herself the pleasure of attending Sunday evening services that she might minister the Word of Life to her household” (pp. 90, 230). A less gracious interpretation would question why she could not find another hour in the week for such ministry and join, along with her sons and servants, the people of God for corporate worship? We are told she seldom attended the Metropolitan Tabernacle from 1868-1895 and never from 1895-1903 (p. 133). But she was able to attend the boys’ baptism (p. 239) and, after Charles’ death, founded a church, including breaking ground for the building, attending another church some in her later years (p. 232), and spending most of a day raising funds to rebuild the Metropolitan Tabernacle when her son Thomas was pastor. Throughout all the years that Charles spent winters in France it was only the last winter in which Susie was able to go with him. Strangely when he died she stayed in France and did not attend his funeral. No explanation for this is apparently known or given (p. 183). As a side note, Susie did not believe God gave new revelation today, but she did believe He spoke through impressions and she obeyed them (pp. 205-206).
After the death of Charles, his ministries went into decline and funds diminished. How this affected Susie is not told, but it had to have done so, especially since her son Thomas became the pastor of the church. As a reader I would have been very interested in knowing more about this period in her life.
Having said all the above, I would certainly admit I am more knowledgeable about Susie Spurgeon than I was before reading Susie. She was a remarkable woman who was apparently the perfect match for her even more remarkable husband. But I finished the book and realized that I still knew little about her. What made her tick? Why did she tolerate the absence of her husband? Why did she make some of the choices mentioned above? How debilitating was her illness in reality? How could she pour so much energy into certain ministries but not be able to simply sit through a church service? It is possible that no one has answers to these questions. Rhodes has no doubt done careful research, but there is no mention of Susie having a diary (which was common in those days) that might offer insight into her heart. Her letters to Charles are plentiful but they are written in poetic language as if prepped for publication and they don’t offer much in the way of answering more intimate questions. Maybe Susie takes us as far as documentation will allow into her life. To the extent it does so the book is worth reading.
Susie, the Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon by Roy Rhodes Jr. (Chicago; Moody Publishers, 2018) 294pp., hardback $19.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel