Nineteenth Century English pastor Charles Spurgeon is well-known to Christians today, especially those of the Reformed persuasion, who see him as a champion for Calvinism. Others point to his passion for “soul-winning,” still others love his sermons and highly quotable comments. Murray endeavors to move beyond what is commonly known about the influential pastor (this is not a biography, the author tells us, p. 5) to discuss the man revealed in his sermons—the forgotten Spurgeon (p. 4). This work actually centers around three major controversies in Spurgeon’s ministry.
The first, early in his pastorate (1855-1856), involved Calvinism, as Spurgeon preached it, and Arminianism which he strongly opposed. He desired to reintroduce and strengthen the theology of Augustine, Calvin, and the Puritans, and in his early years met with considerable success—and powerful opposition. It was during these years that Spurgeon’s reputation as a warrior for biblical truth, as well as an outstanding preacher, was recognized.
The second major confrontation began in the mid-1860s and is called, by Murray, the Baptismal Regeneration controversy, or Tractarianism, because the spread of this particular heresy was through tracts, or papers, published by its leaders. And while Baptismal Regeneration was at issue, the broader effort was an attempt to take Protestantism back toward Rome, and is known today as the Oxford Movement (pp. 123-127). As one might imagine, Spurgeon led the resistance against Tractarianism and its recognized leader, John Henry Newman. Newman himself eventually defected to Rome. But Spurgeon went further, challenging the Prayer Book used by Protestants and creating a deep division within evangelicalism (pp. 139-142).
However, by far the greatest challenge of Spurgeon’s ministry was the Down-Grade controversary, which erupted toward the end of his life. As the liberal doctrines of Higher Criticism began to infiltrate evangelical ranks, including the Baptist Union of which Spurgeon was a member, he went on the attack. So heated became the division that Spurgeon resigned from the Union, and the counsel’s evangelical declaration, which Spurgeon saw as a compromise with Higher Criticism, went on to be accepted by 2000 votes against 7 (p. 157). This was a personal affront to Spurgeon and signaled that he was no longer carrying men with him as in the past (pp. 170, 195-196). He stood virtually alone in the Down-Grade (p. 205) and when he died had few followers (pp. 247-249, 252). Spurgeon’s Calvinistic theology had fallen out of favor, as had his style of worship and ministry. Replacing it was an evangelicalism more in line with Arminianism and greatly influenced by Americans, especially D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey (pp. 181-187). Evangelicalism had drifted into a Christianity uninterested in doctrine and over-emphasizing love (pp. 199-206). Strangely, Spurgeon accepted Moody while rejecting “Moodyism” (pp. 245-247), which was confusing to those still influenced by the London preacher. After Spurgeon died, with no powerful voice to resist, even Spurgeon’s own church embraced the evangelicalism he had opposed all his life.
Today Spurgeon is highly honored in many Christian circles, and interest in Calvinism and the Puritans has resurfaced. It is hard to imagine that Spurgeon and his theology were largely played out by the time he died. The Forgotten Spurgeon pulls back the curtain on a Charles Spurgeon who many did not realize existed. Murray is a fine church historian and much about 19th century Christianity can be gleaned in this volume. I question his objectivity at times; he is obviously a great fan of Spurgeon, but the book is of value to those interested in this famous preacher and/or this particular time frame. It also serves as an excellent reminder of how easy it is for God’s people to slowly drift in the wrong direction through subtle compromises.
The Forgotten Spurgeon, by Iain Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, Second Edition, 1973, 2017) 268 pp. plus xiv, $14.49
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel.