The Long Pastorate Commenced, 1854
WHEN I came to New Park Street Chapel, it was but a mere handful of people to whom I first preached, yet I can never forget how earnestly they prayed. Sometimes they seemed to plead as though they could really see the Angel of the covenant present with them, and as if they must have a blessing from Him. More than once, we were all so awe-struck with the solemnity of the meeting, that we sat silent for some moments while the Lord's power appeared to over-shadow us; and all I could do on such occasions was to pronounce the Benediction, and say, "Dear friends, we have had the Spirit of God here very manifestly to-night; let us go home, and take care not to lose His gracious influences." Then down came the blessing; the house was filled with hearers, and many souls were saved. I always give all the glory to God, but I do not forget that He gave me the privilege of ministering from the first to a praying people. We had prayer-meetings in New Park Street that moved our very souls. Every man seemed like a crusader besieging the New Jerusalem, each one appeared determined to storm the Celestial City by the might of intercession, and soon the blessing came upon us in such abundance that we had not room to receive it.
There is a confidence in one's own powers which must ever be of service to those who are called to eminent positions, provided the confidence is well-grounded, seasoned with humility, and attended with that holy gratitude which refers all honour and glory to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. But, at the same time, there is nothing more true than the fact that the self-confident are near a fall, that those who lean on themselves must be overthrown, and that carnal security has but a baseless fabric in which to dwell. When I first became a Pastor in London, my success appalled me, and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth, out of which I uttered my miserere, and found no room for a gloria in excelsis. Who was I that I should continue to lead so great a multitude? I would betake me to my village obscurity, or emigrate to America, and find a solitary nest in the backwoods, where I might be sufficient for the things which would be demanded of me. It was just then that the curtain was rising upon my life-work, and I dreaded what it might reveal. I hope I was not faithless, but I was timorous, and filled with a sense of my own unfitness. I dreaded the work which a gracious Providence had prepared for me. I felt myself a mere child, and trembled as I heard the voice which said, "Arise, and thresh the mountains, and make them as chaff." This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and over-shadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist, heralding the nearer coming of my Lord's richer benison. So have far better men found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master's use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Fasting gives an appetite for the banquet. The Lord is revealed in the backside of the desert, while His servant keepeth the sheep, and waits in solitary awe. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn. The mariners go down to the depths, but the next wave makes them mount towards the heavens; and their soul is melted because of trouble before the Lord bringeth them to their desired haven.
Not long after I was chosen Pastor at Park Street, I was interviewed by a good man who had left the church, having been, as he said, "treated shamefully." He mentioned the names of half-a-dozen persons, all prominent members of the church, who had behaved in a very unchristian manner to him--he, poor innocent sufferer, having been a model of patience and holiness! I learned his character at once from what he said about others (a mode of judging which has never misled me), and I made up my mind how to act. I told him that the church had been in a sadly unsettled state, and that the only way out of the snarl was for every one to forget the past, and begin again. He said that the lapse of years did not alter facts; and I replied that it would alter a man's view of them if in that time he had become a wiser and a better man. I added that all the past had gone away with my predecessors, that he must follow them to their new spheres, and settle matters with them, for I would not touch the affair with a pair of tongs. He waxed somewhat warm, but I allowed him to radiate until he was cool again, and we shook hands, and parted. He was a good man, but constructed upon an uncomfortable principle, so that, at times, he crossed the path of other people in a very awkward manner, and if I had gone into his case, and taken his side, there would have been no end to the strife. I am quite certain that, for my own success, and for the prosperity of the church; I took the wisest course by applying my blind eye to all disputes which dated previously to my advent. It is the extremity of unwisdom for a young man, fresh from College, or from another charge, to suffer himself to be earwigged by a clique, and to be bribed by kindness and flattery to become a partisan, and so to ruin himself with one-half of his people.
I do not find, at the present time, nearly so much advice being given to young men as when I first came to London. Dear me, what quantities I had! I believe I had as much as that American humourist, who said he found enough advice lying loose round about him to ruin three worlds at least; I am sure I had quite enough to have done that. But now, instead of advising our young brethren; and hinting at their indiscretions, we rather rejoice in their impetuosity and earnestness. We like to see much freshness and vigour about them: and if they do kick over the traces now and then, we feel that time will moderate their zeal, and probably a very few years will add to them the prudence which they now lack.
I could tell many stories of the remarkable conversions that were wrought in those early days. Once, when I was in the vestry, an Irishman came to see me. Pat began by making a low bow, and saying, "Now, your Riverence, I have come to ax you a question." "Oh!" said I, "Pat, I am not a Riverence; it is not a title I care for; but what is your question, and how is it you have not been to your priest about it?" He said, "I have been to him, but I don't like his answer." "Well, what is your question?" Said he, "God is just; and if God be just, He must punish my sins. I deserve to be punished. If He is a just God, He ought to punish me; yet you say God is merciful, and will forgive sins. I cannot see how that is right; He has no right to do that. He ought to be just, and punish those who deserve it. Tell me how God can be just, and yet be merciful." I replied, "That is through the blood of Christ." "Yes," said he, "that is what my priest said, you are very much alike there; but he said a good deal besides, that I did not understand; and that short answer does not satisfy me. I want to know how it is that the blood of Jesus Christ enables God to be just, and yet to be merciful." Then I saw what he wanted to know, and explained the plan of salvation thus: "Now, Pat, suppose you had been killing a man, and the judge had said, 'That Irishman must be hanged.'" He said quickly, "And I should have richly deserved to be hanged." "But, Pat, suppose I was very fond of you, can you see any way by which I could save you from being hanged?" "No sir, I cannot." "Then, suppose I went to the Queen, and said, 'Please your Majesty, I am very fond of this Irishman; I think the judge was quite right in saying that he must be hanged, but let me be hanged instead, and you will then carry out the law.' Now, the Queen could not agree to my proposal; but suppose she could--and God can, for He has power greater than all kings and queens--and suppose the Queen should have me hanged instead of you, do you think the policemen would take you up afterwards?" He at once said; "No, I should think not; they would not meddle with me; but if they did, I should say, What are you doing? Did not that gintleman condescind to be hung for me? Let me alone; shure, you don't want to hang two people for the same thing, do ye?" I replied to the Irishman, "Ah, my friend, you have hit it; that is the way whereby we are saved! God must punish sin. Christ said, 'My Father, punish Me instead of the sinner;' and His Father did. God laid on His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the whole burden of our sins, and all their punishment and chastisement; and now that Christ is punished instead of us, God would not be just if He were to punish any sinner who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. If thou believest in Jesus Christ, the well-beloved and only begotten Son of God, thou art saved, and thou mayest go on thy way rejoicing." "Faith," said the man, clapping his hands, "that's the gospel. Pat is safe now; with all his sins about him, he'll trust in the Man that died for him, and so he shall be saved."
Another singular conversion, wrought at New Park Street, was that of a man who had been accustomed to go to a gin-palace to fetch in gin for his Sunday evening's drinking. He saw a crowd round the door of the chapel, so he looked in, and forced his way to the top of the gallery stairs. Just then, I turned in the direction where he stood; I do not know why I did so, but I remarked that there might be a man in the gallery who had come in with no very good motive, for even then he had a gin-bottle in his pocket. The singularity of the expression struck the man, and being startled because the preacher so exactly described him, he listened attentively to the warnings which followed, the Word reached his heart, the grace of God met with him, he became converted, and soon was walking humbly in the fear of God. On another occasion, a poor harlot found the Saviour in the same building. She had determined to go and take her own life on Blackfriars Bridge, but, passing the chapel on a Sunday evening, she thought she would step in, and for the last time hear something that might prepare her to stand before her Maker. She forced her way into the aisle, and being once in, she could not get out even if she had wanted to do so. The text that night was, "Seest thou this woman?" I described the woman in the city who was a notorious public sinner, and pictured her washing her Saviour's feet with her tears, and wiping them with the hair of her head, loving much because she had been forgiven much. While I was preaching, the wretched woman was melted to tears by the thought that her own evil life was being depicted to the congregation. It was, first, my great joy to be the means of saving the poor creature from death by suicide, and, then, to be the instrument of saving her soul from destruction.
Deeds of grace have been wrought in the Tabernacle after the same fashion. Men and women have come in, simply out of curiosity--a curiosity often created by some unfounded story, or malicious slander of prejudiced minds; yet Jesus Christ has called them, and they have become both His disciples and our warm-hearted friends. Some of the most unlikely recruits have been, in after days, our most valuable soldiers. They began with aversion, and ended with enthusiasm. They came to scoff, but remained to pray. Such cases are not at all uncommon. They were not unusual in the days of Whitefield and Wesley. They tell us in their Journals of persons who came with stones in their pockets to throw at the Methodists, but whose enmity was slain by a stone from the sling of the Son of David. Others came to create disturbances but a disturbance was created in their hearts which could never be quelled till they came to Jesus Christ, and found peace in Him. The history of the Church of God is studded with the remarkable conversions of persons who did not wish to be converted, who were not looking for grace, but were even opposed to it and yet, by the interposing arm of eternal mercy, were struck down and transformed into earnest and devoted followers of the Lamb.
Ever since I have been in London, in order to get into the habit of speaking extemporaneously, I have never studied or prepared anything for the Monday evening prayer-meeting. I have all along selected that occasion as the opportunity for off-hand exhortation; but I do not on such occasions select difficult expository topics, or abstruse themes, but restrict myself to simple, homely talk about the elements of our faith. When standing up, on such occasions, my mind makes a review, and enquires, "What subject has already occupied my thought during the day? What have I met with in my reading during the past week? What is most laid upon my heart at this hour? What is suggested by the hymns or the prayers?" It is of no use to rise before an assembly, and hope to be inspired upon subjects of which one knows nothing; if anyone is so unwise, the result will be that, as he knows nothing, he will probably say it, and the people will not be edified. But I do not see why a man cannot speak extemporaneously upon a subject which he fully understands. Any tradesman, well versed in his line of business, could explain it without needing to retire for meditation; and surely I ought to be equally familiar with the first principles of our holy faith; I ought not to feel at a loss when called upon to speak upon topics which constitute the daily bread of my soul. I do not see what benefit is gained, in such a case, by the mere manual labour of writing before speaking, because, in so doing, a man would write extemporaneously, and extemporaneous writing is likely to be even feebler than extemporaneous speech. The gain of the writing lies in the opportunity of careful revision, but, as thoroughly able writers can express their thoughts correctly at the first, so also may able speakers. The thought of a man who finds himself upon his legs, dilating upon a theme with which he is familiar, may be very far from being his first thought; it may be the cream of his meditations warmed by the glow of his heart. He having studied the subject well before, though not at that moment, may deliver himself most powerfully; whereas another man, sitting down to write, may only be penning his first ideas, which may be vague and vapid.
I once had a very singular experience while preaching at New Park Street Chapel, I had passed happily through all the early parts of Divine service on the Sabbath evening, and was giving out the hymn before the sermon. I opened the Bible to find the text, which I had carefully studied as the topic of discourse, when, on the opposite page, another passage of Scripture sprang upon me, like a lion from a thicket, with vastly more power than I had felt when considering the text which I had chosen. The people were singing, and I was sighing. I was in a strait betwixt two, and my mind hung as in the balances. I was naturally desirous to run in the track which I had carefully planned, but the other text would take no refusal, and seemed to tug at my skirts, crying, "No, no, you must preach from me! God would have you follow me." I deliberated within myself as to my duty, for I would neither be fanatical nor unbelieving, and at last I thought within myself, "Well, I should like to preach the sermon which I have prepared, and it is a great risk to run to strike out a new line of thought, but, still, as this text constrains me, it may be of the Lord and therefore I will venture upon it, come what may." I almost always announce my divisions very soon after the exordium, but, on this occasion, contrary to my usual custom, I did not do so, for a very good reason. I passed through the first head with considerable liberty, speaking perfectly extemporaneously both as to thought and word. The second point was dwelt upon with a consciousness of unusual quiet efficient power, but I had no idea what the third would or could be, for the text yielded no more matter just then; nor can I tell even now what I could have done had not an event occurred upon which I had never calculated. I had brought myself into great difficulty by obeying what I thought to be a Divine impulse, and I felt comparatively easy about it, believing that God would help me, and knowing that I could at least close the service should there be nothing more to be said. I had no need to deliberate, for in one moment we were in total darkness--the gas had gone out; and, as the aisles were choked with people, and the place was crowded everywhere, it was a great peril, but a great blessing. What was I to do then ? The people were a little frightened, but I quieted them instantly by telling them not to be at all alarmed, though the gas was out, for it would soon be relighted; and as for myself, having no manuscript, I could speak just as well in the dark as in the light, if they would be so good as to sit or stand still, and listen. Had my discourse been ever so elaborate, it would have been absurd to have continued it, and; as my plight was, I was all the less embarrassed. I turned at once mentally to the well-known text which speaks of the child of light walking in darkness, and of the child of darkness walking in the light, and found appropriate remarks and illustrations pouring in upon me; and when the lamps were again lit, I saw before me an audience as rapt and subdued as ever a man beheld in his life. The odd thing of all was that, some few church-meetings afterwards, two persons came forward to make confession of their faith, who professed to have been converted that evening; the first owed her conversion to the former part of the discourse, which was on the new text that came to me, and the other traced his awakening to the latter part, which was occasioned by the sudden darkness. Thus, Providence befriended me. I cast myself upon God, and His arrangements quenched the light at the proper time for me. Some may ridicule, but I adore; others may even censure, but I rejoice.
When New Park Street Chapel, was sold, I had the pulpit stairs removed to my garden at Nightingale Lane, and fixed them to a huge willow tree. I remember reading, with some amusement, of Lorenzo Dow, who is reported, many years ago, to have slipped down a tree in the backwoods, in order to illustrate the easiness of backsliding. He had previously pulled himself up, with extreme difficulty, in order to show how hard a thing it is to regain lost ground. I was all the more diverted by the story because it has so happened that this pretty piece of nonsense has been imputed to myself. I was represented as sliding down the banisters of my pulpit, and that at a time when the pulpit was fixed in the wall, and was entered from behind! I never gave even the remotest occasion for that falsehood; and yet it is daily repeated, and I have even heard of persons who have declared that they were present when I did so, and, with their own eyes, saw me perform the silly trick.
It is possible for a person to repeat a falsehood so many times that he at length imposes upon himself, and believes that he is stating the truth. When men mean to say what is untrue and unkind, they are not very careful as to the back upon which they stick the slander. For my own part, I have so long lived under a glass case that, like the bees which I have seen at the Crystal Palace, I go on with my work, and try to be indifferent to spectators; and when my personal habits are truthfully reported, though they really are not the concern of anybody but myself, I feel utterly indifferent about it, except in times of depression, when I sigh "for a lodge in some vast wilderness", where rumours of newspaper men and interviewers might never reach me more. I am quite willing to take, my fair share of the current criticism allotted to public men, but I cannot help saying that I very seldom read in print any story connected with myself which has a shade of truth in it. Old Joe Miller's anecdotes of Rowland Hill, Sydney Smith, and John Berridge, and tales of remotest and fustiest antiquity, are imputed to me as they have been to men who went before, and will be to men who follow after. Many of the tales told about me, even to this day, are not only without a shadow of truth, but some of them border on blasphemy, or are positively profane. On the whole, I am inclined to believe that the trade in falsehood is rather brisk, or so many untruths would not be manufactured. Why, I actually heard, not long since, of a minister, who said that a certain thing occurred to him, the other day; yet I told the original story twenty years ago! When I related it, I said it had been my experience, the other day, and I believed it was so, but after hearing that this man says that it happened to him, it makes me question whether it really did occur to me at all. I think it is a great pity for a preacher, or any speaker, to try to make a story appear interesting by saying that the incident related happened to him, when it really did not. Scrupulous truthfulness should always characterize everyone who stands up to proclaim the truth of God.
I mentioned to my New Park Street deacons, several times, my opinion that the upper panes of the iron-framed windows had better be taken out, as the windows were not made to open, yet nothing came of my remarks; but it providentialy happened, one Monday, that somebody removed most of those panes in a masterly manner, almost as well as if they had been taken out by a glazier. There was considerable consternation, and much conjecture, as to who had committed the crime, and I proposed that a reward of five pounds should be offered for the discovery of the offender, who when found should receive the amount as a present. The reward was not forthcoming, and therefore I have not felt it to be my duty to inform against the individual. I trust none will suspect me, but if they do, I shall have to confess that I have walked with the stick which let the oxygen into that stifling structure. In a very short time after I began to preach in London, the congregation so multiplied as to make the chapel, in the evening, when the gas was burning, like the Black Hole of Calcutta. One night, in 1854, while-preaching there, I exclaimed, "By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, and by faith, this wall at the back shall come down, too." An aged and prudent deacon, in somewhat domineering terms, observed to me, at the close of the sermon, "Let us never hear of that again." "What do you mean?" I enquired; "you will hear no more about it when it is done, and therefore the sooner you set about doing it, the better." The following extract from the church-book shows that the members did set about doing it in real earnest:
"Church-meeting, 30th August, 1854.
Resolved--That we desire, as a church, to record our devout and grateful acknowledgments to our Heavenly Father for the success that has attended the ministry of our esteemed Pastor, and we consider it important, at as early a period as possible, that increased accommodation should be provided for the numbers that flock to the chapel on Lord's-days; and we would affectionately request our respected deacons to give the subject their full and careful consideration, and to favour us with their report at the church-meeting in October."
A considerable, but unavoidable delay, took place, in consequence of the vestry and school-rooms being held on a different Trust from that of the chapel, so that it became necessary to apply to the Charity Commissioners before including those rooms in the main building. After fully investigating the circumstances, they did not interpose any obstacle, so the alterations were commenced early in 1855, and in due course the chapel was enlarged as proposed, and a new school-room was erected along the side of the chapel, with windows which could be let down, to allow those who were seated in the school to hear the preacher.
THE CHOLERA YEAR IN LONDON
In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighbourhood in which I laboured was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave. At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardour to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions, but soon I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it.
I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker's window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words:
"Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling."
The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own; I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge, and in the remembrance of its marvellous power I adore the Lord my God.
[In a pamphlet entitled, "The Best Refuge in Times of Trouble", published about the time of Spurgeon's "home-going", Mr. W. Ford, of 19H, Peabody Buildings, Orchard Street, Westminster, wrote:
"In the year 1854, the first year of Mr. Spurgeon in London, cholera raged in the locality of his church, and the neighbourhood where he resided. The parochial authorities were very thoughtful for the poor, and caused bills to be placed at the corners of the streets headed CHOLERA--in large type--informing the public where advice and medicines would be supplied gratis. At that time, I lived in the Great Dover Road, and Mr. Spurgeon lived a little further towards Greenwich, in Virginia Terrace. Seeing the bills above-named at every turning, I was forcibly impressed that they were very much calculated to terrify the people With the concurrence of a friend, I procured one, and wrote in the centre these words: 'Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.' This bill I placed in my shop-window, hundreds read it, and I am not aware of one jeer or improper remark--so subdued and solemnized were the people by the awful visitation. Among the readers of the bill, was Mr. Spurgeon."]
During that epidemic of cholera, though I had many engagements in the country, I gave them up that I might remain in London to visit the sick and the dying. I felt that it was my duty to be on the spot in such a time of disease and death and sorrow. One Monday morning, I was awakened, about three o'clock, by a sharp ring of the door-bell. I was urged, without delay, to visit a house not very far from London Bridge. I went; and up two pairs of stairs I was shown into a room, the only occupants of which were a nurse and a dying man. "Oh, sir!" exclaimed the nurse, as I entered, "about half-an-hour ago, Mr. So- and-so begged me to send for you." "What does he want," I asked. "He is dying, sir," she replied. I said, "Yes, I see that he is; what sort of a man was he?" The nurse answered, "He came home from Brighten, last night, sir; he had been out all day. I looked for a Bible, sir, but there is not one in the house . I hope you have brought one with you." "Oh" I said, "a Bible would be of no use to him now. If he could understand me, I could tell him the way of salvation in the very words of Scripture." I stood by his side, and spoke to him, but he gave me no answer. I spoke again, but the only consciousness he had was a foreboding of terror, mingled with the stupor of approaching death. Soon, even that was gone, for sense had fled, and I stood there, a few minutes, sighing with the poor woman who had watched over him, and altogether hopeless about his soul. Gazing at his face, I perceived that he was dead, and that his soul had departed.
That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips. There I stood, unable to help him. Promptly as I had responded to his call, what could I do but look at his corpse, and mourn over a lost soul? He had, when in health, wickedly refused Christ, yet in his death-agony he had superstitiously sent for me. Too late, he sighed for the ministry of reconciliation, and sought to enter in at the closed door, but he was not able. There was no space left him then for repentance, for he had wasted the opportunities which God had long granted to him. I went home, and was soon called away again; that time, to see a young woman. She also was in the last extremity, but it was a fair, fair sight. She was singing--though she knew she was dying--and talking to those round about her, telling her brothers and sisters to follow her to Heaven, bidding good-bye to her father, and all the while smiling as if it had been her marriage day. She was happy and blessed. I never saw more conspicuously in my life, than I did that morning, the difference there is between one who feareth God and one who feareth Him not.