The Down-Grade Controversy and Censure

by Terri Williams

The Down-Grade controversy came to a head in 1887. In a period of 8 months Spurgeon wrote five key essays on the problem of unbelief among pastors in the Baptist Union.

Spurgeon’s main point was that if the sliding progress downward ("down-grade") were not stopped, Baptist and Non-Comformist preaching and ministry would lose effectiveness and die out.

A second point was that to remain in a union of churches that did not censure error in fundamental Christian belief and practice was treason to the Lord and could never be true fellowship anyway. To ignore differences on the fundamentals was to demean the truth of those fundamentals.

After raising these issues, Spurgeon found that the leadership of the Baptist Union did not see that a problem existed. They called on him to stand down in order to promote unity and prosperity among Baptist Union churches and ministries.

Spurgeon could not do this. He formally withdrew from the Baptist Union on October 28, 1887. The withdrawal of its most celebrated member was, of course, an embarrassment to the Baptist Union.

The Baptist Union Council said that unless Spurgeon was willing to give names of those within the Baptist Union who did not hold fundamental Christian beliefs he should not have made the charges he did.

Spurgeon believed that the Baptist Union should formally adopt a statement of faith specifying the fundamental Christian doctrines with which all members would have to agree. As it stood, the Union, not having a clear statement of faith, could not discipline or oust members who did not believe fundamental Christian doctrine.

Further, the Secretary of the Baptist Union, Samuel Booth, a friend of Spurgeon, told Spurgeon that his letters to Spurgeon were given in confidence and asked that they not be used publicly. Spurgeon honored Booth’s request and was left in a position of being unable to produce written evidence he had at hand that Baptist Union leaders knew of the problems. However, Spurgeon had talked with other leaders about these problems over a period of years. Thus the request for specific facts and names was in some ways bogus.

A more definite problem in bringing forth specifics was that Spurgeon could open himself to lawsuits for slander in naming names and to what end? Even if all were proven, the Baptist Union had no basis on which to discipline members. Thus, a change in the bylaws allowing discipline in reference to a clear statement of faith was the first essential step. Only after that would specific facts be relevant.

Baptist Union representatives met with Spurgeon on January 13, 1888. They demanded that Spurgeon either withdraw his charges or give specific evidence for them.

Spurgeon tried to get the representatives to understand that since the Baptist Union had no formal standards of belief other than believer’s baptism by immersion, they had no official basis or authority to act upon specific facts. He offered to pay the fees to get legal opinion on this point, but the Union representatives did not accept the offer.

At the January 18, 1888, meeting the Union’s council passed two resolutions. One accepted Spurgeon’s withdrawal with regret and the second chided him for making charges and not supporting them. This was popularly taken as a motion of censure.

"That the Council recognized the gravity of the charges which Mr. Spurgeon has brought against the Union previous to and since his withdrawal. It considers that the public and general manner in which they have been made reflects on the whole body, and exposes to suspicion brethren who love the truth as dearly as he does. And, as Mr. Spurgeon declined to give names of those to whom he intended them to apply, and the evidence supporting them, those charges in the judgment of the council ought not to have been made."

Following are key points and quotations from five major essays Spurgeon wrote on the Down-Grade controversy.

1. Those who follow wrong thought get worse and worse in doctrine–are on the "down-grade". (first essay)

As is usual with people on an incline, some who got on "the down grade" went further than they intended, showing that it is easier to get on than to get off, and that where there is no brake it is very difficult to stop. Those who turned from Calvinism may not have dreamed of denying the proper deity of the Son of God, renouncing faith in his atoning death and justifying righteousness, and denouncing the doctrine of human depravity, the need of Divine renewal, and the necessity for the Holy Spirit s gracious work, in order that men might become new creatures; but, dreaming or not dreaming, this result became a reality.

2. Those who follow wrong doctrine fade away. (second essay)

3. Those who do not keep the Scriptures central lapse into wrong doctrine. (second essay)

In the case of every errant course there is always a first wrong step. If we can trace that wrong step, we may be able to avoid it and its results. Where, then, is the point of divergence from the "King’s highway of truth"? What is the first step astray? Is it doubting this doctrine, or questioning that sentiment, or being sceptical as to the other article or orthodox belief? We think not. These doubts and this scepticism are the outcome of something going before.

If a mariner, having to traverse an unknown sea, does not put implicit confidence in his charts, and therefore does not consult them for guidance in steering the ship, he is, as anyone can see, every moment exposed to dangers of various kinds. Now, the Word of God--the Book written by holy men as they were moved by the Spirit of God--is the Christian’s chart; and though, in a ship’s company, some of the men may have little critical knowledge of navigation, the captain is supposed to be well instructed therein, and to be able, by consulting the charts, to steer the ship aright; so in reference to ministers of Christ’s gospel, and pastors of Christ’s church, which he hath purchased with his blood. The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God’s Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching. "To the law and to the testimony," is his appeal concerning every doctrine. He esteems that holy Book, concerning all things, to be right, and therefore he hates every false way. But let a man question, or entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and he is without chart to guide him, and without anchor to hold him.

4. Calvinism keeps the Scriptures central. (second essay)

5. Error (doctrinal and practical) is rife today in formerly evangelical churches. (third essay)

A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into fiction, and the resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren, and maintain a confederacy with them

. . .

At a certain meeting of ministers and church-officers, one after another doubted the value of prayer-meetings; all confessed that they had a very small attendance, and several acknowledged without the slightest compunction that they had quite given them up.

6. That error is causing the destruction of faith and of the churches. (third essay)

The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith. A plain man told us the other day that two ministers had derided him because he thought we should pray for rain. A gracious woman bemoaned in my presence that a precious promise in Isaiah which had comforted her had been declared by her minister to be uninspired. It is a common thing to hear working-men excuse their wickedness by the statement that there is no hell, "the parson says so." But we need not prolong our mention of painful facts. Germany was made unbelieving by her preachers, and England is following in her track. Attendance at places of worship is declining, and reverence for holy things is vanishing; and we solemnly believe this to be largely attributable to the scepticism which has flashed from the pulpit and spread among the people. Possibly the men who uttered the doubt never intended it to go so far; but none the less they have done the ill, and cannot undo it. Their own observation ought to teach them better. Have these advanced thinkers filled their own chapels? Have they, after all, prospered through discarding the old methods? Possibly, in a few cases genius and tact have carried these gentry over the destructive results of their ministry; but in many cases their pretty new theology has scattered their congregations. In meeting-houses holding a thousand, or twelve hundred, or fifteen hundred, places once packed to the ceiling with ardent hearers, how small are the numbers now! We would mention instances, but we forbear. The places which the gospel filled the new nonsense has emptied, and will keep empty.

7. We believe in Christian unity that goes beyond denominational boundaries, and we are for denominational prosperity and unity. But, truth and fidelity to our Master are more important than prosperity and unity. (third essay)

8. Instead of disproving the doctrinal and practical problems we pointed out, critics have attacked us personally and been upset that we are making a fuss in bringing this up. (fourth essay)

We could multiply this painful evidence, but there is no need, since the charge is not denied. It is ridiculed; it is treated as a matter of no consequence, but it is not seriously met. Is this what we have come to? Is there no doctrine left which is to be maintained? Is there no revelation? Or is that revelation a nose of wax to be shaped by the finger of fashion? Are the sceptics so much to the fore that no man will open his mouth against them? Are all the orthodox afraid of the ridicule of the "cultured"? We cannot believe it. The private knowledge which we possess will not allow of so unhappy a conclusion; yet Christian people are now so tame that they shrink from expressing themselves. The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars; they are even half vexed that a certain noisy fellow will spring his rattle, or cry, "Thieves!"

9. You can’t believe opposites. If you support the truth you have to denounce error. (fourth essay)

A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture. Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognise the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the "larger hope." One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour.

Neither when we have chosen our way can we keep company with those who go the other way. There must come with decision for truth a corresponding protest against error. Let those who will keep the narrow way keep it, and suffer for their choice; but to hope to follow the broad road at the same time is absurdity. What communion hath Christ with Belial?

10. Spurgeon gives examples to support his charge that doctrinal and practical error is practiced by church leaders. (fifth essay)

[Quoting from The Christian World:]

"We are now at the parting of the ways, and the younger ministers especially must decide whether or not they will embrace and undisguisedly proclaim that 'modern thought which in Mr. Spurgeon s eyes is a 'deadly cobra, while in ours it is the glory of the century. It discards many of the doctrines dear to Mr. Spurgeon and his school, not only as untrue and unscriptural, but as in the strictest sense immoral; for it cannot recognize the moral possibility of imputing either guilt or goodness, or the justice of inflicting everlasting punishment for temporary sin. It is not so irrational as to pin its faith to verbal inspiration, or so idolatrous as to make its acceptance of a true Trinity of divine manifestation cover polytheism."

Nothing can be required more definite than this; and if there had been any such need, the letters which have been inserted in the same paper would have superabundantly supplied it. As several of these are from Baptist ministers, and are an ingenuous avowal of the most thorough-going advance from the things which have been assuredly believed among us, we are led to ask the practical question: Are brethren who remain orthodox prepared to endorse such sentiments by remaining in union with those who hold and teach them? These gentlemen have full liberty to think as they like; but, on the other hand, those who love the old gospel have equally the liberty to dissociate themselves from them, and that liberty also involves a responsibility from which there is no escaping. If we do not believe in Universalism, or in Purgatory, and if we do believe in the inspiration of Scripture, the Fall, and the great sacrifice of Christ for sin, it behoves us to see that we do not become accomplices with those who teach another gospel, and as it would seem from one writer, have avowedly another God.

. . .

Our lament was not, however, confined to vital doctrines; we mentioned a decline of spiritual life, and the growth of worldliness, and gave as two outward signs thereof the falling-off in prayer-meetings, and ministers attending the theatre. The first has been pooh-poohed as a mere trifle. The Nonconformist, which is a fit companion for The Christian World, dismisses the subject in the following sentence: "If the conventional prayer-meetings are not largely attended, why should the Christian community be judged by its greater or less use of one particular religious expedient?" What would James and Jay have said of this dismissal of "conventional prayer-meetings," whatever that may mean? At any rate, we are not yet alone in the opinion that our meetings for prayer are very excellent thermometers of the spiritual condition of our people. God save us from the spirit which regards gathering together for prayer as "a religious expedient"!

11. Those who are now publicly saying that everything is fine have privately said in the past that there are real evils abroad. (fifth essay)

12. Those who call for specific names to be given of those who hold these errors would then turn around and say that personalities should not be brought into the issue. (fifth essay)

A friendly critic advised us at the first to mention the names of those who had quitted the old faith; but, if we had done so, he would have been among the first to lament the introduction of personalities. At the same time, there can be no objection to a gentleman’s coming forward, and glorying in his "modern thought": it spares others the trouble of judging his position, and it is an exhibition of manliness which others might copy to advantage. Those who have read the statements of the advanced school, and still think that from the orthodox point of view there is no cause for alarm, must surely be a very sanguine temperament, or resolutely blind.

13. Others may be able to remain in the Baptist Union and fellowship with those who do not believe and teach fundamental points of doctrine. They say that a minority who don’t believe should not drive the majority out. To us such compromise is not possible. There can be no real fellowship with those who deny the fundamentals of the Christian faith. To pretend to fellowship with them would be treason.

One thing is clear to us: we cannot be expected to meet in any Union which comprehends those whose teaching is upon fundamental points exactly the reverse of that which we hold dear. Those who can do so will, no doubt, have weighty reasons with which to justify their action, and we will not sit in judgment upon those reasons: they may judge that a minority should not drive them out. To us it appears that there are many things upon which compromise is possible, but there are others in which it would be an act of treason to pretend to fellowship. With deep regret we abstain from assembling with those whom we dearly love and heartily respect, since it would involve us in a confederacy with those with whom we can have no communion in the Lord. Garibaldi complained that, by the cession of Nice to France, he had been made a foreigner in his native land; and our heart is burdened with a like sorrow; but those who banish us may yet be of another mind, and enable us to return.


1. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, Volume 2, Chapter 28.

2. Drummond, Lewis A. Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers. Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992. Chapter 12.

3. Murray, Ian. The Forgotten Spurgeon. The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1973. Chapters 6-8.

4. Pike, G. Holden. The Life & Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Cassell and Company Limited: London, 1894. Vol. 6, Chaper 53.

5. The Sword and the Trowel