Spurgeon and the ‘Downgrade’
by E J Poole-Connor
Prominent amongst the imposing figures of the Victorian era was that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, rightly regarded as the greatest Nonconformist of his day. A preacher whose voice could on occasion reach an audience of 24,000 people, and that without a microphone, who for 30 years could keep the then vast Metropolitan Tabernacle crowded; whom men from all parts of the world came to hear; whose sermons were translated into most European languages, attaining an average weekly circulation of 30,000 - rising once to 200,000; who founded almshouses, an orphanage and a training college; who was a powerful and voluminous religious writer; to whom thousands owed, under God, their every hope of heaven ‑ such a man towers above his fellows like a mountain peak.
Spurgeon was a convinced and outspoken Baptist,* and, although he was himself too large-hearted to confine his interests to his own denomination, few men did more for the Baptist cause than he. But firmly as he held to Nonconformist and Baptist principles, he held more strongly to what he believed to be the unchanging truth of the Gospel; and when he saw it denied he was prepared to sink all lesser considerations in its defence. To do so cost him much ‑ obloquy, the loss of friends, separation from lifelong associations; it may even have shortened his life - but so seriously did he regard the issue, even in his day, that nothing could deter him from undertaking the task.
[* Note. The Baptist Union of Ireland today would appear to be predominately Anti-Millennialist!! This shocking statement was shown to be accurate and true, when the editor of this website was ordered (by the present principal at the Baptist Bible College, Moira, Northern Ireland), for him not to be leaving any more tracts with him on the millennium, or, at the college for others to study!]
The article in which he first sounded the alarm was written in 1887, and appeared in ‘The Sword and Trowel’ for August. The tone of it may be judged from the following extract: ‘Read those newspapers which represent the Broad School of Dissent, and ask yourself, How much farther could they go? ... The atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture derided, the punishment of sin is turned into fiction, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, and the resurrection into a myth ... It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide in the faith once delivered unto the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another Gospel.’
This article, and those which followed, aroused the strongest possible feeling, both of assent and dissent. While many confirmed the necessity for Mr Spurgeon’s protest, others charged him with gross exaggeration, or with sowing discord amongst brethren. Some resorted to personalities, and, affecting to attribute his article to the depression of ill-health, advised him to take a long rest. Others, again, found in the subject a source of merriment. A month later Mr Spurgeon returned to the charge: ‘We have received abundant proofs,’ he wrote, ‘that our alarm was none too soon. Letters from all quarters declare that the case of the church at this present time is even worse than we thought it to be ... A chasm is opening ... Let us take our places, not in anger, not in the spirit of suspicion or division, but in watchfulness and resolve.’
To those who charged him with ‘sour pessimism,’ he replied: ‘We are denounced as gloomy. Well, well! The day was when we were censured for being wickedly humorous, and many were the floggings we received for our unseemly jests. So the world’s opinion changes. A half-a-farthing would be an extravagant price to pay for the verdict one way or another ... Our amiable critics will possibly be pleased to know that they will not find us bathing in vinegar, nor covering our swollen foot with wormwood, nor even drinking quinine with our vegetables; but will find us rejoicing in the Lord, and buckling our harness for the war with as firm a confidence as if all men were on our side.’
A still further article from his pen entitled ‘The Case Proved,’ contained quotations confirmatory
of the position he had taken up. One of
these was from Dr Brown, Principal
Not less to the point was a quotation from a current number of ‘The Christian World,’ one of Mr Spurgeon’s most outspoken antagonists, which, so far from denying the prevalence of ‘modern thought,’ gloried in it, and taunted those who endeavoured to conceal the facts. ‘Modern thought,’ it said, ‘is in Mr Spurgeon’s eyes 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 ... 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.’
At the close of his article Mr Spurgeon indicated what he felt must be his attitude to the Baptist Union, which included some who no longer held the orthodox position. ‘We cannot,’ he said, ‘be expected to meet in any Union which comprehends those whose teaching is on fundamental points exactly the reverse of that which we hold dear ... 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.’ ‘We retire at once,’ he wrote later, ‘from the Baptist Union ... It has no disciplinary power for it has no doctrinal basis whatever, and we see no reason why every form of belief and misbelief should not be comprehended in it ... Those who originally founded it made it without form and void and so it must remain.’
On this ground Mr Spurgeon felt it useless to bring any cases of heterodoxy before it, but pleaded that the Baptist Union should adopt a credal basis similar to that of the Evangelical Alliance. Not only was this refused, but the Council of the Baptist Union stated that a creed in any form was objectionable, and would come between man and his God: a position which Mr Spurgeon strongly controverted, asserting that ‘The objection to a creed is a very pleasant way of concealing objection to discipline, and a desire for latitudinarianism. What is wished for is a Union which will, like Noah’s Ark, afford shelter both for the clean and the unclean, for creeping things and winged fowls.’ But the Baptist Union steadily refused to accede to his request, and passed upon him a resolution of censure.
One feature of the controversy was, and still
remains, very puzzling. Mr Spurgeon
affirmed, as we have seen, that what we now call Modernism was making serious
headway amongst the Baptist Churches.
The Baptist Union Council replied in effect that this was a groundless
assertion. This position is apparently
still adhered to. Dr Glover, a leading Baptist in the period between the two world
wars, whose ambition it had always been to be an historian, has given us his
view of the matter. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘no strange
thing, unhappily, that a great man ...
will at last prefer the homage and tattle of admirers to the challenge of
independent minds ... In 1887 ...
Spurgeon launched his Downgrade Controversy. Baptists, he said - people told him so and he
believed it - were abandoning the Bible and the evangelical faith, and going
down hill at breakneck speed. The
Baptist Union Council quietly asked for proof, and begged him to see old
friends; but nothing served. The Council
then gravely voted that as no evidence was forthcoming, the charges ought not
to have been made - moderate enough, one would think. Spurgeon withdrew from the
The writer of these words does not always make himself very clear; but he seems here to mean that no evidence of Mr Spurgeon’s assertions was forthcoming because no such evidence existed - in other words, that there was no such departure from the evangelical faith as Mr Spurgeon affirmed. But if that was so; if Mr Spurgeon’s serious and manifestly sincere concern had no basis than the tattle of admirers, or alternatively, was due to gout, a bad conscience (as presumably the writer means) and Satan, how comes it that Mr Spurgeon’s defeat is hailed by Dr Glover as a veritable ‘victory of the Marne’ for liberal theology, a crowning mercy of deliverance from ‘obscurantism,’ a glorious ‘holding open of the door for new conceptions of truth’? We seem to be on the horns of a dilemma. Either Mr Spurgeon’s assertions were true, or they were not. If they were true, they cannot be put down to tattle or gout; if they were false, his failure to substantiate them could be no triumph for a form of theology which was non-existent.
Nor is this the only puzzle this summary presents to the plain mind. ‘The Council of the Baptist Union,’ our historian relates, ‘gravely voted that as no evidence was forthcoming the charges ought not to have been made.’ If by thus gravely voting the Council meant that they could see no sign of departure from the older evangelicalism, it not only demonstrated how dim was their vision, but it also showed how clear-eyed was the prophet whose warning they disregarded - for no man living can deny that what Mr Spurgeon saw as a stream now runs at full flood. On the other hand, if their grave vote meant that they were aware of the newer theological tendencies, but intended to keep the door open for such ‘fresh conception of truth,’ what need was there for Mr Spurgeon to supply further witness? Such a vote would in itself furnish all the evidence required.
It is strange and sad to observe how the hostility that Mr Spurgeon’s action excited nearly half a century ago (Mr Poole‑Connor wrote this many years ago ‑ Ed.) still pursues his memory. In the article above quoted (written in March, 1932) he is admitted - somewhat patronizingly, it must be confessed - to be a popular preacher of great natural gifts, ‘a large-hearted human creature,’ ‘one of the stamp’ of Calvinists who live in the profoundest sense of the love of God, while holding, ‘or think they are holding,’ tenets which other minds find strangely incompatible therewith. But Dr Glover also permits himself to use terms in reference to this servant of God which vividly recall the phraseology with which he was wont to be assailed during his lifetime. ‘He had a squat, ugly exterior,’ he says; he had ‘an untrained mind without discipline of ordered study;’ he prepared young men for the Baptist Ministry, ‘in a rather amateur way;’ ‘little busts and cheap prints of him were in thousands of small homes;’ he ‘preferred the homage and tattle of admirers to the challenge of independent minds;’ less famous and gifted men ‘had a wider intellectual range and outlook;’ and in the failure of his protest, ‘obscurantism’ suffered its greatest defeat. It might be thought by some to be beneath the dignity of the Public Orator of a great University to descend to references of alleged physical defects. He seems to have forgotten that when the Corinthians anticipated him with their gibe that Paul’s bodily appearance was weak and his speech contemptible, they were setting an example rather to be avoided than followed.
But other words have been spoken. ‘I suppose that such a gathering as this,’ said Dr Maclaren, standing by Mr Spurgeon’s bier, and addressing representatives of all sections of the Christian church, ‘a gathering of men more or less directly and exclusively engaged in the ministry of the Gospel, differing widely from one another in opinion, forms of government, casts of mind, methods of discharging our work, and yet giving one unanimous suffrage to the supremacy of our departed brother, is an unheard of thing. It was not only the genius that we admired ... it was the profound faith, the earnestness, the devotion, the self-oblivion, which endeared him to so many hearts and were the secret of his power.’ ‘Beloved president, faithful pastor, prince of preachers, brother beloved, dear Spurgeon,’ said Archibald Brown, standing later before his grave, ‘we bid thee not farewell, but only for a little while, good-night ... Hard worker in the field! thy toil is ended. Straight has been the furrow thou hast ploughed ... Harvests have followed thy sowing, and heaven is already rich with thine ingathered sheaves ... Champion of God!, thy battle, long and nobly fought, is over ... Beloved, sleep. We praise God for thee, and by the Blood of the everlasting covenant, hope and expect to praise God with thee.’
Mr Spurgeon’s protest did not stem, in any marked degree, the tide of Modernism. It served rather to reveal the strength of the current than to lessen its flow. His action won the approbation of great numbers of Evangelicals in all sections of the Christian church, including the Church of England; but it was a shock to him to find how many of his own denomination refused to endorse it. Dr J C Carlile once preached a sermon from the text, ‘Thou stoodest on the other side,’ in the course of which he delivered a powerful reproof to those who in any hour of crisis failed to support a righteous cause. When Mr Spurgeon took his stand for orthodoxy, many even of those who had been trained in his college (Dr Carlile being one of them) ‘stood on the other side.’
But Mr Spurgeon cleared his conscience. His was the meed of the watchman, who, apprehending danger, fails not to sound his trumpet in warning.
It may be urged by some that, in dealing with error, the right course is not to protest, but to preach positive truth. Let us preach positive truth, by all means, but habitually to avoid controversy, is, in the first place, contrary to apostolic precept and example, and, in the second, obviously ineffective in practice. The result of doing no more than to ‘preach positive truth’ is that in almost every sphere - religious, educational and literary - Modernism has practically swept the field.
It may be objected that the need for unity is of such urgent importance that it is inexpedient to introduce disruptive topics, and that the spirit of Christian love should be shown in a gracious tolerance of opposing views. True, when the opposing views are not vital to the Christian faith. Unity is desirable, but there are limits when it comes to the question of cost. When the divergence concerns such basic questions as authority in religion, and the divine way of acceptance for the sinner, compromise is too heavy a price to pay. It may, indeed, be paving the way for the larger apostasy that many believe the Scriptures clearly and solemnly predict.
Variations of the objections stated above are that the difference between the older evangelicalism and modern theology is not as great as is alleged, and that an effort should be made to find points of contact; or alternatively, that even if Modernists are in error, to separate from them is to leave all denominational machinery in their hands. To the first suggestion it may be replied that it is not in terms and modes of statement that the differences lie, but in essential principles. Even some years ago it was possible for ‘The Christian Century,’ an American Modernist journal, to say: ‘We may sing, Blest be the tie that binds, until doomsday, but it cannot bind these two worlds together. The God of the Fundamentalist is one God; the God of the Modernist is another; the Christ of the Fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of the Modernist is another; the Bible of the Fundamentalist is one Bible; the Bible of the Modernist is another. The issue is clear.’
The issue is likely to be increasingly clear. It may be frequently noted that in certain spheres of thought it is extremely difficult to maintain the midway position. In the matter of our Lord’s Deity, for example, the tendency has always been to move forward or backward - toward the unqualified acceptance of the Trinitarian faith, or to sheer Socinianism. So will it probably be with the questions that are at issue between the Conservative Evangelical and the Modernist. As to the second objection, is it not open to question whether, after all, anything is really achieved by the presence of the Conservative Evangelicals in Unions that are mainly Modernist? If they are there vigourously to strive for the older faith, well and good; but if otherwise, does their influence stem by one inch the flood of Modernist teaching in the pulpits, or alter by one iota the Modernist curriculum of the colleges? Does any Modernist writer ever withhold for their sake a single taunt at the doctrine they hold dear? The truth is that co-operation with those who hold advanced liberal views tends largely to condone them, for every Evangelical so acting is saying, in effect: ‘Modernist theology is not as bad as it is painted; for, see, I tolerate it.’ As to whether expediency, or a clear testimony to what is held to be the truth, is of major importance, each man’s own conscience must decide.
The Reformation was mainly a return to apostolic teaching, the rediscovery of doctrine buried under human accretions. To go forward it was necessary to go back to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Let there be such a return in our day; for in spite of the confident assertions of modern theologians, scholarship is not all on one side. Let the testimony to the Evangelical faith be clear and unhesitating; let it be accompanied (in God’s grace) by loving compassion, spiritual power, and righteousness of life.
* * * * * * *
Psalm 110: 1
by C H Spurgeon.
The LORD said unto my Lord. Jehovah said to my Adonai; David in spirit heard the solemn voice of Jehovah speaking to the Messiah from of old. What wonderful intercourse there has been between the Father and the Son! From this secret and intimate communion spring the covenant of grace and all its marvellous arrangements. All the great acts of grace are brought into actual being by the word of God; had He not spoken, there had been no manifestation of Deity to us; but in the beginning was the Word, and from of old there was mysterious fellowship between the Father and His Son Jesus Christ concerning His people and the great contest on their behalf between Himself and the powers of evil. How condescending on Jehovah’s part to permit a mortal ear to hear, and a human pen to record His secret converse with His Co-equal Son! How greatly should we prize the revelation of His private and solemn discourse with the Son, herein made public for the refreshing of His people! Lord, what is man that Thou shouldst thus impart Thy secrets unto him!
Though David was a firm believer in the Unity of the Godhead, he yet spiritually discerns the two persons, distinguishes between them, and perceives that in the second he has a particular interest, for he calls Him ‘my Lord.’ This was an anticipation of the exclamation of Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God,’ and it expresses the Psalmist’s reverence, his obedience, his believing appropriation, and his joy in Christ. It is well to have clear views of the mutual relations of the persons of the Blessed Trinity; indeed, the knowledge of these truths is essential for our comfort and growth in grace. There is a manifest distinction in the Divine persons, since One speaks to Another; yet the Godhead is one.
Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.
Away from the shame and suffering of His earthly life, Jehovah calls the Adonai, our Lord, to the repose and honours of His celestial seat. His work is done, and He may sit; it is well done, and He may sit at His right hand; it will have grand results, and He may therefore quietly wait to see the complete victory which is certain to follow. The glorious Jehovah thus addresses the Christ as our Saviour; for, says David, He said ‘unto my Lord.’ Jesus is placed in the seat of power, dominion, and dignity, and is to sit there by Divine appointment while Jehovah fights for Him, and lays every rebel beneath His feet.
He sits there by the Father’s ordinance and call, and will sit there despite all the raging of His adversaries, till they are all brought to utter shame by His putting His foot upon their necks. In this sitting He is our representative. The mediatorial kingdom will last until the last enemy shall be destroyed, and then, according to the inspired word, ‘cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father.’ The work of subduing the nations is now in the hand of the great God, Who by His Providence will accomplish it to the glory of His Son; His word is pledged to it, and the session of His Son at His right hand is the guarantee thereof; therefore let us never fear as to the future. While we see our Lord and representative sitting in quiet expectancy, we, too, may sit in the attitude of peaceful assurance, and with confidence await the grand outcome of all events.
As surely as Jehovah liveth Jesus must reign, yea, even now He is reigning, though all His enemies are not yet subdued. During the present interval, through which we wait for His glorious appearing and visible millennial kingdom, He is in the place of power, and His dominion is in no jeopardy, or otherwise He would not remain quiescent. He sits because all is safe, and He sits at Jehovah’s right hand because omnipotence waits to accomplish His will. Therefore there is no cause for alarm whatever may happen in this lower world; the sight of Jesus enthroned in divine glory is the sure guarantee that all things are moving onward towards ultimate victory. Those rebels who now stand high in power shall soon be in the place of contempt, they shall be His footstool. He shall with ease rule them, He shall sit and put His foot on them; not rising to tread them down as when a man puts forth force to subdue powerful foes, but retaining the attitude of rest, and still ruling them as abject vassals who have no longer spirit to rebel, but have become thoroughly tamed and subdued.
(Taken from ‘The Treasury of David’).
* * * * * * *
Not Far Away.
By C H Spurgeon.
This is a
crafty word from the lip of the arch-tyrant Pharaoh. If the poor bondaged Israelites must needs go
[* Presumably the first step down this road toward a millennial inheritance, is through the waters of Christian baptism: (1 Cor. 10: 2. cf. John 1: 33; Acts 5: 32; Rev. 3: 21.)]
According to the carnal policy, purity is admitted to be very desirable, but we are warned against being too precise; truth is of course to be followed, but error is not to be severely denounced. ‘Yes,’ says the world, ‘be spiritually minded by all means, but do not deny yourself a little gay society, an occasional ball, and a Christmas visit to the theatre. What is the good of crying down a thing when it is so fashionable, and everybody does it?’ Multitudes of [regenerate] professors yield to this cunning advice, to their own eternal [age-lasting] ruin.
If we would follow the Lord wholly, we
must go right away into the wilderness of separation, and leave the
When the town is on fire, our house cannot be too far from the flames. When the plague is abroad, a man cannot be too far from its haunts. The further from a viper the better, and the further from worldly conformity the better. To all true believers let the trumpet-call be sounded, ‘Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate.’
(Taken from ‘Morning by Morning’)
* * * * * * *
Mr C H Spurgeon
By Raymond Chaplin
Amongst God’s servants who have been a blessing to our land,
Charles Haddon Spurgeon we revere, who for the truth did stand.
For when we hear of how he preached, and thousands who were saved,
Our hearts are moved, and for this man we say ‘God’s name be praised.’
We love to hear of how he came at first to know the LORD,
And on one snowy morning went where he the gospel heard;
And God a rustic preacher used, so Spurgeon then did look
Unto the LORD, Who saved his soul, Who all his sorrows took.
Then what a preacher he became! for though in barn and home
He started preaching, through his youth men felt to them had come
God’s Word in such a powerful way that sin to them became
A burden, so they Christ did seek, and precious found His Name.
And when London Spurgeon came so many help received,
And children homeless in the streets were cared for and relieved.
Then for young pastors there was built a college, so that they
Instructed could be for their work, and might God’s Word obey.
And surely we are glad that though a cent’ry has passed on,
Through books from Spurgeon’s pen yet still souls unto Christ are won.
And glad we are that though we live in days when all around
The devil’s active, yet through him, some blessedness have found.
So as we think of how God used this man of His own praise,
We long to see God’s Spirit move with power in these [evil] days;
That once again in our loved land large numbers may appear
In chapels like in Spurgeon’s days, and God’s word truly hear.*
[*Sadly in these days of open apostasy, if large numbers attend chapels of churches, they would not be likely to hear ‘the whole counsel of God’ in its purity, but we desire that God’s conditional promises mught be fearlessly proclaomed to His redeemed people! “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless. He will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself,” (2 Tim. 2: 11-13, N.I.V.)]; and again: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” … “Let us, therefore, MAKE EVERY EFFORT to enter THAT rest, so that no-one will fall by following their [Israel’s] example of disobedience:” (Heb. 4: 8, 9, 11. cf. Num. ch. 14; 1 Cor. 9: 24-10: 1-13.).]