It is well known that Charles Spurgeon came to Christ when he ducked into a small church to escape a snowstorm and heard the gospel proclaimed. Some wrongly think Spurgeon was thus suddenly converted to Christ out of a life of sheer paganism. Spurgeon himself used to talk about how he had suffered for a long time under the weight of sin before he finally found Christ. Because of the way he described himself as a great sinner utterly in debt to divine grace, many who heard him preach came away with the impression that he was a man who had gone deeply into sin and come to Christ fairly late in life.
But the facts are that Charles Spurgeon was converted to Christ while still in his youth, and he was the product of godly upbringing in a pastor's home. Spurgeon's two main role models, his father and his grandfather, both were godly pastors.
Spurgeon was raised in his grandfather's home from his infancy until he was nearly six years old. Something, possibly economic difficulties, made it necessary for Charles to live with his paternal grandparents, in a village near the one where his parents lived, from the time he was nearly two years old until he was ready to start elementary school. Charles Spurgeon was his grandfather's constant companion, both in the pastor's study and when the elder Spurgeon made pastoral visits. Young Charles loved his grandfather's books. He was a prodigy when it came to reading, and he developed a love for books very early. He especially loved Pilgrim's Progress.
By the time Spurgeon returned to his parents' home at age six, he already had three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother. He seemed already to feel very deeply his responsibility as the elder brother to influence them for good. That perspective, which was surely part of his grandfather's pastoral legacy, made him mature beyond his years. And this was a persistent trait of Charles Spurgeon's. As a young boy, even before he was a teenager, his hobbies were writing poetry and editing a magazine. Even then he was honing the literary skills that would make him legendary both as a preacher and an author.
You can look at Spurgeon in any stage of his development and what you will see is someone who was wise beyond his years, with an exceptionally mature outlook on life. Even Spurgeon himself made reference to this. When he was 40 years old he lectured a group of young men, and he said in that lecture that he was already an old man at age 40. He told them,
I might have been a young man at twelve, but at sixteen I was a sober, respectable Baptist parson, sitting in the chair and ruling and governing the church. At that period of my life, when I ought perhaps to have been in the playground, developing my legs and sinews, which no doubt would have kept me from the gout now, I spent my time at my books, studying and working hard, sticking to it, very much to the pleasure of my schoolmaster. [W.Y. Fullerton, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 21.]
At age 6, when Spurgeon returned to his parents' home, he entered school for the first time. With his ability to read and his love for books, his teachers immediately recognized him as a gifted student, and he excelled from the beginning. He was ahead of his classmates from the start, even though he was a late-comer to school. (There was only one time in his school career when his grades began to fail and his performance wasn't what it ought to be. The teacher was shocked, because Spurgeon was her best student. Then it occurred to this teacher that the top student's place was away from the fire and next to a drafty door. He realized that Spurgeon was actually doing poorly in school work on purpose because he didn't want the best seat. After all, it was the most uncomfortable. So the teacher reorganized the seating arrangements, and Spurgeon's academic performance rebounded. He never failed again.)
When Spurgeon was about 14, he and his brother James went to school in Maidstone, where Spurgeon's uncle was one of the teachers. It was there, as a very young teenager in a conversation with the school staff, that Charles was first exposed to the Baptist view on baptism. (Spurgeon's grandfather was a congregationalist who practiced infant baptism, and that was all that Spurgeon had ever known.) An Anglican school was an unlikely place for anyone with a congregational heritage to embrace Baptist beliefs. But Spurgeon, even at that young age, felt compelled to study the issue from Scripture and make up his own mind. As he did so, he found the Baptist position unassailable. So he made up his mind at age 14 that if he ever experienced conversion, he would be baptized. Such was the seriousness of his interest in spiritual things, even before his conversion.
When Charles was about 10 or 11 years old, he began to be deeply convicted about his sin. He was convinced that he had no saving knowledge of Christ. So he set out on a quest for salvation that lasted about 5 years. This was an agonizing time of life for Spurgeon, because he already viewed spiritual matters with far more seriousness than any other boy his age. The knowledge that he himself was not a true Christian was something that weighed more heavily on him than language can express. It became a burden he carried around continually.
W. Y. Fullerton, one of Spurgeon's biographers and a close friend in Spurgeon's adult years, wrote this about those years of Spurgeon's searching for salvation:
Into those years was crowded a world of experience which enabled him in his subsequent ministry to probe the secrets of many hearts. He learned more of the things that matter in those years than most men learn in a lifetime.
That one so young, so sheltered, trained from his babyhood in the ways of God, could have felt so much and have had such exercises of soul may seem impossible, his own account of his darkness and despair may appear exaggerated; but those who are versed in the ways of God will understand [Ibid., 23].
Spurgeon's own account of his struggle to find salvation does indeed leave us marveling that such a boy could feel his own sin so deeply. After all, he grew up in a godly family, in a pastor's home; he had never committed any sort of scandalous sin (probably the most serious sin he had ever fallen into was a lie); and yet the burden of his sin weighed so heavily on him that he was brought to the brink of utter despair by it.
Here's what Spurgeon himself wrote about those dark days of conviction:
When I was in the hand of the Holy Spirit, under conviction of sin, I had a clear and sharp sense of the justice of God. Sin, whatever it might be to other people, became to me an intolerable burden. It was not so much that I feared hell, as that I feared sin; and all the while, I had upon my mind a deep concern for the honour of God's name, and the integrity of His moral government. I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience if I could be forgiven unjustly. But then there came the question,"How could God be just, and yet justify me who had been so guilty?" I was worried and wearied with this question; neither could I see any answer to it. Certainly, I could never have invented an answer which would have satisfied my conscience . . .. I had heard of the plan of salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus from my youth up but I did not know any more about it in my innermost soul than if I had been born and bred a Hottentot. The light was there, but I was blind: it was of necessity that the Lord Himself should make the matter plain to me. [C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography 4 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1897), 1:98.]
Notice the poetic way Spurgeon describes the sense of guilt he felt. Remember, he's talking about himself as a boy. He was a young teenager at the time he is describingperhaps not even in his teens yet. (The whole period of his conviction lasted from age 11 until he was 16.) He further writes:
There was a day, as I took my walks abroad, when I came hard by a spot for ever engraven upon my memory, for there I saw this Friend, my best, my only Friend, murdered. I stooped down in sad affright, and looked at Him. I saw that His hands had been pierced with rough iron nails, and His feet had been rent in the same way. There was misery in His dead countenance so terrible that I scarcely dared to look upon it. His body was emaciated with hunger, His back was red with bloody scourges, and His brow had a circle of wounds about it: clearly could one see that these had been pierced by thorns. I shuddered, for I had known this Friend full well. He never had a fault; He was the purest of the pure, the holiest of the holy. Who could have injured Him? For He never injured any man: all His life long He "went about doing good;" He had healed the sick, He had fed the hungry, He had raised the dead: for which of these works did they kill Him? He had never breathed out anything else but love; and as I looked into the poor sorrowful face, so full of agony, and yet so full of love, I wondered who could have been a wretch so vile as to pierce hands like His. I said within myself, "Where can these traitors live? Who are these that could have smitten such an One as this? Had they murdered an oppressor, we might have forgiven them; had they slain one who had indulged in vice or villainy, it might have been his desert; had it been a murderer and a rebel, or one who had committed sedition, we would have said, "Bury his corpse: justice has at last given him his due." But when Thou wast slain, my best, my only-beloved, where lodged the traitors? Let me seize them, and they shall be put to death. If there be torments that I can devise, surely they shall endure them all. Oh! what jealousy; what revenge I felt! If I might but find these murderers, what would I not do with them! And as I looked upon that corpse, I heard a footstep, and wondered where it was. I listened, and I clearly perceived that the murderer was close at hand. It was dark, and I groped about to find him. I found that, somehow or other, wherever I put out my hand, I could not meet with him, for he was nearer to me than my hand would go. At last I put my hand upon my breast. "I have thee now," said I; for lo! he was in my own heart; the murderer was hiding within my own bosom, dwelling in the recesses of my inmost soul. Ah! then I wept indeed, that I, in the very presence of my murdered Master, should be harbouring the murderer; and I felt myself most guilty while I bowed over His corpse . . .. [Ibid., 99-100.]
That, of course, was written by Spurgeon in his adult years, so it represents his mature way of describing how he felt as a child. But it is clear that even as an 11- or 12-year-old child, he was carrying around a sense of personal guilt that was unusually intense. The guilt was so profound that for 5 years it colored all his thinking. He never could get his thoughts completely away from the sense that he was a sinner, that he was guilty, and that he deserved hell.
Spurgeon's mother was the one whose influence first awakened him to the claims of Christ on his life. Her exhortations to her children, as well as her prayers on their behalf, made an indelible impact on Charles as a young boy.
Spurgeon's father played a somewhat lesser role in the children's spiritual instruction. He was a pastor and a godly man. He himself admitted that his wife more than he was responsible for the children's spiritual instruction. In fact, he used to recount an incident that occurred when he was on his way to some preaching engagement. (His ministry had an itinerant aspect that often took him out of the home.) On this particular occasion he became convicted that he was caring for other people and their spiritual needs, but neglecting his own family and his own children. He went back home. When he got home, upon entering the house quietly, he heard Mrs. Spurgeon in another room, praying for her children's conversion. John Spurgeon says he decided that his children's spiritual welfare was in good hands, and he returned to his preaching engagement.
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that John Spurgeon was inattentive or a compassionless father. He was devoted to his children. He was involved in their lives. Fullerton records a touching story about the father-son relationship:
When the boy returned home from his grandfather's house, he greatly scandalised the congregation on Sunday by singing the last line of each verse twice. His father took him to task, but he said that his grandfather did it, and he would do it too. So his father told him that if he did it again he would give him a whipping that he would remember as long as he lived. Sunday came, and again the boy sang the last lines twice. It must have been amusing, for he had no singing voice. After the service his father asked him if he remembered what he had said. The boy remembered. Father and son then walked into the wood, passing a wheat field on the way, the father trying to win his son to repentance. There they kneeled and prayed together, and both were greatly moved. Turning back to the wheat field, the father plucked a stalk of wheat, and told Charles to hold out his hand. The wheat stalk was laid gently across it. "I told you I would give you a whipping you would never forget. You will never forget that," said his father. The gentle sternness of the punishment broke him down and won him over, and he never forgot it [Fullerton, 25-26].
Spurgeon's father, obviously, was a man who deeply loved Christ. His great compassion and tenderness left an indelible impression on young Charles's life. Spurgeon's father, his grandfather, and above all his mother, were therefore strong influences on him spiritually.
On Sunday evenings, Mrs. Spurgeon would gather the children together around the table for Scripture reading and prayer. Spurgeon said she used to pray like this: "Now Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish. My soul must bear swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ." Spurgeon said the thought of his own mother's bearing witness against him at the judgment seat of Christ pierced his conscience.
Because of such influences, Charles began to develop a keen sense of his own guilt by the time he was 10 or 11. The thing that burdened him so much was a clear understanding that he was guilty in God's sight. He didn't have the limited perspective so many children havegrieving only because they have offended their parents. Spurgeon very seriously seemed to realize, even at a young age, that all his sins were an affront against God Himself.
He also seems not to have suffered from that common human failure most of us have, comparing ourselves with one another and convincing ourselves that we're all right after all, because we're so much better than this or that person. Spurgeon knew better than to do that. He wrote this:
I could not believe that it was possible that my sins could be forgiven. I do not know why, but I seemed to be the odd person in the world. When the catalogue was made out, it appeared to me that, for some reason, I must have been left out. If God had saved me, and not the world, I should have wondered indeed; but if He had saved all the world except me, that would have seemed to me to be but right. And now, being saved by grace, I cannot help saying, "I am indeed a brand plucked out of the fire!" [Spurgeon, 103.]
Spurgeon's unique perspective explains why he regarded himself as one of those "who were kept by God a long time before we found him" [Ibid.]. In his mind, those years of carrying the burden of his sin must have seemed like an eternity. Remember, he was brought up in a pastor's home in a godly environment from his infancy. He never seems to have succumbed to any sort of vile or gross behavior. He never engaged in any reputation-destroying sins. No scandalous sins appear anywhere in any account of in his life. He was converted at a fairly young age, 16. Yet he kept in his heart until the day he died a very strong sense that he was nothing but a horrible sinner. He never thought of himself as better than anyone. For the rest of his life he retained the fresh memory of that burden of guilt he had carried. And for that reason, he felt a close kinship to people converted to Christ after a long time in the depths of sin.
I love that picture of dear old Christian [in Pilgrim's Progress]. I know, when I first read The Pilgrim's Progress, and saw in it the woodcut of Christian carrying the burden on his back, I felt so interested in the poor fellow, that I thought I should jump with joy when, after he had carried his heavy load so long, he at last got rid of it; and that was how I felt when the burden of guilt, which I had borne so long, was for ever rolled away from my shoulders and my heart [Ibid.].
During those years of conviction, Spurgeon was exposed to a lot of preaching about the law and guilt and sin, and all of this only intensified his woes. He records that some of the books that he read during this time included books like, Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Richard Baxter's A Call to the Unconverted, Joseph Alllein's Alarm to Sinners, and John Angel James' book called The Anxious Inquirer. All of those books are written to convict over-confident people. Spurgeon said it was like sitting at the foot of Sinai. Fullerton adds this: "He read the Bible through, but found that its threatenings seemed to be printed in capitals and its promises in small type. With perverse ingenuity . . . he twisted everything to his own hurt, applying the cheering words to others and the woeful words to himself" [Fullerton, 27].
Spurgeon later wrote this about the turmoil that he experienced:
Day and night God's hand was heavy on me. If I slept a night I dreamed of the bottomless pit, and when I awoke I seemed to feel the misery I had dreamed. Up to God's house I went; my song was but a sigh. To my chamber I retired, and there, with tears and groans, I offered up my prayer without a hope and without a refuge, for God's law was flogging me with its ten-thonged whip and then rubbing me with brine afterwards, so that I did shake and quiver with pain and anguish [Ibid., 27].
In another place, Spurgeon likened all this preaching of the law to someone who was actually plowing the same ground over and over again, "with a team of ten black horses"the Ten Commandments.
During those years of conviction no one who knew Spurgeon seemed aware of his inner turmoil. He turned it all inward. Fullerton wrote,
It must not be supposed that the lad became morbid during those years. He lived two lives, one keen, natural, bookish, observant; the other absorbed, fearful, doubting, insurgent. If he had spoken of his trouble, there were those round him who could, perhaps, have helped him out of it; but he battled alone, hiding his thoughts from them all, save once when he spoke to his grandfather of his fear of being a lost soul, and was somewhat comforted for a while. He would not believe because others believed; he must have an assurance of his own; he would not rest until he knew [Ibid., 26.].
Normally, people struggling with this sort of burden will talk to others and desperately reach out for comfort and assurance, and they want to feed off the verbal reassurances people invariably offer. The counselor's encouragement and comfort may last for a while, but because the issue isn't really settled in the sinner's own heart, he or she will go back to doubting. It can be very frustrating to counsel people with that perspective on their own sins.
But Spurgeon knew better. He didn't feed off the assurance and encouragement that others could give him. He realized his business was with God, and he kept it between him and God. There's no doubt that it would have been good for Spurgeon to seek counsel from his grandparents, from his parents, or from other mature believers around him. They might have at least helped him bear the burden and certainly would have prayed diligently for him. But he didn't seek that kind of help.
He describes what happened in those dark days of conviction:
While under concern of soul, I resolved that I would attend all the places of worship in the town where I lived, in order that I might find out the way of salvation. I was willing to do anything, and be anything, if God would only forgive my sin. I set off, determined to go round to all the chapels, and I did go to every place of worship; but for a long time I went in vain. I do not, however, blame the ministers. One man preached Divine Sovereignty; I could hear him with pleasure, but what was that sublime truth to a poor sinner who wished to know what he must do to be saved? There was another admirable man who always preached about the law; but what was the use of ploughing up ground that needed to be sown? Another was a practical preacher. I heard him, but it was very much like a commanding officer teaching the manoeuvres of war to a set of men without feet. What could I do? All his exhortations were lost on me. I knew it, was said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;" but I did not know what it was to believe on Christ. These good men all preached truths suited to many in their congregations who were spiritually-minded people; but what I wanted to know was,"How can I get my sins forgiven?"and they never told me that. I desired to hear how a poor sinner, under a sense of sin, might find peace with God; and when I went, I heard a sermon on "Be not deceived, God is not mocked," which cut me up still worse; but did not bring me into rest. I went again, another day, and the text was something about the glories of the righteous; nothing for poor me! I was like a dog under the table, not allowed to eat of the children's food. I went time after time, and I can honestly say that I do not know that I ever went without prayer to God, and I am sure there was not a more attentive hearer than myself in all the place, for I panted and longed to understand how I might be saved [Spurgeon, 104-105].
Spurgeon's experience later helped shape his ministry. He remembered his frustration in wanting to hear the gospel but never hearing anything but law preached. That is why there is such a strong evangelistic thrust in almost every sermon Spurgeon ever preached. He almost never stood up in the pulpit without clearly giving the way of salvation and calling sinners to Christ.
Ultimately, Spurgeon's conversion came through the most unlikely circumstances. One Sunday morning, while Spurgeon was in this phase of sampling various churches, a terrible snowstorm virtually shut down the little town of Colchester. Spurgeon was home from his boarding school for Christmas holidays. The date can be determined with absolute precision. It was Sunday, January 6, 1850. The snowstorm started early in the morning. Spurgeon had gotten up early in the morning because he had plans to go to a particular chapel on the other side of town. But just as Spurgeon began to make his way to church, the snowstorm grew worse.
Spurgeon himself recounted what happened:
I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people's heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man,* a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was,
"LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH."
He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus"My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, 'Look.' Now lookin' don't take a deal of pains. It ain't liftin' your foot or your finger; it is just, 'Look.' Well, a man needn't go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn't be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, 'Look unto Me.' Ay!" said he, in broad Essex, "many on ye are lookin' to yourselves, but it's no use lookin' there. You'll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, 'Look unto Me.' Some on ye say, 'We must wait for the Spirit's workin'.' You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, 'Look unto Me.'" Then the good man followed up his text in this way:"Look unto Me; I am sweatin' great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin' on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin' at the Father's right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me! When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, "Young man, you look very miserable." Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, "and you always will be miserablemiserable in life, and miserable in death,if you don't obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved." Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin' to do but to look and live." I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,I did not take much notice of it,I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, "Trust Christ, and you shall be saved" [Spurgeon, 105-108.].
Spurgeon began preaching right after his conversion. He was converted in January, 1850. Amazingly, less than five years later he was called to be the pastor of the largest Baptist church in London. So within four years after his conversion, he preached his first sermon as the pastor in the pulpit of the congregation he would shepherd until the day he died. He never attended university or seminary. He seems to have sprung full grown into maturity as a pastor, preacher and a theologian.
But the truth behind Spurgeon's remarkable ministry is that many of the influences that made him what he was were related to his earliest upbringing. They were the influences he gained from a godly home life, under the oversight of godly parents and grandparents.