23 October 2006

Spurgeon's Best-known Ecclesiastical Antagonist

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. This week, instead of simply quoting an excerpt from Spurgeon himself, we're recounting an instructive episode in his life.

oseph Parker is probably best-remembered today for Parker's People's Bible, a 25-volume collection of his expositions. Starting in 1869, Parker pastored in London for 33 years, and his preaching drew crowds that regularly numbered in the thousands. In his day, Parker was practically as famous as Spurgeon and would have been deemed by most of their contemporaries as more cutting-edge, more influential, and certainly more sophisticated than Spurgeon. Naturally, Parker appealed to a younger generation.

Parker was a progressive. Doctrinally, he was orthodox enough, but he assiduously avoided doctrinal controversy in an era when many evangelical essentials were being discarded and attacked. Without overtly denying any vital point of doctrine, he managed to tiptoe around certain doctrines deemed controversial or outmoded by many modern intellectuals.

Parker had also hosted Henry Ward Beecher as a guest preacher in the pulpit of City Temple. Beecher was hands-down America's most famous preacher of that era, but he had disgraced himself and scandalized all of Christendom by carrying on an adulterous affair with the wife of a friend. Spurgeon was outraged that Parker would welcome such a man into his pulpit.

Most of all, Parker strove to be stylish. He openly attended the theatre in an era when London theatre was considered shockingly bawdy by most evangelicals. Those and other aspects of Parker's lifestyle and public behavior struck Spurgeon as worldly and unbecoming for a minister.

Spurgeon said nothing publicly that was expressly critical of Parker, but in 1887, when Parker invited Spurgeon to participate in "a public conference between ministers of all denominations—gathered from all parts of the country," Spurgeon sent a private note quietly declining. He reluctantly told Parker (in essence) that he generally agreed with his doctrine but couldn't affirm his lifestyle.

"I feel I have no right whatever to question you about your course of procedure," Spurgeon wrote. "You are a distinguished man with a line of your own, but your conduct puzzles me. I can only understand a consistent course of action, either for the faith or against it, and yours does not seem to exhibit that quality. I am sorry that frankness requires me to say this, and having said it, I desire to say no more."

Parker insisted that Spurgeon needed to say more: "If thou hast aught against thy brother, go and tell him his fault between thee and thy brother [cf. Matthew 18:15]. But as your health is uncertain, I will so far modify the terms as to go to you at your house at any mutually convenient time. This strikes me as the Christian way—the Lord's own way—why should we invent another?"

Spurgeon was clearly put off by Parker's insistence on coming to see him. As far as Spurgeon was concerned, his differences with Parker were not merely personal conflicts but vast differences in ministry philosophy—including a fundamental difference of opinion about how to weigh vital doctrine and balance it with a good public testimony. Spurgeon wasn't looking for an argument or a conflict with Parker; he was just trying (politely but honestly) to decline an invitation to participate in a meeting that would have forced him to make a public show of approval toward men whom he conscientiously felt he could not affirm.

Spurgeon replied with a terse but private letter:

     If I had aught against you I would see you gladly; but I have no personal offense, nor shadow of it. Your course to me has been one of uniform kindness, for which I am most grateful.
     The question is very different. You ask me to cooperate with you in a conference for the vindication of the old evangelical faith. I do not see my way to do this. First, I do not believe in the conference; and second, I do not see how I could act with you in it, because I do not think your past course of action entitles you to be considered a champion of the faith.
     There is nothing in this which amounts to having aught against you. You have, no doubt, weighed your actions and are of age. These are not private but public matters, and I do not intend to go into them either in my house or yours.
     The evangelical faith in which you and Mr. Beecher agree is not the faith which I hold; add the view of religion which takes you to the theater is so far off from mine that I cannot commune with you therein.
     I do not feel that these are matters in which I have the slightest right to call you to account. You wrote to me, and I tried to let the matter go by. You write me again and compel me to be more explicit, altogether against my will. I do not now write for any eye but your own, and I most of all desire that you will now let the matter drop. To go further will only make you angry and it will not alter me. I do not think the cooperation sought would be a wise one, and I had rather decline it without further questioning.
     To make this public would serve no useful end. I have told you of the matter alone, and now I must decline any further correspondence.
          Yours with every good wish,
          C. H. SPURGEON.

Parker's only private reply was a postcard: "Best thanks, and best regards. —J. P."

Parker had more that that to say to Spurgeon, but he chose to say it two years later in a way calculated to embarrass Spurgeon. On April 25, 1890, The British Weekly published "An Open Letter—Parker to Spurgeon":

     I know I may speak frankly, because I am speaking to a man whose heart is big and warm, a heart that has an immense advantage over his head. When people ask me what I think of Spurgeon, I always ask, which Spurgeon—the head or the heart—the Spurgeon of the tabernacle or the Spurgeon of the orphanage.
     I will speak frankly as to a brother beloved. Let me advise you to widen the circle of which you are the center. You are surrounded by offerers of incense. They flatter your weakness, they laugh at your jokes, they feed you with compliments. My dear Spurgeon, you are too big a man for this. Take in more fresh air. Open your windows, even when the wind is in the east. Scatter your ecclesiastical harem. I do not say destroy your circle: I simply say enlarge it. As with your circle, so with your reading.
     Other men will write you in a vein of condolent flattery, and will hold up their riddled gingham to save you from the refreshing shower, but you know as well as I do that their good offices are meant for themselves and not for you.
     Good-bye, you sturdy, honest old soul. You have been wondrously useful, and wondrously honored. I would double all your honors if I could. Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth? In your inmost soul you know I am not your enemy, but your friend.

Spurgeon made no public reply. When he learned friends were planning to reply on his behalf, he stayed their hand. By then, Spurgeon was already embroiled in the Downgrade Controversy. If Parker was so committed to evangelical essentials, he ought to have lent his public support and encouragement to Spurgeon. Instead, he chose the very moment when Spurgeon was under siege from enemies of the gospel, and he jumped on the dogpile.

Parker would have insisted—and did insist—that his doctrinal sympathies lay with Spurgeon. His actions belied that claim.

Spurgeon was nearing the end of his life and ministry. The dominant opinions among British evangelicals had already turned against Spurgeon. He was already perceived as a theological dinosaur, because of his unbending commitment to the old doctrines.

By contrast, most Christians considered Parker the epitome of forward-thinking evangelicalism. He was trendy, he shaved the corners off unpleasant truths, he bent the message as much as possible to contextualize his preaching and placate the spirit of the age.

But more than a hundred years later, Spurgeon still speaks to our generation. By contrast, Parker's sermons, so stylish in their time, sound terribly quaint today. What seemed so advanced and trendy in Victorian times is so outdated nowadays that almost no one reads Parker anymore.

And here's the greatest irony of all: when Spurgeon died, Parker wrote a tribute to him that was published in The Times of London. What do you suppose Parker regarded as Spurgeon's most outstanding feature? It was Spurgeon's unbending commitment, throughout his entire ministry, to the same doctrines he had preached at the start. Parker wrote:

     The only pulpit name of the nineteenth century that will be remembered is no longer the name of a living man. His simplicity, his constancy, his stand-stillness, won for him, through many difficulties, a unique and invincible position in Christian England. Mr. Spurgeon had but one sermon, and it was ever new. Other young preachers are naturally great in the treatment of Biblical narrative and anecdotes. They can handle drama better than doctrine. Mr. Spurgeon boldly went at once to the deepest and greatest themes. At nineteen he preached to countless thousands from such texts: "Accepted in the beloved"; "No man cometh unto me except the Father draw him"; "And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace." Some men have never ventured to take those texts even after a lifetime of service. Mr. Spurgeon took them at once, as the very seven notes that made all God's music, and he did so by Divine right and impulse. As he began, so he continued: he never changed; he never went in quest of the fourth dimension or of the eighth note; his first and his last were one.
     That great voice has ceased. It was the mightiest voice I ever heard: a voice that could give orders in a tempest, and find its way across a torrent as through a silent aisle. Very gentle, too, it could be, sweet and tender and full of healing pity.

"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Phil's signature


Doug McMasters said...

I'm confident time will reveal a similar outcome in another great city. Thank you for this, Phil, it teaches a good lesson.


Anonymous said...

This is encouraging. I went through a situation last year very similar to this and the correspondence included. Truthfully, I never heard of Parker until now. This is great stuff!

mark pierson said...

Thanks, Phil

donsands said...

Thanks for digging this up. It's helpful to read about Spurgeon's struggles.

"he shaved the corners off unpleasant truths"
Nice phrase.

James Scott Bell said...

I dunno, Parker's open letter didn't seem unfair or vitriolic to me, and it's difficult to ascribe ill motives to him from our vantage point. He seemed, rather, to be respectful even as he forwarded the agenda to get Spurgeon to change. Spurgeon had taken a strong public stand, and Parker was on "the other side." Spurgeon was on the right side, of course, but in view of how he often "laid out" opposing theologies, Parker's letter seems quite benign. Re: the recent discussion of blog ethics, it seems rather a model of how Christians ought to disagree. Spurgeon's original note to Parker was also well phrased, but very pointed. It is not at all suprising that Parker should want to talk about it.

From what was posted, it doesn't look like Parker was "insistent" at seeing Spurgeon at home, but truly wanted to talk things over. When Spurgeon refused, Parker didn't throw a snit or press things further. He didn't take the matter public or keep pressing Spurgeon to relent.

And Parker's tribute to Spurgeon at the end seems to demonstrate pure motives.

Spurgeon was the great one here, we all know. But Parker didn't seem out of line in his conduct. I think both men handled a sticky situation well.

Steve Weaver said...

Very interesting.

John said...

I have always found this blog to be useful. I especially enjoy reading the weekly "Dose of Spurgeon." Thank you so much.

Solameanie said...


Talk about a way to start your week with a blessing!

Thanks for posting this.


Anonymous said...
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Paul E said...

Thank you for this article today Phil! I am both strengthened and encouraged by Spurgeon's integrity and forthright courage, especially in light being in the heat of the downgrade controversy.

candy said...

One of the things I appreciate in Spurgeon's letter to Parker is that he didn't back down, he proved his character, and he didn't attack the man, he squarely faced the issues. I think we have a lot to learn from reading letters from Spurgeon and from George Whitfield to Wesley as well. How can we stand strong, not compromise, but still separate the issues from the person. It is not unusual to see lots of personal attacks on blogs these days, and sometimes the personal attacks take over and the issues are buried underneath the rubble.

Daniel said...

"Mr. Spurgeon had but one sermon, and it was ever new"

This reminds me of the apostle Paul - he preached Christ and Him crucified!

We preach Christ - scripture is the pavement upon which we stand to do that - but we preach Christ. How empty it is to preach Christ without standing on scripture, and again, how empty to stand on the text in the absence of Christ.

Anyone who preaches Christ is going to be preaching a timeless message - but when we preach to "the times", we risk preaching a Christless message.

Lamblion said...

I'm curious...

A number of times throughout his writings Spurgeon disparages the theater, and made it plain that he considered it a mark of the flesh and virtual heresy for any preacher to attend the theater.

Same with Whitefield before him. In fact, before Whitefield was born again, he was so enthralled with the theater that he intended on joining it. After he was born again in a powerful effusion of the Spirit, he utterly disdained and disapproved of the theater.

I have discovered no reason for Spurgeon's and Whitefield's and other Spirit-filled Christians scorn of the theater to be other than the theater is a flesh centered affair.

So, as I said at the beginning... I'm curious...

Is there anywhere specifically that Spurgeon's disdainment of the theater was simply because it was too baudy instead of because all theater is a matter of the flesh?


Lamblion said...

Here's an example of Spurgeon's disdain of the theater...

"As for questionable amusements—time was when a Nonconformist minister who was known to attend the play-house would soon have found himself without a church. And justly so; for no man can long possess the confidence, even of the most worldly, who is known to be a haunter of theaters. Yet at the present time it is matter of notoriety that preachers of no mean repute defend the play-house, and do so because they have been seen there. Is it any wonder that church members forget their vows of consecration, and run with the unholy in the ways of frivolity, when they hear that persons are tolerated in the pastorate who do the same? We doubt not that, for writing these lines we shall incur the charge of prudery and bigotry, and this will but prove how low are the tone and spirit of the churches in many places. The fact is, that many would like to unite church and stage, cards and prayer, dancing and sacraments. If we are powerless to stem this torrent, we can at least warn men of its existence, and entreat them to keep out of it." Another Word Concerning The Down-Grade


Tim Brown said...

Some things never change. There is nothing new under the sun.

It's encouraging to know that Spurgeon had to deal with similar issues (2 Corinthians 1).

Heres's why.

James Scott Bell said...

"I have discovered no reason for Spurgeon's and Whitefield's and other Spirit-filled Christians scorn of the theater to be other than the theater is a flesh centered affair."

R. A. Torrey had another reason. Preaching in L.A. as theater, Vaudeville and the movie business boomed, he saw these things as being destructive to the lives of the people engaged in them, e.g., the women who allowed themselves to be used as toys in return for acting roles. So giving support to such an enterprise was, in his mind, enabling sin.

Can someone say "prophetic"?

~Mark said...

Question: when you are aware of a public figure with dishonest doctrine, should you confront that person as one trying to straighten out a brother?

As a young Christian, I had the wife of one of my Elders confront me over a trait that I practiced which I wasn't aware of, and it shocked me. I eliminated that practice from my life and was very grateful for her tactful, albeit still necessarily painful, honesty.

I do view public figures, especially those called "pastor" (like T. D. Jakes, Benny Hinn and the like) to be in a position where can rightfully be EXPECTED to know better than what they teach.

Is the call to rebuke the same for the young brother or sister in private as well as for the well-known teacher?

(By the way, probably not coincidentally, I would greatly appreciate mature Christian criticism on the concept and execution of what I am doing at theGospelShowOneVoice.com. I absolutely do not want to walk a different path from my Lord.)

James Scott Bell said...

I ran across this quote tonight and thought it so apt for the "dose of Spurgeon" post, and in light of the desire to be "progressive." This is a serious clip from a book on preaching, by one of the most popular of current pulpiteers:

"I sometimes joke that one of my goals in ministry is to complete however many years God gives me without ever using a Spurgeon illustration. Non-Christians (even most Christians today) don’t know who Spurgeon was. And once unchurched people find out, they wonder why I’m wasting my time with him. They think, These are the 1990s, and we’ve got a massive drug problem, a teetering savings-and-loan industry, and political turmoil, and he’s spending time reading some dead Englishman? If he’s got the time to do that, he’s not living in the same world I am."

donsands said...


That quote got under my finger-nails.

I wonder if this same preacher never quotes Shakespeare.

Silly Old Mom said...


That "pulpiteer" wouldn't happen to have the initials R.W., would he?

James Scott Bell said...

Since these comments were written publicly, in a book, I suppose it's quite all right to reveal that they belong to a BH who started a church called WC. (If you're a true "seeker" you will certainly be "sensitive" enough to figure out who this is.)

The book, BTW, is "Mastering Contemporary Preaching" (Multnomah, 1989) It's quite an experience to read this book alongside "Rediscovering Expository Preaching" by JM and the Master's Seminary faculty (Word, 1992). The latter is like a full course meal; the former is a dish of Skittles.

AuthenticTruth said...

Simply amazing how the church never learns from history, but ignorantly repeats the same mistakes. It is common for churches today to even supposedly hold to a seemingly solid statement of faith, yet in practice, essentially deny what they profess to believe. I even see this mentality creeping into the church I am a part of. Each passing year finds them more and more unwilling to confront heresy. Yet they did take time to refute the error of the DaVinci code (albeit, very briefly one Sunday evening). However, I find it ironic that at the same time, some in leadership seem compelled to utilize the material from questionable teachers such as Rob Bell and the heretical Brian McLaren. Bell and McLaren are far more a threat to the church than Dan Brown is, especially when the former masquerade as Christian leaders.

Sadly, it seems that more and more churches are drifting from biblical ministry. Just when you think that you might have found a decent church, over time, they too succumb to the whims of the culture.

jen said...

I hate when I find these excellent posts so late in the game! This one actually caused a lump in my throat. It's moving to see men who stand so firm in the Word of God and in their convictions. I thank God for Spurgeon, and I thank Him for those men we have today.

jsb, I see what you're saying, and I agree that we can't judge motives. But just reading Parker's open letter, and trying to see it with the perspective of someone who would be reading it in the paper but not know the history behind it, it does seem to have a bit of an edge. I would be left to wonder where his comments were coming from. Frankly, it sounds very condescending. Regardless of the reasons he wrote the letter, it sounds like one that would have been wiser to send privately.

With that said, I do applaud Parker's tribute. It's part of what caused the lump in my throat. Obviously, he saw the truth in the end.