The Theological Controversy That May Have Cost Charles Spurgeon’s Life

Charles Spurgeon

Conviction—it’s a word that most associate with Charles Spurgeon. The “Prince of Preachers” wasn’t known for backing down from necessary controversy. Between pamphlet writing, lectures, and preaching, Spurgeon clearly and passionately argued for the truth of Christianity against ministers who were backing away from orthodoxy.

Near the end of his life, Spurgeon became entangled in a controversy that became so heated, it may have contributed to his death at the age of 57.

In what would be called the Downgrade Controversy, the Baptist Union of Great Britain began sliding into doctrinal heterodoxy near the end of the 19th century, capitulating to critical interpretations of the Bible and the denial of key doctrines of Christian belief. Stunned at this development, Spurgeon began his crusade.

Fighting the fight of faith

In the months and years that followed, Spurgeon produced many works seeking to persuade others of the “downgrade” in theology amongst Baptists. He sounded the alarm in his magazine The Sword and the Trowel:

Assuredly the New Theology can do no good towards God or man; it, has no adaptation for it. If it were preached for a thousand years by all the most earnest men of the school, it would never renew a soul, nor overcome pride in a single human heart.

Spurgeon held that since this theology preached by certain ministers in the Baptist Union was lifeless, parishioners were not being fed the life-giving nourishment that true doctrine provides.

The reaction against Spurgeon from the opposing side was merciless. At the annual Baptist Union meeting in 1888, representatives from the churches of the Union voted 2,000 to 7 to modify the organization’s statement of faith to reflect a moderate theological position between those on the evangelical side and those on the liberal side.

James Spurgeon, Charles’ brother, was responsible for helping to keep the Union together at the expense of its doctrinal fidelity. Charles was crushed by both his brother’s actions and the decision of the assembly. After his death, Charles’ wife said “his fight for the faith . . . cost him his life.”

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Written by
Daniel Motley

Daniel Motley works as the Team Lead of Live Products at Faithlife. He helps promote resources in the Logos Bible Software platform while overseeing a group of product managers. In his spare time he likes to write and has contributed to The Gospel Coalition and the Art of Manliness.

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  • In my perspective, I believe often times, truly faithful men/women of God who are passionately enforcing and practicing God’s Word and upholding His precepts have a short life….just like Oswald Chambers etc. We are facing similar controversy today with the changing times, pulling away from God and fashioning of doctrine to appease, entice and pacify people to allow all kinds of vile lifestyles in society. I was thinking this morning of what Billy Graham said a long time ago, “If God does not judge America, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” I believe this is fast approaching; God’s judgment on America that is. God will judge this land because we have made wrong right and written into law to justify it. Men/women of depraved minds, will strive more and more to make more wrong right, when they get away with what was before, (past wrong to the present wrong). Those who have made an indelible (righteous) permanent mark on society, I believe will still stand the test of times for those of like fundamental faith in the Word. After all, the Christian battle is not new.

    • I believe we are witnessing the “falling away” as was prophesied. The Old Paths of the Faith are being replaced by entertainment, prosperity preaching, feel good coliseums, among other things. It is no longer fashionable to preach on “Sin” or hold the belief that The Bible is the unchanging Word of God in its entirety.

      • That is true. There is a falling away. Many are called and few are chosen. The same that endure to the end, the same shall be save.

  • I have been in the Southern Baptist circles ever since I was born (I was born into a Southern Baptist church with my family being members of a Southern Baptist church). I have seen the downward slide into appeasement and liberalism over the years in the SBC. There was a change to the more conservative side a few years ago, but the downward slide has returned as societal and lifestyle changes are challenging the church today. America is sliding even faster than ever toward the cliff of God's judgment as the LGBT & transgenderites are gaining traction and the leaders of this country are siding with those who are immoral. What used to be right is now wrong, and soon Christians will be persecuted if they stand against the immoral lifestyles that are being propagated in society. Christians are already becoming the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong in society. I, for one, would rather die for my faith than give in to these immoral, Hell-bent justifiers of their perverted lifestyles.

    • I believe my friend that the Good Lord is ready to test us in this land that has become complacent, abusing our liberties and freedom. Too many compromising hirelings in the churches today. He knows how to get our attention, doesn’t He? I would like to be like the church or Philadelphia that held to God’s favor (Rev 3:7-13)

  • It seems to me Christians are finding it much easier to say "can we all just get along or we should all dwell together in love. There is some good in all faiths so lets not judge one another." That is a slippery slope I don't want to go down. If we don't stand for something we will fall for anything.

    • Yes, for those who do not understand the truth of the Almighty’s standard, deceiving themselves, being deceived and deceiving others. Some think that Christlam is a good idea. What deceit. We must remain watchful.

  • Sin is sin. just because many people want to and agree to redefine a truth, doesn't mean that truth has changed. – you know what else hasn't changed? My grin every time I read a blog like this and say to myself – I think I recognize some of that, but I want to make sure I have those resources, so I click the link and "Add To Cart" button is grayed out. Grin, Grinning, Grinningest. :)

  • The downward slide trend in the Southern Baptist Church has continued since its adaption so many years before. Today, we have compromised in relation to the role of women, same sex relation ship just to name a few. Once you begin to compromised the truth, there is no end to where it will lead.

    • This is true. This is how we allow kinks in our Spiritual Armor. Our defense becomes weak.

  • Since the title of this blog entry is “The Theological Controversy that May Have Cost Charles Spurgeon’s Life,” I’d like to see a little more detail on exactly how this stressful time manifested itself. The only mention in the text itself is the final sentence. I’m not asking for anyone to speculate on Spurgeon’s struggle; I was, though, expecting to find some details to support the thesis.

    • There is an old saying, “belief kills and belief cures!” Does this apply to Spurgeon in the intensity of his belief. When I look at Spurgeon’s name, this is what I see. If we take the “p” out of Spurgeon, you get surgeon. Surgeons have a high regard for correcting a problem, like making the lame walk again, causing the blind to see, and setting the captives of disease, disease free, by cutting it out. I believe Spurgeon saw the disease and potential to metastasize. Surgeons need the assistance of others in the operating room (environment/society) to carry out a surgical procedure (spiritually driven intervention) This expected assistance (his brother) betrayed him. Humanly speaking, we all need support. He felt alone, yet not alone. We are called to support especially those of the household of faith. I believe it is possible that Spurgeon was so grieved, he may have died of a heartache. I am a firm believer that “stress” brings out latent illnesses, dormant (disease prone) genes, illneses like high blood pressure; thus heart failure. I once heard a great expositor of God’s Word say that the life of a pastor is a lonely one, it comes with the territory.

  • We are far away from Spurgeon and his fight. We joined the liberalism and call it the new normal. Evangelism is almost nonexistent and no Christian can stand to defend his/her faith. But, we go around the world to evangelize others, but not America. Something is wrong.

    • This is a profound started truth. We forget that America makes up the world, a spiritually dying world and is in need of harvesting. I believe Spurgeon felt that way in his era. The heartache was more than he could withstand. Also being betrayed by his own brother. We spend more time being missionaries abroad, and becoming comfortable at home because we do not know what it is the suffer shedding our blood, like those Coptic Christians. Our faith is dwindling unlike men of old. For this reason, the Lord will & must put us to the test according to his design He has for America. We are almost like the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:4) having lost our first love.

  • Brother Charles will receive his award soon at the appearing in Jesus, and it will be shown that his work is of gold and precious stones instead of hay and straw. "each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done." (1Cor 3:13)

Written by Daniel Motley