On the 18th of January 1854, 162 years ago to the day, Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached his first sermon at New Park Street chapel. He was 19 years old. The church was nearly empty, about 40 members in attendance. After 38 years as their pastor, the number of new members who had joined the church was 14,460.
Spurgeon’s sermons were different from the longwinded, technical, theological lectures that were common in churches of the day. His sermons were humorous, filled with illustrations, and application. Soon he became known as the Prince of Preachers, the pastor of the largest church in the world, with one of the most successful Baptist ministries since, well, John the Baptist.
He started orphanages, dozens of outreach ministries, and a pastor’s training college with 900 students.
His success was obvious, but the reason for his success was not as obvious, except to those who knew him well.
Most believe his success is easily explained by his obvious giftedness and prodigious abilities and tireless work ethic. He often worked 18 hours a day. His sermons sold at a rate of 25,000 a week, were translated into 20 languages and every ship that left England carried his sermons.
He once preached to a crowd of over 23,000 people with no amplification.
He possessed a photographic memory and remembered every word of every book he had read in his 12,000 volume library. With one page of notes he would preach 140 words a minute for 40 minutes, and yet his wording and language is considered some of the most beautiful and eloquent of all Christian literature—all 25 million words of his recorded sermons.
And it showed. Thousands upon thousands of people converted to Christianity under his ministry. One lady’s testimony was that she was opening butter that had been wrapped in a sermon, read it and got saved. Another man was working in the rafters of an empty church when Spurgeon came in to test the acoustics. He said loudly “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The man was so stunned and convicted that he gave his life to Jesus on the spot. Spurgeon was, to put it mildly, effective in the pulpit.
But any biographical work that attributes Spurgeon’s success in ministry to his giftedness does a disservice to the facts. Those close to him said that Spurgeon himself credited his success to only one activity of his.
It wasn’t preaching, or writing, or preparation, or study; it was prayer.
The famed biographer, Arnold Dalimore, captures this truth well:
Spurgeon was ever a man of prayer. Not that he spent any long periods of time in prayer but he lived in the spirit of communion with God. Dr. Wayland Hoyt provides an example of his practice: ‘I was walking with him in the woods one day just outside London and, as we strolled under the shadow of the summer foliage, we came upon a log lying athwart the path. “Come,” he said as naturally as one would say if he were hungry and bread was put before him. “Come let us pray.” Kneeling beside the log he lifted his soul to God in the most loving and yet reverent prayer. Then, rising from his knees he went strolling on talking about this and that. The prayer was no parenthesis interjected, it was something that belonged as much to the habit of his mind as breathing did to the habit of his body.”
Another guest of Spurgeon’s witnessed their family devotions and commented that,
His public prayers were an inspiration and benediction, but his prayer with the family were to me more wonderful still. The beauty of them was ever striking: figures, symbols, citations of choice Scriptural emblems, all given with a spontaneity and naturalness that charmed the mind and moved the heart. Mr. Spurgeon, when bowed before God in family prayer, appeared a grander man even than when holding thousands spellbound by his oratory.”
For us pastors and other Christians who feel that we are less gifted and capable than Charles Spurgeon, this knowledge should give us hope. Any handicap we have in ourselves can easily be compensated for with the effort and fervency and commitment we give to our prayer lives.
2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
So, brothers and sisters, may 2016 be a year of prayer. For our good, the good of our ministries, and for the glory of God.