Preached and revised by the Sheldon and Co.. Seventh Series. New York :
SPURGEON is emphatically of the earth, earthy. This we say, not as anything against him intellectually or spiritually, but simply as indicating the material ballast, which in this man is grosser and heavier than in most men, pulling forever against his sails, and absolutely forbidding that freeer movement of the imagination which usually belongs to minds of a power equal in degree to his. Not that this freedom flows necessarily out of a great degree of mental power, or by any organic law is associated with what we term genius. Every one would admit that Luther was a man of genius ; yet Luther was in this respect no better off than Spurgeon, — he was as totally destitute of wings, of the possibility of aerial flight. His power we consider to be far higher than that of Spurgeon ; hut this we argue from the fact, that, although equally with Spurgeon he was excluded from the sovereignty of the air, although he was equally denied both the faculty to create and the capacity to receive subtile speculation, he had what Spurgeon has not, an almighty, irresistible impetus in his movements, — movements which, though centripetal, forever seeking the earth, and forever trailing their mountain-weight of glory along the line of and through the midst of flesh-and-blood realities, yet never found any impediment in all their course, but swept the ground like a whirlwind. This distinction between Spurgeon and Luther in the matter of strength is an important one; and it is, moreover, a distinction which may easily he derived — even if no other source lay open to us — from a palpable difference between their faces. But the resemblance between these two men as to tendencies and modes of operation is still more important, and especially as helping us to draw the line between two distinct orders of human genius. Upon this resemblance we desire to dwell at some length.
Luther and Spurgeon are both grossly realistic. They are both groundlings. In their art, they build after the simple, but grand style of the Cyclops; they have no upward reach ; with no delicate steppings do they haunt the clouds ; because they will not soar, they draw the sky down low about them, and, wrapping themselves about with its thunders and its sunlights, play with these mysteries as with magnificent toys. In them there is no subtilizing .of human affections, of human fears, or of human faith. All these maintain their alliance magnetically, by channels seen or unseen, but forever felt, with the earth, and, Antæus-like, from the earth they derive all their peculiar strength as sentiments of the human heart.
How widely different are these men from Bacon, Kant, or Fichte,— or, to compare them more directly with the artists of literature, by What chasms of space are they removed from Milton, Shakspeare, and even from Homer, who, although he was a realist, yet had eagles’ wings, and was at home on the earth and in the clouds, amongst heroes, amongst the light-footed nymphs, and amongst the Olympian gods ! In these latter the movement of imagination is centrifugal, it sustains itself in the loftiest altitudes, and in the most evanescent and fleecy shapes of thought it finds the materials from which it wreathes its climbing, “ cloud-capped ” citadels. The opposite order of genius is, as we have previously called it, centripetal, gravitating earthward.
Both orders are to he found among those celebrated as pulpit orators, — all, indeed, who have ranked as powers in this department of human effort belonging eminently, nay, we may almost say exclusively, to one or the other. If we take Spurgeon, Whitefield, Bunyan, and Luther as representatives of one order, we shall have also representatives of the other in such orators as Jeremy Taylor, — the Shakspeare of the pulpit, — and, though in a very different sort, Henry Ward Beecher. That in which these two classes of orators differ is mainly the plane of their movements,—the one hardly lifted above the earth’s surface or above the level of sensibility, while the other rises into the sphere of the ideal and impalpable. In the latter class there are vast differences, but uniformly intellect is prominent above sensibility; human faith and love are exhalant, aspirant, and rendered of a vapory subtilty by the interpenetration with them of the Olympian sunlight of thought and imagination. In Beecher this ideality is of a philosophic sort. Thought in him is forever dividing and illustrating truth; and that which is his great peculiarity is that he is at the same time so strictly philosophical, even to a metaphysical nicety, and so very popular. We have heard him, in a single discourse, give utterance to so much philosophic truth relating to theology, as, if it were spread out over a dozen sermons by doctors in divinity whom we have also heard, would be capital sufficient to secure a professor’s chair in any theological seminary in the country. Yet he is never abundant in analytic statements of truth : these in any one of his sermons are “ few ” — as they should be — “ and far between ”: the greater portion of his time and the most mighty efforts of his dramatic power being devoted to the irradiation and illustration of these truths. This is the fertility of his genius, that, out of the roots which philosophy furnishes, it can, through its mysterious broodings, bring forth into the breathing warmth of life organisms so delicate and perfect. Here is the secret of his popularity. Jeremy Taylor, without being at all metaphysical, without ever diving down to examine the beginnings of things in Nature or in men’s hearts, had an infinitely more fertile imagination, and the result was therefore more various and multiplex; it reached a higher point in the graduated scale of ideality, it was the afflatus of a diviner inspiration, and was more akin to the effects of the most exalted poetry : yet it was of far less value as something which was to operate on men’s minds than the result of Beecher’s more pointed, more scintillating discourse of reason. The fact is, that both Henry Ward Beecher and Jeremy Taylor must of necessity depend, for any beneficial effects which they may seek to bring about in the lives of their hearers, upon certain intellectual qualities already existing in their audience. Even in order to be appreciated, they must have at least partially educated audiences. Give either of them Whitefield’s auditory, and these effects become impossible. Here we come upon the inert masses, which cannot by any possibility be induced to ascend one single stair in any upward movement, but must be swayed this way or that way upon a thoroughly dead level.
It is just here that the realistic preaching of the Spurgeon school is available, and nothing else is. Here things must be taken just as they are found, — must be taken and presented in their natural coloring, in their roughest shape. Polish the thought here, or let it be anything save the strictest rescript from Nature, and you make it useless for your purposes. Here it is not the crystal that is wanted, but the unshapely boulder. And provided you wield your weapons after a masterly fashion, it matters very little what your manner or style may be as regards the graces of composition ; if only a giant, you may be the most unseemly and awkward one of all Jötunheim.
Now these elements of success Spurgeon has in an eminent degree. He deals not simply with realities of the grossest sort, but with those which are forever present to common humanity ; he seeks to move men to religious feelings through precisely the same means that they are daily moved by, the same things which daily excite whatever of thought is transacted in their cramped-up world of mind. This is particularly evident in the material structure upon which his sermons proceed.
Preaching from the text, “ But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered awhile, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you,” he causes the whole matter to be indelibly impressed on their minds by the very mechanical comparison of Perfection, Establishment, Strengthening, and Settling to four sparkling jewels set in the jet-black foil of past suffering. This is just that kind of illustration which his audience craves. It matters not whether he meets this audience through a vague or a transparent medium, provided the vagueness or the transparency be common both to the speaker and his hearers. Nothing, for instance, could have better accomplished the end designed, yet nothing could be more vague, than such an appeal as the following: — “ Have ye never on your bed dreamed a dream, when your thoughts roamed at large and a bit was taken from your imagination, when, stretching all your wings, your soul floated through the Infinite, grouping strange and marvellous things together, so that the dream rolled on in something like supernatural splendor? But, on a sudden, you were awakened, and you have regretted hours afterwards that the dream was never concluded. And what is a Christian, if he. does not arrive at perfection, but an unfinished dream ? ” Now there is nothing more universal among the most unintellectual of the children of earth than just this sort of mystical reverie, thus grand and thus inconclusive, where the mind, moved, perhaps, to this enthusiastic rapture by that infusion of animal force which comes from a hearty dinner, remaining always just in the same place, seems to -wheel away, it knows not whither, but seemingly, and as it flatters itself, into the regions of the Infinite. Really there is no mental movement at all, — nothing but an outgoing through the myriad channels of animal sensibility ; yet there is always associated, in such minds, with reveries like these a spiritual elevation approaching to inspiration. “Oh,” think they, “if the dream might only he completed, that would be the consummation of a divinely spiritual being ! ” On this association Spurgeon founds a comparison, which, though utterly false when analyzed, is yet no less effective as illustrating the particular idea which he wishes to convey. Such associations, where he cannot correct them, it is the business of the popular preacher to inherit as if they were his own, and to build upon as if they were gospel truths.
Spurgeon, again, is continually indulging in the most startling suppositions, and just those which are most commonly entertained by vulgar minds, — as, for instance, the supposition of some one, himself or some unfortunate hearer, dropping down dead in his chamber. And, in general, he makes abundant use of that apprehension of death, which is far stronger in the uneducated than in the more refined, as a source from which be may gather thunderbolt after thunderbolt with which to startle the indifferent and hardened heart. What matter though the sentiment to which he appeals be a perverted sentiment'? what matter how severely wrenched out of its normal channel? if through this tortuous channel something of the divine truth reaches the awakened conscience, then is there hope, that, through divine grace entering with the truth, all these perversions and anomalies of sinful nature may he set right, and the soul again arrive at celestial harmony with the universe.
The method of such preaching is as organic, considering the circumstances, as that of Beecher's preaching. The only difference is, that the latter finds an audience that through intellectual facility is able to follow him in any path ; while Spurgeon, on the other hand, finds his audience destitute of any such facilities, yet finds them facile in every direction where he can bring into alliance with his power their emotions or their peculiar modes of mental action.
Nor do the grosser realities of the world, as present ever with the hearer, and as present ever with the preacher, at all disturb the efficiency of human faith : indeed, they form the most beautiful relief upon which faith is ever to be discovered, for thus is that which in its supernatural alliance is entirely heavenly seen shining through the lowest bases of our nature, which in their alliance are everlastingly associated with earth.