on 21 December 2010
In April 2010 I bought this new biography of Spurgeon. As lovers of CHS will know, biographies of him were two-a-penny in the years after his death, and varied greatly in quality. In modern times, there is nothing that compares to reading his autobiography, complied by his wife and secretary, of course, but in terms of readability, brevity and insight, there has been no modern biography of Spurgeon which compares to that excellent volume produced by the late Arnold Dallimore - "Spurgeon - A New Biography".
My first question on perusing it was `So, why do we need another biography - what is new about this one'? It should be stated that the book accompanies a film, and contains several photographs of the actors who played Spurgeon in it. There's more information and a few reviews of the film here. But I am a book person, not a film person, so, to the book. What does it do that is new, or worthwhile?
It is well illustrated and beautifully laid out. It is most readable, and it covers the main events of Spurgeon's life clearly. The dramatic, acted photos actually do add something to the book for the modern reader (with short attention span and need for illustrations!) and there are a good number of colour images of artefacts. What is most innovative and undoubtedly the winning thing about the book is that the author's self-confessed aim is to `make connections between Spurgeon and our own lives'. In pursuit of this, each chapter closes with a `Digging deeper' section, to add detail and make suggestions, and a most helpful `Engage' section, which makes thought-provoking and unflinching applications to our own lives. For example, the chapter on Spurgeon's upbringing encourages us to ponder the importance of raising godly children, and especially praying for them.
As well as covering the major events of Spurgeon's life, his conversion, his two pastorates, the building of the Tabernacle, his books and writings, his family life, the orphanages and the Pastors' College, chapters are set aside to examine Spurgeon, the man. One reflects on his passion for holiness, and another on `the Inner Man'. These specific chapters add to the value of the whole.
I was intrigued to see how the author would handle the `Down-grade controversy'. In essence this was the time at which Spurgeon left the Baptist Union because some ministers and churches were promoting liberal theology. This biography is the production of a current Baptist Union minister in the pay of a Baptist Union college. Therefore I was generally suprised and pleased to read the balanced way in which the controversy is covered here. A couple of quotes: `Those who thought that the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle was making something out of nothing were wrong... Spurgeon was absolutely right (I believe) to say that these things matter. His decision to resign was one that many close to him regretted. But they did not regret his decision to speak out, and neither should we'. I think you can read between the lines and see that Peter Morden does not endorse Spurgeon's resignation (if he did, I don't think he would be in the Union today) but that he entirely agrees with Spurgeon on the issues he raised. For that we can be thankful - but this reviewer is in no doubt that Spurgeon was correct, not only in his beliefs, but in his actions. Uncomfortable though it may be for the evangelical wing of the Baptist Union today, history has proven Spurgeon correct. Dr Morden rightly concludes his consideration of the downgrade with the words `Are we in danger of downgrading essential Christian truth? If so, we need to hear the call of the Spurgeons to `stand firmly on the Rock'.
I suppose we then ask the question `What counts as essential Christian truth?' Well beyond the scope of this little review, I think. Do I have gripes about the book? Yes, in all its attempts to connect to modern day life, it does Spurgeon's College a favour, but says nothing whatsoever of the Metropolitan Tabernacle today - not even a photo. The same could be said of the chapel in which Spurgeon was converted. A few more `then and now' photos would have helped, along with a little more information. Another whinge is the ducking of the issue of the training of women for ministry, which is relegated to a footnote where it is noted that Spurgeon's college now does just that. A little courage in dealing with the issue might have been commendable, but perhaps would not have been politically expedient.
Do I recommend the book? Yes, I do, as a thought provoking book for people new to Spurgeon, and the more experienced. I still would commend Dallimore's biography for the first-time reader above any other. If you know much about Spurgeon you won't gain much factual information from this new book, but you will see some images of artefacts you might not have done, and you will certainly be made to think things through and make some application to your own life that you might not otherwise have done. A least, I hope you will. I fear that given the connection with Spurgeon's College, this book will be largely ignored by the conservative independent wing of British Baptist churches today. I think that would be a shame. Get yourself a copy - I intend to buy the author's next book on Spurgeon, which is his PhD thesis on Spurgeon's spirituality. I don't think it is available yet, but if it is an expansion of what I have seen in the biography, I am very much looking forward to it!