MEMORABLE SERVICES FROM WATERBEACH AFTER I had been preaching at Waterbeach for about a year or so, I was invited to conduct anniversary and other special services in various places.
On several occasions, I had very curious experiences. One eccentric individual, whose acquaintance I made in those early days, was Mr. Porto Brown, “the miller of Houghton.” He asked me over to preach in his chapel, and from Saturday night to Monday morning I had the felicitous misery of being his guest, — I can use no other term to describe the strange mixture of emotions that I felt while under his roof. nothing of special interest occurred the first night, but when I came downstairs, the following morning, Mr. Brown said to me, “We always provide two eggs for the minister’s breakfast on Sunday morning; the phosphorus in them feeds the brain, and it looks as though you will need plenty of mental nourishment to-day.” I made no reply to this remark, thinking it was better to bide my time, and when I did open fire, to give him such a broadside as he did not expect. There were three services during the day; Mr. Brown preached in the morning, a neighboring minister in the afternoon, and myself at night. After we had returned to my host’s house, and had taken supper, the good man leaned back in his easy chair, with his eyes closed and the fingertips of each hand touching, and began to soliloquize aloud: — “O Lord, we thank Thee for a good day all through! In the morning, Lord, Thy unworthy servant was privileged to speak in Thy name, — with some degree of liberty, and he hopes also with some measure o! acceptance to the people. In the afternoon, a worth)’ brother preached a good, sound, solid, gospel sermon; — nothing very brilliant; but, still, likely to be useful.
In the evening, Lord, we had a regular steam-engine, — ran over everything and everybody.” Then, opening his eyes, and looking across at me, he began a dialogue which, as nearly as I can recollect it, ran as follows: — Brown . — Young man, whoever persuaded you that you could preach? Spurgeon . — I believe, sir, that the Lord called me to this work, and I have found a good many people who are of the same opinion. B. — How long have you been a minister? Spurgeon — A little more than twelve months. Brown — How many souls did you save, last year? Spurgeon — None, sir. Brown — None? You have been a minister twelve months, and yet there have been no souls saved. You ought to be ashamed to confess it; though, if you have preached the same doctrines as you gave us to-night, I am not surprised to hear that no souls have been saved. Spurgeon — I did not say that souls had not been saved; I said that I did not save any. I am happy to know that the Lord has saved some through my instrumentality. Brown — Most of your brethren would have said, “humble instrumentality,” when, all the while, they were as proud as Lucifer. But that is only the common ministerial cant; you knew well enough what I meant. Well, how many were converted? Spurgeon — Twenty-one, I believe, sir. Brown — How often do you preach? Spurgeon — Three times on the Sunday, and once in the week, at Waterbeach; and nearly every night in the week somewhere else. Brown — We will only reckon the Sunday morning and evening sermons; afternoon services never save anybody, the people are too sleepy to listen after dinner. So, let us say, a hundred and four sermons, and twenty-one souls saved; that is eighty-three sermons wasted! Indeed, we might say, a hundred and three, for the whole twenty-one souls might just as well have been saved under one sermon. Do you live at Waterbeach? Spurgeon — No, sir; I live at Cambridge, where I teach in a school. Brown — Oh, then; you are only an apprentice boy at present, just trying your hand at preaching! Your ministry is a sort of off-hand farm, to be cultivated at odd times. What salary do your people give you? Spurgeon — £45 a year. Brown — Oh, that accounts for everything.! Souls can’t be saved under f100 a year; that is, of course, where the people can afford to pay it, and that amount is little enough for any minister. Well, now, my young friend, let me give you a bit of good advice. You’ll never make a preacher; so just give it up, and stick to your teaching.
When, in after years, I reminded him of his advice and prophecy, he used waggishly to say, “Ah! there’s no knowing how much good a man may do by a little timely correction; no doubt my sharp speech put you on your mettle.” That was really the case, though not in the sense he meant. I soon discovered that he was a rank Arminian, and when he attacked the Calvinism that was so dear to me. I denounced his system of doctrine as being worthless theology. I found that he used to give his money to different Missionary Societies according to the proportion of converts they reported as brought to the Lord at the lowest possible cost! He would take the various Annual Reports, divide the amount expended by the number of additions to the churches, and then subscribe the most where the amount per head was the least! There was a modicum of truth at the back of what he said; but I was really shocked by the way he talked about conversions being dependent upon the money contributed, so I spoke out my opinion as freely as he did his, and gave him a Roland for his Oliver without the slightest compunction. It was a battle royal, and both the old gentleman and the ‘prentice boy grew sufficiently warm; but no scars remained on either combatant. On the Monday morning, Mr. Brown walked to Huntingdon with me in loving conversation, and afterwards sent me Haldane’s “Life ” as a present, with his sincere regards; and I, whom he had horrified with his doctrinal statements, felt an inward drawing towards the bluff heretic. No doubt he purposely put forward his most outer views of doctrine on that occasion to draw out the youthful preacher, probably intending to set him right on many points; but he had an unpromising pupil to deal with, one who had no tear of Porto Brown, or Professor Finney, or any other Arminian, before his eyes, but held his own opinion with a firmness which interested and did not displease the good but eccentric miller, who had usually dealt with softer material when criticizing the young gentlemen who preached in his chapel on Sundays.
Another singular character with whom I became acquainted early in my ministry, was old Mr. Sutton, of Cottenham. He had never seen me, but he heard that I was a popular young minister, so he invited me over to preach his anniversary sermons. I was in the vestry of the chapel before the morning service, and when the aged man came in, and saw me, he seemed greatly surprised to find that I was so young. After gruffly exchanging the usual greetings, he remarked, “I shouldn’t have asked you here, had I known you were such a bit of a boy. Why, the people have been pouring into the place all the morning in wagons, and dickey-carts, and all kinds of vehicles! More fools they!” he added. I said, “Well, sir, I suppose it will be so much the better for your anniversary; still, I can go back as easily as I came, and my people at Waterbeach will be very glad lo see me.” “No, no, ” said the old pastor; “now you are here, you must do the best you can.
There is a young fellow over from Cambridge, who will help you; and we shan’t expect much from you;” and thereupon he paced the room, moaning out, “Oh, dear! what a pass the world is coming to when we get as preachers a parcel of boys who have not got their Mother’s milk out of their mouths!”
I was in due time conducted to the pulpit, and the old minister sat upon the stairs, — I suppose, ready to go on with the service in case I should break down.
After prayer and singing, I read, from the Book of Proverbs, the chapter containing the words, “The hoary head is a crown of glory.” When I had gone so far, I stopped, and remarked, “I doubt it, for, this very morning, I met with a man who has a hoary head, yet he has not learnt common civility to his fellow-men.” Proceeding with the reading, I finished the verse, — “if it be found in the way of righteousness.” “Ah!” I said, “that’s another thing; a hoary head would then be a crown of glory, and, for the matter of that, so would a red head, or a head of any other color.” I went on with the service, and preached as best I could, and as I came down from the pulpit, Mr. Sutton slapped me on the back, and exclaimed, “Bless your heart! I have been a minister nearly forty years, and I was never better pleased with a sermon in all my life; but you are the sauciest dog that ever barked in a pulpit.” All the way home from the chapel, he kept on going across the road to speak to little groups of people who were discussing the service. I heard him say, “I never knew anything like it in all my life; and to think that I should have talked to him as I did!” We had a good time for the rest of the day, the Lord blessed the Word, and Mr. Sutton and I were ever afterwards the best of friends. F18 I shall never forget Mr. Sutton’s description of a sermon he had preached; I had the notes of the discourse from his own lips, and I trust they will remain as notes, and never be preached from again in this world. The text was, “The nighthawk, the owl, and the cuckoo.” That might not strike anyone as being exceedingly rich in matter; it did not so strike me, and therefore I innocently inquired, “And what were the heads?” He replied most archly, “Heads? why, wring the birds’ necks, and there are three directly, ‘the night-hawk, the owl, and the cuckoo.’” He showed that these birds were all unclean under the law, and were plain types of unclean sinners. Night-hawks were persons who pilfered on the sly, also people who adulterated their goods, and cheated their neighbors in an underhand way without being suspected to be rogues. As for the owls, they typified drunkards, who are always liveliest at night, while by day they will almost knock their heads against a post because they are so sleepy. There were owls also among professors. The owl is a very small bird when he is plucked; he only looks big because he wears so many feathers; so, many professors are all feathers, and if you could take away their boastful professions, there would be very little left of them. Then the cuckoos were the church clergy, who always utter the same note whenever they open their mouths in the church, and live on other birds’ eggs with their churchrates and tithes. The cuckoos were also, I think, the free-willers, who were always saying, “Do-do-do-do.” Was not this rather too much of a good thing? Yet, from the man who delivered it, the discourse would not seem at all remarkable or odd.
The same venerable brother preached a sermon equally singular, but far more original and useful; those who heard it will remember it to their dying day. It was from this text: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting.” The good old man leaned upon the top of the pulpit, and said, “Then, my brethren, he was a lazy fellow!” That was the exordium; and then he went on to say, “He went out a-hunting, and after much trouble he caught his hare, and then was too idle to roast it. He was a lazy fellow indeed!” The preacher made us all feel how ridiculous such idleness was, and then he said, “But, then, you are very likely quite as much to blame as this man, for you do just the same. You hear of a popular minister coming down from London, and you put the horse in the cart, and drive ten or twenty miles to hear him; and, then, when you have heard the sermon, you forget to profit by it. You catch the hare, and do not roast it; you go hunting after the truth, and then you do not receive it.” Then he went on to show that, just as meat needs cooking to prepare it for assimilation in the bodily system, — I do not think he used that word, though, — so the truth needs to go through a certain process before it can be received into the mind, that we may feed thereon and grow. He said he should show us how to cook a sermon, and he did so most instructively.
He began as the cookery books do, — “First, catch your hare.” “So,” he said, “first, get a gospel sermon.” Then he declared that a great many sermons were not worth hunting for, and that good sermons were mournfully scarce, and it was worth while to go any distance to hear a solid, old-fashioned, Calvinistic discourse. Then, after the sermon had been caught, there was much about it which might be necessary because of the preacher’s infirmity, but which was not profitable, and must be put away.
Here he enlarged upon discerning and judging what we heard, and not believing every word of any man. Then followed directions as to roasting a sermon; — run the spit of memory through it from end to end, turn it round upon the roasting-jack of meditation, before the fire of a really warm and earnest heart, and in that way the sermon would be cooked, and ready to yield real spiritual nourishment. I am only giving just the outline of the discourse, and though it may look somewhat laughable, it was not so esteemed by the hearers. It was full of allegory, and kept up the attention of the people from the beginning to the end. “Well, my dear sir, how are you?” was my salutation to him, one morning, “I’m pleased to see you so well at your age.” “Yes, I am in fine order for an old man, and hardly feel myself failing at all.” “I hope your good health will continue for years to come, and that, like Moses, you will go down to your grave with your eye undimmed, and your natural force unabated.” “All very fine,” said the old gentleman, “but, in the first place, Moses never went clown to his grave at all, he went up to it; and, in the next place, what is the meaning of all you have been talking about? Why did not the eye of Moses wax dim? .... I suppose, sir,” said I, very meekly, “that his natural mode of life and quiet spirit had helped to preserve his faculties, and make him a vigorous old man.” “Very likely,” said he, “but that’s not what I am driving at: what’s the meaning, the spiritual teaching of the whole matter?
Is it not just this? Moses is the law, and what a glorious end of the law the Lord gave it on the Mount of His finished work; how sweetly its terrors were all laid to sleep with a kiss from God’s mouth! and, mark you, the reason why the law no more condemns us is not because its eye is dim, so that it cannot see our sins, or because its force, with which to curse and punish us, is abated; but Christ has taken it up to the Mount, and gloriously made an end of it.”
Such was Mr. Sutton’s usual talk, and such was his ministry. Peace to his ashes. He was a quaint old man, who, after being a shepherd of sheep for between thirty and forty years, became a shepherd of men for a similar period; and he often told me that his second flock was “a deal more sheepish than the first.” The converts, who found the road to Heaven under his preaching, were so many that, when we remember them, we are like those who saw the lame man leaping after he heard the word of Peter and John; they were disposed to criticize, but “beholding the man that was healed standing with Peter and John, they could say nothing against it.”
In the beginning of my preaching experience, there was a dear good man who, when I took the service for him, would persist in announcing the hymn commencing — “Mighty God! while angels bless Thee, May an infant lisp Thy name? ” That was to be sung with special reference to me, and at first it was all very proper, for the veteran saint might well regard me as “an infant” in spiritual things; but, ten years later, when I went down into the country to preach for him again, there was still the same hymn to be sung before my sermon, — “Mighty God! while angels bless Thee, May an infant lisp Thy name? ” And when I was forty years of age, and the venerable man was near the close of his long life, and I went once more to help him by a sermon, I still had to join the congregation in singing — “Mighty God! while angels bless Thee, May an infant lisp Thy name? ” I thought that I was rather a largish infant, and felt that I would have preferred to choose my own hymns.
On another occasion, the minister of the place where I was preaching would give out the hymns, and the hymn-book in use was that one by Dr. Watts in which there are first the Psalms, and then Books I., II., and III. of Hymns. I had selected a hymn out of one of the divisions, but by some mistake the minister had turned to the wrong part of the book, and before he had discovered his error, he was reading — “When the Eternal bows the skies To visit earthly things, With scorn Divine He turns His eyes From towers of haughty kings. “He bids His awful chariot roll Far downward from the skies, To visit every humble soul With pleasure in His eyes. ” Those who are familiar with the hymns of Dr. Watts, know that the last verse begins — ‘Just like His nature is His grace, All sov’reign and all free; ” and when the minister had read these two lines, he said, “We won’t sing this hymn.” I felt that, under the circumstances, the hymn ought to be sung, so I said, “If you please, we will sing that hymn; or we will not have any at all if we do not have that one.” So the minister shut up the book, and I went on with the sermon. I had fixed upon quite: a different subject for my discourse; but when such a challenge was given to me, I felt compelled to change my theme, so I announced as my text, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy,” and I preached from those words a discourse full of good sound doctrine, — sixteen ounces to the pound, — which filled with delight the hearts of all the brethren and sisters who loved the marrow and fatness of the faith which some call Calvinism, but which we trace back to our Lord Himself and His apostles.
In my early ministerial days, I was invited to preach at Isleham, Cambridgeshire:, where I was baptized. I was to conduct the morning service; my brother Aldis, I think it was, preached in the afternoon; and then I was to take my turn again in the evening. The people at Isleham had such a belief that I should draw a congregation, that they went and borrowed the largest chapel in the place. I shall never forget it, because I preached that morning at eleven o’clock to seven persons! That was all the people I had; and I remember how I told them that they reminded me of the way ducks act when they go through a doorway, they always lower their heads; they will do it even when they are going in or out of a barn.
The entrance may be twenty feet high, but a duck never goes through it without putting his head down, for fear he might possibly hit the top of the door! So I said to the people, “You were so afraid of your place being overcrowded that you borrowed that big chapel for seven people!” Well, being there, I resolved that I would preach that morning at my very best, although the congregation was so small. The brother, who took the afternoon service, said to me, “I can’t think how you did it; you were as earnest, and you preached as well as if you had had the place crowded.” “Yes,” I replied, “I thought that was the only way to make sure of getting it full in the evening; so I determined that I would lay out all my guns, and make the greatest possible impression upon those few people.” In the afternoon, we had a very decent audience of, perhaps, a hundred or a hundred and fifty; but when I preached at night, there was not standing room in the place. Though I did not compliment myself upon gathering the crowd, yet I could not help saying that, if I had not preached at my best to the seven people in the morning, I should not have had the large company at night, for those who were there at the first service went away, and talked about how well they had got on, and so induced many others to come out in the evening to hear for themselves.