Skip to content

The Rise and Fall of Spurgeon’s College

January 19, 2010

One of the means through which the influential British Baptist minister Charles Haddon Spurgeon impacted the church and world in his own day was his Pastors’ College.  The institution still exists to this day and is known as Spurgeon’s College.  The history of this college reflects the changes in Christian academics and British Baptists in the last 150 years.

 Prophets Rather Than Scholars

The idea for such an institution arose from Spurgeon’s tutoring of a young man named Thomas William Medhurst.  Spurgeon began teaching Medhurst “theology for two or three hours each week,” in the first year of Spurgeon’s pastorate at the New Park Street Chapel in London (1855).  Spurgeon was twenty-one years old; Mehurst was his junior by only a year.

The college emerged from a steadily growing group of tutees.  By 1861, 20 young men were under Spurgeon’s tutelage, and three years later the group grew to over 100 aspiring ministers.  The demands of such a flock required the hiring of staff and the acquisition of meeting space.  Thus was born the Pastors’ College. 

This institution had both numeric and spiritual success.  At the time of Charles Spurgeon’s death, approximately 900 students had come through the Pastors’ College.  While this number may seem insignificant compared to the enrollment figures of today’s seminaries, the attendance at the Pastors’ College meant that by 1892, one out of five Baptist ministers in England were alumni of this institution.

The spiritual success of the graduates was profound.  Spurgeon chartered the institution to aim at creating prophets, rather than scholars.  That is, he trained the men for the practical duties (and delights!) of the gospel ministry.

Accordingly, Spurgeon mobilized graduates for the spread of the gospel in London and abroad.  Some he sent to what one biographer called “almost dead churches,” while others he sent to plant churches, often paying the rent for a meeting place for a year.  Before Spurgeon’s death, these graduates planted over 200 churches (80 in the London area), administered 100,000 baptisms, and received 80,000 new members into their congregations.

The institution’s influence was international, as Spurgeon sent graduates to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Amsterdam, Haiti, the Falkland Islands, South America, South Africa, Spain, Italy, India, China, and Japan. Spurgeon never ventured beyond continental Europe, but through his college and its graduates, he exerted an influence abroad.

The Sepulchers of the Prophets

However, the ten principals of Spurgeon’s College since his death have taken the institution in an entirely different direction.  When asked if the college has deviated from the founder’s intent, current college principal, Nigel Wright replied, “The answer is both Yes and No.”   

Wright claims that Spurgeon would not “have anticipated the extent to which the College reflects the diversities of age, gender, denominational identity, and ethnicity which make this such an exciting place to work.”

Wright is correct to claim that Spurgeon would not have anticipated “gender diversity,” but he has inaccurately gauged the college’s denominational and ethnic diversity in the days of its founder. 

Spurgeon selected a paedo-Baptist to be the college’s first principal.  Furthermore, he pioneered racial diversity in Baptist education by admitting students of Jewish (ethnic, not religious) and African descent, including a former slave. 

Wright’s list of modifications at Spurgeon’s College since the death of its founder is either mendacious or unintentionally incomplete.

After, Spurgeon’s death, the college mended ways with the Baptist Union of England, from which Spurgeon himself had ceded because of the Union’s widespread departure from cardinal Christian doctrines such as the inerrancy of scripture, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the reality and eternality of hell. 

Spurgeon’s College reunited with the Baptist Union, and eleven of its graduates ascended to the Union’s presidency.  This relationship was in the midst of further doctrinal turmoil, as leaders continued to deny the teachings of scripture. For example, H. Wheeler Robinson principal of Regents Park College (1920s-1940s), denied the historicity of Adam and the reality of original sin, and Michael Taylor denied the deity of Christ in a formal BU meeting, in 1971.

Wright was indeed correct to claim that Spurgeon would not have anticipated the “gender diversity” of the college.  In the twentieth century, Spurgeon’s College joined the British movement of inclusion of women in the pastorate.  The school began admitting women students in the 1960s, and the first woman president of the Baptist Union and the first black woman president of the BU were both Spurgeon’s graduates.

The mere admission of women in Spurgeon’s is not unorthodox in and of itself.  Biblically faithful academic institutions have trained women for the mission field and for other appropriate ministry endeavors.  The controversy here is in Spurgeon’s encouragement of women pastors.  The college boasts in the participation of its graduates in the preaching at important evangelical gatherings, including Debra Reid at events of the Evangelical Alliance.

A Theological Pilgrimage

The obvious question that emerges from these events is what is the cause of the theological trajectory of Spurgeon’s College? Reunification with the Baptist Union and the promotion of women in the pastorate are symptoms of a greater disease.

In his article “Baptists and Academic Freedom,” Nigel Wright evidences the kind of thinking that has accompanied this doctrinal decline.  In outlining his approach to identifying evangelicals, Wright notes,    

Along with other evangelicals, some Baptists, lacking a central teaching office or magisterium, have tended to maintain their theological identity by establishing commitment to doctrines such as biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, and eternal conscious torment in hell for the impenitent as signs of allegiance to the evangelical cause. A preferable approach would be to guard the center of evangelical conviction rather than to police the boundaries.

Wright describes the role of the theologian as a “pilgrim” rather than “settler”; therefore, “where beliefs change radically and overflow the appropriate dogmatic boundaries, the first recourse should be to the individual’s own sense of integrity and conscience. Self-regulation is the best regulation.”

One of Wright’s predecessors at the college was one of these “pilgrims,” who was widely influential.  George Beasley-Murray led Spurgeon’s college for sixteen years before accepting a professorship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1977.  Beasley-Murray produced important theological treatises on eschatology, baptism, and the Gospel of John. 

Yet, these works are admixtures of confessional adherence to Baptist doctrine and a theological pilgrimage from this tradition.  In his eschatology, Beasley-Murray rightly affirms that Christ was self-conscious of his eschatological role, even while, according to Ian Randall, “suggesting that Jesus was mistaken with regard to the exact timing of the Parousia.”  Regarding baptism, Beasley-Murray affirmed baptism by immersion and for believers alone, but he also described conversion and baptism as incomplete without each other, which earned him the label as his day’s “foremost Baptist sacramentalist.”  Beasley-Murray’s commentary on the Gospel of John, published in the Word Biblical Commentary series, endorsed C. H. Dodd’s view of the authorship of John’s gospel; that is, the gospel was compiled by a community of John’s followers and was shaped primarily by preaching concerns. 

Another interesting facet of his theological pilgrimage was his involvement in the World Council of Churches.  He participated in a number of WCC study groups, and in the 1950s he wrote, “I should be grateful to God if the general theology of the World Council of Churches, and the deep spirituality manifested therein, characterized our own Denomination. In fact, we fall far short of it.”

Lessons from Spurgeon’s College

The theological trajectory of Spurgeon’s College has followed the authority which the college’s leaders have established.  The founder’s intent was to train a generation of prophets, who would herald forth “thus saith the LORD.”  The established authority for these alumni was the very word of God.  Tragically, Spurgeon’s alumni came to see the conscience as the authority in theology.

Each generation of Christians is a generation away from forsaking the truths of the faith.  We would do well to emulate the spirit of the founder of Spurgeon’s College, particularly, those young men who are enrolled in theological studies.  Let us aspire to become prophets before scholars—even if, the Lord wills scholarly labors for us—declaring the word of the Lord to the ends of the earth or the lowliest of congregations.

 

Sources

Bacon, Ernest W. Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967.

C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography. Ed. by Harrald, Joseph and Spurgeon, Susannah.  Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994.

Chadwick, Rosemary. “Spurgeon, Charles Haddon.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Conwell, Russell H. Life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Nashville: Central Publishing House, 1892.

Culpepper, Alan R. “George R. Beasley-Murray.” In Baptist Theologians, ed. Timothy George and David S. Dockery, 567-87. Nashville: Broadman, 1990.

Fullerton, W. Y. Charles H. Spurgeon: London’s Most Popular Preacher. Chicago:  Moody Press, 1966.

Hayden, Eric. “Did You Know?” Christian History. 1991. Available from http://www.spurgeon.org/spurgn2.htm; Internet.

Randall, Ian M. A School of the Prophets: 150 Years of Spurgeon’s College. London:  Spurgeon’s College, 2005.

Advertisements
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 20, 2010 3:03 am

    harsh

  2. Anonymous permalink
    May 18, 2010 9:53 am

    Interesting article. I’m not in anyway affiliated with the school or any like-school whatsoever. I do, however, have a couple things to consider;

    You said, “Nigel Wright evidences the kind of thinking that has accompanied this doctrinal decline” – One could ask – doctrinal decline in whose standard, yours? Scripture? Many conservative Christian churches throughout the world allow women in the pastorate. While I do not attend one, I do not think it is a matter of “doctrinal decline,” but a matter of hermeneutic. Calling a person or school out for a type of heretical teaching, by its nature, presupposes YOU are more theological “inclined.” Further, it presupposes that Spurgeon had it right to begin with. And if it’s true, as you say, that “Each generation of Christians is a generation away from forsaking the truths of the faith,” then both you and Spurgeon himself are two millennia removed from an actual understanding of truths of the faith.

    My guess is your time could be better spent analyzing churches or schools that are clearly and unequivocally heretical, perhaps then not damaging the reputation of a fellow Christian (school) that merely differs from you in ever-so slight matters of theological inquiry.

    • Truth Seeker permalink
      March 13, 2011 6:44 am

      I too have no links, no ‘axe to grind’ with Spurgeon’s College or any of the staff and students who I’m sure are all sincere Christians, but nevertheless I wanted to reply to a previous comment.

      If Spurgeon’s College has accepted the ‘General Atonement’ doctrine and all that comes with it, then we are talking about more than just differing on “ever-so slight matters of theological inquiry” as has been commented. Look at Paul’s writings on this matter (and his insistance on us as a body of believers keeping clear of false doctrines/false preachers). Then look at the Augustine-Pelagian and Calvin-Arminius controversaries where on both counts the resulting church councils declared doctrines opposing individual predestination to be an ‘anathema’ and a ‘heresy’.

      With regard to the role of women in leadership in the church are Complimentarians marginalised in the SC compared to Egalitarians? Are they allowed a fair voice and an audience?

      Finally if anyone knows of a proper Reformed college/educational institution in South East England then please comment here.

      Thank you.

  3. December 20, 2010 6:19 pm

    Interesting indeed.

  4. debra reid permalink
    May 15, 2013 9:34 am

    Just to correct one inaccuracy – I am not a graduate of spurgeon’s college. But I have happily been a tutor there since 1987.

    • May 15, 2013 9:50 am

      I’m sorry, Debra, that I have misrepresented you. Please forgive me. I looked back over my work and found that I attributed this info to the following source: Ian M. Randall, A School of the Prophets: 150 Years of Spurgeon’s College (London: Spurgeon’s College, 2005), The page cited is “xi.” I no longer have access to the Randall text.

Trackbacks

  1. Book Review: CH Spurgeon – The People’s Preacher « Pastor’s New
  2. Book Review: CH Spurgeon – The People’s Preacher « CH Spurgeon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: