Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

One of my heros is Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892). I’m not alone. Even though he’s been dead over a hundred years, it’s hard to avoid hearing him quoted. His words are repeated on blogs, and I heard C.J. Mahaney read from one of his books at a big conference a couple of weeks ago. Thousands read his books every day. People like Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll possess documents bearing his signature. Once in a while I check eBay to see if anything connected with him is for sale.

Spurgeon was part of the Baptist Union. It wasn’t exactly a denomination. It had no authority over its churches, and it had no doctrinal statement. It only required the belief that the immersion of a believer is the only Christian baptism. It assumed that its churches were evangelical.

Near the end of his life, Spurgeon was in poor health. He began to hear that some were departing from the fundamentals of the faith throughout the country. Spurgeon encouraged the Union to take action and to adopt a statement of faith. His request was rejected. Spurgeon eventually published an article called “The Down-Grade.” It began like this:

No lover of the gospel can conceal from himself the fact that the days are evil…yet our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward…What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth is to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been originated which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Ghost is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sins is turned into a fiction, and the Resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren and maintain a confederacy with them!
…When the old faith is gone, and enthusiasm for the gospel is extinct, it is no wonder that people seek something else in the way of delight.

Spurgeon argued that we should leap over denominational boundaries for the truth’s sake, but we should not subordinate truth to denominational prosperity or unity. “Numbers of easy-minded people wink at error so long as it is committed by a clever man and a good-natured brother, who has so many fine points about him,” Spurgeon said.

Let each believer judge for himself; but for our part we have put a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up; for under color of begging the friendship of the servant, there are those about who aim at robbing THE MASTER.

Spurgeon’s article caused a commotion. He followed with more articles. In October 1887, at the age of 43, he decided, with regret, to withdraw from the Union. He didn’t try to take anyone with him, or to start a new organization.

Spurgeon took a lot of heat. The president of the Union wrote in a major paper that Spurgeon would be better off encouraging people than causing division and grief. All kinds of political moves took place, resulting in a confusing vote that was viewed as a censure of Spurgeon.

The controversy took a toll on Spurgeon’s health. Spurgeon was not someone who enjoyed fighting. In 1888 he wrote of depression, strain, and the feeling of being half dead. To make it worse, some charged that Spurgeon had been too gracious in the controversy, arguing that he should have been more militant.

Some reflections:

As I read about Downgrade, a lot of it sounded familiar: an established pastor expressing concern about doctrinal drift; debates over the value of doctrinal statements; clever and good-natured people being accused of theological innovation; criticism from both sides, with some saying that the critic is too harsh while others complain that the critic is too soft. Nothing is new. Even the issues seem familiar.

Downgrade also highlights the cost of controversy. The debate split friends and negatively affected Spurgeon’s health.

Downgrade is cited today by some who are known for controversy. There’s no doubt that some think Spurgeon’s example is worth following today. Certainly the trends that he described are still present today.

We’re going to have to explore whether or not it’s worth speaking out, like Spurgeon did, when we see a major theological drift taking place. We’ll also have to look at how. We’ll come back to this.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada