Charles Haddon Spurgeon and His Struggle with Depression

Charles Haddon Spurgeon and His Struggle with Depression

            Charles Spurgeon is known as one of the greatest preachers in history. Not everyone knows about his ongoing battle with depression. Even fewer people know about his advocacy for people who lived with the same – or a similar - condition.

            While Spurgeon was probably always prone to depression, this reached an all-time low in 1856, when he preached at the newly-built Surrey Gardens Music Hall in London. With a capacity of over ten thousand people, it seemed like the perfect setting to preach the gospel at a time when people sought it more than ever before. It was going to be a temporary solution while the deacons at his church, New Park Street Chapel, expanded their building.

A Young and Anxious Preacher

            Born in Kelvedon, England, in 1834, Spurgeon was faithfully instructed in the Christian faith by both his parents and grandparents. And yet, a lack of assurance of his salvation plagued him until he was fifteen. It was then, on a cold winter Sunday, that a simple preacher led him to understand that all he had to do was look to Christ.

            From then on, Spurgeon devoted his life to spreading the same message to others. In fact, his clear explanation of the gospel to a class of Sunday School students convinced a church elder to arrange for him to preach at a nearby village. In 1851, at seventeen years of age, he became pastor of a small church in Waterbeach. Only three years later, he was invited to preach at the famed New Park Street Chapel in London, and later called to stay as a pastor.

            While Spurgeon rejoiced at these opportunities to preach the gospel, he often expressed fears and self-doubt under the burden of responsibility he felt. “There was scarcely ever an occasion in which they left me alone for ten minutes before the service, but they would find me in a most fearful state of sickness, produced by that tremendous thought of my solemn responsibility,” he said about the times when he preached to thousands at Exeter Hall, “and, even now, if I ever sit down, and begin to turn that thought over, and forget that Christ has all power in heaven and in earth, I am always affected in the same way.”[1]

Disaster

            The news that Spurgeon was going to preach at the Music Hall spread like wildfire. By the time he took his place at the pulpit, every seat was filled, while thousands of people stood outside, trying hard to listen.

            Just as Spurgeon concluded his prayer from the pulpit, someone in the back shouted, “Fire! The galleries are giving way!” It might have been an ill-chosen prank, but it resulted in mayhem, as people rushed to the exit, tramping on each other.

            Standing at the front of the huge hall, Spurgeon had no idea of the extent of the commotion, and tried to keep people calm. He didn’t know that seven people had died and many more had been injured, with 28 in critical condition. When he realized the magnitude of the damage, he almost collapsed. He was barely aware of being escorted out through a back door and being put in a carriage.

            For a few days he remained in a daze, confused, plagued by guilt, hardly able to do anything, including reading the Bible. He just kept crying—so much that his friends, including Susie, feared he would never preach again. The newspapers didn’t help. Instead, they placed the blame directly on him. While he eventually recovered, the depths of that depression never completely left him.

Honesty and Compassion

            Returning two weeks later to the same spot where the tragedy had taken place was one of the hardest things Spurgeon ever had to do. “I almost regret this morning that I have ventured to occupy this pulpit,” he said, “because I feel utterly unable to preach to you for your profit. . . . Oh, Spirit of God, magnify thy strength in thy servant’s weakness, and enable him to honor his Lord, even when his soul is cast down within him.”[2]

            What helped him most to regain hope was the passage in Philippians 2:8–10, where he read that, after Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” God “highly exalted Him and [gave] Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” Spurgeon realized that, no matter what happens on earth, Christians are part of a greater story where the victory has already been won.

            Spurgeon’s honesty about his feelings is exceptional, especially for a man in Victorian England. Even more extraordinary is his insistence that his listeners learn to treat with sensitivity and respect anyone who may experience similar struggles.

            “Sometimes you cannot raise your poor depressed spirits,” he said. “Some say to you, ‘Oh! you should not feel like this.’ They tell you, ‘Oh! you should not speak such words, nor think such thoughts.’ Ah! ‘the heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not therewith,’—ay, and I will improve upon it, ‘nor a friend either.’ It is not easy to tell how another ought to feel and how another ought to act. Our minds are differently made, each in its own mould, which mould is broken afterwards, and there shall never be another like it. We are all different, each one of us; but I am sure there is one thing in which we are all brought to unite in times of deep sorrow, namely, in a sense of helplessness.”[3]

            He understood that some mental struggles may be a result of a physical illness. “Let us be very tender with brethren and sisters who get into that condition. I have heard some say, rather unkindly, ‘Sister So-and-so is so nervous, we can hardly speak in her presence.’ Yes, but talking like that will not help her; there are many persons who have had this trying kind of nervousness greatly aggravated by the unkindness or thoughtlessness of friends.”[4]

            He also understood the reality of any type of mental anguish, and how it cannot be easily brushed off. “It is a real disease, it is not imaginary. Imagination, no doubt, contributes to it, and increases it; but, still, there is a reality about it. There are some forms of physical disorder in which a person lying in bed feels great pain through another person simply walking across the room. ‘Oh!’ you say, ‘that is mere imagination.’ Well, you may think so, if you like; but if you are ever in that painful condition, as I have been many a time, I will warrant that you will not talk in that fashion again.”[5]

            He encouraged people to be gentle and patient. “I suppose that you would like to run a steam roller across the room, just for the sake of strengthening their nerves! But if you had the spirit of Christ, you would want to walk across the room as though your feet were flakes of snow; you would not wish to cause the poor sufferer any additional pain.”[6]

Following the Most Magnanimous of Captains

            Spurgeon’s depression, compounded by several painful illnesses, such as gout, arthritis, and Bright’s disease, peaked again around 1887, during the so-called Downgrade Controversy, when suffered the loss of friends and reputation for his unwillingness to compromise essential Christian doctrines. Even his brother James turned against him. 

            Eventually, he resigned from the Baptist Union he had loved and backed, and continued to preach as an independent pastor. Many accused him of dividing the church, but he could not have unity with preachers who, in his view, had started “a new religion . . . which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.”[7]

            After this, Spurgeon let go of many duties, including preaching. On June 7, 1891, as he delivered his last sermon in the pulpit at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, he regained strength as soon as he started to speak about Christ. Preaching on 1 Samuel 30:21–26, he encouraged his listeners to put their trust in their faithful Captain.

            After many years of battles, illness, and setbacks, he could say with confidence: “[Christ] is the most magnanimous of captains! There never was His like among the choicest of princes! He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold, He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the Cross always lies on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He also carries it. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind and tender—yes lavish and super abundant in love—you always find it in Him! These forty years and more have I served him, blessed be his name, and I have had nothing but love from him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below if so it pleased him. His service is life, peace, joy.”[8]

            But his earthly service was almost over. He went on to meet his Captain on January 31, 1892, at Mentone, in the south of France, where he had retired to care for his health. He was 52.

            Throughout his ministry, Spurgeon encouraged many others who struggled with all kinds of illnesses, both physical and mental. He did so with his words, his example, and by encouraging Christians to bear one another’s burdens.

            In one of his sermons, he reminded any listener struggling with depression that they were not the first ones to face such battles. He mentioned Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and William Cowper. Today, we can add Spurgeon to the list of those who have walked ahead of us. Because of everything he suffered, we know his words of encouragement are not empty platitudes.

            “Do not, therefore, think that you are quite alone in your sorrow,” he said. “Bow your head, and bear it, if it cannot be removed; for but a little while and every cloud shall be swept away, and you, in the cloudless sunlight, shall behold your God.”[9]     



[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Removal,” preached on March 24, 1861, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 48,  https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/removal/#flipbook/

[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Exaltation of Christ,” preached on November 2, 1856, New Park Street Pulpit Vol. 2, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-exaltation-of-chri...

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “A New Leaf for the New Year,” preached on December 27, 1864, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 42, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/a-new-leaf-for-the-new...

[5] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Cause and Cure of a Wounded Spirit,” preached on April 16, 1885, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 42, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-cause-and-cure-of-...

[6] Ibid.

[7] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade,” Sword and Trowel, August 1887, https://archive.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/dg03.php

[8] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Statute of David for the Sharing of the Spoil,” preached on June 7, 1891, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, https://ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons37/sermons37.xxvii.html

[9] Spurgeon, “The Cause and Cure of a Wounded Spirit.”