“All-Beclouding Hopelessness”: Preacher Charles Spurgeon Battled Depression

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults.  At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.

Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.

Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon was devastated. ‘Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity,‘ he wrote later, ‘yet came away unharmed. ‘From that day on, he knew bouts of dark depression.

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Spurgeon at the height of his ministry

What’s more, he suffered from Bright’s disease, rheumatism and gout, so severe that, in his final years, he was regularly too ill to preach and had to go the South of France to convalesce. Even so, Spurgeon continued to pour himself into God’s work, not least through his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and his many books (which are still widely read today). He stood as a bulwark against Higher Criticism, the rationalist theology coming from Germany, which threatened to undermine the true biblical faith.

One fruit of Spurgeon’s battle with depression is that he wrote about it. When a Preacher is Downcast was one sermon, pregnant with his own experience.

Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…

Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of serviceWhere in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.

The preacher’s work has much to try the soul. The loneliness of God’s prophet tends to depression. How often do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us? After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.

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In 1858, at the age of 24, he wrote: “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” In his ‘Lectures to My Students’, he made this observation:

Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.

Yet even here he can sound a note of hope: The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. It was to this heavenly hand that Spurgeon constantly looked, as we will see in a following post.

 

 

 

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

9 responses to ““All-Beclouding Hopelessness”: Preacher Charles Spurgeon Battled Depression”

  1. J Bird says :

    Good to know I’m not the only one, soo alone.

    • sch0larly says :

      Thanks for making yourself vulnerable 🙂 Since posting this piece on Spurgeon, I have had feedback from Facebook groups like Christians Fighting Depression, as well as from individuals who simply find there is something very fragile inside. Being able to connect is so important, so I recommend the group mentioned above. Part 2 of the Spurgeon piece will follow soon!

      • John Vagabond says :

        Oh. How remarkably timely. This is an old post, it would seem, which I accessed via a route that I hadn’t used for about eighteen months. Yes. This is me too. And, with far fewer pressures than CHS.

  2. revkamcclain says :

    Reblogged this on Ministry Through the Lens of History and commented:
    Here is a great blog post on depression. Very powerful to learn about how one of the greatest and most successful preachers in history also struggled with depression. Thanks for sharing this @Sch0larly!

    • sch0larly says :

      Thank you for this comment, Keith. I’m sure that you, like me, meet so many dear people struggling with this dark cloud, and to have the help of someone who has been there and can articulate it all so well, can only be a help.

  3. godsgirl631 says :

    Thank you for sharing this. I too, have battled this depression and it is something ridiculed by others in the church which causes one to isolate their self because others choose not to try to understand it but say that it is demonic and that we are possessed. It brings great comfort to know that we’re not alone in this battle.

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      Thanks for sharing this. I often come back to Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” It’s a more holistic position than evangelical-charismatic theology would like, but it fits real life. The point being that God is in all situations, both “good” (in our limited estimation) and “bad.”

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