At the age of 22, Charles Spurgeon almost quit the ministry.
He and his wife, Susannah, had been married less than one year. Their sons, Charles and Thomas, were infants. After three years in the big city, Spurgeon’s ministry had solicited envy from his opponents, admiration from the evangelicals and criticism from the press. Susannah often hid the morning newspaper to prevent Charles from reading its headlines.
The evening of October 19, 1856, commenced a season of unusual suffering for Spurgeon. His popularity had forced the rental of the Surrey Garden Music Hall to hold the 12,000 people congregated inside. Ten thousand eager listeners stood outside the building, scrambling to hear his sermon. The event constituted one of the largest crowds gathered to hear a nonconformist preacher—a throwback to the days of George Whitefield.
A few minutes after 6 o’clock, someone in the audience shouted, “Fire! The galleries are giving way! The place is falling!” Pandemonium ensued as a balcony collapsed. Those trying to get into the building blocked the exit of those fighting to escape. Spurgeon attempted to quell the commotion, but to no avail. His text for the day was Proverbs 3:33, “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked”—a verse he would never preach again.
An eyewitness recorded, “The cries and shrieks at this period were truly terrific. … They pressed on, treading furiously over the dead and dying, tearing frantically at each other.” Spurgeon nearly lost consciousness. He was rushed from the platform and “taken home more dead than alive.” After the crowds dissipated, seven corpses were lying in the grass. Twenty-eight people were seriously injured.
The depression that resulted from this disaster left Spurgeon prostrate for days. “Even the sight of the Bible brought from me a flood of tears and utter distraction of mind.” The newspapers added to his emotional deterioration. “Mr. Spurgeon is a preacher who hurls damnation at the heads of his sinful hearers … a ranting charlatan.” By all accounts, it looked as if his ministry was over. “It might well seem that the ministry which promised to be so largely influential,” Spurgeon said, “was silenced for ever.”
A Radical Joy
When Spurgeon ascended the pulpit on November 2, two weeks later, he opened with a prayer. “We are assembled here, O Lord, this day, with mingled feelings of joy and sorrow. … Thy servant feared that he should never be able to meet this congregation again.”
Although he would never fully recover from this disaster, Spurgeon’s ministry did not end on October 19, 1856. He later said, “I have gone to the very bottoms of the mountains, as some of you know, in a night that never can be erased from my memory … but, as far as my witness goes, I can say that the Lord is able to save unto the uttermost and in the last extremity, and he has been a good God to me.”