Keeping the Faith: Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

by Jason K. Allen September 12, 2017

As Christians, we are called to share our faith, but we are also called to keep it. Like the Apostle Paul, every believer should aspire to the epitaph, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Perhaps no one in Baptist history better kept the faith than the illustrious Charles Spurgeon—especially as seen through the prism of the Downgrade Controversy.

The year was 1887, and Spurgeon was in the winter of life. For more than three decades, he had enjoyed singular status as the world’s most well-known preacher, but just over the horizon, storm clouds gathered.

The Downgrade Controversy began slowly at first, with three anonymous letters appearing in the March, April, and June (1887) editions of the Sword & Trowel. The three letters (later revealed to be authored by Spurgeon’s friend, Robert Shindler) warned of doctrinal slippage on a downhill slope, thus, a downgrade.

While the anonymous letters drew interest, the controversy did not explode until a few months later when Spurgeon directly entered the fray. In the August 1887 issue of the Sword & Trowel, Spurgeon threw down the gauntlet in his six-page editorial entitled, “Another Word on the Downgrade.”

At that time, Spurgeon was less than five years from his death. He was near the height of his popularity both in the Baptist Union and globally, but near the depth of his personal anguish.  Physical ailments like failing kidneys and chronic gout wracked his body, and depression plagued his soul. Simply put, he did not need, nor was he much poised for, the conflict he was about to enter. Withdrawing the largest Baptist church in England from the Union would have dire consequences.

Nevertheless, Spurgeon entered his Westwood study, fountain pen in hand, and proceeded to join the battle himself by drafting for publication the six-page article.

I own the original six-page manuscript Spurgeon wrote that day in 1887. It is fascinating to review his words, penned in his hand, with his markings, alterations, and emphases. It radiates the spirit of Paul and the urgency of keeping the faith.  The first paragraph especially has taken on immortality:

No lover of the gospel can conceal from himself the fact that the days are evil. We are willing to make a large discount from our apprehensions on the score of natural timidity, the caution of age, and the weakness produced by pain; but yet our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward. Read those newspapers which represent the Broad School of Dissent, and ask yourself, How much farther could they go? What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been initiated, 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 Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into 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!

Spurgeon goes on:

The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith… Germany was made unbelieving by her preachers, and England is following in her tracks.

Most prophetically, Spurgeon argued true believers cannot be ministry affiliates with those who have compromised the faith. His words portended the schism to come. Spurgeon was a lone voice, but he was the loudest and most revered voice of all, calling for doctrinal fidelity over programmatic confederation.

Spurgeon’s “Another Word on the Downgrade” landed like a bombshell. It sent shockwaves throughout the Baptist Union and British Evangelicalism. It reverberated throughout the Protestant world.

For decades the press had attacked Spurgeon, but now he would be savaged by his own Baptist Union. Prior to the Downgrade Controversy, if the Baptist Union had a papacy, Spurgeon would have been its unquestioned pope. But now, his erstwhile brethren brutalized him. They charged him with pugilism, and being a schismatic. They even questioned his sanity with a whisper campaign that his physical maladies had made him mad. Graduates of Spurgeon’s College turned on him, and the leaders of the Baptist Union pilloried him.

Over the next two months, Spurgeon penned two more articles on the Downgrade in the Sword & Trowel. Then, on Oct. 28, 1887, Spurgeon wrote the General Secretary of the Baptist Union, Samuel Harris Booth, to announce his withdrawal from the Baptist Union.

Three months later, in January 1888, the Baptist Union Council voted to accept his withdrawal, and then, the Council of nearly 100 members voted to censure Spurgeon, with only a meager five men supporting the Prince of Preachers.

The Baptist Union adopted a compromise doctrinal statement, which was altogether too weak, neither clear nor comprehensive enough. Though outside the Union, Spurgeon opposed the statement for its obvious deficiencies. Nonetheless, it passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 2000–7, and can appropriately be interpreted as a second vote against Spurgeon. Most tragically, Spurgeon’s brother, James, seconded the motion to pass the compromise doctrinal statement.

Spurgeon, the “Lion in Winter,” was prophetic, if not popular. He said, “I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years, but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”

Indeed, Spurgeon has been vindicated. The British Baptist Union is a shadow of its former self. Moreover, Spurgeon’s Downgrade foreshadowed the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy of the 1920s and the great SBC Controversy at the end of the 20th century. Doctrinal decay always brings dire consequences.

The controversy cost Spurgeon dearly. It cost him his friendships. It cost him his reputation. Even his own brother disowned his decision. Yet, for Spurgeon, to remain within the Union would be tantamount to theological treason.

Less than five years later, Spurgeon would die. Against his previously stated wishes, his supporters erected a massive burial tomb in the Norwood Cemetery. Ensconced on the front of it, beneath the marble replica of his likeness, is a marble Bible, open to 2 Timothy 4:7 –  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Indeed, Spurgeon kept the faith, and his accomplishment must be our aspiration—to keep the faith even when confronted with our own Downgrade Controversies.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at JasonKAllen.com.