Before he was the pastor of the largest of church in London, president of the Pastors’ College, founder of an orphanage and dozens of other charitable institutions, and read by people from all over the world, C. H. Spurgeon pastored a small Baptist church in the village of Waterbeach, about five miles outside of Cambridge. At that time, few could have predicted what was to come. And yet, God used his faithful ministry to bring about a transformation to that village during his short time there.
When Spurgeon arrived, Waterbeach was notorious for its connection with an illicit still, which resulted in rampant drunkenness.
Did you ever walk through a village notorious for its drunkenness and profanity? Did you ever see poor wretched beings, that once were men, standing, or rather leaning, against the posts of the ale-house, or staggering along the street? Have you ever looked into the houses of the people, and beheld them as dens of iniquity at which your soul stood aghast? Have you ever seen the poverty, and degradation, and misery of the inhabitants, and sighed over it?
Far from an idyllic country setting, Waterbeach placed Spurgeon in the trenches of pastoral ministry where he saw the reality of suffering and sin. What was Spurgeon’s approach to his early ministry?
PREACHING THE GOSPEL
From the very beginning, Spurgeon sought to make the gospel the central theme of his preaching ministry. His very first sermon as pastor at Waterbeach was from Matthew 1:21, ““Thou shalt call His name JESUS: for He shall save His people from their sins.” Every sermon, no matter what text he was preaching, Spurgeon sought to make saving work of Christ clear to his people, calling them to repentance and faith. Even though many in his congregation would have considered themselves Christians, Spurgeon was not content with a nominal faith, but desired to see genuine conversion in the hearts of his people. Nor was Spurgeon content simply to preach sermons which gratified his people. He wanted to be used by God supernaturally in the salvation of sinners.
When I began to preach in the little thatched chapel at Waterbeach, my first concern was, Would God save any souls through me? … After I had preached for some little time, I thought, “This gospel has saved me, but then somebody else preached it; will it save anybody else now that I preach it?” Some Sundays went over, and I used to say to the deacons, “Have you heard of anybody finding the Lord under my ministry? Do you know of anyone brought to Christ through my preaching?” My good old friend and deacon said, “I am sure somebody must have received the Savior; I am quite certain it is so.” “Oh!” I answered, “but I want to know it, I want to prove that if is so.”
It would not be until his 100th sermon that Spurgeon recorded his first convert. Reflecting on this event, Spurgeon compared his joy to a boy “who has earned his first guinea” or a diver “who has been down to the depths of the sea, and brought up a rare pearl.” Spurgeon went on see many more converted under his preaching in Waterbeach. One early biographer writes, “The Pastor was not satisfied to draw a crowd. He wanted conversions and within the year of his labors, the church grew from forty to a hundred.” But he never forgot about the joy of that first convert: “I remember well her being received into the church, and dying, and going to Heaven. She was the first seal to my ministry, and a very precious one.”
Spurgeon’s ministry was not limited to preaching. As the pastor, he sought to know his people and to counsel them privately regarding their struggles. Because the church was not able to pay him a full salary, Spurgeon continued living in Cambridge as a tutor, and he would make the 5-mile walk to Waterbeach on the weekends. However, Spurgeon took advantage of this situation, and would make it a point to travel on Saturday and stay in a different home each weekend. “The people were hospitable and generous beyond their means. For the fifty-two Sundays, I had fifty-six homes.”
During these stays, Spurgeon had many opportunities to visit with his people: young mothers, gossips, deacons, farmers, and many others. In these conversations, Spurgeon gave his people pastoral advice about their temptations, parenting, theological questions, work, and most importantly, about their faith in Christ.
But this was not generic counsel. Spurgeon sought to know his people and their particular struggles. His pastoral care can be seen in his description of one church member, whom he calls “Mrs. Much-afraid”:
She was very regular in her attendance at the house of God, and was a wonderfully good listener. She used to drink in the gospel; but, nevertheless, she was always doubting, and fearing, and trembling about her own spiritual condition. She had been a believer in Christ, I should think, for fifty years, yet she had always remained in that timid, fearful, anxious state. She was a kind old soul, ever ready to help her neighbors, or to speak a word to the unconverted; she seemed to me to have enough grace for two people, yet, in her own opinion, she had not half enough grace for one. 
Far from being an isolated preacher, Spurgeon envisioned himself as Mr. Great-heart in Pilgrim’s Progress, gently leading his people in “personally conducted tours of heaven.” 
Preaching the gospel will always mean dealing with error. Spurgeon was known throughout his ministry for his willingness to enter into controversy, and this began in these early days. Waterbeach was located in East Anglia, a region where hyper-Calvinist Baptists had their greatest influence. Their teaching often produced an antinomianism that Spurgeon detested. In preaching the gospel, Spurgeon refused to water down the need for repentance, but called his people to holiness.
In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians, — that is, people who held that, because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked. I hope that heresy has to a great extent died out, but it was sadly prevalent in my early ministerial days… From my very soul, I detest everything that in the least savors of the Antinomianism which leads people to prate about being secure in Christ while they are living in sin. We cannot be saved by or for our good works, neither can we be saved without good works. Christ never will save any of His people in their sins; He saves His people from their sins.
Spurgeon’s earliest sermons are marked by repeated calls to faith in Christ and to holy living, refuting the claims of antinomians.
This call to holiness would be carried out not only in his preaching, but also in church discipline. Spurgeon backed up his teaching against antinomianism by carefully maintaining the membership of the church to those who gave a credible profession of faith. Spurgeon records at least two instances of church discipline during his time at Waterbeach.
One instance was about a young man who participated in the drunken village feast.
While I was Pastor at Waterbeach, a certain young man joined the church. We thought he was a changed character, but there used to be in the village, once a year, a great temptation in the form of a feast; and when the feast came round, this foolish fellow was there in very evil company. He was in the long room of a public house, in the evening, and when I heard what happened, I really felt intense gratitude to the landlady of that place. When she came in, and saw him there, she said, “Halloa, Jack So-and-so, are you here? Why, you are one of Spurgeon’s lot, yet you are here; you ought to be ashamed of yourself. This is not fit company for you. Put him out of the window, boys.” And they did put him out of the window on the Friday night, and we put him out of the door on the Sunday, for we removed his name from our church-book.
The other instance is the heartbreaking story of Mr. Charles. He was “a ringleader in all that was bad… the terror of the neighborhood,” but under Spurgeon’s preaching, he professed to be converted. He initially showed signs of a dramatic conversion and labored joyfully for the gospel for some time. But eventually, “the laughter to which he was exposed, the jeers and scoffs of his old companions, — though at first he bore them like a man, — became too much for him,” and he fell away from the faith, much to the shame and sorrow of the church. Here was one case which caused Spurgeon “many bitter tears.”
The experience of pastoral heartache was compounded by other challenges. As a bi-vocational pastor, Spurgeon began with a meager salary of 25 pounds a year. This meant that he had to continue his work in Cambridge during the week in order to be able to pay his living expenses. As the church grew, they were able to increase his salary to 50 pounds a year, which came to about 19 shillings a week, which, with the help of his people, allowed him to focus more on his pastoral work.
I paid twelve shillings a week for my rooms at Cambridge, and had left seven shillings for all other expenses. But the people, whenever they came to town would bring potatoes, turnips, cabbages, apples, and sometimes a bit of meat and so I managed to live.
As Spurgeon grew in popularity and his ministry became known, he began to experience opposition from other pastors who despised this 18-year old going about preaching. At the annual meeting of the Cambridge Sunday School Union, after Spurgeon preached, one minister remarked publicly how “it was a pity that boys did not adopt the Scriptural practice of tarrying at Jericho till their beards were grown before they tried to instruct their seniors.” On another occasion, he was invited to preach an anniversary sermon for an aged minister, who had never met him, but had heard of his growing popularity. In seeing Spurgeon for the first time, he was disgusted and expressed his lament at “boys going up and down the country preaching before their mother’s milk is well out of their mouths.”
In these situations, Spurgeon did not shrink back from these criticisms, but persevered in doing his best, looking to God, not man, for blessing. And God did bless his preaching beyond what he could have imagined. Reflecting on what God accomplished during his short two years, Spurgeon writes,
In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing. Where there had been robberies and villainies of every kind, all round the neighborhood, there were none, because the men who used to do the mischief were themselves in the house of God, rejoicing to hear of Jesus crucified. I am not telling an exaggerated story, nor a thing that I do not know, for it was my delight to labor for the Lord in that village. It was a pleasant thing to walk through that place, when drunkenness had almost ceased, when debauchery in the case of many was dead, when men and women went forth to labor with joyful hearts, singing the praises of the ever-living God.
And it was in that Cambridge Sunday School Union meeting that George Gould heard Spurgeon preach and told his friend Thomas Olney, a deacon at the historic New Park Street Chapel in London.
For so many young pastors, the early years of pastoral ministry can prove to be daunting. Yet, these highlights from Spurgeon’s first pastorate provide a guide for areas to prioritize in these early years. While the outcome remains in God’s hands, Spurgeon’s life reminds us not to despise these small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), but rather to pursue a faithful gospel ministry wherever God has placed us.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at Spurgeon.org and is used with permission.