Charles Spurgeon (1834 – 1892) became pastor of Park Street Chapel in London before he was 20. His following grew to be so substantial that the 6000-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle was built for his preaching ministry. There he served from 1861 to 1891. He was three years into his seven-year pastorate at Park Street when he spoke the following words from “The Poor Have the Gospel Preached to Them.”1 By that time, the crowds were so great that he was forced into larger venues—in this case the music hall at Royal Surrey Gardens.
Spurgeon compares the pulpit to Thermopylae, the narrow pass where 300 Spartan warriors stood their ground unto death against a force of 200,000 Persians. Though all these Spartan lives were lost, they purchased precious time for their Greek allies to prepare for ultimate victory. Similarly, the pulpit may seem small, but it can make the critical difference in rescuing a people from ruin.
By “dignity,” Spurgeon meant the high status and fruitfulness of the pulpit, not stuffiness. Indeed, he was criticized for his plain, accessible speech. But he defended clarity and color as necessary for communicating the gospel:
“The pulpit has become dishonored; it is esteemed as being of very little worth and of no esteem. Ah! we must always maintain the dignity of the pulpit. I hold that it is the Thermopylae of Christendom; it is here that the battle must be fought between right and wrong; not so much with the pen, valuable as that is as an assistant, as with the living voice of earnest men, “contending earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints.” In some churches the pulpit is put away; there is a prominent altar, but the pulpit is omitted. Now, the most prominent thing under the gospel dispensation is not the altar, which belonged to the Jewish dispensation, but the pulpit. “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle;” that altar is Christ; but Christ has been pleased to exalt “the foolishness of preaching” to the most prominent position in his house of prayer. We must take heed that we always maintain preaching. It is this that God will bless; it is this that he has promised to crown with success. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” We must not expect to see great changes nor any great progress of the gospel, until there is greater esteem for the pulpit—more said of it and thought of it. “Well,” some may reply, “you speak of the dignity of the pulpit; I take it, you lower it yourself, sir, by speaking in such a style to your hearers.” Ah! no doubt you think so. Some pulpits die of dignity. I take it, the greatest dignity in the world is the dignity of converts—that the glory of the pulpit is, if I may use such a metaphor, to have captives at its chariot-wheels, to see converts following it, and where there are such, and those from the very worst of men; there is a dignity in the pulpit beyond any dignity which a fine mouthing of words and a grand selection of fantastic language could ever give to it. . .”2
1 “Preaching for the Poor,” in Spurgeon’s Sermons, 2nd ed. (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1861), 157-158. Preached January 25, 1857, on Matthew 11:5.
2 Earlier in the same sermon, he developed his point of accessibility: “If they are preached to in fine terms—in grandiloquent language which they cannot lay hold of—the poor will not have the gospel preached to them, for they will not go to hear it. They must have something attractive to them; we must preach as Christ did; we must tell anecdotes, and stories, and parables, as he did; we must come down and make the gospel attractive. The reason why the old Puritan preachers could get congregations was this—they did not give their hearers dry theology; they illustrated it; they had an anecdote from this and a quaint passage from that classic author; here a verse of poetry; here and there even a quip or pun—a thing which now-a-days is a sin above all sins, but which was constantly committed by these preachers, whom I have ever esteemed as the patterns of pulpit eloquence.” Ibid., 153.