Finding Grace in an Unexpected Place: Spurgeon's Conversion
At first we couldn’t find it. We walked a long way down Artillery Street in a less than thriving area of Colchester, England. I was the guest of Graham Stevens and Abbeyfield Community Church, where he is the senior pastor. I had spoken there on Saturday night and Sunday morning (February 23-24, 2008) and we took the opportunity that afternoon to go in search of the tiny chapel where Charles Spurgeon was converted.
Graham insisted he knew where it was, having been there before. But it had been a while and there was nothing in the area that alerted us to its presence. We passed several taverns where local soccer (they call it “football”!) fans were overheard debating the matches of the previous day.
Finally, Graham remembered! It was easy to miss. Set back from the street amidst rows of attached homes, there was nothing to alert you to anything special other than a few small signs announcing that it was here that Charles Haddon Spurgeon was saved.
In one of the many magazines to which I subscribe there was recently an article describing, together with color photos, several of the larger and more innovative church buildings here in the U.S. Trust me, Artillery Street Chapel in Colchester would never have qualified, then or now. There is still a very small congregation meeting there. Before Pastor Derek Hale arrived in 1991 it had three members. When he died of cancer in October of 1999 the church had grown to eight. By 2006 the membership had grown to fourteen.
The chapel is quite small, perhaps capable of holding seventy-five people. There is nothing to distinguish it physically, but spiritually, well, that’s another matter. As I walked in, I immediately noticed a large bronze plague on the wall which indicated that it was supposedly near that very spot where young Spurgeon sat on January 6, 1850, although he never planned on being there.
Spurgeon lived a few miles away in the village of Hythe. On that Sunday morning he was intent on attending another service, desperate as he was to be rid of the guilt of sin that burdened his soul. “I sometimes think,” wrote Spurgeon, that “I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm.” The unexpected shift in weather forced him to seek shelter in what was then a non-descript Primitive Methodist chapel where no more than a dozen people were in attendance.
Said Spurgeon, “I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made peoples’ heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache.”
The minister was not present, evidently snowed in. Finally, a thin-looking man went up into the pulpit to preach. “Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed, but this man was really stupid [Spurgeon’s words, not mine!]. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say.” The text he selected was: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” There was, Spurgeon thought, “a glimpse of hope for me in that text.” The “preacher” continued:
“Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. . . . Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”
After about ten minutes, “he was at the end of his tether,” noted Spurgeon. “Then he looked at me under the gallery [which by the way, is still there, but has long since been boarded up], and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, ‘Young man, you look very miserable.’ Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. . . . He continued, ‘and you always will be miserable – miserable in life, and miserable in death – if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.’ . . . I saw at once the way of salvation. . . . Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, ‘Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.’ Yet it was, no doubt, all wisely ordered, and now I can say –
‘E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.’”
Who would have expected that life-giving, sin-cleansing, soul-redeeming grace could be found in that little chapel? Who would have expected that God might use the solemn words of an incredibly simple and stammering man?
Grace cares little of where it is needed. It simply goes and saves and delivers and sanctifies. God doesn’t need a spacious sanctuary or multi-media technology or cutting edge sound equipment. His grace is sovereign and not the least concerned about the surroundings in which it does its work.
Make no mistake about it. On that day the breath of God blew and a blizzard turned aside a searching young soul into an out-of-the-way chapel. That same breath confined a minister to his home and stirred an uneducated layman to ascend a pulpit. And that same, saving breath brought life to the dead, dry bones of a fifteen year old boy. And we are all the better for it. Spurgeon too.
(All quotations are taken from C. H. Spurgeon: Autobiography, Volume 1: The Early Years, 1834-1859 [The Banner of Truth Trust, `1973], pp. 79-96.)