Susannah Spurgeon: A Necessary Woman
Charles Spurgeon was one of the most important Christian leaders of the Victorian-era and, his wife Susannah (Susie) must figure into any estimation of his significance. Charles himself recognized her value when he wrote that he not only loved Susie but also that she was “necessary” to him. Susie supported Charles unwaveringly, setting him free to become the minister that we regard today. And yet, as a prolific author, church planter, and supporter of poor ministers’ families, Susie left a legacy of her own.
Who was Susie Spurgeon?
Susie, only daughter of Robert Bennett (R.B.) and Susannah Thompson, was born in London on January 15, 1832. Susie enjoyed mostly prosperous circumstances throughout her life, allowing her opportunities uncommon to many London ladies. During her teenage years, she traveled to Paris numerous times, learning the French language under the tutelage of French Protestant Reformer J. J. Audebez’s family.
Susie’s youth contrasts with Charles Spurgeon’s humble upbringing. Charles was the oldest of 17 children born to John and Eliza Spurgeon, nine of whom died in infancy. John was a bi-vocational non-conformist preacher of modest means.
For five years of his childhood Charles lived with his grandparents James and Sarah Spurgeon in the village of Stambourne where James was the pastor of the Independent Church. It was at his grandfather’s home that Charles developed his lifelong love for Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Susie left behind few hints about her own early spiritual journey. Likely, she too was exposed to Bunyan’s Pilgrim. Her mother was a godly woman, and it was from her that Susie received her earliest understanding of God.
Susie’s Spiritual Journey
In the winter of 1852, Susie attended the historic Poultry Chapel in London where she, upon hearing the gospel proclaimed; felt that her soul was spiritually awakened. However, she did not openly profess Christ at that time. The result was that she became somewhat indifferent to the things of God. This spiritual “backsliding,” as she described it, lasted from early 1853 until April of 1854, when, as a result of the ministry of 19-year-old Charles Spurgeon, she experienced a spiritual revival.
Charles was the guest preacher at NPSC on December 18, 1853 and he was initially unimpressed by the historic congregation, then in steep decline. He longed to be back at his vibrant village chapel at Waterbeach. However, his attitude soon changed and April of 1854 he was called as pastor of the London congregation.
Susie Thompson attended the evening service on December 18th on the Sunday that Charles first visited NPSC. Just as Charles was not enamored with London, Susie was unenthusiastic about him. She, accustomed to a more refined ministry, was critical of everything from young Spurgeon’s hair, mannerisms, and clothes to his preaching style.
By April, Susie had discerned that her new pastor, though lacking in cultural sophistication, was nevertheless an answer to her prayers for spiritual help. Charles, hearing of her spiritual struggles, sent Susie an inscribed copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Gradually, romance bloomed in Charles’s heart for Susie. However, it was not until June and the grand re-opening of the Crystal Palace in South London, that he made his feelings known to her by pointing out a poem on marriage and asking her if she prayed for her future spouse. Susie understood that Charles was conveying his romantic interest in her.
Two months later Charles and Susie were engaged, he baptized her in 1855, and they were married on January 8, 1856.
Susie’s Importance to Charles
Charles’s popularity was skyrocketing, and crowds pressed upon young Spurgeon wherever he preached. On October 20, 1856, ten thousand people packed the Surrey Garden’s Music Hall to hear his sermon. Susie, the new mother of twin boys, prayed at home. That night something happened that left an indelible mark on Spurgeon’s remaining ministry and that further demonstrated the importance of Susie to him. Soon after the service began, troublemakers stirred up a panic inside of the building by yelling “fire,” resulting in the crowd rushing for the exits. Seven people were trampled to death, and more were injured.
Depression overtook Charles, and the memory of that horrific night was forever lodged in his psyche.
Susie, however, pointed him to the promises of Scripture. She later wrote, “Though we may not at the time, see His purpose in the afflictions which He sends us, it will be plainly revealed when the light of eternity falls upon the road along which we have journeyed.” Though we may not at the time, see His purpose in the afflictions which He sends us, it will be plainly revealed when the light of eternity falls upon the road along which we have journeyed. Click To Tweet”
Unquestionably, God used Susie to save Charles’s life and ministry. Had she been a despairing woman, he might have quit the ministry, or worse, after the Music Hall tragedy.
In their early marriage, Charles and Susie traveled together. Her face beamed when Charles preached at John Calvin’s church in Geneva. They visited art galleries, enjoyed boating around Venice, and toured the great landmarks in each city that they visited—they even crossed the Alps together; Susie often walking, and Charles usually in a carriage.
His growing ministry kept Charles and Susie busy, and often kept Charles away from home. His earliest ministry venture, beyond his preaching and writing, was the formation of the Pastors’ College. Susie was the “Mother of the College,” and her experience with the students gave her a life-long love of pastors and a desire to minister to them.
Struck with Illness
By the late 1860’s Susie was wrecked with pain related to gynecological issues. Though surgery brought some relief for her, she never fully recovered and pregnancy was impossible afterwards. Bound to her home as in invalid and no longer able to travel with Charles, Susie wondered about God’s purposes for her.
In 1875, Charles released Volume One of Lectures to My Students. Susie was so thrilled with the book that she desired a copy for every pastor in England. Her desire was met with a challenge from Charles—“Well then Wifey, will you make it happen?” Susie started “Mrs. Spurgeon’s Book Fund” on that challenge, an organization that gave away nearly 200,000 books to poor Ministers and Missionaries by the time of her death in 1903.
Charles’s own health deteriorated. Eventually, the cold London winters overstressed him, and his doctor prescribed the climate of the French Riviera for healing. From the mid-1870s until the end of his life, Charles resided for about three months each year in Menton, France.
In 1886 Susie published her first volume about her book fund—Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund, a book that was referred to as her autobiography.
In 1887 a controversy arose that Susie believed hastened Charles to an early grave. The Down Grade Controversy, a phrase coined in Spurgeon’s monthly missive “The Sword and the Trowel,” was, among other things, a controversy over the nature of Scripture. Spurgeon took a strong stand for the authority of the Bible, and yet some, even among his friends, believed that he overreacted. Susie reported that, on his deathbed, abandonment by some of these friends weighed heavily on his mind.
By October of 1891, Susie’s health had improved, allowing her, for the very first time, to travel with Charles to Menton. Charles and Susie enjoyed three months of “perfect happiness” before Spurgeon took to the sick bed, where he died on January 31, 1892, with Susie at his side.
Though Susie felt the pangs of widowhood, her book ministry resumed soon after Charles’s death, and her second book on the Fund was released in 1895. She temporarily took up the editorship of “The Sword and the Trowel,” and was even the primary agent in planting Beulah Baptist Church at Bexhill-on-Sea.
During the late 1890’s Susie co-edited and contributed to the 4 volume Autobiography of C.H. Spurgeon, completed in 1901. This, along with her Book Fund work, other writing, and promoting efforts to translate Spurgeon’s sermons into various languages, focused her. Her husband’s work was her legacy.
In October 1903, Susie died. A large crowd gathered at her funeral service and then at the graveside at the West Norwood Cemetery where she was interred beside her husband.
Thomas Johnson, a former slave who had been educated at the Pastors’ College, was at both Charles and Susie’s funerals. He considered Susie as one of his dearest friends. He wrote of her,
“Gone home to live with Jesus,
To share that Heavenly Rest:
And with her own beloved,
To be forever blest.”
Yes, Susie was the wife of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, but she was more than just his wife; she was his earthly support, and she is the reason that we have Charles Spurgeon as we have him today. Charles was prophetic when he said during their engagement that Susie was necessary to him.
*Article adapted from Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon and its accompanying sources. A follow up book, Spurgeon in Love, from Ray Rhodes and Moody Publishers is scheduled for February 2021.