When Ray Rhodes, Jr. was investigating topics for his dissertation, he followed his life long interest in Charles Spurgeon and began to research Spurgeon’s marriage and the spiritual element of his relationship with his wife of thirty-six years, Susannah Spurgeon. Surprisingly, his interest led him away from “the prince of preachers” and toward a more focused attention to the life and legacy of the woman behind the great man.
This was not without its challenges. If you are a woman in Victorian era England and you happen to marry a famous man, it may appear to your biographer that you did not exist until you met and married your husband. To get the inside story and piece together the first 20 years of Susannah Spurgeon’s life, Rhodes had to resort to census reports, legal records, and old letters. Even discovering her mother’s name was a challenge!
The result however, is a treasury of background and the record of a courageous and poured out life: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon. Ray Rhodes, Jr. chronicles Susie’s early days as a “city girl,” familiar with the cultural advantages of London and Paris, and her early introduction to Charles Spurgeon, a young country preacher whose appearance, speech, and mannerisms left her cold.
Susie was a fairly new believer when Charles took on the pastorate of London’s New Park Street Chapel in April 1854. She was in a spiritual slump that had gained the concerned attention of a mutual friend who then alerted Charles to the problem. Charles responded by giving a copy of the classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress to Susie, and then followed up by counseling with her.
That was the extent of their relationship until June of that year when they attended an event at London’s Crystal Palace (like a World Fair) together. He asked her, “Do you pray for him who is to be your husband?” With remarkable powers of interpretation, she understood that Charles was interested in pursing the role, and in August of that year he proposed and confessed his love.
Marriage and Ministry
Their engagement introduced Susie to the rigors of life with a well-known pastor. On one occasion, they were riding together to a service where he would be speaking, and he left her behind in the carriage, totally forgetting about her. The speaking engagement was near enough to her family home that she was able to run home in tears to her mother. Weeping and angry, she explained Charles’s oversight, and her mother served as peacemaker, challenging her daughter to accept the faults and follies of her preacher husband as the price of greatness.
The record does show that Charles improved with age, and their marriage in 1856 was a love story documented in daily love letters when they were separated by geography, and charming nicknames and declarations of love that were most unusual in the Victorian era.Early on, Susannah resolved that she would give herself to the calling and ministry of her husband. This included stretching the family budget to support Charles’s Pastors College in its early days and making her home and time available in all sorts of ways.
Susie functioned in a role similar to a modern-day deaconess at New Park Street Chapel. However, that does not mean she had no interests or influence of her own. When she finished reading the proof copy of Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, she responded, “I wish we could give every pastor in England a copy of this book.” Charles’s response was something akin to, “Make it happen!” And so she did, and the Pastor’s Book Fund was born. Over the course of her life, the book fund made 200,000 books available by donation to poor pastors.
The “Furnace of Affliction”
Letters and journals show that Susie traveled extensively with Charles, often leaving the comfort of a carriage and hiking the trails on foot. However, her health began to fail in 1868, and from that point on she was house bound, even requiring surgery for an ailment that was likely akin to endometriosis, but, like most gynecological issues of that era, was shrouded under the Victorian explanation: “delicacy forbids.”
Charles was also in poor health for most of his life, suffering from gout, a kidney ailment, and depression. Early in their marriage, in October of 1856, Charles was speaking at the Music Hall in London which seated several thousand listeners, when a prankster shouted “Fire!” In the panic that ensued, several died and many were injured, and Charles never fully recovered, manifesting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for the remainder of his life. Susie ministered to him by reading aloud Scripture and the poetry of George Herbert.
The legacy of Susie Spurgeon is, in large measure, the legacy of Charles Spurgeon. Biographer, Ray Rhodes concluded in his research that the Spurgeon we study and revere today, particularly here in America where he is more well-known than in his home country of England, would not exist without Susie Spurgeon. Charles needed a wife, but not just any wife. He needed Susie, and God provided through a love story that wrote itself over the course of their 36-year marriage.
Of course, that is not all. Susie poured herself into her twin sons, both of whom became pastors and credited her with their early spiritual formation. Even in the midst of great physical pain and suffering, Susie wrote letters of encouragement to others along with three devotional books and two autobiographical accounts of the Pastors Book Fund. Following the death of her husband in 1892, Susie continued on in a fruitful and flourishing life that even included planting a church before her death in 1903.
Looking unto the Lord
Training her children and grandchildren, advocating for the care and provision of churches for their pastoral staff, providing reading and study material for those in ministry, and loving a sometimes high-maintenance husband ensured that Susie would stay in touch with her need to look to Jesus for adequacy in her many roles. The record of her life and ministry is an encouragement for present day ministry wives and leaders to find our own sufficiency there as well:
“As travelers on the great mountains refrain from looking down the steep precipices, keeping their eyes fixed on the heights above lest a sudden vertigo should overcome them, so may I look unto the Lord with humble, steadfast gaze, and receive courage and strength to press onward and upward in the path he has marked out for me.” (238)
Many thanks to Moody Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Looking unto Jesus,
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
If you enjoy reading biographies, you’ll find more on Susie Spurgeons’s husband and eleven other famous pastors in 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry. You can read my review here if you’d like a preview.
Subscribe to Living Our Days to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.
I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.