There is, however, one area in Spurgeon's ministry where I believe he made a grave mistake. Historians have called the months long conflict between Spurgeon and the Baptist Union The Downgrade Controversy. Spurgeon's wife believed that the sorrow her husband endured during this time led to his premature death. Most modern theological conservatives display the controversy between Spurgeon and the Baptist Union as thelogical in nature. They point to Spurgeon as being in the right theologically (conservative and orthodox), and the Baptist Union going down the trail of modernism and liberalism. But it's interesting that the doctrines for which Spurgeon defended(Calvinism) would be considered heretical by most modern "conservative" evangelicals. In my opinion, the controversy between the Baptist Union and Charles Haddon Spurgon was not theological in nature. The problem arose out of Spurgeon's unbiblical treatment of fellow pastors within the Baptist Union.
Spurgeon withdrew from the Baptist Union because, as he wrote to a friend, "my private remonstrances to officials, and my repeated pointed appeals to the whole body, had been of no avail."
But the officers of the Baptist Union emphatically denied that Spurgeon ever made known to them even one concern of his over any pastor in the Baptist Union who held to doctrinal heresy. They knew Spurgeon had expressed concern about the state of evangelicalism as a whole, but they believed the Baptist Union to be far more orthodox, and in line with Spurgeon's beliefs, than other denominations in Europe. Further, they said Spurgeon--if he truly was concerned about doctrinal error in the Baptist Union--should have gone to the persons with whom he had concerns personally and privately to seek their collective restoration.
Several biographers of Spurgeon have related their belief that the General Secretary of the Baptist Union, a pastor named Samuel Harris Booth, had exchanged many letters with Spurgeon where Booth had had even given Spurgeon details about doctrinal compromise and names of men in the Baptist Union whose orthodoxy he had reason to doubt. But, according to these biographers, Booth had sworn Spurgeon to secrecy. Whether Booth actually did this is debatable, since Spurgeon never produced the letters, but there is no misunderstanding about Spurgeon's response to alleged "heresy" within the Baptist Union. Rather than lovingly and privately voicing his concerns personally to the men with whom he had issues, Spurgeon took his concerns public.
But when the Baptist Union leadership, including Samuel Harris Booth himself, accused Spurgeon of misrepresenting the truth, Spurgeon honored Booth's wish to keep their correspondence confidential. Historian Ian Murray says "Spurgeon could have summarily proved the extent of his prior consultation with Union officials by producing correspondence from Booth" (The Forgotten Spurgeon; page 145). Instead, according to Murray, Spurgeon bore the abuse, even to the point of public censure by the Union.
J.C. Carlyle points out that "Spurgeon was never righted. The impression in many quarters still remains that he made charges which could not be substantiated, and when properly called upon to produce his evidence he resigned and ran away. Nothing is further from the truth. Spurgeon might have produced Dr. Booth's letters. I think he should have done so." (C. H. Spurgeon An Interpretive Biography; page 247).
But I believe the biographers of Spurgeon are missing it. Spurgeon did make a mistake--a big one. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that otherwise wonderful, Bible-believing, God-fearing Baptists seem to be in the habit of making.
Spurgeon did not follow Jesus' instructions by going privately to visit with those with whom he had offense. This was precisely the error that the Baptist Union accused Spurgeon of making at the time. In response to that charge, Spurgeon wrote: "I have followed out our Lord's mind as to private remonstrances--by seeing the President and Secretary (of the Baptist Union)."
Though Spurgeon alleged some pastors in the Baptist Union were either unorthodox or heretics, he never went to any individual pastor privately. Instead, he made his concerns a denominational-wide issue. It could have been he might have restored those "erring" brothers. Or, as suggested by Secretary Booth, Spurgeon may have found his concerns were based on second and third hand information and not founded on truth. Spurgeon talked "about" pastors in the Baptist Union, but never talked "to" pastors in the Baptist Union.
When the leaders of the Baptist Union expressed their concerns to Spurgeon over the unbiblical manner in which he sought to deal with his concerns, Spurgeon took great offense. He admitted that the articles he wrote about the "The Down-grade" did not deal exclusively with the Baptist denomination, which he admitted to be far less tainted than other denominations, but he posted his articles as a warning to all--including the Baptist Union. Spurgeon took great offense that the leaders of the Baptist Union accused him of speaking untruth about Baptist Union pastors, albeit unintentionally. When the leaders of the Baptist Union asked to meet with Spurgeon privately in order to correct his misperceptions about Baptist Union pastors, Spurgeon responded by drafting a letter that contains a very revealing statement:
The charge was not that I was knowingly untruthful, but that I said what was not true—I suppose through the failure of my mental powers. The inference should be that it is a waste of time to send a deputation to confer with so imbecile a person. I will not, however, draw the inference.
Spurgeon's allegation that the Baptist Union considered him an imbecile, and then simultaneously stating he didn't wish to infer that the Baptist Union was calling him an imbecile, is beneath Spurgeon's usual dignity and style of writing. It is evidence that Spurgeon, unfortunately, took criticism of the manner with which he sought to deal with his views of "heresy" by fellow pastors in the Baptist Union very personally.
I believe all us Southern Baptists would profit from studying the Downgrade Controversy not from a theological perspective, but with the desire to discover the proper (or improper) manner and means of dealing with concerns over heresy within a cooperating convention.
In His Grace,