But what most Southern Baptists today don't understand is that the concerns of Spurgeon during the "Downgrade Controversy" went far beyond what he called the forsaking of "vital" doctrines. He was just as concerned with the growth of "worldliness" among the pastors and churches. Spurgeon wrote:
We mentioned a decline of spiritual life, and the growth of worldliness, and gave as two outward signs thereof the falling-off in prayer-meetings, and ministers attending the theater.
The first (attendance at prayer-meetings) has been pooh-poohed as a mere trifle. The Nonconformist (ed. a London newspaper), which is a fit companion for The Christian World (ed. another newspaper), dismisses the subject in the following sentence: "If the conventional prayer-meetings are not largely attended, why should the Christian community be judged by its greater or less use of one particular religious expedient?" What would James and Jay (ed. famous English pastors) have said of this dismissal of "conventional prayer-meetings," whatever that may mean? At any rate, we are not yet alone in the opinion that our meetings for prayer are very excellent thermometers of the spiritual condition of our people. God save us from the spirit which regards gathering together for prayer as "a religious expedient"! This one paragraph is sorrowfully sufficient to justify much more than we have written (about the Downgrade).
The same newspaper thus deals with our mention of theater-going preachers. Let the reader note what a fine mouthful of words it is, and how unwittingly it admits, with a guarded commendation, that which we remarked upon with censure:—"As for theatres, while we should be much surprised to learn that many ministers of the gospel take a view of life which would permit them to spend much time there, yet, remembering that men of unquestionable piety do find recreation for themselves and their families in the drama, we are not content to see a great branch of art placed under a ban, as if it were no more than an agency of evil."Let it never be forgotten that even irreligious men, who themselves enjoy the amusements of the theater, lose all respect for ministers when they see them in the play-house. Their common sense tells them that men of such an order are unfit to be their guides in spiritual things. But we will not debate the point: the fact that it is debated is to us sufficient evidence that spiritual religion is at a low ebb in such quarters.
Very unwillingly have we fulfilled our unhappy task of justifying a warning which we felt bound to utter; we deplore the necessity of doing so; but if we have not in this paper given overwhelming evidence, it is from want of space, and want of will, and not from want of power. Those who have made up their minds to ignore the gravity of the crisis, would not be aroused from their composure though we told our tale in miles of mournful detail.
It is not my desire to address Spurgeon's concern over the lack of attendance in prayer meetings at his fellow pastors' churches. We could all express agreement with him. Where I think my hero in ministry failed is in pointing his finger at other pastors who churches were suffering such a decline. I think it profits a man of God to go about his ministry, faithfully fulfilling God's requirements on him, without the need to single out other pastors who may be suffering through a desert ministry.
It is the "theater-going preachers" and Spurgeon's censure of them which I would like to single out as an example of how Baptists will often allow cultural issues to divide them. The Royal Court Theater was the most popular theater in London in 1887, the year the Downgrade Controversy began. The long running play at the time was Dickens' Great Expectations. Were it to be made into a movie today, it would receive a "G" rating. Several of the evangelical pastors who attended the theater in London were well-known pastors like Dr. Talmadge, Henry Ward Beecher, Dr. Chapin and others. Spurgeon spoke the following about pastors who attend the theater in a sermon from 1888...
"The Christian church of the present day has played the harlot beyond any Christian church in any other day. There are no amusements too vile for her. Her pastors have filled a theater of late; and, by their applause, have set their mark of approval upon the labours of play-actors. To this point have we come at last, a degradation that was never reached even in Rome's darkest hour;-and, if you do not love Christ to be indignant about it, the Lord have mercy on you!"
The romanticist who wishes to view "The Downgrade Controversy" as a battle between theological conservatism and liberalism must be careful or he will find himself codifying for others his own personal convictions (like Spurgeon did) based upon what is, and is not, historically culturally accepted by the organized church instead of the clear teachings of the Word of God and the freedom that comes from resting in the God of all grace who gave us His Son so that we might enjoy Him instead of religion.
In His Grace,