Keeping the Faith: Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

Keeping the Faith: Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

Written by Jason K. Allen |
Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The controversy cost Spurgeon dearly. It cost him his friendships. It cost him his reputation. Even his own brother disowned his decision. Yet, for Spurgeon, to remain within the Union would be tantamount to theological treason.

As Christians, we are called to share our faith, but we are also called to keep it. Like the Apostle Paul, every believer should aspire to the epitaph, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Perhaps no one in Baptist history better kept the faith than the illustrious Charles Spurgeon—especially as seen through the prism of the Downgrade Controversy.

The year was 1887, and Spurgeon was in the winter of life. For more than three decades, he had enjoyed singular status as the world’s most well-known preacher, but just over the horizon, storm clouds gathered.

The Downgrade Controversy began slowly at first, with three anonymous letters appearing in the March, April, and June (1887) editions of the Sword & Trowel. The three letters (later revealed to be authored by Spurgeon’s friend, Robert Shindler) warned of doctrinal slippage on a downhill slope, thus, a downgrade.

While the anonymous letters drew interest, the controversy did not explode until a few months later when Spurgeon directly entered the fray. In the August 1887 issue of the Sword & Trowel, Spurgeon threw down the gauntlet in his six-page editorial entitled, “Another Word on the Downgrade.”

At that time, Spurgeon was less than five years from his death. He was near the height of his popularity both in the Baptist Union and globally, but near the depth of his personal anguish.  Physical ailments like failing kidneys and chronic gout wracked his body, and depression plagued his soul. Simply put, he did not need, nor was he much poised for, the conflict he was about to enter. Withdrawing the largest Baptist church in England from the Union would have dire consequences.

Nevertheless, Spurgeon entered his Westwood study, fountain pen in hand, and proceeded to join the battle himself by drafting for publication the six-page article.

I own the original six-page manuscript Spurgeon wrote that day in 1887. It is fascinating to review his words, penned in his hand, with his markings, alterations, and emphases. It radiates the spirit of Paul and the urgency of keeping the faith.  The first paragraph especially has taken on immortality:

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