His name was known around the world. Crowds flocked to his church to hear him preach, and everywhere else people devoured the printed editions of his sermons. When he died, 60,000 admirers filed past his casket and 100,000 lined his funeral route. Even today, people visit his grave to pay tribute. Even more read his books and are inspired by his sermons. Yet before Charles Spurgeon was The Prince of Preachers, he was a young boy in the arms of a godly mother. Amid all his success and all his fame, he would not forget his first and best instructor. “I cannot tell,” he said, “how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother.” As his brother would say, “She was the starting point of all the greatness and goodness any of us, by the grace of God, have ever enjoyed.”
In this article in the series “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we turn to another mother who was the most formative spiritual influence on her young son, a mother who would teach and train her son while pleading for his soul. In her we see the power of a pleading mother.
A Praying, Watching Mother
Charles Spurgeon was born on June 19, 1834, in Essex, England, the first child of John and Eliza. Eliza had been born and raised in nearby Belchamp Otten, and though little is known of her younger days, we do know she married early, for she was only 19 when she gave birth to Charles. John, like his father before him, was a bi-vocational, Independent pastor who worked as a clerk through the week to support his ministry on the weekends. His work and ministry often took him away from home and left Eliza in charge of the children. And there were many children! Eliza gave birth to 17, though nine would die in infancy.
Shortly after Charles was born, he went to live with his grandparents, presumably because Eliza was struggling with a difficult pregnancy or with a tiny infant. He remained there until he was 4 or 5, then returned home, though throughout his childhood he would continue to enjoy long visits with his grandparents. There he had access to a great library that sparked a lifelong love for reading, and there he listened in on theological debates and began to develop understanding and convictions. He gained a special fondness for the works of the Puritans and, at age 6, he read The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first of what would eventually total hundreds of times.
When he had returned to his family, he was an older brother to three siblings, and it was time for him to begin his education. It was also during this time that his mother became his most formative spiritual influence. Though Charles was outwardly well-behaved, he was precociously aware of his deep depravity. “As long as ever I could,” he later said, “I rebelled, and revolted, and struggled against God. When He would have me pray, I would not pray, and when He would have me listen to the sound of the ministry, I would not. And when I heard, and the tear rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away and defied Him to melt my soul. But long before I began with Christ, He began with me.”
Christ began with him through the attentive ministry of his mother. Because John was so busy with his work and so often engaged in caring for the souls of his congregation, much of the responsibility of parenting fell to Eliza. Though this concerned John and at times left him feeling guilty, one experience assured him that his children were in good hands. During a time of busyness, he cut short his ministry to return home. “I opened the door and was surprised to find none of the children about the hall. Going quietly upstairs, I heard my wife’s voice. She was engaged in prayer with the children; I heard her pray for them one by one by name. She came to Charles, and specially prayed for him, for he was of high spirit and daring temper. I listened till she had ended her prayer, and I felt and said, ‘Lord, I will go on with Thy work. The children will be cared for.’”
Some of Charles’s earliest memories are of his mother gathering the children to read the Bible to them and to plead with them to turn to Christ. To her children she was not only a teacher, but an evangelist.
It was the custom on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us, and then we sat round the table, and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us. After that was done, then came the time of pleading; there was a little piece of Alleine’s Alarm, or of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and this was read with pointed observations made to each of us as we sat round the table; and the question was asked, how long it would be before we would think about our state, how long before we would seek the Lord. Then came a mother’s prayer, and some of the words of that prayer we shall never forget, even when our hair is grey.
In these prayers, she pleaded with God to extend his saving mercy to her children. Charles remembered that on one occasion she prayed in this way: “Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ.” The thought of his own mother bearing witness against him pierced his soul and stirred his heart. Her intercession made such a deep impression on her young son that many years later he would write, “How can I ever forget her tearful eye when she warned me to escape from the wrath to come?” Another time she wrapped her arms around his neck and simply cried to God, “Oh, that my son might live before Thee!” The deepest desire of her heart was to see her children embrace her Savior.
But still Charles did not turn to Christ. From the ages of 10 to 15, he would fret and labor over the state of his soul. He knew of his sinfulness but knew no forgiveness; he knew of his rebellion but had no confidence in his repentance. He read the works of history’s great pastors and theologians but found no relief. And then, one snowy Sunday morning, he was drawn to a tiny Primitive Methodist chapel where a simple pastor took up the text, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” “Young man, look to Jesus Christ!” he cried. “Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” The simplicity of the message was just what Charles needed, for now he understood that God was not calling him to do but to believe. And he did. He put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Soon after, he wrote a letter to his mother in which he expressed his enthusiasm and his gratitude. He paid tribute to her for being his foremost teacher and for being the one who had so often begged God for the gift of salvation. “Your birthday will now be doubly memorable, for on the third of May the boy for whom you have so often prayed, the boy of hopes and fears, your first-born, will join the visible Church of the redeemed on earth, and will bind himself doubly to the Lord his God, by open profession. You, my Mother, have been the great means in God’s hand of rendering me what I hope I am. Your kind, warning Sabbath-evening addresses were too deeply settled on my heart to be forgotten. You, by God’s blessing, prepared the way for the preached Word and for that holy book, The Rise and Progress. I have any courage, if I feel prepared to follow my saviour, not only into the water, but should He call me, even into the fire, I love you as the preacher to my heart of such courage, as my praying, watching Mother.”
Spurgeon would soon become The Boy Preacher and The Prince of Preachers. First thousands and then tens of thousands would flock to hear his sermons. Soon his sermons would be transcribed and sent across the world. Over the course of his life, he would preach to millions. He would receive the attention and accolades of presidents and princes yet owe it all to a mother whose first and greatest audience was her own family. In one of his early sermons, Spurgeon paid tribute to her in this way: “There was a boy once—a very sinful child—who hearkened not to the counsel of his parents. But his mother prayed for him, and now he stands to preach to this congregation every Sabbath. And when his mother thinks of her firstborn preaching the Gospel, she reaps a glorious harvest that makes her a glad woman.”
Eliza was a glad woman who reaped a glorious harvest because she had been faithful. The first and great duty of her motherhood was the spiritual care of her children, and she had applied herself to that responsibility. She had taught her children God’s Word, she had prayed for their souls, and she had pleaded with them to turn to Christ. She had earned her son’s praise: “Never could it be possible for any man to estimate what he owes to a godly mother.”
To learn more about Charles Spurgeon, I recommend Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore, Living by Revealed Truth by Tom Nettles, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon by W.Y Fullerton. The information for this article was drawn primarily from those resources.