Death is no respecter of persons. Many of the miners at the neighbouring Black Vein colliery in Risca, known as the ‘death pit’, would have attended the preaching of C. H. Spurgeon at Abercarn (see ET, August 2014). They were, however, just six months away from a major disaster. Ebenezer Rogers also soon died at just 46 years of age.
Three hundred miners had descended the pit between 5.00 and 6.00am on Saturday 1 December 1860, when suddenly, at 9.00am, a major explosion occurred, causing the death of 142 men and boys.
It was possibly a hole in the gauze of a safety lamp that triggered the ignition of the flammable methane gas, ‘firedamp’. Some were killed by the explosion, some were crushed by thousands of tons of falling rocks, but the majority were killed by the ‘afterdamp’ or ‘chokedamp’ from the burnt gases.
The blocked passages prevented the recovery of 50 of the bodies for about a month. By that time they were not identifiable, and so their comrades took their remains by night to a burial site on the opposite hillside, where they were interred two at a time. A memorial stone was later erected to their memory.
This terrible event so affected Spurgeon that he delivered a sermon on 9 December entitled ‘The wailing of Risca’ from his pulpit at the Exeter Hall. His text was Jeremiah 4:20: ‘Suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment’.
Here is a summary of the sermon: ‘There is a spot in South Wales which has frequently yielded me a quiet and delightful retreat. Beautiful for situation, surrounded by lofty mountains, pierced by romantic valleys, the breathing of its air refreshes the body and the sight of the eyes makes glad the heart.
‘I have climbed its hills. I have seen the ever widening landscape, the mountains of Wales, the plains of England and the seas sparkling afar. I have descended the hills and marked the mist creeping up the side of the hills and covering the woods in clouds.
‘I have mingled with its godly men and women, and worshipped God in their assemblies … Well doth my soul remember one night, which I shall never forget in time or in eternity, when, crowded together in the place of worship, hearty Welsh miners responded to every word of Christ’s minister, with their Gogoniants, encouraging me to preach the gospel and crying “Glory to God”, while the message was proclaimed.
‘I remember how they constrained me and kept me well-nigh to midnight, preaching three sermons, one after another, almost without rest, for they loved to listen to the gospel. God was present with us, and many a time has the baptismal pool been stirred since then by the fruit of that night’s labour…
‘Great was our joy that day when the people met together in thousands and with songs and praises separated to their homes, talking of what they had heard. But now our visitation of that neighbourhood must ever be mingled with sorrow.
‘How hath God been pleased to smite down strong men, and to take away the young men upon a sudden! “How suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment”. Oh! Vale of Risca, I take up a lamentation for thee: the Lord hath dealt sorely with thee. Behold, and see if there be sorrow in any valley like unto thy sorrow which is done unto thee’.
Angel of death
‘The angel of death has emptied out his quiver upon thee; the awful reaper hath gathered to himself full sheaves from thy beautiful valley’. Spurgeon gave a graphic account of the tragedy, and continued: ‘The misery in that valley is past description; those who have witnessed it fail to be able to picture it.
‘As the cry of Egypt in the night when the destroying angel went through all the land and smote the firstborn; as the wail of Rachel when she could not be comforted for her children, because they were not; such has been the howling, the weeping, the lamentation of that fair but desolate valley’. His sermon had three points:
We should learn to set loose by our dearest friends; love them, but remember they are dying things. We should also put all our dear ones into God’s hand.
‘You shall find it greatly mitigates the sorrow of bereavements, if before bereavement you shall have learned to surrender every day all the things that are dearest to you into the keeping of your gracious God’.
We should also thank God for our family members while we still have them, lest we provoke God to remove these mercies we fail to value. Children should treat their parents as if they were soon to die; and parents should not fail to instruct and pray for their children while they still have them.
‘Gather them together … and say to them, “My dear children, I am anxious that God’s Holy Spirit should graciously lead you to repent of sin and seek a Saviour”.’
Sudden death viewed in relation to ourselves
‘The miners of Risca had no more idea of dying that Saturday morning than you or I have, nor did there seem much likelihood that they would; yet quick in a moment the gas explodes and they stand before the eternal God.
‘And you and I are in danger too … There are a thousand gates to death. Let us all look on ourselves as dying men, let us not reckon on tomorrow. You who do know Christ … Oh what a work we have to do and how short a time to do it!
‘Do we give Christ’s service as much time as we give to many of our trifling amusements? And let us learn never to do anything which we would not wish to be found doing if we were to die.’
That sudden exchange which a sudden death will cause
The fearful and suffering Christian will find themselves in the midst of the redeemed of God, free from fears and bodily weakness and pain. ‘I can imagine that when a man dies thus suddenly, one of the first emotions he experiences in the next world will be surprise.
‘Oh, that glory! How resplendent your throne! “I, the chief of sinners, and yet in heaven? I, a doubting one, and yet in paradise?” Oh! What overwhelming joy … The next emotion will be gratitude’.
As for the unconverted man, his joys are over; his death is the death of his happiness. His sweet music is replaced by the shrieks of damned souls: ‘Oh that you would be saved! My eyes ache; my brow is full of fire now, because I cannot preach as I wanted to preach to you … “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved”.’
Spurgeon had to cope with occasional harsh criticism in the press, and this was no exception when he spoke at Bethesda in Swansea on Tuesday 25 June 1861. (Bethesda closed in 1994. It is the burial place of the famous Welsh preacher, Christmas Evans, 1766–1838.)
His modes of illustration were deemed coarse or irreverent and his message was judged as comforting the elect but having nothing for the non-elect. This was patently untrue. The reporter preferred ‘a more refined style of oratory’.
These attacks backfired when more people thronged to his meetings to see for themselves what the fuss was all about.
Spurgeon gave the impression of coping with such newspaper criticisms: ‘The devil has barked again in The Essex Standard … Never mind. When Satan opens his mouth, he gives me an opportunity of ramming my sword down his throat’.
Nevertheless, he felt them keenly and kept every newspaper cutting, favourable or otherwise, throughout his life. Severe criticisms and slanders also troubled his wife, Susannah, so she had Matthew 5:11-12 specially printed and framed, and hung up in their room so her husband could read it every morning, and gain calmness for the day ahead.
The morning’s sermon was from John 6:37: ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’.
He repeated the sermon immediately afterwards at Trinity Calvinistic Methodist Church, Park Street (bombed in WW2; now a car park). An open air service was held in the evening, when 10,000 people assembled on the Graig. The pressure of the queue collapsed the entry gate and the ticket takers were carried along with the rush.
Spurgeon spoke earnestly for over an hour from Jeremiah 22:29: ‘O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord’, and all the people, spread over the large field, could hear him distinctly.
To be continued (in January 2015)
The author is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012 he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One) concerning Matthew Henry.