The 1857 Day of Humiliation — Spurgeon’s sermons
The Great Exhibition of 1851 saw Victorian Britain at the pinnacle of self-confidence. The brain-child of Albert, the Prince Consort, it proved a stunning success. Six million people flocked to see the accumulated wonders of British technology and inventive skill. Never had Britannia ruled the waves with such a triumphant air.
But in the autumn of 1857 a chill east wind from the Indian sub-continent had blown away much of our national sense of self-importance. The nation was genuinely shocked at the news of the Indian Mutiny — when native Indian soldiers, known as sepoys, rebelled against British officers. The rebellion swept like wild-fire across northern India, engulfing Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur.
The Mutiny was ultimately put down with considerable brutality, but in the summer of 1857 the British were seething at the news of innocent British women and children being butchered to death in India.
The reputation of the invincible British army had been dented at Crimea shortly beforehand, but this was different. Warfare against an enemy was one thing; mutiny from within was another.
Day of prayer
Queen Victoria called for a day of national humiliation and prayer before Almighty God. The call to the nation was to seek Almighty God for pardon for sins, to implore his blessing, and crave his help in restoring peace to India. Wednesday 7 October 1857 was the appointed day.
It had taken just six years for the hubris of the Great Exhibition to lead to the nemesis of the Day of Humiliation. The focal point for such a dramatic shift in public mood was the Crystal Palace. Originally built in London’s Hyde Park to house the exhibition, it had been dismantled and re-erected on the site in south London which now bears its name.
On the Day of Humiliation the Crystal Palace was once again filled with people, this time gathering to hear Charles Spurgeon address them. Over 23,600 were there.
In The early years Spurgeon himself relates how he went to the Crystal Palace a day or two earlier to test the acoustics and work out the best spot to set up his pulpit. He tells how he ‘cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”.
‘In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God’.
On the day, Spurgeon took as his text Micah 6:9: ‘Hear ye the rod and who hath appointed it’. He made it clear that he did not see the events in India as a national uprising against the British. Rather it was a mutiny from within the army. The sepoys were blameworthy because they had sworn their allegiance to the British crown. They were going back on a solemn oath.
He also felt no need to restrain himself when speaking out against the Hindu religion. Although anyone is entitled to their religion, he said, such toleration does not apply where immorality is at stake. Speaking of the Thugs who robbed and killed in the name of their religion, Spurgeon declared: ‘If it be any man’s religion to blow my brains out, I shall not tolerate it’.
However, Spurgeon was in a quandary. The day had been set apart for the nation to unite in a solemn fast and seek the face of Almighty God in ‘order to obtain pardon of our sins’. The clear understanding was that specific sins had caused the tragedy.
His problem was that he could not identify a definite causal link between any particular sin and the mutiny. In fact he began by saying that this world is not the place for punishment for sin, although it may sometimes be a place.
He spoke of the custom of the day that looked upon every common accident as a judgement for a specific sin. Most of the clergy believed the mutiny to be divine retribution for reticence in spreading British culture and the Christian religion vigorously enough amongst our overseas possessions.
But Spurgeon could not be so dogmatic. Better by far, he felt, to follow the principle set out by the Lord himself when he told his hearers that the victims of the tower of Siloam disaster were no more wicked than anyone else.
He went on to explain that this does not mean there is never a divine visitation for a particular offence in this life; nor can it be said that there no such thing as national judgements for national sins. But he clearly had misgivings about making definite pronouncements as to this particular event.
Rather tongue in cheek, he said that the great authorities of England (and ‘who am I, that I should dispute such a high authority as that?’) had blamed the sin of the people of England. That being the case, it fell to him to point out the nation’s sins.
That gave him the opening he sought. First of all there was the sin of prostitution. Spurgeon called on those with the authority to do something about it. So far the entire congregation was with him.
Like a lion he stalked his prey. He turned to the sins of the rich. He spoke of those who build a factory as like a man who heats a cauldron. With dramatic effect he caricatured the rich brewing up their wealth:
‘He is only a poor clerk, he can live on a hundred a year. Put him in! There is a poor time-keeper: he has a large family; it does not matter; a man can be had for less: in with him! Here are the tens, the hundreds, and the thousands that must do the work. Put them in; heap the fire; boil the cauldron; stir them up; never mind their cries’.
But he did not leave it at that. He turned to the poor.
‘There are many of you that are poor. I saw you smile when I spoke to the rich. I will have at you also’.
He laid into the ‘hundreds of you that are here to-day who are the best hands in all the world to prop up walls, when you ought to be busy at your own work’. Since the sins of the poor are many, they should ‘humble themselves with the rich; bow their heads and weep for their iniquities’.
Neither did the slumbering Christian church escape the sharpness of Spurgeon’s tongue. He spoke of ‘haughty ministers understanding the polish of rhetoric’ but not grasping the point of the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The church was sleeping while Satan was devouring the world.
But then he turned to individuals who were sincere in their humiliation and prayers. But would they pray when victory comes?
‘You will buy some fireworks, will you not? That is how you will thank God! You had a victory over a potent enemy, and peace was established: your votive offerings consisted of rockets and illuminations — grand offerings to the Dread Supreme!’
He recalled how a cholera epidemic had swept through London and people had hurried into churches and, with terror on their faces, cried aloud for deliverance. But when the Lord answered their prayers and the cholera lifted, the piety disappeared like the early morning dew. Spurgeon laid into many consciences on this point, and unashamedly so. He said:
‘Would God that he would make the charge of my language against your consciences as heavy as the charge of British soldiery against the enemy!’ He asked them:
‘How many of you have been awakened, convinced of sin, of righteousness, and of judgement? How many times have you vowed you would repent? … And yet you have been liars to the Almighty; you have defrauded the Most High; and whilst the bill is due it still stands dishonoured. Tremble! God may smite you yet’.
He called on them to repent. He spoke of the Saviour nailed to a cross that we might not die — and to the free path to paradise that is open to every penitent.
Spurgeon had delivered his soul and done so without fear of man. He must have been spiritually and emotionally drained. In his biography he relates how he went to bed on that Wednesday night and only woke up the following Friday morning. Thursday went missing. He wrote: ‘My dear wife came at intervals to look at me, and every time she found me sleeping peacefully, so she just let me slumber on’.
Of the day itself Spurgeon said: ‘Eternity alone will reveal the full results’.