3rd July 2023

During the later Victorian years, two Baptist ministers were among the most celebrated of London preachers: Dr John Clifford of Westbourne Park Chapel, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Clifford, a tireless campaigner for social justice, equality and religious freedom, was nicknamed ‘the uncrowned king of militant nonconformity’. Spurgeon became world-famous for his evangelistic expository sermons – it was claimed there was not one seat in his Tabernacle on which at least one listener had been converted. Clifford believed passionately that the gospel message had to engage with science and all that was challenging and enlightening in modern thought. Spurgeon stood for being faithful to the evangelical truths as taught by the Reformers and Puritans. For a while at least, there was mutual respect, as well as some puzzlement. Someone once passed on to Clifford a remark from Spurgeon, who’d said he couldn’t understand why Clifford was not a Calvinist like himself. Clifford responded, ‘Well, I meet Mr Spurgeon once a month, but I read my Bible every day.’ Their relationship in fact became very strained during the ‘Downgrade’ controversy of 1887, over how the Biblical faith was to be interpreted in the modern world.

But I find Clifford’s comment still very apt. However much we may admire any particular teacher, preacher, writer or theologian, and however illuminating we may find their insights, that doesn’t do away with the need to explore for ourselves, ‘to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’, what we find in the Scriptures. No system of doctrine, no ‘-ism’ (not even Calvinism!) should push into second place the regular refreshment provided by the fountainhead.

Keith Clements