I know someone who won't read a newspaper, because he finds it too depressing. Maybe you are not interested in history for the same reason? Even one of the greatest historians, H. Fisher, saw no purpose or meaning in history! But the saying, "History teaches us that history teaches us nothing!" clearly says its common sense that we do not learn from our past mistakes. Twentieth First Century Space-Age people tend to look at problems (including the issues of life and death) as if they were the first to face them! Solomon, however, the wisest man in history, tells us there is nothing new under the sun (Proverbs 1:10). All things - whether in the realm of nature, inventions or ideas - have been thought of before - at least to some degree.
Christians realise, for example, that scientific discovery is only "thinking God's thoughts after Him." It is discovering the laws and wonders of nature that God has already built into the Universe. History is HIS-STORY, as the God of the Bible controls all things, even down to the number of days we live and number of hairs on our head: "In Him we live and breathe, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Christianity is based on historical facts and events. Paul in Romans 15: 4 points out that Old Testament history was written for our learning, so we might see God working out his purposes. He controls the destiny of our rulers and governments, "The King's heart is ... in the hand of the Lord" (Proverbs 21:1). So we can look with interest and enthusiasm, at what previous generations have made and done. We will soon see that, "Where there is no vision, the people perish but happy is he who keeps the law [God's law]" (Proverbs 29:18). That's why our country (and indeed the world) is in the moral and spiritual mess that it's in. God allows us to suffer the consequences of our rebellion against Him. But even then, He is merciful. The world would be a lot worse if God did not restrain evil to a considerable degree, and make 'the sun to shine on the just and the unjust'.
In contrast to the sceptic, the believer (like Augustine of Hippo, or Calvin - who saw history as the theatre of God's glory) will see the forces of good and evil at play and God's directive will at work in the world's history. "I read the newspaper," commented John Newton (famous preacher and hymnwriter) "that I may see how my Heavenly Father governs the world". Clearly, we can and must learn from God's dealings with His people in time and space. It may be through the differences in doctrinal conviction that God facilitates change in the church. The rise of the nonconformists, is a case in point, where men and women after examining the Bible, came to different beliefs about worship and salvation than those promoted by the established church.
The Act of Uniformity (1662) and its successors
The nonconformists were those who refused to conform to the requirements (in doctrine or discipline) to the Established Church. The term is particularly applied to the Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England, who arose soon after the Reformation. The Act of Uniformity (1662) made Episcopal ordination compulsory and a distinct split unavoidable. This resulted in difficulty gaining permission to set up any independent causes, and refusal to allow such nonconformists to be buried in the parish churchyard. The great worthies (as they are known) like John Bunyan, George Fox, Dr Thomas Goodwin, Dr John Owen, Daniel Defoe, Isaac Watts, etc. are buried as a result in Bunhill Fields, Moorgate. We will illustrate the providential guiding of God, and see the effects of the Gospel, in three notable successors of this persuasion, living in the nineteenth century in SE London, England. Our selected preachers are: Joseph Irons (1785-1852) William Bengo Collyer (1782-1854) and Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) as illustrative of the increasing prosperity of non-conformist causes, which flourished despite the initial opposition of the established church.
Joseph Iron's roots
Joseph Irons was born in Ware, Hertfordshire on November 5th, 1785, on what we now commemorate as Guy Fawkes night. Irons was to be a bright light himself and no stranger to opposition. His life and its impact were a steadfast witness to the power of the gospel he proclaimed. He became a Christian under the ministry of Alphonsus Gunn in 1803. Soon Irons was asked to join the London Itinerant Society, which provided travelling preachers where needed. Joseph Irons preached his first sermon above a Blacksmith's shop in Dulwich. However, it is not surprising that as a Hertfordshire man he was ordained and accepted his first pastorate, in his home county.
Joseph Irons' First Pastorate: Hoddesdon Independent Church
At 26 years old - Joseph Irons became an ordained Minister of the Gospel, in the year 1812. He took over from a certain Pastor J. J. Richards of Cheshunt College at an Independent Church on the Ware Road, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Formerly this little chapel (started in 1781) had heard some famous preachers of the day like William Collyer (see later) and Rowland Hill (1744-1833). Joseph Irons gave up his carpentry job - for which he had trained - to preach to this Hoddesdon congregation. Irons also opened a school there.
Joseph was a physically strong man, and after teaching at one school he would run with the stagecoach (for safety from highwaymen) to a nearby village to teach another class! At Hoddesdon church, "Many souls were brought to a knowledge of the truth, and the chapel was enlarged ". Irons still undertook preaching engagements elsewhere. In 1818, an invitation came to preach at a nonconformist cause - Camden Chapel (Peckham) sent by the chairman of the trustees, Mr Flint. After he had preached at Camden Chapel, the people there were very encouraged and challenged by his sermons. Then, Camden Chapel - appointed a new trustee managing chairman 'who could not bear to hear so much of Christ.' Joseph Irons found his future preaching engagements cancelled. As a result, some of those who thought Irons should still preach there, invited him to become their minister - to pioneer a new gospel cause. They broke away from Camden Chapel, and formed a committee of eleven to start a new work. Irons, making the twelfth, accepted this call, having long felt a concern for the area. Irons had preached his first sermon in Dulwich village (1810) - a decade previously.
Camden Chapel was set up as a Countess of Huntingdon's Connection i.e. 'a dissenting place of worship', until it was licensed as an Episcopal Chapel in 1829. It was at Camden Chapel, that Robert Browning (the well known poet) and John Ruskin (philanthropist) heard Canon Henry Melvill's sermons. Eventually, Melvill became a Canon at St Paul's Cathedral. Doubtless those people that recalled Rev. Irons would probably have had unfavourable opinions of him, and these views may have coloured Browning's opinion of Rev. Irons, as reflected in the poem, ' Christmas Eve'.
In 1818, as a temporary measure, the new fellowship met above a workshop in Church Street, Camberwell. Irons said, "At length we hired 'a large upper room,' which had been occupied as a carpenter's shop, and which stood on the site now called Verandah Place, Church Street; and having obtained a place of our own, we intended quietly to worship God according to the dictates of our own consciences, and the direction of His word. But even there the spirit of persecution followed us for worshipping in an unlicensed place - but all in vain; for we had too much experience of the enmity of the carnal mind to trust to the tender mercies of the wicked, which are cruel. We had therefore availed ourselves of the protection of the law, before we commenced public worship there. We expended about £40 to make the building tenantable .... It was here that we first turned our attention to the organization of a Christian Church, upon New Testament principles; for the people at Camden Chapel had been entire strangers to church order or discipline." (1)
Despite much local opposition, Grove Chapel was built remarkably in just over four months. This opposition included the blocking of the Grove, by the lord of Camberwell manor (De Crespigny). He claimed it was his private road - to prevent the builders carting materials to the site, and also made threats of trespass. The building materials were taken to the site using a parallel road (Grove Lane). The Chapel cost £4000 to build - half of this was given by Mr Samuel Carter, a godly founder member. This would be worth about a quarter of a million pounds in today's terms. It was opened on July 20th 1819, by which time there were over 100 members! Two other ministers preached at the opening service as well as Irons - one of whom was Rev Griffith Williams, who had helped Irons obtain his first preaching engagement. Grove Chapel shared fellowship with other churches. On Friday 20th July, 1821 - the second anniversary of the Chapel - the minutes record: "Three sermons were preached - that in the morning by the Rev. Doctor Collyer of Peckham, that in the afternoon by the Rev Kemp of Cheshunt College, that in the evening by the Rev Griffith Williams of Gate Street."(1) Doctor William Bengo Collyer (1782-1854) always supported other sound gospel causes like Grove Chapel. He was the well-known preacher from the Meeting House, Rye Lane, Peckham. His hymns are still sung today, for instance "Return, O wanderer, return, And seek an injured Father's face" or "Great God, what do I see or hear?"
William Bengo Collyer's lifework
He trained at Homerton College, and took over the Meeting House, when things were at a low ebb. In 1800 a small remnant of about ten people invited Collyer to the pastorate, despite his lack of experience and youth (he was only 18 years old). In 1801 he was ordained to the ministry and in January 1802 he began preaching in a large but almost empty building. Under his ministry and in the providence of God, the church began to grow rapidly in the next six years. Old members returned and new faces were seen in the building - the cause multiplied on every hand. The increase was substantial and two side galleries were added. In 1817 a new place of worship was erected, which survived till 1910. Dr Collyer's congregation reached over 1,000 (but he started with only a remnant of ten) and royalty regularly worshipped in what became known as 'Hanover Chapel'. Collyer received an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University at the recommendation of the Duke of Kent. The latter also paid for a new organ. It is likely that Queen Victoria was taken to Hanover Chapel as a little girl - by her parents. Dr Collyer is said to have preached more sermons than anyone else in his time. He wrote a seven volume series on divine revelation. His writings and hymns books included: A supplement to Dr Watts' Psalms and Hymns (1812) Services suited to the solemnization of matrimony, baptism, etc. (1848); and Hymns for Israel, a tribute of love for God's ancient people (1848). He died on January 8th, 1854, in Peckham - two years after Joseph Irons. Today, the site of Hanover Chapel is marked by a plaque on Spencers, the jewellers, at the northern end of Rye Lane, Peckham. The rapid growth of Collyer's church was paralleled by the other causes.
The Grove Chapel membership grew rapidly - although non-conformist causes were regarded with great suspicion. Some servants were dismissed from situations which they had held with credit; others were rejected when applying for situations, whilst traders lost custom for the 'crime' of attending Grove Chapel (2). Rev. Irons - with his Bible-based beliefs - agreed with the teachings as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith Catechism , and set this as the standard for members. Irons said he was a 'Congregational Episcopalian'! He was himself the preaching elder, assisted by the Deacons. There was no instruments in worship, the hymns were started by a presenter.
Joseph and Mary's Marriage
At 19 years old, in 1804, Joseph Irons was married to Mary Ann (nee Broderick) who was nearly three years older than him. Mary is recorded to have given birth to eight children - which was not uncommon in those days!
|Mother's age||Child's birthday||Child's name|
|25 Years||4/7/1806||Mary Ann Irons|
|28 years||27/10/1810||Joseph Alphonsus|
|30 years||12/9/1812||William Josiah|
|37 years||15/6/1819||David Gunn|
Rev Irons' conversion
Two of Irons' sons' forenames commemorate the preacher under whom Joseph was converted, Alphonsus Gunn - once one of John Newton's curates at St Mary, Woolnoth. John Newton once said in a jovial moment, "He [Gunn] may be commended as a sportsman, as the Bishop has licensed him to use a Gunn!". Irons says of his conversion to Christianity in 1803, when he was 18 years old, "...the Lord directed the arrow into my conscience, and brought me to a saving knowledge of divine truth; before a rebel, now a repenting sinner, O that day! that place, that preacher! I shall never forget." As Irons was converted under Gunn's preaching, he was therefore, humanly speaking, Irons' 'spiritual father'. Joseph kept a sermon outline - handwritten by Gunn - in his pocket. Julian's Hymnology claims the Joseph Irons was also a friend of John Newton, although my research was unable to substantiate this claim.
Joseph Irons was a devoted husband, he would not travel anywhere without his wife if it were possible for her to accompany him, affectionately calling her 'his rib'. She shared in the anxieties of his early life, bringing up a large family. Joseph always remembered their Wedding Anniversary by sending a present and poem to his wife. Mary Irons was a strong support to her husband for 24 years, and he was heartbroken by her death on 23rd June 1828 aged 45 years. We are told that the vault where Irons was buried (under the Grove Chapel pulpit) also contained "Mr Irons first wife and daughter." The daughter was their eldest child, named after her mother, Mary Ann who 'departed March 15th, 1833, aged 26 years' as the stone plaque says in Grove Chapel. Nevertheless, Joseph was blessed with a second good wife named Lucy Chambers. They were married in St Giles Church on 13th July 1829 - but there were no children born from his second marriage. Lucy, in fact, outlived Joseph by ten years. She died on 27th June, 1862, aged 74 years and is buried near C.H. Spugeon's grave in Norwood Cemetery. The cemetery records prove this to be the case, but there is no surviving gravestone.
Irons' Camberwell home
The Irons family lived in a manse at the rear of the Chapel in Grove Lane (number 91). In letters he referred to this manse as 'the Shepherd's tent'. Rev Irons was permitted to open a door at the rear of this house to allow him to take a short cut to the vestry, dressed in his robes. A little time after his death in 1852 the trustees required his widow to close this door, so no right of way could be claimed by future owners of the house, when it was sold. But Lucy being infirm, the trustees still permitted her to use it!
Her letter reads:
- Dear Sir, In answer to your enquiries made to me, may I beg to say I do not claim a right of way from the house and premises I occupy to the Passage leading from Grove Lane to the Chapel yard. It was granted by the Trustees to Mr Irons as a privilege and accommodation. If notice is given me by the Trustees, I shall not make use of it any longer. I am Dear Sir, Yours respectfully, Lucy Irons (1).
What became of Irons' children?
We do not know what became of all Joseph Irons' children. One writer records in 1852 that 'two of his children were removed to heaven, one many years ago [Mary Ann - already mentioned] , the other more recently' - which we can deduce was either David or Samuel, "leaving a widow and a babe behind" but this latter two, it seems, died soon after (3). His eldest son, Joseph Alphonsus married someone called Ann. They had a family of ten children, and lived in Carshalton, Surrey. In 1833, Irons' daughter, Susanna, married a clerk - John Ward, and their son - another John - married a Jane Edgar in 1852. This latter couple emigrated to Australia in 1849. This grandson of Rev. Irons, John Ward, became a Senior Constable in the New South Wales Police Force. Sadly he was shot dead by a phantom Chinese bushranger (Sam Poo) in the Australian bush in 1865.
William Josiah Irons (1812-1883) was educated at Queens College, Oxford - gaining a BA in 1833, and Doctor of Divinity in 1854. He became a Vicar, then Rector - including at St Mary Woolnoth (1872), where his father's friend John Newton had been (according to Julian's famous Hymnology), and also he was a prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral. He wrote many fine books, hymns, and tracts. Canon Irons' considerable achievements are listed in a book called Julian's Hymnology. He died on June 18th, 1883. His brother Ebenezer - a law stationer - is known to have married Margaret Evans and to have lived in Cripplegate. They had at least one son called Joseph born in 1841.
The variety of jobs that Irons' children had, are also reflected in the chapel records - literally everything from the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker! Irons' preaching attracted both rich and poor alike to God's gospel of grace. There were ladies-in-service, carpenters, costermongers, clerks, merchants, stablemen, tradesmen and lamp-lighters. Both rich and poor, well known and unknown, were drawn to the message of the Bible, powerfully preached by Joseph Irons.
Full of Zeal...
Joseph said he would rather become a tramp than be an inactive servant of God! Joseph Irons spent himself fully on preaching God's word from 1819-1852. He said that, "I should be miserable if a week were to pass without my hearing of some hard heart being broken". He was a living example of the saying, "I would rather burn out, than rust out". When someone commented that Joseph Irons always lifted up (glorified) the Lord Jesus, he replied, "I am an iron pillar, and thank God, that I cannot stoop. By 'His grace, I am what I am." He would not compromise his message for popularity. "I can say with Paul, 'Do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be a servant of Christ ... I cannot trim to the times: the iron will not bend, and God has mercifully kept it from rusting."
Rev Irons, like the apostle Paul, was not without enemies and opponents to his views. Nevertheless, his sermons went far and wide as tracts, and were published in the "Grove Chapel Pulpit". He wrote and produced his own hymnbook, (containing 611 original hymns) and Irons' hymns were later used in several other hymnbooks including C. H. Spurgeon's Our Own Hymnbook. His books also reached far and wide, and were read by many thousands especially in the crowded dwellings of South London.
Grove Chapel Pulpit
Irons' sermons were popular enough to be published weekly, costing one penny each. These sermons were read, throughout the world, and probably influenced C.H. Spurgeon's grandparents. Rev Irons regularly preached on a Tuesday in Grove Chapel, and in the city on Wednesday. He would preach weekly at two or three other churches. In the summer he often preached four times on a Sunday - no mean feat as preachers had to speak up to be heard. Robert Browning (the famous Camberwell poet) used to hear his strong voice as he went past Grove Chapel -with a friend- on his favourite Sunday walk. They would play a little game to see who could hear his "bawling" first! Felix Mendelssohn probably went down the Grove in 1842 travelling from his relatives house on Denmark Hill, to Camberwell Green - where he composed his 'Spring Song'.
A Browning Connection?
Donald Thomas writing about Browning's later account of the working- class chapel - in a poem called Christmas-Eve - with the fat old women, the consumptive lad, the man with his head bandaged in a handkerchief, and 'the preaching-man's immense stupidity', thinks this was a portrait of Grove Chapel congregation, "the Nonconformist chapel with its unprepossessing preacher and shabby congregation"! He says: "A more likely original [than York Chapel] was the Reverend Joseph Irons of Camberwell Grove," he continues, "Alfred Domett [Browning's friend] recalls the game in which they would see how far down the street they could hear him [Irons] 'bawling his sermon'. At a gratifying distance they caught the thundering power of his words loud and clear: 'I am very sorry to say it, beloved brethren, but it is an undoubted fact that Roman Catholic and midnight assassin are synonymous terms''' (4). It is always dangerous to read too much into any quote, until one knows the full context of that statement, and whether it was accurately reported. Browning's poem portrays three places to worship: the nonconformist chapel, St Peter's in Rome, or listening to a rationalist lecturer in Gottingen. It is interesting to note, that of the three places Browning visited in his imagination, he finally decided that if he must choose a place for worship, it is the nonconformist chapel - with all its simplicity - that he preferred.
Browning's possible impression examined.
If Browning did have Grove Chapel in mind when he composed Christmas Eve, possibly from unfavourable comments heard at Camden Chapel, then he was inaccurate in the following ways: Firstly, an engraving of Grove Chapel congregation at that period (1844) shows the ladies in their neat hats - all look prim and proper. Working class or not, it was the belief at that time that one should wear one's 'Sunday best' for church, so although most of Grove Chapel folk were working class, they were certainly not 'shabby'. Furthermore, several Lords, gentlemen and ladies attended the chapel. These included Lord Brougham, Earl Roden, and Lady Lucy Smith. Incidentally, one regular worshipper at the church till 1821 was the Peckham educationalist Lucy Wanmer - called the 'Little Woman of Peckham' - a dwarf who was 32 inches high and lived till 71 years old!
Grove Chapel with its nineteenth century architecture is a pretty Geogian chapel with a five bay , two storey front. It has a modest appearance. The architect was David Roper, who also designed St Marks Kennington. The builder was a Mr Mayhew. The foundation stone was laid on 15/3/1819 by Samuel Carter. The Chapel opened on 20th July, 1918 - the speed of which, even amazes modern architects! It is doubtless accounted for by the zeal of the new congregation, and it must be remembered that Joseph Irons had trained in the building trade. The stairs to the gallery were repositioned in 1839, when two side wings were added, enabling 100 more sittings in the box pews. Pew- closers were employed to see people to their seats. There was no organ installed, instead the singing was led by a presenter.
Unprepossessing preacher or able minister of the Word?
Secondly, the picture of Irons as a 'unprepossessing preacher' or as we may say now 'an ignorant country bumpkin', is a caricature of reality. Donald Thomas writes, "As if recollecting the stentorian [shouting] Mr Irons, the Pastor of Camberwell Grove, Browning adds to the chapel's other vices 'the preaching-man's immense stupidity" (4). Irons' structured and well reasoned sermons are still available for all to see! He preached a long sermon which was achieved without a written sermon outline or notes. He spent long hours in preparation and then recalled all he had to say. His sermons were reported to be fresh each week, and original. He followed this acrostic method in his preaching, which made his sermon points easier to recall. Each major point, would have a key word, the first letter of which would eventually make an easily remembered summary word. Such abilities can hardly be said to suggest Irons was an unsophisticated idiot! His written works show that although he did not receive a college education, he certainly made up for this by years of private study. Joseph, being poetically gifted, wrote an acrostic on his name - which does give the key to his motivation in life.
- JESUS, to thee my soul aspires,
On wings of faith, with strong desires,
Seeking to view thy lovely face,
Enjoy thy smiles and grow in grace,
Perplexed with the world and sin,
Having no real joy therein,
I mourn - I look - I long to be
Releas'd from sin, and fill'd with thee;
O God of love! possess my heart,
No more from Jesus let me part;
Spirit Divine, still guide me right,
Till faith is changed into sight (1).
It is clear Irons did have strong Protestant beliefs, he was a true son of the Reformation. His strong views sometimes caused offence. He is alleged to have referred to Baptists as " litigious agitators of the amphibious kind", when replying to criticism by J.A. Jones, Pastor of the Baptist Church in Mitchell Street (near Old Street) in central London. It is true that in "Jazer" Irons called the Baptist view of baptism a "gross perversion" Irons as a vigorous leader in his chapel was prepared to battle for his views in the pulpit and print. In 1839 he engaged in a pamphlet war with an Anglican clergyman - who wrote under the pseudonym "Clericus". The latter alludes to Joseph Irons in derisive tones as the "foul-mouthed mendacities and vulgar scurrilities of Mr Joseph Irons of dissenting notoriety and a lay teacher of schism in Grove Meeting House, Camberwell ... His hypocrisy, enmity and wickedness will show themselves." Clericus (1839) A Defence of the Baptismal Service of the Church of England against calumnies of dissenters and the groundless objections of unwise churchmen. Clericus clearly believed that the dissenting chapels were out to destroy society and result in anarchy. He refers to Irons as an "ignorant though influential dissenter." Irons was certainly not ignorant, but the virulence of attacks on him is a measure of just how influential Irons was and the strength of his convictions.
The Reformation cry was 'Scripture alone' , 'Faith alone' and 'Grace alone'- the Bible was to be the guide in matters of faith and practice for a Christian, as opposed to any 'Church' edicts. Joseph Irons was akin in his beliefs to men like the famous preacher George Whitefield. Irons was warm hearted and certainly very able; one of his sons went to Oxford University, and whilst this does not necessarily imply his father was clever, it does indicate that learning was highly valued in the Irons' household. Joseph Irons was an excellent Pastor or 'under shepherd' of his flock; the church minutes show a care and concern for the moral welfare of the members. Irons, like the apostle Paul, "ceased not to warn them day and night with tears " (Acts 20:31).
Impact of Irons' life
Many societies were started at Grove Chapel during Rev. Iron's ministry there - a missionary society, a Tract Society, a Dorcas society for assisting poor married women in time of trouble, the Camberwell auxiliary of the Aged Pilgrims Society, and others! Irons felt that the church must reach out with the Gospel, for God's Word alone has a lasting power to change lives, and give people a fresh start. Joseph went on many preaching tours around the country as he believed that everybody needed to hear the gospel of God's saving grace; young men were encouraged to enter the Christian ministry.
His dying testimony
Joseph Irons said on his deathbed that, "I have no wish to recall or alter any of these grand fundamental truths that I have so long and so successfully proclaimed ..... Christ in the soul, and the soul in Christ! My heart is fixed O God, trusting in thee." Confidently he could say, "I have preached Jesus, I have loved Jesus and I long to be with Jesus". Joseph wrote: "I suffer - the most agonising pains are my lot, night and day, and I wonder that my senses are preserved, and that my life holds out in such insupportable torture. I now seldom preach, only on Sabboth mornings and am drawn in my wheel chair for that" (3). When his limbs refused to support him, he sat to preach, and he preached to the last Sunday but one before he died. He passed away aged 66 in his house in Grove Lane on April 3rd, 1852. His death certificate records that he suffered 10 years from gout (which is a very painful condition of certain joints) and had dyspepsia pyrosis - a burning pain in the throat, accompanied by the constant secretion of saliva.
What remains of Joseph Irons is buried beneath the pulpit that he made with his own hands in Grove Chapel. There were many fellow ministers present at his funeral, and they took part in the service. The funeral sermon was preached (at his request) by Rev Richard Luckin, minister of Woodbridge Chapel, Cripplegate London. Crowds came to the funeral, and apparently police officers were required for crowd control, as the 1852 minutes record a fee paid, "Police at funeral £1-10 shillings" (2). One biographer, Bayfield, records, "Every precaution was taken to prevent accident or confusion ... the Chapel was densely thronged with friends in deep mourning". Hundreds had to be turned away as they were unable to get within the Chapel gates. Bayfield notes that the coffin was, "followed by the affectionate widow, as chief mourner, two of the eldest sons and daughters of the departed, then the relatives which were near of kin, and the four Deacons of Grove Chapel ...". Regarding his funeral service Joseph Irons told Luckin, "Mind, say nothing about me, but speak of the Master." Luckin replied, "I cannot do otherwise than speak of you, as well as the Master." "Then, my dear brother," Irons replied, "say little about me. One thing I have to say is this, I have preached Jesus, I have loved Jesus, and I long to be with Jesus.".
Irons - man of calibre
Nevertheless, Irons had started without a chapel or the return of any former members, as had happened in Collyer's case. Irons was a colourful preacher who knew how to relate and communicate with people. He was available for consultation by church members every Monday morning, and the minutes show he exercised a shepherd's heart for their spiritual and moral welfare. 1237 people were admitted to Grove Chapel membership during Irons' faithful proclamation of God's word, over one third of whom were converted to Christ under his powerful preaching. Rev Iain Murray did not hesitate to call this 'Revival conditions'. His printed sermons travelled all over the world. By 1850 there were an estimated half million of his sermons in print, and he had preached 11,000 sermons. These always made a powerful appeal to conscience, contrasted believer with unbeliever and encouraged folk to look for signs of the new birth - conversion.
If anyone is tempted to think Christians are wimps who lack backbone or stamina, the testimony of Joseph Irons' life destroys this in one blow! Not that he was without fault, but he had a humble personality and mourned his failings. Irons was a man of great natural ability. He was a quick thinker, persevering in temperament, and neat in appearance. He was a Gospel Hero in his day. "He was", says Bayfields memoir, "Firm, faithful, fluent, and fearless - active, anxious and affectionate."
He preached so earnestly that the people of his days would be influenced by the truth of the Bible and every sermon had something new and savoury. He aimed to remove the rose coloured spectacles that people so readily put on to avoid seeing God's sovereign hand at work in their lives, see Romans 1: 18. He would indeed believe we should 'strike while the iron's hot', for he was a man of action. Joseph Irons, true to his name, had iron in his soul! He preached 'God's covenant love, covenant blood, and covenant grace', which were the theme of his 40 years labour on earth. God's covenant (agreement) was an agreement made in Heaven between the Father and the Son, that Christ would come to 'buy back' (redeem) a people for Himself, by offering himself as a living sacrifice on the Cross.
- O give thanks unto the Lord,
Praise His name with one accord;
Tell the wonder of His power,
Praise His goodness every hour.
Oh, that men would praise the Lord,
While His goodness they record;
All His wondrous works rehearse,
Who redeem'd them from the curse. (5)
Although Charles Haddon Spurgeon (himself known as 'the prince of preachers') did not know Irons personally, he thought so highly of Joseph Irons that he used several of Irons' hymns, and published some of his sermon outlines in the Sword and Trowel of 1866. Spurgeon wrote of Joseph Irons that he was :"a holy and useful servant of God". It is noticeable that as C.H. Spurgeon commenced his ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1853, that some Grove Chapel members were noted to have transferred their membership to that place. Rev J. Kempster (from Norwich) said of Irons, "Since the days of Whitefield I know of no man whose ministry has been more honoured of God than the ministry of Mr. Irons ", although this was also claimed of Doctor Collyer's ministry. George Whitefield's preaching had been singularly blessed. Whitefield's Tabernacle became known as his 'Soul-Trap' and it was located off the City Road, Moorgate. The same was said of C. H. Spurgeon.. It is to C. H. Spurgeon - who became known as "the Prince of Preachers" - that we now turn. Spurgeon lived most of his childhood with his grandfather (Pastor James Spurgeon) for financial reasons. Doubtless here, he (like his grandfather) read some of Iron's tracts. Spurgeon also exercised his main ministry - as a non-conformist - on S. E. London. Nevertheless, like John Wesley "the world was his parish." as Spurgeon's influence eventually spanned the globe.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1838-1892)
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was Britain's most famous preacher for the second half of the nineteenth century. Born at Kelvedon, in Essex, in June 1834, Spurgeon was educated at Colchester, and as youth advanced he became usher in a school at Newmarket. "Look unto me , and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 45:22a) was the text under which C.H. Spurgeon was converted on that snowy winter's day of January 6th, 1850 in a Primitive Methodist Church. Some of his relatives who were Independents proposed that he should enter one of their colleges, and undergo a training for the ministry. But his own convictions were in favour of other views; and accordingly he joined the church formerly presided over by the late Robert Hall, at Cambridge.
The boy preacher
From this period he became almost entirely a village preacher and tract distributor. At Teversham, a village near Cambridge, Mr Spurgeon, under the designation of 'the Boy Preacher," delivered his first sermon; and shortly afterwards he was invited to become pastor at a small Baptist chapel at Waterbeach. The invitation was accepted. The lad of seventeen soon became a celebrated character; the barn at Waterbeach was filled with people, while listening crowds contented themselves with the sound of his voice from the outside. Invitations to preach were sent to him from the surrounding places.
Call to London
His fame reached London; and the church at New Park Street, in Southwark, whose pulpit had in former days been occupied by Keech, Gill and Dr. Rippon, now courted his favours. This call being accepted, Mr Spurgeon made his first appearance before a London congregation in 1853, with so much success, that before two years had gone it was considered necessary to enlarge the New Park Street building, during these alterations he officiated for four months at Exeter Hall, and that building was always so crowded, that hundreds were turned away from the doors. He entered his outstanding 38 year pastorate in December 1853 as a supply preacher; and was 'called' to this congregation in April, 1854. Before six months had passed, the Chapel was overcrowded, and within two years services had to be moved to the Surrey Garden Music Hall (seating over 10,000 people).
Bad Press swells the crowd!
During the short time that Mr Spurgeon occupied the platform at Exeter Hall, paragraphs appeared in the newspapers announcing that "the Strand was blocked by crowds who gathered to hear a young man in Exeter Hall." Remarks of no very flattering character appeared in various journals, and the multitude was thereby increased. Caricatures filled the printsellers' windows; among them one entitled "Catch-'em-alive-O!" showed the popular preacher's head surmounted by one of those peculiarly-prepared sheets of fly-paper known by that name, to which were adhering or fluttering all sorts of winged characters - from the Lord Chancellor down to Mrs Gamp - and in the most ridiculous attitudes; Mr Spurgeon's name, too, continued to be made more and more known by pamphlets and letters in the papers, which all tended to swell the crowd.
An inspiring example
The enlargement of Park Street Chapel, however, proved to be insufficient. His hearers multiplied so rapidly that it became expedient to engage the Surrey Music Hall. A fascinating letter appeared in the Times, by a High Churchman, who nevertheless gives us this vivid account of a visit to hear Pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 'the prince of preachers' :
- '' ' I want to hear Spurgeon; so let us go.' Now, I am supposed to be a High Churchman, so I answered, 'What! go and hear a Calvinist - a Baptist! - a man who ought to be ashamed of himself for being so near the Church, and yet not within its pale?' 'Never mind; come and hear him.' Well, we went yesterday morning to the Music Hall, in the Surrey Gardens ..... Fancy a congregation consisting of 10,000 souls, streaming into the hall, mounting the galleries, humming, buzzing, and swarming - a mighty hive of bees - eager to secure at first the best places, and, at last, any place at all.
After waiting more than half an hour - for if you wish to have a seat you must be there at least that space of time in advance - Mr Spurgeon ascended his tribune [rostrum]. To the hum, and rush and trampling of men, succeeded a low, concentrated thrill and murmur of devotion, which seemed to run at once, like an electric current, through the breast of every one present, and by this magnetic chain the preacher held us fast bound for about two hours.
Neither high flown nor homely
It is not my purpose to give a summary of his discourse. It is enough to say of his voice, that its power and volume are sufficient to reach every one in that vast assembly; of his language, that it is neither high-flown nor homely; of his style, that it is at times familiar, at times declamatory, but always happy, and often eloquent: of his doctrine, that neither the 'Calvinist' nor the 'Baptist' appears in the forefront of the battle which is waged by Mr Spurgeon with relentless animosity, and with Gospel weapons, against irreligion, cant, hypocrisy, pride, and those secret bosom-sins which so easily beset a man in daily life; and to sum up all in a word, it is enough to say of the man himself, that he impresses you with a perfect conviction of his sincerity."
Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle
On 19th October, 1856, a malicious alarm of fire caused panic in Surrey Music Hall and the death of seven people. The shock of this event adversely affected Spurgeon's health. Spurgeon's supporters erected for him a fine new chapel in the Kennington Road, which was publicly opened in 1861. This site had a focal position, and Spurgeon believed that it was here the Southwark Martyrs were burned. The foundation stone (made of Portland stone) bears the words, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". During the first seven years of Mr. Spurgeon's ministry in London, and as a result of his untiring labours, upwards of £31,000 had been collected for the building, and the structure was accordingly opened free of debt. By 1859 the foundation stone of the Metropolitan Tabernacle was laid, and regularly a congregation of 6000 met to listen to his preaching. Spurgeon's work included the founding of numerous churches - over 200 churches in the home counties alone; a pastor's college, in which young men were prepared for ministry, founded at Camberwell (1856) but which ended up in Temple Street, Southwark; and an orphanage (1867) at Stockwell for girls and boys, together with various missions and other societies.
Weekly published sermons ran into millions, and his books exceeded those of any other Christian writer in popularity. His published sermons fill 62 volumes of the New Park Street Pulpit and The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. His magnum opus was The Treasury of David. His sermons are still widely read today, and translated into numerous languages and are available on the internet:
The story of the erection of the Metropolitan Tabernacle will always provide an inspiring example of the rapid growth of the work of God under the hand of a consecrated preacher. Spurgeon was more than an orator: he was a magnetic and vibrant personality, endowed with a common sense that in itself amounted almost to genius, and with rare insight into character and capacity. One of his shining gifts was his sense of humour. Spurgeon's voice was of such resonance and silvery clearness that though often he raised it very little above its ordinary tones, every word he uttered could be easily heard in the remotest part of the upper gallery. He preached to ten thousand at the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition Centre. Spurgeon had an amazing capacity with words, along with a phenomenal memory and his enhanced ability to think on his feet. Charles was a voracious reader, which accounts in part for the richness and depth of his preaching. He lived in Beulah Hill, West Norwood, where he had a considerable library. One memorable picture is that of his secretary (Mr Harrald) reaching for books for his sermon preparation, from near the top of a step ladder!
Spurgeon was married to Susannah Thompson in January, 1856 at New Park Street Chapel. She was an excellent supporter of all his ventures, despite having poor health herself. Susannah had twin boys. She ran the Mrs Spurgeon's Book Fund, to help those training for the ministry. Details of her wonderful life are given in a short biography of Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray (1903) republished by Pilgrim Publications (1973). Spugeon affectionately called her "wifey" and she gives an account of how Spurgeon had not settled on a text to preach. He retired to bed and asked his wife to call him early on Sunday so he could prepare. That night, Spurgeon started talking in his sleep. His wife realised it was the exposition he had struggled over the day before, and so took mental note of all he said. In the morning they both overslept, and Spurgeon awoke with a start. "Oh, why did you let me sleep? What shall I do? What shall I do?" "Listen, beloved" his wife answered. Susannah then told Charles what she had heard in the night. "Why! that's just what I wanted," exclaimed Spurgeon, "that is the true explanation of the whole verse! And you say I preached that in my sleep?" "It is wonderful," he repeated many times and they both praised God for so remarkable a manifestation of His power and love.
First Words and Teaching
His first words in the new building were, "I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ ... Who is the sum and substance of the Gospel; Who is in Himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious trust, the all-glorious personal embodiment of the Way, the Truth and the Life." Later, Spurgeon in giving advice to his seminary students on sermon preparation said, "Christ should be the first point, Christ should be the second point and Christ should be the third point". It was this Christo-centric emphasis which was such a heart warming feature of Spurgeon's ministry. Spurgeon thought that many laid too little stress on Christ's divine nature, and keenly resented the 'downgrade' developments of modern biblical criticism. This growth of indifference to biblical teaching, led Spurgeon to withdraw from the Baptist Union in 1887, which did not adopt the serious view he took of the situation.
An adequate sketch of the "Pastor's" unique career - within the limits of this space, would be simply impossible! Spurgeon, as a preacher, had more influence on America than any other Baptist preacher on either side of the Atlantic. His work in England set a pattern for: Bible Institutes and Seminaries, large evangelistic churches, child evangelism, outreach literature, and separation from error and "modernism" in theology, while his sermons had the widest circulation of any preacher. The church minutes record the many testimonies from elder's interviews with applicants for baptism and church membership over his 38 years of ministry. His wife, Susannah, during her husband's illness, received a letter from Mr Gladstone, expressing his 'cordial admiration, not only of his splendid powers, but still more of his devoted and unfailing character.' He died at Mentone, France, on the 31st of January, 1892. Thousands found pardon and new life under his faithful preaching of the Christian gospel. The words written on his funeral casket are a fitting tribute to Spurgeon's life and work: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." Charles H. Spurgeon was buried next to Lucy Irons (Rev. Joseph Irons' second wife) in Norwood cemetery. Thousands lined the funeral route to pay their last respects to this great gospel preacher.
Lessons from these three great non-conformist worthies
Firstly, we note all three were committed to the Reformed Faith. Through the years, 'the Reformed Faith' has come to stand for a commitment to the Word of God in all its fullness and for a passionate loyalty to the Saviour upon whom we depend for all things. Sometimes it is better called, "biblical Christianity". It includes the four "sola" cries of Reformation theology: (1) Sola fides "by faith alone" re-discovered by Martin Luther and declared at the Diet of Worms. "Sola fides" means our hope of salvation depends totally on Gods gift of saving faith, 'the just shall live by faith'. (2) Sola scriptura - by God's Word alone, meaning what the Scripture does not authorise is not to be imposed. (3) Sola gratia, by grace alone: our salvation depends totally on God's unmerited favour. (4) Sola Christos - by Christ alone: our salvation depends on the work of our Saviour on our behalf, as the perfect offering for sin.
Secondly, all three's ministry appealed to all classes and conditions of men. The common people heard them gladly, and were able to understand their vernacular. This is shown not only by the mixed composition of their congregations (including the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker) but by the popularity of their tracts, sermons and hymns which went far and wide.
Thirdly, the lives of these holy men of God were characterised by a true zeal to see Christ's kingdom extended. Take Iron's for instance: In the summer he often preached four times on a Sunday (no microphones to help voice strain in those days!). He preached on a Tuesday at 'Grove' and on a Wednesday in the city. He died at 66 years old, having been carried into the pulpit to preach the week before!
Fourthly, these were all men of backbone who realised the future of the church depended on purity of doctrine. They respected other peoples' differences of opinion on the grounds that, "in essential matters we should have unity, in non-essentials liberty, but in all things charity." They would not compromise on the gospel of Jesus Christ, "there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4: 12). These men knew their times, their Bibles, their God and themselves. They preached in the Puritan tradition, and showed the truth of the principle, "The church is looking for better methods, but God is looking for better men". With all three preachers reviewed in this article, it can be said 'the memory of the just is blessed' (Proverbs 10:7).
Bibliography and Sources:
- (1) Grove Chapel Minutes : 1818-63
(2) Rev. Iain Murray's 'Joseph Irons and 150 Years ago', in The Banner of Truth, No. 62 Nov. (1968).
(3) A Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Irons, by Gabriel Bayfield (1852), City Press, Long Lane, London.
(4) Robert Browning (1982), A life within - Donald Thomas, London; pp. 19, + 130, "Robert Browning and Alfred Domett", Weidenfield and Nicolson, ISBN 0 297 78092 1.
(5) PSALM 107 by Joseph Irons (1847) from CH Spurgeon's 'Our Own Hymnbook', Pilgrim Publications, 1975.
Also consulted were: Joseph Irons Death Certificate and The History of Grove Chapel by Joseph Lock, London, C. J. Farncombe & Sons, 1919.
* My thanks are due to Mr Victor C. Hayes - a great great great grandson of J. Irons, living in Australia for his family research on Rev. J Irons.
William Bengo Collyers hymns can be accessed on the internet "The Cyber Hymnal" at:
Also available on that site are William Josiah Irons' hymns (son of Joseph Irons):
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
G. Holden Pike (volumes 1 & 2) The Life & Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, two volume set: ISBN 0 85151 622 X