Chapter 4 Memories of Schooldays
MANY memories were awakened, one day, when I opened my copy of White's Natural History of Selborne, and read the following inscription:
After I had once succeeded in gaining my position at the top of the class, I was careful to retain it, except at one particular period, when I made up my mind to get right down to the bottom. My teacher could not understand my unusual stupidity, until it suddenly occurred to him that I had purposely worked my way from the head of the class, which was opposite a draughty door, down to the foot, which was next to the stove. He therefore reversed the position of the scholars, and it was not long before I had again climbed to the place of honour, where I had also the enjoyment of the heat from the fire.
I was about the age of fourteen when I was sent to a Church of England school--now called St. Augustine's College, Maidstone. We had three clergymen who came by turns to teach us their doctrines; but, somehow or other, the pupils did not seem to get on much, for when one of them was asked by a clergyman how many sacraments there were, he said, "Seven," and when that was denied, he said, "Oh, sir, there is one that they take at the haltar!" upon which I could not help saying, "That's hanging, I should think," which suggestion made even the reverend gentleman smile, although, of course, I was bidden not to be so rude as to interrupt again. I am sure many of the sons of the gentry in that establishment were more ignorant of Scripture than the boys in some of our Ragged Schools.
One of the clergy was, I believe, a good man, and it is to him I owe that ray of light which sufficed to show me believers' baptism. I was usually at the head of the class, and on one occasion, when the Church of England Catechism was to be repeated, something like the following conversation took place:
He seemed always to have a respect for me, and gave me The Christian Year, in calf, as a reward for my great proficiency in religious knowledge. Proceeding with the Catechism, he suddenly turned to me, and said--
I felt sure enough of victory; for I thought that a ceremony my grandfather and father both practised in their ministry must be right; but I could not find it--I was beaten--and made up my mind as to the course I would take.
I resolved, from that moment, that if ever Divine grace should work a change in me, I would be baptized, since, as I afterwards told my friend the clergyman, "I never ought to be blamed for improper baptism, as I had nothing to do with it; the error, if any, rested with my parents and grandparents."
It was while I was at Maidstone that I had the opportunity of attending the services of the Established Church, and therefore was able, long afterwards, to say to the students of the Pastors' College: "There is an ecclesiastical twang which is much admired in the Establishment, a sort of steeple-in-the-throat grandeur, an aristocratic, theologic, parsonic, supernatural, infra-human mouthing of language and rolling over of words. It may be illustrated by the following specimen--'He that hath yaws to yaw, let him yaw,' which is a remarkable, if not impressive, rendering of a Scripture text. Who does not know the hallowed way of pronouncing--'Dearly-beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in divers places'? It rolls in my ears now like Big Ben, coupled with boyish memories of monotonous peals of 'The Prince Albert, Albert Prince of Wales, and all the Royal Family . . . . Amen.' Now, if a man who talks so unnaturally does not get bronchitis, or some other disease, I can only say that throat diseases must be very sovereignly dispensed. At the Nonconformist hobbies of utterance I have already struck a blow, and I believe it is by them that larynx and lungs become delicate, and good men succumb to silence and the grave."
I had a variety of experiences while at that Church school. One piece of mischief I remember to this day. There was a large jar of ammonia in a certain cupboard, and I used to lead the new boys to it, and tell them to take a good sniff, the usual result being that they would be quite overpowered. Once, when a boy fell down in a dead faint, I was really frightened, and I did not want to play the same trick on anyone else. Perhaps I took the more liberty as the master (Mr. David Walker) was my uncle; at any rate, I was a great favourite with my aunt, and that fact helped me out of many a difficulty.
Mr. Walker's usual plan of punishing his pupils was to make the sentence bear as much resemblance as possible to the offence they had committed. For instance, the boys had gone one night, and borrowed a boat from the river; so, the next night, they were roused from their slumbers, and made to go at once to return it to its proper place. They would probably be all the more careful not to repeat their wrong-doing when they found how much discomfort it brought to themselves.
It often happened that, when corporal punishment was to be administered, my uncle would send me out to find a cane for him. It was not a very pleasant task, and I noticed that I never once succeeded in selecting a stick which was liked by the boy who had to feel it. Either it was too thin, or too thick and, in consequence, I was threatened by the sufferers with condign punishment if I did not do better next time. I learned from that experience never to expect God's children to like the particular rod with which they are chastened.
I greatly offended my uncle, on one occasion, by pointing out an error in an arithmetical problem he was working on the blackboard. He said that it was derogatory to his dignity to be corrected before his pupils, but I maintained that it was not right for me to let the mistake pass without mentioning it after I had detected the blunder. I think, after that incident, he judged that I could employ my time to the greatest advantage by taking my books, and studying by myself beneath an old oak-tree by the river Medway; at all events, he showed his appreciation of my mathematical progress by allowing me to make the calculations which are, I believe, still used by a certain Life Insurance Society in London.
[In the month of July, 1889, Spurgeon paid a short visit to the town of Maidstone. On the Sabbath evening after his drive into Kent, he preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle a sermon upon Psalm 1xxv. 17, in which he said:
I went down, last week, to Maidstone, in Kent. It is as near as possible to the day, forty years ago, when I left the school called a "College" there. I thought that I must go down and look at the spot, and specially at a tree which stands by the river Medway. Under that tree I spent many hours, and many days, and even many weeks, reading all day long. "In school time?" say you. Yes, my master thought that I should do better under that tree than in the class; and he was a wise man. He gave me my book, and left me to myself; and as I stood last week under that tree, with the smoothly-flowing river at my feet, I could thank God for His mercy to me for all these forty years, and I could say, "O God, Thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared Thy wondrous works." There may be some young people here to-night, just come back from school, boys and girls who are just finishing their school days. I would to God that they would spend some time in holy, quiet thought about their future, about whom they will serve, who shall be their Teacher, for whom they will become teachers, and how the life which has now become more public than before shall be spent.
As I stood there, last week, I could not help praising God that, not long after I left that school, He led me to faith in Christ, and to rest in Him, and find eternal life; and I could not but thank God that I went to that school for twelve months. It was a Church of England school. I had never, seen anything of Church of Englandism till that time, but there was a turning in my life, through being there, to which I owe my being here. The Church of England Catechism has in it, as some of you may remember, this question, "What is required of persons to be baptized?" and the answer I was taught to give, and did give, was, "Repentance, whereby they forsake sin, and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that sacrament." I looked that answer up in the Bible, and I found it to be strictly correct as far as repentance and faith are concerned, and of course, when I afterwards became a Christian, I also became a Baptist; and here I am, and it is due to the Church of England Catechism that I am a Baptist. Having been brought up among Congregationalists, I had never looked at the matter in my life. I had thought myself to have been baptized as an infant; and so, when I was confronted with the question, "What is required of persons to be baptized?" and I found that repentance and faith were required, I said to myself, "Then I have not been baptized; that infant sprinkling of mine was a mistake; and please God that I ever have repentance and faith, I will be properly baptized." I did not know that there was one other person in the world who held the same opinion; for so little do Baptists make any show, or so little did they do so then, that I did not know of their existence. So I feel grateful to the Church school, and grateful to the Church Catechism, for what I learnt at Maidstone. I do not know that I have any vivid gratitude for any other question in the Catechism, but I am very thankful for that particular one, for it led me where it was never intended to lead me by those who wrote it. It led me, however, as I believe, to follow the Scriptural teaching that repentance and faith are required before there can be any true baptism.]
THE YOUNG USHER'S TEACHER IN THEOLOGY
The first lessons I ever had in theology were from an old cook in the school at Newmarket where I was an usher. She was a good old soul, and used to read The Gospel Standard. She liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine, but she lived strongly as well as fed strongly. Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays. There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them; though they should search all their days. The cook at Newmarket was a godly experienced woman, from whom I learned far more than I did from the minister of the chapel we attended. I asked her once, "Why do you go to such a place?" She replied, "Well, there is no other place of worship to which I can go." I said, "But it must be better to stay at home than to hear such stuff." "Perhaps so," she answered; "but I like to go out to worship even if I get nothing by going. You see a hen sometimes scratching all over a heap of rubbish to try to find some corn; she does not get any, but it shows that she is looking for it, and using the means to get it, and then, too, the exercise warms her." So the old lady said that scratching over the poor sermons she heard was a blessing to her because it exercised her spiritual faculties and warmed her spirit. On another occasion I told her that I had not found a crumb in the whole sermon, and asked how she had fared. "Oh!" she answered, "I got on better to-night, for to all the preacher said, I just put in a not, and that turned his talk into real gospel."
[After Spurgeon was "called home", Professor J. D. Everett, F.R.S., of Queen's College, Belfast, wrote to The Christian World: "In the summer of 1849, when I was not quite eighteen, I went to Newmarket to assist in a school kept by a Mr. Swindell. There were two other assistants, but not long after my arrival they went off, and I was left for a week or so as the sole assistant. I was then relieved of part of my duty by a lad of fifteen, who came as an articled pupil. This was Charles H. Spurgeon, and for the next three months we shared the work between us. We boarded in the house, occupied the same bedroom, took our walks together, discussed our common grievances, and were the best of friends.
"He was rather small and delicate, with pale but plump face, dark brown eyes and hair, and a bright, lively manner, with a never-failing flow of conversation. He was rather deficient in muscle, did not care for cricket or other athletic games, and was timid at meeting cattle on the roads.
"He had been well brought up in a family with strong Puritanical tendencies, and was proficient in the subjects taught in the middle-class schools of those days. He knew a little Greek, enough Latin to gather the general sense of Virgils 'Æneid' without a dictionary, and was fond of algebra. He had a big book of equation problems (by Bland, I think), and could do all the problems in it, except some two or three, which I was proud to be able to do for him. He was a smart, clever boy at all kinds of book learning; and, judging from the accounts he gave me of his experiences in his father's counting-house, he was also a smart man of business. He was a keen observer of men and manners, and very shrewd in his judgments. He enjoyed a joke, but was earnest, hard-working, and strictly conscientious.
"He had a wonderful memory for passages of oratory which he admired, and used to pour forth to me with great gusto, in our walks, long screeds from open-air addresses of a very rousing description, which he had heard delivered at Colchester Fair, by the Congregational minister, Mr. Davids. His imagination had evidently been greatly impressed by these services, at which, by-the-by, his father was selected to give out the hymns on account of the loudness of his voice--a quality which would appear to have run in the family, but which had not at that time shown itself in my young friend. I have also heard him recite long passages from Bunyan's Grace Abounding. He was a delightful companion, cheerful and sympathetic; a good listener as well as a good talker. And he was not cast in a common conventional mould, but had a strong character of his own.
"As to the early history of his theological views, I can add something to what has been already published. In Mr. Swindell's household there was a faithful old servant--a big, sturdy woman, who was well known to me and all the inmates as 'cook'. She was a woman of strong religious feelings, and a devout Calvinist. Spurgeon, when under deep religious conviction, had conversed with her; and been deeply impressed with her views of Divine truth. He explained this to me, and told me, in his own terse fashion, that it was 'cook' who had taught him his theology. I hope I am not violating his confidence in mentioning this fact. It is no discredit to the memory of a great man that he was willing to learn from the humblest sources."]