An artist once tried to paint a portrait of Charles Spurgeon. After much frustration he said, “I can’t paint you. Your face is different every day. You are never the same.”
To be sure, the most popular preacher in the Victoria era was also one of the most burdened.
Spurgeon owned more than thirty books on mental health. He read about depression, wrote about depression, and suffered from depression. Spurgeon’s letters contain numerous references to his sinking spirits. He often called himself a “prisoner” and wept without knowing why.
“I pity a dog who has to suffer what I have.”
Some biographers have claimed Spurgeon suffered from bipolar disorder, oscillating between highs and lows, ups and downs, productivity and inability. Others believed his “fainting fits” were also caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Dr. Anil Den, a psychiatrist in London today, claimed that Spurgeon’s depression was endogenous, and if he were alive today, he’d be treated with medicine.
The best new PhD research on Spurgeon’s depression comes from Dr. Brian Albert, who noted that Spurgeon’s doctors, Joseph Kidd, R. M. Miller, and Russell Reynolds, believed one reason for the pastor’s depression was “extra pressure of care or labour.”
Spurgeon’s wife believed the weather affected his mental stability. “Dull and dreary days depressed him,” she wrote.
Was Spurgeon’s depression only a spiritual problem? Spurgeon didn’t think so. He did acknowledge “soul sickness,” but also understood that the brain is just as broken as the body. If the body needs medicine, why not the mind? “It is not repentance,” he speculated, “but indigestion or some other evil agency depressing the spirits.”
“The troubled man experiences a good deal, not because he is a Christian, but because he is a man, a sickly man, a man inclined to melancholy.”
Victorians didn’t have a modern understanding of mental health. They viewed depression as a disorder rather than a disease and believed each person could be cured. The most common treatment for serious cases was admittance to public asylums (Spurgeon’s first church in London was located beside a “lunatic asylum”).
“Do not think it unspiritual to remember that you have a body. . . . The physician is often as needful as the minister.”
Diagnosing the dead is neither easy nor altogether accurate. But in the case of Charles Spurgeon, it’s worth a try.
Why was Spurgeon depressed? Here are a few reasons distilled from his own writings.