I n the years that Queen Victoria reigned, Charles Spurgeon was a giant for God. However, even a godly giant could not accomplish by himself all of the great works Spurgeon did for the glory of God. In the shadow of Mr. Spurgeon, countless men and women served the Lord at the great Metropolitan Tabernacle. This is the story of just one of his “shadow servants.” Her name was Lavinia Bartlett.
Mrs. Bartlett began her life as Lavinia Hartnell in 1806, in the Hampshire area of England. Here, she began what would be a life-long teaching ministry. Her first students were her siblings. She carefully passed on to them the Bible knowledge she gained from attending a small nonconformist chapel.
Later she became a Sunday school teacher at the chapel, and her earnestness and faithfulness earned her the title of the “preaching, praying teacher” who taught the “preaching, praying class.” Unknown to Lavinia, God was preparing her for a future teaching ministry that this simple country girl could not have imagined.
In the early 19th century, opportunities for poor young girls to be educated were almost unheard of. Needing to help increase her family’s income, Lavinia became the teacher of yet another group of students when she organized a boarding school for young ladies. For sixteen years she taught and trained countless girls who otherwise would not have been educated. She also taught them the skill of fancy needlework, and with God’s help, her students were able to sell their crafts to well-known retailers in London.
At the age of 30, she became Mrs. Bartlett and moved to London with her new husband. Health-wise, Mrs. Bartlett did not do well in such a crowded, damp and smoky city. She developed a serious heart ailment, which led to her confinement for several years. She later suffered more grief when her husband of seventeen years died suddenly of cholera.
Lavinia had earlier been blessed by the birth of two sons, Edward and George. As a widow, she especially considered their spiritual training to be her most important teaching opportunity, and she went about it with much prayer and great faithfulness.
Meanwhile, in another area of London, a very young preacher—not much older than Lavinia’s sons—was causing not a little interest. Charles Spurgeon was called to pastor the New Park Street Chapel in 1854 at the age of 20. News of this boy preacher from the country reached Lavinia’s sons, and they soon joined the crushing crowds that gladly heard him preach. Both Bartlett boys were saved and baptized through the ministry of Pastor Spurgeon.
As for Lavinia, she wanted nothing to do with the “boy wonder.” She insisted that Spurgeon was leading a “sensational or kind of ranting service got up for excitement.” Certainly he was a passing fad, she thought, and for some time she resisted invitations from her sons to join them at the Chapel. When she could resist their invitations no longer, she hesitatingly agreed to hear Spurgeon. Once she had heard him, she would not go anywhere else, and at the age of fifty she happily joined her sons as a member of what would soon become the Metropolitan Tabernacle. It was not long before Mrs. Bartlett gladly became one of an army of “shadow servants” at the Tabernacle. Deacon Thomas Olney (another “shadow servant”), encouraged her to replace a teacher in a Sunday school class. She thought herself too lacking in education to teach city folks, and in addition her health often hindered her from attending church activities. Thankfully, Deacon Olney continued to insist that she teach the class, which would eventually come to be known throughout Britain as “Mrs. Bartlett’s Class.”
She taught the class for sixteen years, and God greatly used this humble “shadow servant.” As the years passed, the class came to number nearly 800 women from all walks of life. Humanly speaking, one wonders how a frail little woman had the strength and ability to teach so many while unaided by a sound system! One can almost hear her pleading voice as she regularly used her familiar challenge to the women: “Keep near the Cross, my sisters!”
Lavinia’s great burden was to see needy women come to Jesus, be baptized, and join her beloved Metropolitan Tabernacle. She continually visited and encouraged women to live for God. Tabernacle deacons, and Spurgeon himself, frequently requested that she visit women who needed comfort, encouragement, and guidance.
Often her pastor would speak of her valuable ministry. He publicly stated that over one thousand women had become members of his church through the ministry of his “shadow servant,” Mrs. Bartlett. “He regarded Mrs. Bartlett as his right-hand supporter in Christian labor, and never thought of her without the deepest gratitude to God for raising up for him such a zealous co-worker.”
When she died in 1875, her beloved pastor led the church family in grieving the loss of their dear sister in Christ. He preached her funeral before thousands at the Tabernacle, and then led throngs of mourners as her body was laid to rest on Dissenters Row, Nunhead Cemetery, South London.
A special monument was erected by her grieving students. The inscription on the monument was written by her pastor. On the marble stone he made sure to include Lavinia’s well-known admonition, “Keep near the Cross, my sisters!”
While visiting London recently, my husband and I went in search of Lavinia Bartlett’s grave. The cemetery office copied her burial record for us, and with map in hand we headed for an old and overgrown portion of the cemetery. We dug through many years of brush and bramble as we searched for the monument of this great “shadow servant.” And, thanks to my husband’s digilence, we found the monument so lovingly placed on her grave by the people of London’s greatest church. A fallen tree has now broken the large marble monument into three pieces, but the words engraved on the stone are otherwise untouched by over 125 years of London weather. We read every one of Spurgeon’s comforting words, and then we thanked God for the memory of this faithful servant.
For over eleven years my pastor has entrusted to me the teaching of the Ladies Bible Study at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. I have often told our ladies about my “friend” Lavinia, and her fervent love, zeal, and burden for the souls of women. I have frequently challenged our 21st–century ladies’ class with the statement of this little English woman from the 19th century. Her charge to them echoes the need of hearts in every century. If we would be “shadow servants” in our churches, we must “keep near the cross, my sisters!”
At the time of original publication, Betty Henderson was a freelance writer in Indianapolis, IN and a member of Colonial Hills Baptist Church.
(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
Inscription on her tomb:
In affectionate memory of
Who departed to her
August 2, 1875
In her 69th year.
The pastors, deacons, and
Elders of the church in the
Unite with her class and the
Students of the Pastor’s College
In erecting this memorial
To her surpassing worth.
She was indeed
“A mother in Israel.”
Often did she say: “Keep near the
Cross, my sisters.”
“She being dead yet speaketh.”
Other reading on Mrs. Bartlett:
Faith Cook, Seeing the Invisible, Darlington, Co. Durham, England, Evangelical Press. 1998.
Charles H. Spurgeon Autobiography: Volume 2, Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA. 1976.
Charles H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, Volume 4, Pilgrim Publications, Pasadena, TX. 1978.