This article originally appeared in Protestant Saints by Ernest Gordon, published by Zondervan in 1940. The book has been edited and reprinted by Ralph I. Tilley under the title Evangelical Saints.
EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPE was saturated with a rationalistic deism. It was the era of the Enlightenment—of Bolingbroke, Semler, Voltaire, the Encyclopaedists. The churches of the Reformation were paralyzed by its infiltration. Then came, at the century’s close, great changes and renovations as when the sap rises in the tree trunks in springtime. Revival broke out in all lands, and the religious life of Europe was profoundly changed.
In England, the Wesleyan movement had transformed the life of the masses. The state church lagged behind, but revival followed here also, an outstanding figure of which was Charles Simeon (1759-1836) of the University of Cambridge. In the full flow of his influence he was, as Thomas Macaulay said, “more powerful in the English Church than any primate, and his sway extended to the remotest corner of England.”
His early years, however, were difficult enough. The spiritual life of The Church of England was at an incredibly low ebb. The clergy were commonly drunk. Churches about Cambridge, in the absence of incumbents, were served by university fellows who rode out Sunday and contrived by hook or crook to accomplish three or even four morning services in succession. To expedite the process, a signal was at times agreed upon between parson and clerk: the hoisting of a flag assured the rider that there was no congregation and that he might pass on. Beneath the surface of common orthodoxy moved a strong current of free thought.
Simeon was converted when a student in Cambridge, after a period of intense spiritual distress. He was reading, during Passion Week, Bishop Thomas Wilson on “The Lord’s Supper.” Coming to a passage relating to the transfer by the Jews of their sins to the head of the sacrificial offering, the thought suddenly struck him, “May I, too, transfer all my guilt to another? Then, God willing, I will not bear it on my soul one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus and on Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; and on Sunday morning, Easter day, April 4, I awoke with the words upon my heart and lips: ‘Jesus Christ is risen today. Hallelujah!’ From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance in my soul.”
On his copy of the Self-Interpreting Bible by John Brown of Haddington, at the text, Deuteronomy 16:3: “That thou mayest remember the day when thou earnest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life,” in the margin, in the hand of his old age, he wrote, underlining every word, “So must I, and God helping me, so will I, the Easter week, and specially the Easter Sunday in 1779, when my deliverance was complete.”
The leaders of the Evangelical revival in the English Church were subjected to all sorts of insult and ostracism. John Venn was refused admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, because he was the son of the saintly Henry Venn. Simeon had been appointed rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Cambridge. The parishioners, who were out of sympathy with his teaching, refused to go to hear him and locked the pew doors to keep out other worshipers. Seats had to be improvised in the aisles, which seats, on occasion, the parishioners threw out. This state of things continued for ten years!
The undergraduates at Cambridge delighted in nothing more than hooting Simeon. Those who supported and followed him—and presently a large group of converted students and townspeople attached themselves to him—were given the opprobrious name of “Sims.” Simeon later in life wrote: “I remember the time that I was quite surprised that a fellow of my own college ventured to walk with me a quarter of an hour on the grass-plot before Clare Hall.”
If ever a man had the “without-the-camp” experience of bearing reproach it was Charles Simeon in his early Cambridge days. But he was not left comfortless.
“When I was an object of much contempt and derision,” he says, “I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted, with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that He would comfort me with some cordial from His Word and that, on opening the Book, I should find some text which should sustain me. The first which caught my eye was this, ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear the cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here, a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the cross laid upon me that I might bear it after Jesus. What a privilege! It was enough! Now I could leap and sing for joy, as one whom Jesus was honoring with a participation in His sufferings. Henceforth I bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow.”
In his correspondence occurs this quaint observation, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our Holy Head has surmounted all His sufferings and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently. We shall soon be partakers of His victory.”
Simeon described the three great purposes of his preaching to be “to humble the sinner, to exalt the Saviour, and to promote holiness.” He was a great preacher of grace. Referring to Juvenal’s Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret (“You may drive out nature with the plow but she’ll come back”), he said cleverly and very truly, “If I could but put gratia in the place of furca I would knock his adage in the head.” For grace is indeed the infallible agency against moral weediness when the hoe of self-reform fails.
Mere moral essays he would have nothing of, and this explains the opposition of the time, for it is a curious fact that the immorality of the age demanded pulpit disquisitions on morality for its Sunday ration, or at least preferred them to the teaching of repentance and the new birth. When Simeon traveled to Scotland to preach free grace and dying love, the moderates pushed through the Assembly of the Scottish Church the regulation “that no minister who has not been ordained by some presbytery of the Church of Scotland shall ever officiate in any of its pulpits.” This was no mere incident in an ecclesiastical tariff war, no natural reply to the pretensions of Anglican succession. It was aimed directly at Charles Simeon and at him because he preached, in the spirit of Paul, the sacrificial death of Christ.
In spite of all opposition, however, Simeon’s ministry developed in extent and fruitfulness. “I must tell you,” wrote Bishop Burgess of Salisbury, “that wherever I go in my diocese it is generally those who think with you, who are the active men in their parishes.” One great result of his work was the establishment of the Simeon Trust, an institution that powerfully contributed to anchor the Anglican Church to the Evangelical faith. This was organized to buy up livings that were put in care of men of piety and Evangelical views. Simeon was one of the historic group that met in 1799 at Aldersgate to plan the foundation of the Church Missionary Society.
His spirit was not controversial. “I am like a man swimming the Atlantic. I have no fear of striking one hand against Europe and the other against America. The number of those who are zealous in the cause of religion is not so great but they may find ample scope for their exertions without wasting their time in mutual contentions.” His inner life was nourished assiduously. He invariably rose, even in winter, at four o’clock and devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and the devotional study of the Scripture.
For twenty-five years he toiled tirelessly and then his health broke. Then for thirteen years he was so weak as to be unable to walk across the room. “I was often unable to speak and was forced to point to what I wanted. My whole system used to collapse as an infant’s and I hardly had any life in me.” This condition disappeared suddenly and without any evident physical cause. Ten more years of service followed.
“I cannot have more peace,” said Charles Simeon on his deathbed.
When he was buried, the University of Cambridge, which had treated so scandalously, paid him all the honors at its disposal. Fifteen hundred students attended the service, and every college chapel tolled its bell, the vice chancellor of the university, expressing his regret that the great bell of St. Mary’s could not also be tolled, since its use was reserved for the royal family.