Today in the calendar of many Anglican churches we remember a fastidious, highly eccentric aristocrat who, after his death, was described as having had ‘a far greater influence in the Church of England than any primate’ (Letter of Lord Macauley to his sister, quoted in Balleine, The Evangelical Party in the Church of England p.103). I am referring to Charles Simeon of Cambridge.
Simeon was born in 1759. He went up to Cambridge from Eton, a wild young man known for his love of horses and extravagance in dress, but his life was changed forever when he discovered that the rules of the university compelled him to receive Communion several times a year. He knew enough to be aware that to partake of the Lord’s Supper was a serious thing, and he began to read and study to prepare himself. For many months he found no peace, and almost despaired of ever becoming sufficiently worthy. However, in March 1779 he found what he was looking for. This is his own description of his discovery:
‘In Passion Week, as I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect – “That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” The thought came into my mind, What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul a moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on the Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and the Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter-day, April 4, I awoke early with these words upon my heart and lips, “Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul, and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour’ (Quoted in H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon; London; InterVarsity; 1948. pp.25-26.)
Simeon’s conversion led him to embrace a life of simplicity and to attempt to spread the Gospel message to his family members and even his college servant. He trained himself to get up early, which did not come easily to him, and to spend the first few hours of each day in Bible study and prayer. Henry Venn, an elderly evangelical clergyman who had recently moved from Yorkshire to Yelling outside Cambridge, became a spiritual father for him. After receiving his degree he became a fellow of his College, where he lived for the rest of his life. In May of 1782 he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and that November he became the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, where he served for the next fifty-four years.
To say that life was not easy for Simeon as an evangelical vicar would be an enormous understatement. The seat holders deserted Trinity Church and locked the pews behind them, so that those who wanted to come had to stand in the aisles. When Simeon bought makeshift seats to place in the aisles, the churchwardens threw them out, and for ten years Simeon’s congregation had to stand throughout the service. Bands of students would try to disrupt his services, and for many years disturbances of this sort were a regular occurrence.
Nonetheless, Simeon was tenacious, and in time he won not only tolerance, but recognition as one of the most inspiring teachers in Cambridge. Trinity Church was crowded with students. Simeon held conversation parties and Bible classes in his rooms at King’s College, and he also held a sermon class in which many of the preachers of the next generation were trained. Most of the future clergy of the Church of England studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and many who came to Cambridge became disciples of Simeon. Through them his influence extended throughout England and beyond. Simeon was a great believer in missions, and many of his curates went overseas as foreign missionaries.
He was first and foremost a preacher. He loved the Bible, and probably did more than anyone else to revive the neglected art of Biblical exposition. In 1833, not long before his death, he was able to place in the hands of King William IV the completed twenty-one volumes of his sermon outlines (Horae Homileticae); if they are somewhat dated today, the introduction still contains some of the best insights ever written on the art of expository preaching.
Simeon’s perseverance was extraordinary. In his seventy-first year he was asked by his friend Joseph Gurney how he had managed to survive all the ridicule and opposition of the early years of his ministry. Here is his reply:
‘My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the prickling in my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory’ (Quoted in Moule, pp.155-56.)
Today I thank God for the long and faithful ministry of Charles Simeon. ‘Although (he) is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith’ (Heb. 11:4 NLT).