Charles Simeon by Max Warren
“In its progress, it engages us upon the welfare of our fellow-creatures”. The religion of Charles Simeon, though it remained throughout his life a deeply personal experience of God's mercy to himself, yet made this progress. For him the wonder of the mercy of God was something which he had to communicate to others.
With a fine sense of the practical he started where he was. He began with his bed-maker. “I told my servant”, he records, “that as she and the other servants were prevented almost entirely from going to Church, I would do my best to instruct them on a Sunday evening”. That was the humble beginning of an evangelistic ministry which was to reach to the ends of the earth.
It was the same single-mindedness of a man wholly committed to that divine precept “freely ye have received, freely give”, which often led him, as he passed Trinity Church, to say within himself, “How should I rejoice if God were to give me that Church, that I might preach His Gospel there, and be a herald for him in the midst of the University”.
God gave him the Church. The memorial tablet in its chancel does not exaggerate the character of the ministry there for fifty-four years of the man “who, whether as the ground of his own hopes, or as the subject of all his ministrations, determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”. In that cure of souls he gave himself to a ministry of conversion and to building up those converted in the full life of Christ and His Church. So jealous was he of his pastoral responsibilities that he refused to allow the administration of relief, then a very large and important part of an incumbent's responsibilities, to distract his attention from what he believed to be his proper and peculiar duty. Commenting on a Pastor's work he once wrote to a Bishop:
“The giving himself to the word of God and prayer, seems to me to be his peculiar duty; and the paternal part-of administering relief, etc. should, I think, lie delegated to others under his superintendence, as Moses delegated many of his duties to the seventy employed by him. This is what I have done myself for nearly fifty years: I have thirty (male and female) in their different districts . . . . By these, I hope great good has been done; whilst by their supplying my lack of service, I have been left at liberty to follow that line of duty which was more appropriate to my own powers, and which I could not have prosecuted, if I had not thus contrived to save my time”.
There is another glimpse of his ministry in a letter in which he replies to a friend who had invited him to take part in controversy. He writes:
“I have neither taste nor talent for controversy . . . . I have never had time or inclination to run after error in all its windings . . . . I have been glad that others had the ability to occupy that line of investigation, and I have been happy to avail myself of their labours. But having the office of a nursing-mother committed to me, I have sought nothing but nutritious food for myself, and have found no pleasure but in administering the unadulterated milk of the Word to my babes.”
Himself one of the foremost preachers of his age, everything in his sermons was subordinated to the one object of bringing his hearers to a knowledge of God. Amongst his many letters is one addressed to a clergyman who had been advised to “preach very strongly”. Its devotion to what is primary, its balance and its shrewdness merit full quotation.
My dear Sir,
What is your object ? Is it to win souls? If it be, how are you to set about it? By exciting all manner of prejudices, and driving people from the Church? How did our Lord act? He speaks the word in parables “as men were able to - hear it". How did St. Paul act? He fed the babes with milk and not with strong meat. As for the religious world, they are as selfish, for the most part, as the ignorant and ungodly. They are not content that you should seek the welfare of others, unless you, to please them, bring forward also things which will utterly subvert your end: and if they be but gratified, they care not who is stumbled and driven away.
You must not be in bondage to the religious world any more than to the ungodly. True, you are not to keep back the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel: but there are different ways of stating them; and you should adopt that which expresses kindness and love, and not that which indicates an unfeeling harshness. Only speak from love to man, and not from fear of man, and God will both accept and prosper you.
Most affectionately yours,
Simeon's primary concern with evangelism and no secondary reason was the real ground for the purchase of spheres of influence and the setting up of his Trust, which to some is such a stumbling block in their otherwise unstinting regard for his life and work. Canon Smyth in Simeon and Church Order has argued with great cogency that “the real and urgent problem” facing Evangelicals in Simeon's day was neither the recruitment of men for the ministry nor the securing of their ordination but “that of securing continuity of teaching in any given parish. No congregation could ever thrive if subjected to violent alternations of religious guidance or misguidance”. Certainly the experience of Venn at Huddersfield and Cadogan at Reading pointed a moral. It is no less certain that Simeon's Trust did in fact in a number of places secure this continuity. But Simeon's statesmanship was primarily apostolic and only secondarily, and in a derived sense, ecclesiastical. He was never primarily concerned with Evangelicalism. His whole devotion was given to the Evangel.
This comes out very clearly in two letters to John Venn (son of John Venn of Clapham, Vicar of St. Peter’s Hertford 1833-1890) on presenting him to a living at Hereford.
“You are a physician”, he writes, “going to thousands dying of the cholera, and have a sovereign remedy for them. Think of nothing else but the remedy. Get into the spirit of the Apostle Paul. Think what he would say and do in your circumstances. Souls are perishing for lack of knowledge. I wish you had known your honoured grandfather. The only end for which he lived was to make all men see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
“My dear friend, let that be your one labour with all, and everyday and every hour. I shall die a happier man, if I see you rising superior to all minor points, and wholly engrossed with this.”
Ten days later he wrote again in reference to his responsibility for presenting the living:
“I have made myself responsible to Almighty God for 4,000 souls: and I long that the love of Christ should ‘constrain you’ (carry you away as a mighty torrent) to make known to them the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, in all its unsearchable riches, and excellency and glory . . . . There is the whole field of the Gospel before you: be to them the Angel spoken of in Rev. 14. 6,7: and teach them all to commence the song which they are singing, Rev. 5. 6,10 : and then I shall hope one day to join with you in singing it, accompanied with a goodly number from Hereford.”
To a friend who was seeking to influence him in making an appointment he wrote with vigour:
“My dear Brother,
“At Mr. M - I do not wonder; love with him swallows up all considerations, I had almost said, of wisdom and prudence. At you I rather do wonder. I thought that you would have known that I discard love and pity, and everything else, in comparison of love to God and to immortal souls. Why have I bought those Livings? Not to present a good man to each, but to fill them with men who shall prove great and leading characters in the Church of God . . . . Let all, instead of petitioning me, petition Almighty God for me; and they will render more service to the souls of - and to the church of God at - . Let personal regards be banished. Let us know no man after the flesh. Let the good of immortal souls swallow up ever other consideration. This at all events, God helping me, shall alone influence your very affectionate brother,
His primary concern for evangelism tempered even his strong opposition to the Bill for Catholic Emancipation which in common with many others of his time he viewed as a serious threat to the “Protestant Ascendancy” in this country. But whereas others who opposed the bill were often blinded by prejudice, Simeon saw further. Preaching before the University on March 25th, 1829, he took occasion to refer to the Bill. He was uncompromising in his opposition. But the temper of his opposition was dominated by his evangelistic concern. He saw that the emancipation of the Catholics was a threat only to an Establishment which had lost sight of its own Gospel, and was content to enjoy the privileges of its position without regard to its responsibilities. Then with a rare vision he goes on to view the possibilities for evangelism that would follow supposing the Bill to become law.
“But let the barrier between us be removed, as is now proposed, and there will be an opportunity to convince them of their errors, and to convert multitudes of them to the Protestant faith. This will bring good out of evil: and I cannot but earnestly exhort you all to rise to the occasion. Get secular learning to the utmost of your power. But be not content with that. No: get that: but with all your getting, get spiritual understanding: get the knowledge of Christ and Him crucified; in comparison of which all other things are but as dung and dross. Get this for yourselves, as the only sure preservation from error; get it for others, that you may, be able to prevent the inroads of Popish superstition. Get it for the benefit of those who are hoping to make a prey of you; that those who are now elated with the hope of converting you, may themselves be converted to the true faith of Christ, and attain through you the knowledge that will make them wise unto salvation.”
That whole sermon is as relevant to-day as when it was first preached, as showing the proper temper in which the Christian should view all threats from whatever direction they may arise.
Charles Simeon could buy up opportunities. The same man who saw the spiritual need of college servants, the potentialities of Trinity Church, the true value of Livings, the promise within the threat of Catholic Emancipation could in the most solemn moment on a scaffold speak to the hearts of men. In an unpublished letter to John Venn, dated 1784, he tells of a recent experience in words that give us something of a glimpse into the soul of an evangelist.
“On Saturday last was a man hang'd at Cambridge for stealing a watch. He had been visited by Brown of Magdalen: such an end! Never did Truth triumph more at a stake than then: The Lord had taught him in about a fortnight as clear views of the Gospel as you or I have, and had given him so strong a faith that death had entirely lost its sting; not a fear disturbed his breast. He addressed the people for near half an hour humbling himself, exalting Christ, exhorting them to faith and repentance; and declaring the full assurance which he had of being received into glory. After which I harangued them on the same scaffold for a few minutes on the nature of that religion which could give such serenity and joy in death. He then commended his soul into the hands of Jesus and launched into eternity without a doubt, without a sigh.”
Wilberforce's diary of July 22nd, 1796, reads: “Simeon with us-his heart glowing with love of Christ. How full he is of love, and of desire to promote the spiritual benefit of others”. That love and that desire found a particular scope in his work as a teacher, characteristic expression being given to this in the preface to his Horae Homileticae
“It has not, as the Author believes, occurred to any Divine, to supply a regular series of discourses on the most important parts of the whole Volume of Scripture; and to adapt these Discourses, by their general construction, their simplicity, and their brevity, to the special service of the younger order of the Clergy. It is the particular object of these Volumes, which the Author now humbly presents to the public, to supply this deficiency in Theological writings. And he trusts this labour of love will be regarded by his brethren in the Ministry, not as an act of presumption, but as a humble and affectionate attempt to render their entrance on their holy and honourable calling more easy, and their use of it more useful.”
These twenty-one volume of Sermon Skeletons are a reminder that when in 1789 Simeon started his Sunday evening lectures on “Natural and Revealed Religion”, in his rooms in King's College, and when in 1792 this gathering developed into his famous Sermon Class, he was filling a vacuum in the contemporary training of men for the ministry. In spite of the fact that in the Cambridge of his day a high proportion of the men, if not a majority, were intending to be ordained, there was but little attempt to equip them for their task with any theological learning at all, and no attempt whatever at instruction in the pastoral and prophetic work of the ministry.
This lack Simeon set himself to meet by lecture and sermon class, and in due course by his “conversation parties”. These latter were in fact, in a unique form, a seminary for the deepening of the spiritual life as well as a liberal education in how to relate personal experience to a Biblical Theology. In thus seeking out the young men who were looking forward to ordination, Simeon anticipated the later development of Theological Colleges. In so doing he secured the multiplication of his own evangelistic and pastoral ministry, the while he made a notable contribution to the art of preaching. In his book on that subject The Art of Preaching, Canon Charles Smyth has written of Simeon that:
“It would be difficult to exaggerate his personal influence on the development of Anglican homiletics through the individual Evangelical clergymen who, as undergraduates at Cambridge, had come under his tuition. Simeon was almost the first man in the history of the English pulpit since the Middle Ages to appreciate that it is perfectly possible to teach men how to preach, and to discover how to do so.”
But no assessment of Simeon as a trainer of future clergy should be allowed to underestimate the importance of the fact that he was never concerned merely to teach men how to preach. His primary objective was to teach men how to expound the Scriptures so that in and through that exposition the Holy Spirit would be enabled to “humble the sinner and exalt the Saviour”. That is the real legacy of his teaching ministry.
As an expounder of Scripture he followed two principles. “I do not”, he says, “sit down to the perusal of Scripture in order to impose a sense on the inspired writers; but to receive one as they give it me. I pretend not to teach them, I wish like a child to be taught by them”. This is all of a piece with his lifelong pursuit of humility. His second principle is to be found in a favourite paradox of his “that the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.” Always he insisted that Scripture must not only he interpreted by Scripture but also balanced by Scripture. It was from his consistent application of this paradox that his genuinely irenic influence issued in his own day, and abides with us still. The Preface to his Horae Homileticae contains a reference to contemporary controversialists (Calvinists and Arminians) which is intriguingly ecumenical. The reference concludes with an apologia for his own exposition of truth which is as enviable as it is justified.
“He well knows the force of prejudice, and the bitterness of the Odium Theologicum; and he cannot hope to be so fortunate as completely to escape either. But, even if assailed on all sides, he shall have the satisfaction of reflecting that it has been his wish simply to follow the Oracles of God. The Scriptures of the Church of England have been claimed by each of these two parties, as exclusively favouring their peculiar systems; and if the same comprehensive and liberal character be found in his writings, he shall consider it, whatever may be the judgment of mere partisans, as no small presumption in his favour”.