History Is His Story
The Faithfulness Of Charles Simeon
This is the first in a series of four articles on great preachers who lived from the beginning of the American Revolution to the end of the Great Awakening, about 1835. We will explore the lives of Charles Simeon, Asahel Nettleton, Edward Payson, and Charles Finney. The 21st-century pastor has a rich heritage in these men of God. Their selflessness and diligent service to God and to their congregations inspire us today.
Our first study is on the life of Charles Simeon. His passion for Christ, his devotional life, and the long hours he spent alone with God in his study made him a powerful preacher and dedicated servant of God.
In 1782, the Anglican Church ordained Charles Simeon when he was 23. Like Whitefield before him, and later Spurgeon, his pulpit powers were immediately conspicuous.
A few months after Simeon’s ordination, a pastor friend named Atkinson asked him to take his pulpit while he was on an extended vacation. In England the last quarter of the 18th century was a time of spiritual darkness. Most of the great cathedrals and village chapels were empty. This was the case in Atkinson’s church. Simeon’s first attempt to minister changed this. Henry Venn noted, “In less than seventeen Sundays, by preaching for Mr. Atkinson in a church at Cambridge, he [Simeon] filled it with hearers — a thing unknown there for near a century. … Such was the crowd which came to hear the ‘substitute’ that it overflowed from pews and aisle even into the sanctum of the clerk’s desk. The Vicar [Atkinson], returning from his holiday, found his clerk perturbed, but happy in the prospect of relief; ‘Oh, Sir, I am so glad you are come; now we shall have some room’.”1
Who was this young man who could fill empty churches to overflowing at 23? Why is he important to pastors in the 21st century?
John Wesley had just turned 56, and Jonathan Edwards had just died when, in 1759, Simeon was born into an upper-class English family. Simeon’s life spanned the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the birth of the industrial Revolution. He was of the same generation as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Simeon grew up in an unbelieving home. When he was 18, his father sent him to Cambridge. He was converted during his first 4 months there.
Shortly after his arrival, the provost informed Simeon that he must attend Communion in a few weeks. Immediately, the Holy Spirit brought young Simeon under tremendous conviction for sin. He felt great unworthiness and guilt. Despite the absence of a Christian upbringing he feared taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.
Searching for peace with God he began to read the Bible and other spiritual books. This agony of conscience continued for several weeks; he could find no relief. Finally, while reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, he understood the reality of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. He understood that his sins were placed on One who had died in his place. “From that hour,” he wrote, “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 Savior.”2
Like Luther and Spurgeon, the agonizing experience of his conversion impressed on him the power of the Cross, and he never got over it. Because of this the Atonement was the constant theme of his teaching. One of his biographers describes it this way: “For him Christ was the centre of all subjects for sinful man; and all his hearers were for him sinful men, for whom the Gospel was the one remedy. Christ was the Gospel; and personal faith in Him, a living Person, was the Gospel secret.”3
His personal struggle impressed on him the importance of the knowledge of sin in the process of conversion. That is why his preaching aimed for three effects: “To humble the sinner, to exalt the Saviour, and to promote holiness.”4 Few contemporary pastors would make convicting sinners their first aim in preaching. Comforting sinners is our general purpose. Could we use Simeon’s sense of sin today?
A few months after the preaching success recounted above, he was appointed vicar of Trinity Church, Cambridge. He was probably selected because of his father’s influence, his evident piety, and his obvious preaching gifts. Simeon’s appointment at 23 was unusual. Jobs like these were usually reserved for older, more experienced men. That is how the parishioners of this old and influential church felt. They had an older man in mind. They were so disappointed in Simeon’s appointment that they boycotted his services.
In those days, church members purchased their pews. Simeon’s enemies used this power against him. They boycotted Simeon’s ministry and made sure others did also by gating and locking their pews.
But they underestimated Simeon’s persistence. He was a man of great patience, fortitude, and stubbornness. Despite the resistance of these men and many others, he endured this persecution for 12 years. During this time his listeners sat in the aisles and empty spaces. The influence of his powerful preaching eventually thawed his enemies. Slowly they returned to their pews. During these difficulties Simeon maintained an attitude of humility and forbearance, eventually winning his enemies with kindness.
At one low point Simeon sought God for a word of encouragement. He opened his Bible at random to Mark 15:21: “They compelled a passerby … to carry His cross; it was Simon of Cyrene” (nrsv). Simeon means Simon. The message was clear. He was to bear His cross. He did so with thanksgiving.
Seasons Of Success
Slowly, opportunities to preach at larger churches began to come. The Rev. W. Carus Wilson describes Simeon’s first preaching opportunity at great St. Mary’s in Cambridge. “At first there seemed a disposition to disturb and annoy the preacher in a manner at that period unhappily not unusual. But scarcely had he proceeded more than a few sentences, when the lucid arrangement of his exordium, and his serious and commanding manner, impressed the whole assembly with feelings of deep solemnity, and he was heard to the end with the most respectful and riveted attention. The vast congregation departed in a mood very different from that in which it had assembled.”5 This was the usual effect of Simeon’s ministry.
Simeon remained at Trinity Church until the age of 77, completing 54 years. He did so without bitterness or revenge and was determined to consistently witness for Christ despite the resistance. He was faithful where Christ planted him.
Eventually he became popular and famous. He began to receive offers to speak in England and Scotland. During these years his ministry converted many people. For example, when it was rumored that he would speak on a particular campus, huge crowds turned out. Brown, in his Recollections, notes, “In November 1811, ‘the sight of the overflowing church was almost electric;’ In 1814, ‘there was scarcely room to move, above or below’; in 1815, the ‘audiences were immense; attention was candid and profound.’ In 1823, ‘many were unable to get inside the doors’.”6
In his apartment he also conducted weekly meetings for undergraduates. These visits influenced many young men to enter the ministry. The positive effect on the 19th-century Anglican Church was great.
When he died at age 77, Simeon had won over his opponents with love. He had earned the respect and love of the town, faculty, and student body. He was esteemed by England as one of its most prominent Christian leaders. His biographer notes, “Probably Cambridge never saw quite such a funeral as Simeon’s; for not only was the attendance vast and the respect profound, but countless hearts felt that they had lost a father, and all remembered the contrasts of the former days.”7
“It would be difficult to exaggerate his personal influence on the development of Anglican homiletics,”8 notes Arthur Pollard. Most of this homiletical development came through his influence on the young men that passed through Cambridge, attended his weekly meetings, and went on to pulpits throughout England and the world.
Having overcome his detractors through humble patience, he lived long enough and became prestigious enough to present his life’s work — his sermon outlines in 21 volumes, the Horae Homiletica — to King William iv in 1833.
If space permitted, we could examine his other persecutions and how he overcame them with kindness, his seminal role in England’s budding overseas missionary movement, his great pulpit powers, his devotion to the Bible, his persistent commitment to celibacy for the sake of the gospel, and his influence on 20th-century men like John Stott.
Let us pause to extract some lessons from the life of Charles Simeon.
Lessons For Today’s Pastor
First, he recognized that a man only preaches a sermon well that he has first preached to his own soul. A pastor has nothing to preach until God speaks to him, and this requires long hours alone with God. Simeon wrote, “But the whole state of your soul before God must be the first point to be considered; for if you yourself are not in a truly spiritual frame of mind, and actually living upon the truths of which you preach or read to others, you will officiate to very little purpose.”9
In Simeon’s case, his preaching power proceeded from his piety. In an era without electric lights or central heating, Simeon rose at 4 every morning and prayed and studied the first 4 hours of each day, often by candlelight. It would be hard for him to understand the modern temptation to put administrative responsibilities before substantial time alone with God.
Second, he spent his life striving to increase in humility. As he lay dying, he said, “This I know, that I am the chief of sinners, and the greatest monument of God’s mercy; and I know I cannot be wrong here.”10
When he was asked about the most important prerequisites for pastoral effectiveness, he responded without hesitation, “Only three things are needed — humility, humility, and humility.”11
He labored day and night to know his sin better, not to condemn himself, but to grow closer to Christ. “Simeon came to know himself and his sin very deeply,” notes John Piper. “He described his maturing in the ministry as a growing downward.”12
Obsessed as we are with self-esteem, some modern minds will wrestle with Simeon’s spirituality. But his emphasis on sin and humility is precisely what the church needs today. Pulpit power is a direct result of the kind of profound inward self-abasement that marked Simeon. He wrote things like, “I have never thought that the circumstance of God’s having forgiven me was any reason why I should forgive myself; on the contrary, I have always judged it better to loathe myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified towards me. … There are but two objects that I have desired these 40 years to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ: and I have always thought that they should be viewed together.”13
Third, we can learn much from his faith-inspired perseverance. His 54 years in one church was fueled by love for God and man. It is not wrong for a man to move to another church, if it is for the right reasons. Simeon felt called to Trinity Church. He refused to move on, even when the pews were locked and opposition was formidable, and later when attractive offers began to come.
Simeon would not agree with the modern mentality that views ministry as a profession to be advanced through by successive moves to larger churches. Rather, he saw the ministry as a call to serve a congregation by laying down his life and ego.
His deep and ardent love for Christ, his disciplined, consistent devotional life, and his long hours alone face-to-face with God in his study were the sources of his pulpit power. From this foundation God empowered him to feed his flock the Bread of Life. Our people need that same food today. May the life of Charles Simeon inspire us to prepare them a spiritual banquet.
- Handley Moule, Charles Simeon (London: Intervarsity Fellowship, 1892, reprint 1965), 35.
- John Piper, The Roots of Endurance(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways, 2002), 82.
- Ibid., 89.
- Moule, 64.
- Ibid., 75,76.
- Ibid., 178.
- Pollard and Hennell, eds., Charles Simeon 1759–1836, (London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1964), 167.
- Moule, 70.
- Ibid., 173.
- Ibid., 65.
- Piper, 91.
- Ibid., 108. Piper is quoting from: Ed. W. Carus, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, m.a. (Cambridge: Hatchard and Son, 1847),303–304. Emphasis mine.