Charles Simeon of Cambridge
Charles Simeon is one of the great saints in the kingdom of Christ. He profoundly influenced the course of evangelicalism in this country, and yet he is not nearly so well known today as he should be. He preached in the same church for fifty-four years; he made preaching tours through England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands; he left twenty-one volumes of 2, 536 sermons that had a profound and durable influence; he effectively invented, or at least re-invented, the practice of expository preaching; he worked for missions, especially in India and among the Jews; at a time when there were no theological colleges or seminaries he taught (effectively a one man seminary himself) hundreds of young men how to preach and prepare for the ministry.
Charles Simeon was appointed minister of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, at the age of twenty-two and remained there until his death in 1836 at the age of seventy-seven. For most of those fifty-four years he was subject to savage and sustained opposition, ridicule and abuse. Yet by the time of his death, as a direct result of his long ministry in Cambridge, the position of evangelicalism in the Church of England and in the country as a whole had been transformed. Simeon was the acknowledged leader of an evangelicalism that barely existed when he was converted. Bishop Moule, in his fine biography of Simeon, wrote: 'He was the implement in Divine hands by which the highest blessings were brought directly to a multitude of hearts, and indirectly to innumerable numbers, even in the most distant regions.'
That was an evangelical's judgment, but listen to what informed non-evangelicals had to say. His 'authority and influence', Macaulay declared, 'extended from Cambridge to the most remote corners of England' and he even asserted that Simeon exercised more influence in the Church of England than any Archbishop. Elisabeth Jay in her book The Evangelical and Oxford Movements (1983) says that 'in the course of over fifty years' ministry in Cambridge, (he) attained greater influence over successive generations of ordinands than ever Newman was destined to do at Oxford.' He 'made Trinity church for a time perhaps the most important centre of religious influence in England.'
What was the secret of his phenomenal and abiding influence? Daniel Wilson, one of his students who went out to India and later became Bishop of Calcutta, in his Recollections of Charles Simeon, says: 'It was 'not by great talents, or extraordinary powers of judgment, or particular attainments in academical learning'. In fact, on the face of it, far from being the man who would naturally have been chosen for his position in Cambridge, he seemed to be peculiarly unfitted for it. He had nothing like the intellectual and language gifts of Henry Martyn. He was not a great theologian. Nor was he a scholar. His grasp of Hebrew and Greek was not profound. The secret of his extraordinary influence was 'the mere force of evangelical truth and holiness ... exhibited during fifty or sixty years'.
Charles Simeon was born on 24 September 1759 into a well-to-do family in Reading. He was the youngest of four sons, the eldest dying in childhood, the other two becoming distinguished in law and finance in the City. His father was a successful attorney, hostile to evangelicalism and to 'enthusiasm' in religion. Of his mother we know nothing. It is assumed that she died at or shortly after Charles's birth. Charles was educated at Eton where he gained a King's scholarship to King's College, Cambridge.
We know a little about him as a young man. We are told that he possessed considerable physical ability; that he was proud and irritable, and easily aroused to flashes of ferocious temper; that he was mad on horses, and had an extraordinary love of dress. This young undergraduate of nineteen arrived in his rooms in the Old Court of King's College on 29 January 1779. Three days later the porter brought him a note from the Provost, the head of the College. It told him that as a scholar of the College he would be expected to attend a service of Holy Communion in three weeks' time in the College Chapel. He was devastated.
'The thought', he said, 'rushed into my mind that Satan himself was as fit to attend there as I; and that if I must attend, I must prepare for my attendance there'. He had no Christian friends or acquaintances. The only religious book he had ever heard of was The Whole Duty of Man. He went out immediately and bought a copy. He began to read it with the greatest concentration, at the same time crying to God for mercy; so much so that within the three weeks he made himself quite ill with reading, fasting and prayer. Apparently he attended the service, but with a conscience desperately ill at ease. He was in spiritual despair not knowing a soul to whom he could turn for counsel and advice. Then during Holy Week, 1779, light began to dawn and he felt 'a somewhat faint hope'.
Listen to his own words:
It was, he said, an indistinct kind of hope, founded on God's mercy to real penitents. But 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 rushed 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 one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins on 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 Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning (Easter Day, April 4) I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips, "Jesus Christ is risen to-day! 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.
If his conversion was remarkable, so was the way he entered on the Christian life. 'From the time that I found peace with God myself, I wished to impart to others the benefits I had received.' He told his bedmaker that as she was prevented from going to church he would do his best to instruct her and her fellows servants in the College if they chose to come round to his rooms on a Sunday evening. Several did and he read to them and prayed. He was not aware that it did them much good, but it did him good for, he wrote, 'I thereby cultivated a spirit of benevolence, and fulfilled in some measure that divine precept, "Freely ye have received, freely give".' Then in the summer, in the long vacation, he went home, and began family prayer with the servants, his father and brothers refusing to have anything to do with this new-found enthusiasm. What is peculiarly interesting here is that Simeon evidently did not get the idea out of a book, nor was he copying anybody. And he still had not met or even heard of a single evangelical Christian.
Back in Cambridge he carried on entirely alone. For more than three years he read the Scriptures and prayed alone. He assumed that he was the only person in Cambridge to believe what he believed. When he was ordained on 26 May 1782, aged twenty-two, he still had not met another evangelical. In later years he was to say, 'God kept me from spiritual acquaintance to shew his work in me was "not of man or by man, but of God alone".' He attended different churches in vain. Finally he found St Edward's Church, where Latimer had preached 250 years before, and where the minister Christopher Atkinson 'came nearer to the truth than anyone else that I could hear'. That is an interesting comment from a young man, converted only three years earlier, and who had never met an evangelical. Yet already he had from the Scriptures worked out his own theological position, and how to prepare and preach a sermon.
In his own words he 'endeavoured to obtain from the Scriptures alone his view of religion; and to them it is his wish to adhere, with scrupulous fidelity; never wresting any portion of the Word of God to favour a particular opinion, but giving to every part of it that sense, which it seems to him to have been designed by its great Author to convey.'
'My endeavour', he wrote, 'is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.'
The only authority he quoted in his sermons was Scripture, not other preachers or theologians or commentaries. He never referred to current events. He lived through tumultuous times: the American War of Independence and the loss of the British Empire in America; the French Revolution; the titanic Napoleonic wars; the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo; the assassination of the British Prime Minister. Yet not once does he refer to any of these tremendous events.
Simeon was never a systematizer, and he hated labels. I suppose we can best describe him as an experimental Calvinist. It is in his sermons that his doctrinal position is to be found in detail. But you can get a clear summary of where he stood from the famous interview he held with John Wesley at Hinxworth on 20 December 1784. Wesley was eighty-one and drawing towards the end of his ministry. Simeon was twenty-five and at the beginning of his. This is how he later recorded their conversation:
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not from impertinent curiosity, but for real instruction. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved, that you would never have thought of turning unto God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Yes, I do indeed.
And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything that you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ.
But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
No; I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
Allowing then that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother's arms?
And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto his heavenly kingdom?
Yes; I have no hope but in him.
Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is, in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it: and therefore, if you please, instead of searching our terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.
On 2 June 1782, one week after his ordination he preached his first sermon in St Edward's. Almost immediately Atkinson went on vacation, leaving Simeon to preach in his stead. No one had told him how to preach, and he had read nothing on the subject. He had never listened to evangelical preaching. But his preaching had immediate impact. Henry Venn, who, worn out with his exertions at Huddersfield, had retired to the parish of Yelling, met the new preacher and in October wrote to a friend, Stillingfleet: 'Before (Trinity Sunday, the day of his ordination) he never was in company with an earnest Christian ... In less than seventeen Sundays ... he has filled (the church) with hearers, a thing unknown there for near a century ... and it is amazing what success he has met with!'
Atkinson returned in October, much to the relief of the clerk who gave him a very backhanded compliment. 'Oh, Sir', he said, 'I am so glad you are come; now we shall have some room!'
On 9 November 1782, aged just twenty-three, he was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, the church where Preston, Sibbes and Thomas Goodwin had ministered. The next day he preached his first sermon, and this time the reaction was very different from what he had experienced at St Edward's. Opposition came swiftly and violently – opposition to his being there, to what he preached and to the way he preached. The parishioners wanted the curate, Hammond, to be their vicar, and regarded Simeon as an interloper. The churchwardens locked the pews. Simeon brought in benches for the congregation to sit on, and the churchwardens threw them out into the churchyard.
The church had long had the right to appoint a lecturer to preach at the afternoon service. They appointed Hammond, and effectively blocked Simeon from the afternoon service. He decided to hold a third service in the evening, especially for the poor who could not get out earlier in the day. The churchwardens locked the church doors and prevented anyone from attending. Parishioners would not open their doors when he called.
But it was not only in his church and parish that he was detested. In the University, in Cambridge and generally he was called a madman, fanatic, hypocrite, antinomian, 'bad character'. Freshmen were warned by the clergymen and Church people not to attend Trinity because of the bad character of 'the fanatical minister'. It was even a University crime to speak to Simeon, and undergraduates who offended were reported to their parents.
Students went a roundabout way to his church, or in a group to avoid being attacked. Scholefield, who became his curate and later Professor of Greek in the University, looked left and right before entering Holy Trinity. Even Henry Martyn acknowledged that he was ashamed to confess that he was Simeon's curate.
In the street, no one would speak to him or even acknowledge him. Fellows of his own College would cross the road to avoid him. An eyewitness records seeing Simeon walking home to college through the streets of the city, his clothes streaked and stinking with the rotten eggs that had been thrown at him. 'When at last a poor man took off his hat to the despised preacher and saluted him with obvious marks of unfeigned respect, he rushed to his rooms to thank God that at least one person was found not to spurn and disown him.'
This went on for years. Indeed, as late as 1817 (thirty-five years after he was ordained) undergraduates were still being warned to beware of him. Yet by 1834 (only two years before his death) it could be said: 'So great a change has taken place in men's hearts that at this moment there is not a more popular man in the whole university than the venerable minister of Holy Trinity Church; and when he preaches before the university, there is not a master of a college, nor a master of arts, nor a professor, nor an undergraduate absent who can possibly be present'. How then did he endure such savage opposition for so long? And how in the end did he overcome it?
1. He accepted criticism and opposition as the inevitable portion of being a minister of Christ
He was from time to time encouraged to stand for his rights. The actions of the churchwardens in locking the church doors to prevent his evening, service was clearly illegal, and he could have instituted proceedings to have the locks taken off. But he wrote, 'the passage of scripture which subdued and controlled my mind was "The Servant of the Lord must not strive"', and literally hundreds of times stayed his hand when he was tempted to act.
As an old man, he gives a delightful picture of how he withstood such fierce and unremitting hostility. This is what he wrote: 'Many years ago when I was an object of much derision and contempt in the University, I strolled forth one day buffeted and afflicted with my little testament in my hand and prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from His Word ... The first text that caught my eye was this, "They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross." You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here – what 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 honouring with a participation in his sufferings.'
He liked to quote the verse: 'Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence ... from the strife of tongues' (Ps. 31:20). 'Insult an angel before the throne', he would say, 'and what would he care about it? Just such will be my feeling, whilst I am hid in the secret of my Redeemer's presence.'
2. He made it an essential part of every day to hold communion with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
Simeon believed that the Rev. Robert Housman was among the first of the members of the University to whom his ministry had been blessed. Although Housman was a member of St John's College, he was staying with Charles in his rooms in King's during the winter of 1784. This is what he told Carus, Simeon's biographer:
Never did I see such consistency, and reality of devotion – such warmth of piety – such zeal and love. Never did I see one who abounded so much in prayer. I owe that great and holy man a debt which never can be cancelled. Mr S invariably arose every morning, though it was the winter season, at four o'clock; and, after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer , and the devotional study of the scriptures. He would then ring his bell, and calling in his friend with his servant, engage with them in what he termed his family prayer.
This did not come easily. Bishop Handley Moule in his biography tells us how this early morning rising came about:
This early rising did not come easily to him; it was a habit resolutely fought for and acquired. Finding himself too fond of his bed, he had resolved to pay a fine for every offence, giving half-a-crown to his servant. One morning, as he lay warm and comfortable, he caught himself reasoning that the good woman was poor, and that the half-crown would be very useful to her. But that practical fallacy was not to be tolerated; if he rose late again, he would walk down to the (River) Cam and throw a guinea in the water. And so he did, though not without a great struggle, for guineas were not abundant in his purse, and also he had learnt to look on them as 'his Lord's money'. But for his Lord's sake the coin was cast in, and there it lies yet, no doubt, in the river's keeping. Simeon never transgressed that way again.
Prayer was not something for the early morning only. It was a habit with Simeon. He prayed throughout the day, when travelling on horseback to visit his parishioners or to preach at neighbouring churches. Sometimes he spent whole nights in prayer, and more than once promised friends to devote a whole week to intercession on their behalf.
I said that Simeon enjoyed daily fellowship with God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And sometimes you cannot tell whether a minister is speaking to the Father or to the Son. Simeon delighted in adoring each person of the blessed Trinity and in contemplating the particular work that each carries out in the economy of salvation.
In a sermon on The Different Operations of the Holy Spirit he declared: 'How astonishing are our obligations to each person in the sacred Trinity! The Father is the great source and fountain of all our blessings: Christ is the procurer of them, and the medium through which they come: and the Holy Spirit is the agent, by whom they are conveyed to us.' Well, that is an orthodox enough statement, but listen to his application. 'Let us', he said, 'hold fellowship with each in his distinct office and character, and acknowledge with gratitude their united exertions.'
3. His public life was wholly in conformity with his profession
Hardly anything is more likely to undermine the effect of a minister's preaching and ministry than words or actions that are not consistent with what he has proclaimed in the pulpit. Matthew Preston, who knew Simeon well, wrote in a little book about him after his death, 'Through the whole of the day, at home and abroad, he was about his Father's business. It was impossible to be in his presence without perceiving that he was a man intent upon a great work.' He was assiduous in visiting in the home, the hospital, the prison; in providing practical help for the poor. In his finances he was impeccable. The college more than once offered him a valuable living, which he refused. And throughout his fifty-four years at Holy Trinity he never took any salary.
No one ever combined more effectively the work of preacher and pastor. It was clear that he was really interested in his people. At St Edward's at the very beginning of his ministerial career, he called on his parishioners with the words: 'I am come to enquire after your welfare ... are you happy?'
Henry Venn in his letter of 9 October 1782 to Stillingfleet wrote: 'In less than seventeen Sundays ... he has filled (the church) with hearers, a thing unknown there for near a century ... His evident regard for (his parishioners') good disarmed them of their bitterness; and it is amazing what success he has met with!'
4. He had a high view of the ministry and with it a conviction that he was accountable to God and not to man
He wrote to his friend John Venn, Henry's son, on the occasion of his ordination: 'I most sincerely congratulate you ... not on the title of Reverend, but on your accession to the most valuable, most honourable, most important and most glorious office in the world – to that of an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ.'
Preaching to his own people he declared: 'Consider Almighty God Himself as speaking to you by your ministers. Ministers come not in their own name. They are sent by Christ. It is His message they bring. Their word is not their own, but His, and must be received "not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the Word of God".'
In his view the ministry was the most difficult office a man can undertake as well as the most important. I am sure you will agree that it is the most difficult; but do you agree it is the most important? You should. 'It is', said Simeon in his sermon The Ministerial Office, 'the most important because the salvation of multitudes depends upon it: it is the most difficult, because it requires such self-denying habits and spiritual affections. The responsibility that attaches to it is such, that no man would dare to take it upon himself, if he had not a promise of peculiar assistance in the discharge of it.'
5. He had a genuinely pastoral heart that showed itself in his preaching
As a young man he tried to preach with faithfulness and zeal. When he was older he did not think he was wise in the way he did it. 'I thought that to declare the truth with boldness was the one object which I ought to keep in view.' He had not, he thought, taken enough note of the example of the Lord and the Apostles 'in speaking as men were able to bear it, and in administering milk to babes, and meat to strong men'. 'Now', he says, 'I would endeavour to "win souls", and speak to them the truth in love; not considering so much what I was able to say, as what they were able to receive.'
His congregation at Trinity was mostly poor and working-class to begin with. He never forgot them. John Munn was a Northamptonshire farm labourer. He used to come into Cambridgeshire at haymaking and harvest times when he would attend Holy Trinity. Every now and then when he was back home, he would say, 'I want to go and hear Mr Simmons; that's the man as touches my heart! Can't he just preach! And I hanna heard him for six months.' And off he would go, tramping the fifty miles to Cambridge, living as he could, and as often as possible hearing Charles Simeon.
There is a nice instance in one of his student classes. One young man had read out his sermon which contained the words, 'Amidst the tumult of Israel the son of Aram stood unmoved.' 'The son of Aram, who was he?' asked Simeon. 'I meant Moses', was the reply. 'Then why not say Moses?' was the response. 'What ordinary congregation carries in their memories genealogies ready for use?'
There is a fine passage to this effect in his sermon on The Ministerial Character Portrayed from 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8. Simeon pointed out that St Paul portrays ministers in scripture by various figures. He referred to three: 'shepherd', 'father' and 'nursing mother'. He went on, 'St Paul declaring his anxiety for the welfare of his converts, compares his feelings with the pangs of a woman in childbirth; and his delight in them, with that of a mother cherishing in her bosom her newborn infant.' Later at the 'conversation party' he added that the mother is 'not trying to be thought a good mother but with her whole heart and soul being one ... willing not only to give such things as are prepared for her infant but drawing out her own breast to give it nourishment.' A nursing mother has to consider her baby in the food she herself eats, 'so let a Minister have an eye to his people in all the spiritual food he takes, the books he reads, the views he allows to enter his mind; in all he does even as a private individual, lest the tone of his thoughts should become prejudicial to his flock, his sermons less nutritive for them, or stronger than they can bear.' A minister's spiritual health is closely bound up with that of his people, 'being blessed in his own soul, he will be a blessing to all around him'.
6. He fought a constant battle against his failings
Simeon certainly had some failings. I refer to them not in any way to belittle him, but as an encouragement to ministers. He was not perfect, and he suffered from weaknesses throughout his life, but the point is that he fought them, and in the end overcame them.
There were peculiarities in his mannerisms and in the way he spoke that led to criticism and mockery. By nature he was hot-tempered, self-opinionated, vain and haughty. He had a great sense of his self-importance. This harshness and self-assertiveness betrayed itself even in the most spiritual company. One afternoon Henry Venn's daughters, following a visit by Charles to their vicarage, complained about his attitude. 'Come into the garden, children', said their father. 'Now pick me one of those peaches.' 'But it is hard and green and not ripe, and not fit to eat', the girls replied. 'Well my dears, it is green now and we must wait, but a little more sun and a few showers and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr Simeon.' And so it was.
He was very precise and tidy in his habits. He insisted on exactitude over minutiae. He regarded it as time well spent to exchange a semi-colon for a colon. He kept precise accounts of every penny he received and every penny he spent, and he had the accounts for each year audited. One year when he had completed his accounts he was one penny out. After going through the figures again and again, but without success, he told his accountant that if he found the missing penny he would pay him £20; and when it was found he did. Mere trifles that most would hardly notice would cause him to burst out in a rage. He was, for instance, very particular about poking the fire. Once when he was visiting and sitting at dinner, the servant behind him poked the fire, according to Charles, 'unscientifically'. Simeon turned round and gave him a terrific thump on the back to stop. At the end of the visit he was in a hurry to be off home, and the same servant had put the wrong bridle on his horse. Simeon was furious, and he raged at the man as though he were guilty of some really serious offence. His biographer says, 'His temper broke out so violently.' Hankinson who saw all this wrote to him, and Simeon immediately apologized and asked the servant to forgive him. 'In spite of all my wishes and endeavours, if I am not much upon my guard, I fall again and again into the same sins.' Carus says that 'during the whole of his life (it was) a subject of conflict and trial to him.'
'It is', said Max Warren, 'one of the marvels of spiritual history that a man thus tempered should have been able so to subdue his spirit as to face the years of opposition from parishioners and the contempt and often hostility of the University, and in the end to win from all so great a regard.'
7. Sometimes he felt that his preaching was ineffective
This section will be an encouragement to any minister who feels that his preaching has been a failure.
In June 1796, Simeon was in Scotland. He preached on sacrament Sunday at Moulin, a village in Perthshire. 'I was barren and dull', he said; 'In the evening I preached again to those who understood English; but they were few and they seemed not to understand me.' The fruits of that 'barren and dull' preaching were, however, to be immense.
Among his hearers were two young people, James Duff and Jean Rattray. They decided, if they had a son, to dedicate him to work overseas. Their son, Alexander, was to become one of Scotland's greatest missionaries. George Smith opens his biography of Duff with the words: 'The spiritual ancestry of Alexander Duff is not difficult to trace to Charles Simeon.'
And the minister, Alexander Stewart, following a conversation with Simeon, completely changed the strain of his preaching, which led to a great revival in Moulin and the surrounding area. Five months later, Stewart wrote to tell Simeon that a poor woman in the village, who heard him preach there 'insists on my letting you know how much she enjoyed your discourse, and how much she was revived by it. She is one of the few real Christians, whom I can number in my parish. She lives quite alone, in a small hovel, on a very scanty provision, confined almost entirely to her seat by weakness and distress of body. Yet she is for the most part cheerful ... enjoys a good measure of the Lord's countenance and lives much in communion with him.'
All that from a 'barren and dull' sermon which the few hearers seemed not to understand! One never knows what effect under God a preacher's words and actions will have. Men and women and children note and remember what he has said, and how he said it, and the influence for good or ill remains long after it has vanished from the minister's memory.
8. He never lost a sense of sin
Two quotations from Simeon's pen are worthy here of note:
I have never for a moment lost my hope and confidence in my adorable Saviour and consequently always been cheerful in company but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God. 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 loath myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified towards me.
In commenting on Isaiah's vision in chapter 6, he says:
I do not see so much as I should wish, a holy reverential awe of God. The confidence that is generally expressed is not sufficiently, in my opinion, savour of a creature-like spirit, or even of a sinner-like spirit. If ninety-nine out of a hundred of even good men were now informed for the first time that Isaiah in a vision saw the seraphim before the throne and that each of the seraphs had six wings, and then were asked, 'How do you think they employ their wings?', I think that their answer would be,
'How? Why they fly with them with all their might. And if they had six hundred wings they would do the same, exploiting all their powers in the service of their God.' They would never dream of their employing two to veil their faces as unworthy to behold their God, and two to veil their feet as unworthy to serve Him, and devoting only the remaining two to what might be deemed their appropriate use. I would have conscious unworthiness to pervade every act and habit of my soul.
9. He cultivated the grace of humility
Every year he kept his birthday, the 24th September, as a day of fasting and humiliation. 'I have spent this day as I have these forty-three last years, as a day of humiliation, having increased need of such seasons every year I live.'
Shortly after he was ordained, he received a letter from John Thornton, the wealthy London merchant who supported so many evangelical causes. In it he warned the new minister of the three lessons he must learn: 1. Humility ... 2. Humility ... 3. Humility. Twice, in his private notebook, he wrote in large letters, 'Talk not of self.' That was when he was twenty-seven.
In August 1783, at the age of twenty-three, just one year after being ordained, he was in Birmingham. He was asked to preach. He felt he got on rather well. 'The Lord gave me much of his presence', he said, but 'when we were got home, Mr Riland did not say one word in commendation of the sermon, but found fault with it on account of tautology, and want of richness in the application.' His comment on that notably disappointing and humiliating comment was, 'What a blessing, an inestimable blessing is it to have a faithful friend!'
In July 1796 he was in Scotland and spoke to a congregation composed in the main of four or five hundred children. 'The children were orderly', he says, 'but I was not able to fix their attention long. It did not appear to me a profitable season.' Many preachers in a like case would blame the children for not paying attention. Not so Simeon. 'The fault was my own', he wrote. 'I had not studied any subject, nor was my spirit devoutly impressed with my office and employment. Thanks be to God who has given one to bear the iniquity of my holy things.'
Henry Venn had had cause to be anxious about Simeon's tendency to pride. Later on, with an apparent allusion to the incident of his daughters and the peaches, he could write: 'My fears concerning him greatly abate. He appears indeed to be much more humbled, from a deeper knowledge of himself ... None can bear and receive profit from reproof like him.'
10. Above all he had a love for Christ that was obvious to all who met him
In his journal, Wilberforce wrote: '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. Oh! That I might copy him, as he Christ.'
McIlvaine, the bishop of Ohio said that 'a look upon S's face when he was talking of Jesus was a sermon' and that 'when Mr Simeon ascended the pulpit his countenance was heavenly. He seemed perfectly absorbed in devotional meditation.'
Simeon was preaching on the text 'that in all things he might have the preeminence'. Those who were present never forgot the way the old man seemed to rise and dilate under the impression of his Master's glory as he cried out, 'That He might have the pre-eminence! And He will have it. And He must have it. And He shall have it.'
Marsden, the Apostle to New Zealand, was in Cambridge in August 1794. He called on Simeon to find his door shut and himself unable to make him hear. Marsden pushed the door open to find Simeon so absorbed in the contemplation of the Son of God, and so overpowered with a sense of his mercy, that for some time he was incapable of welcoming his visitor or of pronouncing a single word until at length, in a loud voice, he exclaimed, 'Glory! Glory! Glory!'
Shortly before he died he wrote: 'My comfort has been all my days, I have but one to please; and He is easily pleased, even in the midst of all our infirmities, where He sees only a desire to please Him.'
On 21 September 1836 three days before his seventy-seventh birthday he went to Ely. The weather was cold and wet and he caught a chill from which he was not to recover. As he lay dying, William Carus asked him what he was thinking. He replied: 'I don't think now. I am enjoying.' And then: 'If you wish to know what I am enjoying look at Ephesians 3: 18-19: 'that you may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge'.
One of those who attended him on his death-bed said that for hours together he dwelt upon and repeated, 'For of Him, and through Him – and to him are all things; to whom be glory forever. Amen.'
He died at about two o'clock on Sunday afternoon November 13, just as the bell of St Mary's was tolling for the University Sermon that he himself was to have preached. He was buried on the following Saturday. The time fixed for the start of the service was 10.00. Long before nine o'clock men and women were flocking to King's College Chapel, all dressed in deep mourning. The Chapel was filled to overflowing. The organist played Handers 'Dead March'. There were some eight hundred members of Holy Trinity church, and fifteen hundred members of the university, including heads of Colleges and Professors. In all the college chapels the bells were tolled. Around the north and east sides of the chapel were dense crowds of people. In the university all lectures were cancelled. In the town, although it was market day, the shops were closed. In the streets almost everyone was in mourning. There had never been a day like it in Cambridge before. There has not been one like it since.
His body lies interred in a vault at the west end of the Chapel. It is marked by a stone: 'C.S. 1836'. In the chancel of Trinity Church you can today see his monument. It bears these words: 'In memory of The Rev. Charles Simeon MA, Senior Fellow of King's College and fifty four years vicar of this parish; 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' 1 Cor. 11.2 Born Sept 24, 1759. Died Nov 13, 1836.'
- The standard work is the Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, ed. William Carus, 2nd edition, 1847. The fullest and best biography is H. E. Hopkins's Charles Simeon of Cambridge, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.
- Memoranda of Charles Simeon, Matthew Preston, 1840.
- A Brief Memoir of Charles Simeon , J. Williamson, 1848.
- Charles Simeon , H. C. G. Moule, 1892; reprint, Christian Focus Publications, 2001.
- Charles Simeon: An Interpretation , London, 1936 (Centenary addresses).
- Simeon and Church Order , Charles Smyth, CUP, 1940.
- Charles Simeon (1759-1836) , ed. Pollard & Hennell, London, SPCK, 1959 (essays in commemoration of the bi-centenary of his birth).
- Sermons in Holy Trinity , 1979, privately printed, bi-centenary of his conversion.
- The Evangelical and Oxford Movements , ed. Elisabeth Jay, Cambridge UP, 1983.
- Charles Simeon and the Evangelical Tradition , Oliver Barclay, 1988 (annual lecture of the Evangelical Library, 1986).