charles simeon

Charles Simeon was a big part of my life through my twenties.

Like many before me, I was introduced to him in the writings of John Stott, a man who lived his life with a similar symmetry more than a century later. As a young pastor I read the biographies, capturing numerous illustrations on my little 3x5 cards and using them often in sermons. When I finished life as a pastor, a group of friends within the church got together and gave me the 20+ volumes of all Simeon's sermons - if 'you read one a day, it will take you seven years'. Mid way through life as a parent having children, we gave the names 'Charles Simeon' to our middle son, Martin. Then as I started my masters, and then doctoral work, I was all set to do a little thesis on Simeon until my research became distracted, for more than twenty years, by the parables and postmodernism ...

But now, in my fifties, a new book on Simeon has been written and with it, the opportunity to be reminded of many old things. This is what Derek Prime's Charles Simeon: An ordinary pastor of extraordinary influence (Day One, 2011) has done for me. It has reminded me, more than it has instructed me - and sometimes that is a very good thing indeed. The stories came flooding back, bringing their encouragement with them.

There is Simeon's testimony about coming to faith in Christ through being forced to attend the Lord's Supper as a young student at university in Cambridge.  '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' (24).

There is the story about two girls giggling over Simeon's 'look and manner' as the young man spoke. Daddy told them to go outside and pick a peach (in early summer). The peach was green, unripe and inedible. 'Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr Simeon.' (43).

There is the testimony about how for the first ten years of his ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge (out of 54 years in total!), such was the hostility in the congregation that people locked their pews and Simeon preached to a congregation gathered in the aisles. Ten years! 'He was learning to wait' (Prime, 52).

There is the illustration in his management of false teachers and leaders who disappoint from within his own congregation. 'If they chose to let off fire-works, they were at liberty to do so, only I desired they would not put them under my thatch, to burn down my house' (59).

There is the commitment to training young preachers and mentoring young leaders in a series of sermon classes and tea parties. Such was the care in which he broke down the steps on the journey from the biblical text to the finished sermon and such was the energy he gave to helping others do this ... 'it is not surprising that he has been called the father of homiletics' (Prime, 70). 'Three things (are) indispensably necessary in every discourse; unity in the design, perspicuity in the arrangement, and simplicity in the diction' (172). The final thing he did before his death was to finish his Horae Homileticae ('it took thirty two men sixteen months to achieve its printing', 177). As for sermon evaluation:
Does (your preaching) uniformly tend TO HUMBLE THE SINNER? TO EXALT THE SAVIOUR? TO PROMOTE HOLINESS? If in one single instance it lose sight of any of these points, let it be condemned without mercy. (as quoted in Prime, 243)
Two much-loved Charles Simeons, 250 years apart from each other
There are the stories of how he hung out with William Wilberforce, getting involved in mission at home and abroad. From Wilberforce's diary: 'Simeon with us - his heart is glowing with love for Christ ... How full he is of love, and of desire to promote the spiritual benefit of others' (128). The great missionary to India, Henry Martyn (dead at 31) was first Simeon's curate and after his death his portrait adorned Simeon's room: 'There, see the blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does; he never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, "Be serious. Be in earnest. Don't trifle. Don't trifle. Then, smiling at the portrait and gently bowing, Simeon would add, "And I won't trifle. I won't trifle' (131).

There is his testimony about making simplicity a priority. 'The person who understands truth the most clearly gains the ability to express it most simply' (Prime, 69).  'We should not try to be clever but rather simple' (Prime, 86). 'The distinguishing mark of the religion of Christ is its simplicity, and its suitableness to the condition of all men, whether rich or poor, wise of unlearned' (75).

There is his testimony about making balance a priority. He was caught up in the Calvinism:Arminian debate: 'although more of a Calvinist than an Arminian, Simeon was not a fierce enemy of the latter' (Prime, 181). With this debate and others like it. 'the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes' (241). 'Rather than setting the truths in opposition he wanted to dwell upon both 'with equal pleasure' (Prime, 187). On reading all this again, I realise how much this has influenced me. ['Speak all that the Scripture speaks, and as the Scripture speaks it: and leave all nice distinctions alone' (235).] This must be the source of my mild suspicion of systematic theology, particularly when it enamours young students into taking sides long before they've fully absorbed the breadth and balance and beauty of the Scriptures.
The difference between young and old ministers, in general, consists of this; that the statements of the former are crude and unqualified, whilst those of the latter have such limitations and distinctions, as the Scriptures authorize and the subjects require. The doctrines of salvation by faith alone, predestination etc are often, it is well know, so stated, as to become a stumbling block to thousands; whilst, when Scripturally stated, they approve themselves to those who have been most prejudiced against them. (quoted in Prime, 197).
There is the quotation for which I was waiting but which does not appear until the very final paragraphs of the book. Simeon struggled all his life with feelings of 'self-importance' (201). He once wrote in large letters, on two consecutive pages in his notebook, the words: 'Talk not about myself, Speak evil of no man' (250) ... and then the quotation for which I had waited:
Alas, alas! how apt are young ministers (I speak feelingly) to be talking of the great letter I. It would be easier to erase that letter from all the books in the kingdom, than to hide it for one hour from the eyes of the vain person. Another observation has not escaped my remembrance - the three lessons which a minister has to learn, 1. Humility - 2. Humility - 3. Humility. (quoted in Prime, 251).

Of course, there were a few new things...

Remember Pride & Prejudice? The way Mr Collins is owned by Lady Catherine de Burgh? It was a practice called advowsons, or 'livings', and was a primary cause for the weakness of the church at the time. Simeon was so smart. He bought into the system, setting up a Trust and raising money to acquire these advowsons and then filling them with good people - like John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, at St Mary Woolnoth ... and eventually subverting the very system itself.

As death approached, Simeon gave thanks for his church ... 'so beautiful to be the ornament instead of the disgrace of the town' (223). And when a friend expressed to him that many were praying for him, Simeon responded, 'In prayer? aye, and I trust in praise too - praise for countless, endless mercies' (225).

I'll be in Cambridge  in April. I will need to take some time out to see a bit more of Simeon...

nice chatting


PS (1): Charles Simeon is exactly four days - and two centuries - older than me. Cool, eh?!
PS (2): As I read, the resonance with John Stott and Langham Partnership, including the Langham Scholars, Langham Literature and Langham Preaching programmes really is uncanny. Maybe it will be the subject of another post one day.


Paul Windsor said…
Imagine my thrill to receive a Facebook message this morning, saying:


This morning I read your blog post in "The Art of Unpacking" re: me! If you are interested, I am happy to send you a walking tour of my sites in Cambridge. Please reply with your e-mail address and the tour will arrive in your inbox as an attachment. May your April visit be thoroughly enjoyable! Until then, I am most humbly

Your Faithful Servant,

C. Simeon

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