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 Issues | Church History | Charles Simeon


Great Chuchmen  (No 11)

Charles Simeon

by Max Warren

Published by Church Book Room Press

The England in Which He Lived

On November 10th, 1782, Charles Simeon preached his first sermon in Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. On November 13th, 1836, he died in his Fellow's rooms in King's College at the age of 77 after a ministry lasting fifty-four years. That span of years had seen tremendous changes come over the face of England. A predominantly rural country became the foremost industrial nation in the world, a land of great cities. Side by side with this economic development, and in part its cause, the movement for political reform had gathered pace. By 1836 the England of Walpole and Chatham, of Bute and North, had passed away and the pattern was already set with which we are familiar to-day. Yet great and profound as these changes were it may be hazarded that they were nothing like as far-reaching or as significant in their effect as was the revolution which during these same years overtook the thinking of Englishmen about the world beyond our shores.

When Simeon came up to Cambridge from Eton as an undergraduate in 1779 the American war of Independence was still in progress. Indeed, he was already incumbent of Holy Trinity Church before the first draft of the treaty of Paris was signed on November 30th 1782, and the United States achieved recognized independent nationhood. An epoch had ended. The first British Empire had collapsed. Fifty-four years later it looked very much as if history was going to repeat itself. Canada was seething with discontent and on the eve of rebellion when Lord Durham was sent out from England to investigate the causes of grievance. In his Report published in 1859 he advised that the time had come for full responsible government to be given to Canada. A new conception of Empire had come into existence. The British Commonwealth of Nations was born.

Between the idea of colonies as areas for exploitation subject to the domestic interests of England, and the idea of partnership between self-governing dominions a vast gulf is fixed. The very idea was new to political thinking. But remarkable as this change was it found a parallel quite as remarkable in the new conception of responsibility which was born in regard to peoples of other races who came within the range of England's commercial and political influence. In the early years of Simeon's ministry at Cambridge the cause calibre of politics was the trial of Warren Hastings for his alleged misgovernment of what was still the vast commercial monopoly of the East India Company. In 1783 Fox attempted to bring in a bill which would have anticipated the full transfer of power from the Company to the Crown that eventually took place after the mutiny of 1857 although this ambitious project was defeated, yet in the following year, 1784, Pitt brought in the India bill which proved an important first instalment and effectively secured political authority to the Crown. The opportunity was provided for a new type of public servant. A premium was now to be put on other qualities than those of the successful merchant adventurer as the eighteenth century had known him.

Far more obviously the fruit of a new conscience and a new understanding of political responsibility was the campaign against the slave trade and its successor the campaign against slavery. This mighty moral struggle owed its inception to men like Sharp and Clarkson and the consistent protests of the Quakers, but it became a national issue only when in 1787 the devotion of William Wilberforce was enlisted in the cause - William Wilberforce the close friend of Pitt and the darling of society who but two years before had experienced a deep religious conversion. What God had done for one man's soul was, as by some powerful light, flashed upon the screen of the nation's life, indeed upon the life of the world, and a struggle was begun for the soul of the white man and for the future of Africa.

The imagination boggles at what would have happened if the conscience of Europe had not been roused in time, if slavery and the slave trade had continued to he accepted as the normal relationship between black and white. The next stage of history with the opening up of Africa exploration and economic development would have seen that vast continent one enormous slave pen. From that nightmare, as Coupland says, “Wilberforce, more than any other man, saved the world”. But he had also done something very positive as well. “More than any other man, he had founded in the conscience of the British people a tradition of humanity and of responsibility towards the weak and backward black peoples whose fate lay in their hands. And that tradition has never died”. The modern doctrine of trusteeship, and its most recent development of the preparation of all the colonial peoples for self-government derives directly from the conviction of Wilberforce and his friends who between 1787 and 1833 fought for the slave.

The years 1782 to 1836 were indisputably the scene of an astonishing political conversion. But it would hardly lie an exaggeration to say that within the religious and ecclesiastical life of England during these years there took place a change which was in every respect as revolutionary. During the early years of Simeon's ministry at Cambridge not only were the Test Acts in force but the Conventicle Act was so stern a reality that Simeon did not feel it possible to have prayer at his Conversation parties with undergraduates in his rooms lest he be attacked on the ground of organizing a conventicle. Before he died the Test Acts had been repealed and the Catholic Emancipation bill had been passed by Parliament. These were momentous changes enough, though it could be argued that they were the reflection of the rapid economic development of our industrialized society. Dissent was strong in the towns, and the new mercantile classes had neither love for nor four of the parson and the squire. But these were the least significant of the changes.

The winds of the Evangelical revival were blowing throughout the land. Many looked dubiously at the revival, more particularly the leaders of the Church, because they failed to recognize whence it came and were nervous as to where it might lead. In fairness to them it must be recognized that there was much to make them anxious. The world was in the throes of violent change. Events across the channel made sober and responsible people anxious to preserve the forms of traditional order. Dissent was still looked at askance as inherently revolutionary and opposed to the Constitution alike of Church and of State. During this period the Evangelical revival succeeded in establishing itself firmly within the Church of England, profoundly modifying the Church's whole temper in so doing, the while its fertile influence continued to inspire and enrich the Free Churches. One interesting of the revival is noted by Trevelyan when he says that “The bridge between Establishment and Dissent, as also between anti-Jacobin and Liberal, was found in the small but influential Evangelical party which had now effected a lodgment inside the Church”. During these years and in this way one of the indispensable first steps was taken towards what in our day we know as the Ecumenical movement.

During these years, and almost entirely under the direct influence of the Evangelical revival, there began the modern missionary movement. The story has often been told and needs no repetition here. It will be sufficient at this point to note that in 1786 certain apparently unrelated events took place. In that year there was passed an Act of Parliament, which enabled the Church of England to begin its overseas episcopate. In that year the Eclectic Society discussed foreign missions for the first time. In that year Charles Grant in Calcutta conceived the idea of a Mission to India. In that year David Brown, a friend of Charles Simeon, went to India as a Chaplain. In that year the Bishop of Lincoln, preaching the annual sermon of the S.P.G., appealed to the East India Company to build Churches and support Chaplains. In that year William Carey proposed to a Baptist Minister's Fraternal that they should consider their responsibility to the heathen. The wind was rising. It is perhaps more than an accident of history that the same year saw the publication of Thomas Clarkson's essay on the Slave Trade which was to play so large a part in the education of the public on this issue; that Granville Sharp formulated his plan for settling liberated slaves at Sierra Leone; that William Wilberforce dedicated himself to fight the slave trade.

Fifty years later the missionary movement was firmly established and was enlisting ever increasing support. The new national sense of political responsibility, the new social conscience with regard to subject peoples, were firmly under-girded by a deep religious conviction. The event demonstrated that the rapid expansion of England's commercial, cultural and political influence was to be matched by its religious concern. In this new type of spiritual crusade all the denominations played a notable part. Properly enough as far as England was concerned a major share was carried by the Church of England. What in 1782 was the established Church of England had by 1836 already begun to be transformed into the Anglican Communion. The question which this pamphlet is concerned to ask and to answer is, Can any connection be discovered between these great changes and that long ministry at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge? Are we justified in claiming that the old man who lay dying in his college rooms on November 13th, 1836, while the bell of the University Church was summoning men for the sermon which he had been appointed to preach, was in fact one of the principal architects of change?


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