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 Issues | Church History | Charles Simeon


Charles Simeon by Max Warren

A Portrait of the Man - repentance and faith

Amongst the papers of Charles Simeon there is a short memorandum on the keeping of a diary. In it he remarks, “I conceive that neither the worst, nor the best of any man can be, or ought to lie, known to any but God”. Cautioned by that warning, and with a poper sense of reserve, it is possible to attempt an understanding of the man and his ministry.

Of his home life and school days there are only a few brief records. His home was a sober one, of some affluence, but it is reasonable to infer that its very sobriety was irksome to a temper which was both extravagant and impetuous. Something of a dandy, a good judge of horse-flesh, very much inclined to hospitality, Simeon came up to Cambridge fully prepared to enjoy himself after the manner of his age and class. There was perhaps only one thing to distinguish him from most of his contemporaries. From somewhere in his background, perhaps from that mother of whom nothing is known, he derived both a deep sense of duty and also a sensitiveness to occasion. As a schoolboy he had been deeply impressed on one of the fast days during the American War “with the idea of the whole nation uniting in fasting and prayer on account of the sins which had brought down the divine judgment upon us”. The impression of that event seems to have faded but within three days of his coming into residence another duty matched an occasion and changed the whole course of his life.

Writing to a friend many years afterwards he records:

“On the 29th of January, '79, I came to College. On February 2nd I understood that, at division of Term, I MUST attend the Lord's Supper. The Provost absolutely required it. Conscience told me, that Satan was as fit to go there, as I; and that if I MUST go, I MUST repent, and turn to God, unless I choose to eat and drink my own damnation. From that day I never ceased to mourn and pray, till I obtained progressive manifestations of God's mercy in Christ in the Easter Week, and perfect peace on Easter Day, April 4th”.

His own words are the best commentary both on the nature and the depth of the experience. They reveal the deepest secret of his life to which we can penetrate. In some notes which he left entitled “Circumstances of my Inward Experience” he wrote: “It is now a little above forty years since 1 began to seek after God ; and within three months of that time, after much humiliation and prayer, I found peace through the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. About half a year after that, I had some doubts and fears about my state in consequence of an erroneous notion . . . about the nature of saving faith. But when I found from better information that justifying faith was a faith of affiance, and not a faith of assurance, my peace returned; because though I had not a faith of assurance, I had as full a conviction that I relied on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as I had of my own existence . . . . With this sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, 1 have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men ; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humility 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 1 was assured that God was pacified towards me . . . . There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty 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, just as Aaron confessed all the sins of all Israel whilst he put them on the head of the scapegoat. The disease did not keep him from applying to the remedy, nor did the remedy keep him from feeling the disease. By this I seek to be, not only humbled and thankful but humbled in thankfulness, before my God and Saviour continually.”

Standing in reverence, as we must, before that intimate revelation of the anchorage of Simeon's soul, we can yet sec that the life which had been thus marvellously turned to a new direction, was, as for all of us, a long and painful growth in grace. Simeon did not rind himself an easy person to live with. “I have all m y days”, he once said, “felt my danger to lie on the side of precipitancy”. Hot tempered by nature, he found clumsiness and carelessness in others an easy spur to anger. Impetuous in his likes and dislikes, he found it hard to adapt himself to those who moved more slowly. Extravagant in his affections he found the way of friendship often difficult. It is 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.

It was this triumph over his temper which was at once the proof of the depth of his conversion, and the secret of his perseverance in his long ministry. Perhaps only a man who knew how to be abased could be trusted with the ability to abound. The same eagerness which led to temper led also to a readiness to seek forgiveness both from God and from those whom he had wronged. There was no pride in the man. That may seem a contradiction, for is not temper the emotion of pride? Yet the deepest thing in Simeon was his humility. There could be no highmindedness in one who was “humbled in thankfulness”. Nothing is more characteristic of him than the way in which he celebrated his birthday every year. His diary for September 24, 1822, reads: “I spent this clay, as I have for these forty-three last years, as a day of humiliation; having increased need of such seasons every year I live”. To a friend he writes in 1833 after recovery from illness: “Standing as I do on the very brink and precipice of the eternal world, I desire nothing so much as a broken and contrite spirit”. Very characteristically he continues, “I would (I had almost said) rather have that than pardon; because that honours God, whilst pardon only benefits me”.

No one more strongly than Simeon was convinced of the personal character of religion. “Christianity is a personal matter”, he once wrote, “not to be commended merely to others, but to be experienced in your own soul”. No less strongly was he dominated by the conviction that it could not stop there. All the faith and practice of a lifetime found expression in some words he wrote to a friend in 1834: “Religion, in its rise, interests us almost exclusively about ourselves; in its progress, it engages us upon the welfare of our fellow-creatures: in its more advanced stages, it animates us to consult in all things, and to exalt to the utmost of our power, the honour of our God”.


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