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 Issues | Church History | Charles Simeon


Charles Simeon by Max Warren

An Estimate of His Significance

The first division of this essay described the changes which so largely altered the face of England between the years 1782 and 1856, and more particularly the temper of its people and their way of thinking about their responsibilities in the world. The question was then advanced as to how far it may be claimed that Charles Simeon was one, and not the least, of the architects of change. The second division attempted to present a portrait of the man under some of the salient aspects of his character and ministry. In this closing section the question must be answered.

Towards the end of his biography of Wilberforce, that other equally great contemporary moulder of events, there paragraph in which Coupland summarizes the evidence points the moral of his tale. It runs:

“To contrast the principles and practice of British tropical administration in our own day with what was said in defence of the slave trade by leaders of British opinion in the eighteenth century and what was done in pursuit of the Trade by British traders is to measure the effect of what Wilberforce 2nd his friends achieved. It was nothing less, indeed, than a moral revolution; and those who see the world's life as a whole, as an intricate, shifting complex not only of states and nations but of continents and races, discordant vet interdependent, heterogeneous, yet all belonging to one human family, will give a high place in history to the Englishman who did so much to briny about that revolution, so much to transform the moral basis of the relations between Africa and Europe.”

That is but one illustration of the change in temper and thought. The moral revolution involved ranged far more widely than the affairs of the African continent, vastly important as these were. Scarcely less significant was the change in the relations between this country and the peoples of India, a change which found remarkable expression in the lives of countless Army officers and civilians, upon whose integrity indeed depended the successful transition from Company to Parliamentary control, and the first steps towards education for self-government. The names of Outram and Havelock, the Lawrences, Macaulay and Duff, with their several influences upon the unfolding of India's history, trace back their spiritual lineage to the same company of friends who had so decisive an influence upon Africa.

As profound, because of its ultimate sociological impact upon other nations besides our own, there was that “inspired compassion” of Shaftesbury which, as Canon Smyth has said, “swept every (lark corner of English social life. Lunacy reform, lodging-house reform, ragged schools, factory reform, the Ten Hours Bill, the radical improvement of conditions in the mines, the protection of chimney sweeps; these are but a few of his achievements in the sphere of Christian legislation”. His roots were the same.

“It is not too much to say,” records Canon Smyth, “that more than any other single factor, the Evangelical movement in the Church of England transformed the whole character of English Society and imparted to the Victorian age that moral earnestness which was its distinguishing characteristic”. Now it is a matter of history that this ebullition of moral earnestness is to be traced, under God, largely to the spiritual leadership of a comparatively small and compact group of friends. The story of the Evangelical revival is indeed the story of personalities rather than of opinions, but it is of personalities linked to one smother in the bonds of a close spiritual friendship. This is in particular the key to understanding the period here under review. For, as Canon Smyth has written in Simeon and Church Order, “the outstanding personality” of the Evangelical Revival “after the heroic age of Whitefield and the Wesleys and the formidable Lady Huntingdon, is the Rev. Charles Simeon. I doubt whether the genius of that man as an ecclesiastical statesman has ever received sufficient recognition. He seems to me to rank with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford . . . as one of the Founding Fathers, or Remodellers of the Church of England in the nineteenth century.” Simeon was one of that group of friends.

To the venerable old man, on the occasion of the Jubilee of his ministry at Holy Trinity Church which he had planned to celebrate with a group of friends, there came under the date September 26th, 1852, a letter from one of them, his old friend William Wilberforce. An extract from this letter of friendship gives a glimpse of how Wilberforce looked to Simeon.

“Though unable to attend the solemnity in person, even you cannot withhold from me the privilege of joining with you in spirit ; and most assuredly I will endeavour to bear my part in your song of praises to God and the Lamb, which though begun on earth will, I humbly trust, be resumed by the same blessed company in the heavenly world. It must, and indeed may justly, be a cause for your special thankfulness, that several of the friends by whom you will be encircled, will be of the number of those whom the Almighty has rendered you the blessed instrument of calling ‘from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God’.
“And now, my dear friend, farewell; I really know not what more to wish or to pray for you . . . and yet, my dear friend, I cannot but hope that it may please God . . . to suffer you, during a long protracted autumn, to enjoy in the University, where such an exhibition has rarely been vouchsafed, a sort of earthly harvest home; while, blessed in your own person with a large measure of peace and jo!, in believing, you may be permitted to go through successive generations of Collegians, bearing testimony to the goodness and mercy of the blessed Master whom you have served, and inviting and encouraging others to enter into that service, which from our own experience you will assure them is perfect freedom . . “

Wilberforce, in that affectionate greeting, puts an unerring finger on one factor which perhaps more than any other made Charles Simeon the rallying centre and inspiration of those who were being used by God to change the temper and thinking of England. “Successive generations of Collegians” - for more than half a century Simeon lived out his life in the full light of the University. Fifty generations of freshmen came under his influence, knew his friendship, profited by his instruction. He lived to see his disciples of the early days become Professors and Heads of Houses. As Bishop Daniel Wilson, in a memoir referring to this sustained period of service, observes:

“He was known never to have had but one object, never to have preached but one doctrine. First his friends ; then his College ; then the University; then the large body of the clergy with whom he had been associated ; lastly, almost the whole country understood him. They did not all agree with him ; but they understood him. And as a general revival of the power of true religion in the Church of England was going on during almost the entire period of his ministry (to which by God's mercy and grace he himself largely contributed) his influence widened inconceivably towards the close of his lengthened life”.

Writing in The Times on October 24th, 1936, Bishop Welldon, himself a former Fellow of King's, records as follows: “My honoured friend the late Mr. John Willis dark, the Registrary of the University, whose equity of judgment upon Cambridge men will, I think, be as little disputed as his knowledge of Cambridge itself, told me, more than once, that the moral regeneration of Cambridge dated from Charles Simeon”. Whatever qualifications a strict judgment may desire to add to that testimony it remains a remarkable tribute from one who could assess the issue of events from a long perspective and a unique position.

Canon Smyth’s description of Simeon as one of the “Founding Fathers” of the Church of England in the nineteenth century, is a reminder of the very kernel of his influence. He was a devoted son of the Church of England. No cramping opposition, no contempt, no limitation of opportunity ever led him to quality his devotion. Living in an age of political, economic and social revolution he became one of the architects of a moral revolution, not through the process of innovation but through a penetrating insight into the worth and value of the tradition which he had inherited and which lie believed could be charged by the Spirit of God with all the dynamic of spiritual revival. In nothing was this more forcibly expressed than by Simeon's conviction that in the liturgy of the Church of England there was a form of worship which most perfectly abased the sinner and at the same time exalted the God whose holiness was known in His redeeming love. Here was for Simeon the perfect setting for the preaching of the Gospel which had been committed to him. In this liturgy no less than in this Gospel he found his spiritual life and communicated spiritual life to multitudes. It was men trained in this double experience of worship and the Gospel, two aspects of a single whole, that Simeon sent out by hundreds into the Ministry of the Church of England both at home and abroad. These and many another who went out to serve God in the State or in commerce were the secondary agents of that effusion of moral earnestness which, we have seen, changed the face of English life.

If the Church of England has been able to play a significant part in the world-wide missionary movement of the last 150 years, and in the ecumenical movement which is its offspring, it owes this to Charles Simeon more than to any other single individual. It may at least be hazarded that if in the days ahead the Church of England is again to be used by God as a significant factor in a moral revolution for our own generation it will be by a rediscovery and a reinterpretation of that double process of worship and evangelism, which characterized his life and witness. Preaching in Holy Trinity Church on the occasion of the centenary of Charles Simeon's death, Archbishop Lord Lane chose as his text 1 Thessalonians 2.4, “Allowed of God to be put in trust with the Gospel”. That would have appealed to Charles Simeon, for whom this “allowing” was the supreme privilege of his life, something that was all of grace and nought of merit, so that as the Archbishop concluded, “for fifty years in this Church and in this University he was steadfastly and joyfully faithful to his trust”.


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