Essay / Theology

Charles Simeon of Cambridge

The history of the church is filled with great pastors and teachers. Even if you skip over the church fathers, the medievals, and the reformers, confining yourself to recent times–say these past two and a half centuries– there are more than enough great theologians and devotional writers to keep you busy, well-fed, informed, and inspired. Now and then some clever blogger may recommend an UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED writer, somebody you haven’t heard of but should have heard of: Adolph Saphir, or Fletcher of Madeley, or Frederick Faber, for instance. I’ll gladly confess that I’ve played the UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED card a few times here. I hope I’m not guilty of one-upsmanship (“What? You’ve never even heard of William Burt Pope? And you call yourself a Christian? Snnnnneeeeeer”). But I do enjoy being the first person to spread the word about an UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED author, a lost luminary of our heritage.

Well, clear your reading schedule, because this time I really mean it. We have mostly forgotten Charles Simeon (1759-1836), and he is well worth remembering. His name used to be synonymous with evangelical preaching, and it is not a good sign that he has lapsed out of our memory. UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED, I dare say. Here are some leading ideas and reading suggestions:

The Ultimate Pastor
Simeon was appointed as Minister (or “Perpetual Curate”) of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge at age 23, and he preached there for the next 54 years, until his death at age 77 in 1836. He didn’t look around and consider other jobs or opportunities, he just took his post and stayed at it faithfully for well over five decades. He encouraged and inspired missionaries (the UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED Henry Martyn), supported all kinds of evangelistic and educational work, and read widely about current events. But week in and week out, the main work he did was the work of the Christian pastor: bringing the word of God to the people of God. He was very well educated (Kings College, Cambridge) and had an able intellect, but he honed his sermons and pastoral counseling to make sure that his words were profitable to everyone in his parish, educated or not. He found other outlets for the more intellectual side of his gifts, and his sermons always gave his listeners plenty to think about, but for Simeon the question was always, for fifty-four years, how can I bring this passage of scripture to my people in a way that will accomplish three goals simultaneously: “to humble the sinner; to exalt the Saviour; to promote holiness?” Everything else Simeon accomplished was based on this commitment.

A Builder, Not a Destroyer
The Church of England that Simeon was raised in was in trouble. All the life had drained out of the elaborate forms, everybody was Christian in name only, and churches were so empty that one pastor could perform four services at four separate churches in a single morning by riding quickly from town to town and skipping the churches that put out a “No Congregation Here Today” flag. As a boy, Simeon heard his culture’s message clearly: don’t take this Christian thing too seriously. But when he went to college, the Provost announced a policy that everybody had to take communion at the beginning of the semester. The very idea left him thunderstruck. He had never thought about the whole thing before, but now he thought of it: what is communion, what is Christianity, what is church, who is Jesus, what does God expect of me? Simeon threw himself into studying the meaning of the lord’s supper, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the Biblical plan for dealing with human sin. He was convinced, converted, and took that mandatory communion as a new believer in Christ.

Simeon was saved by a mandatory chapel requirement; one that he took far more seriously than the people requiring it of him. And that was characteristic of him. After all, what was a pastor expected to be in the Church of England in the late 1700s? Picture Mr. Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice: that’s your Anglican clergyman of the time. Or, to be more fair, look at the debate about ordination in Mansfield Park, where the clever young socialite makes it clear that promising young men of real talent are expected to avoid a useless job like the priesthood. Simeon knew how low the expectations were for pastoring. But he accepted the call as if it were coming from a higher authority, because it was. He took Christian ministry seriously even when everything about his age encouraged him not to.

A lot of Anglicans worried about Simeon’s evangelical preaching, especially as it began to be effective in the lives of his congregation. Their worry was that these people would wake up out of their spiritual slumber and leave the established church. After all, if these Anglicans are going to start acting like Methodists, what’s to keep them from becoming Methodists? (You have to imagine a world long ago and far away in which “Methodist” meant “marked by spiritual vitality and excitement.”) Revived church members might also move down the street to the Baptist meeting house, or some other “dissenting body.” In other words, the Church of England was in such a bad state that it couldn’t even afford a revival, for fear it would leak members to other churches. But Simeon was a Church of England man, and without being bigoted or un-ecumenical, he stayed at his Anglican post and preached with all his might.

What He Preached
Simeon’s message was a well-rounded presentation of the Bible’s main, central truths, applied to Christian experience, in reliance on the power of God’s word and Spirit. His sermons ranged over a territory as wide as Scripture itself, but what I have found in Simeon’s work is an applied trinitarian theology. He certainly believed, with all Christendom, that the one God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but what comes to the fore in Simeon’s preaching is the way the gospel itself depends on that Triune God. To believe in Christ is to experience fellowship with the three persons, and the Christian who has that experience will understand the nature of sin and salvation more fully. Simeon drew the connection between salvation and the Trinity quite directly. Here is a passage from his sermon (Sermon Number 2,063!) “On the Uses of the Law:”

I say, then, without a distinct knowledge of the moral law we can have no just sentiments respecting the Holy Spirit and his operations. The less is required of us, the less there is for him to do within us. And hence it is, that many deny the necessity of his influences altogether, either for the illumination of our minds, or the sanctification of our souls. The truth is that the whole denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, and of all the doctrines dependent on it–the doctrine of the atonement, of imputed righteousness, and of divine influences–must be traced to this source. Men feel not their need of a Divine Saviour; they feel not the need of an Almighty Agent, to work in them the whole work of God. Hence their principles of theology are brought down to the low standard of the Pelagian, Arian, and Socinian hypotheses.

One of the uses of the law, apparently, is to teach the necessity of the Trinity acting for our salvation. And the doctrines that Simeon says are “dependent on” the doctrine of the Trinity are precisely the doctrines that he became famous for preaching: the atonement, imputed righteousness, and divine influences. He preached about sin and salvation to show that our situation is so bad it takes the Trinity to save us.

What to Read by Simeon:
Simeon’s lifework was preaching, and he put it into print for us. His masterpiece is the twenty-one volume series of sermons on the entire Bible, originally published as Horae Homileticae and later given the less formidable title Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible. These sermons are uncanny. They cover the whole Bible, but not as commentaries. Instead, they answer the question, “If you had to preach on this passage, what would you say?” His judgment is nearly always right. If you are assigned a passage to preach or teach, check into Simeon and see what he focuses on: you may have a reason to deviate from his decision, but it had better be a good reason. Simeon knew a method of presenting the main ideas of each passage, memorably and effectively, and that method is both explained and exemplified in the Horae.

Okay, how do you get a copy of the Horae Homileticae? If you’re near a good theology library, they ought to have it. Remember, you don’t need all 21 volumes, just the one that’s relevant to the book of the Bible you’re currently studying in devotions or with your church. Google Books has scanned Yale’s copy of Volume 13 (on Luke and John); how much longer until the other volumes appear there? (Aside: What if Google Books, in digitizing everything not copyrighted, providentially puts the great tradition of 19th century evangelicalism back into circulation? God Googles in mysterious ways…)

Regent College Publishing has a good selection of sermons in print under the title Evangelical Preaching, selected by James Houston and introduced by John Stott.

Helps to Composition, or Six Hundred Sermon Skeletons, is available online. Not excited about reading skeletons? Spurgeon said of Simeon’s sermon outlines, “They have been called ‘a valley of dry bones’: Be a prophet and they will live.”

Also available online are three sermon series, Offices of the Holy Spirit, The Gospel Message, and The Excellency of the Liturgy.

Where to Read More About Simeon:

The biggest and most comprehensive biography is Carus’ Memoir. Available online, but try something shorter and more focused first.

For instance, H.C.G. Moule, the great evangelical bishop of Durham, wrote a short biography of him that’s also available online. This book has the virtue of being written about a spiritual giant by another spiritual giant. He gets some details scrambled and indulges in some digressions, but Moule on Simeon is a worthy read.

And two people who have taken the edge off of the NEGLECTED side of Simeon’s UNJUST NEGLECT are John Piper and Adrian Warnock. Piper has done a great job of reminding this generation about how Simeon handled adversity: read or listen to Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering. And the excitable Warnock has written about Simeon often enough that he has a “Simeon” category on his blog index!

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