On Saturday November 19th 1836, Charles Simeon (1759-1836) was buried in a vault in the world-famous chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, England. Despite wanting a simple funeral, his was probably the most remarkable the town had seen. Every shop was closed and University lectures were suspended. An enormous procession saw eight Masters of colleges and senior Fellows, doctors, and professors from the University walking with Simeon’s curates, other clergy, and 1500 gownsmen honoring a man who had been greatly despised. As Simeon’s body was interred, every college bell tolled as testimony not only to the great change that had taken place in Cambridge’s view of Simeon but to his enduring influence.
Simeon is best remembered as the indomitable pastor of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, England. Historians dwell less upon Simeon’s wider impact at home and abroad. During his fifty-four years in Cambridge, Simeon emerged as a dominant voice and force for evangelicalism, particularly within the Church of England. Lord Macaulay wrote to one of his sisters in 1844,
As to Simeon, if you knew what his authority and influence were, and how they extended from Cambridge to the most remote corners of England, you would allow that his real sway in the church was far greater than that of any primate [i.e. Archbishop].[i]
There are a number of reasons for his influence.
First, Simeon modeled an expository preaching ministry which was rare at that time. He always aimed to “humble the sinner, exalt the Savior, and to promote holiness” by following a simple rule: he always sought “to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there”[ii] Although he never sat under evangelical preaching, was never shown how to preach, and never read a preaching manual, Simeon’s preaching had an immediate impact. Henry Venn remarked on Simeon’s earliest days in the summer of 1782 when he was a new curate at St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge that, “in less than seventeen Sundays . . . he filled it with hearers – a thing unknown there for near a century.”[iii] Atkinson, the vicar of St. Edward’s, returned after his summer vacation in October to be greeted by his clerk’s backhanded compliment, “Oh, Sir, I am so glad you are come; now we shall have some room!”[iv] The following month Simeon was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity. He lived long enough to place twenty-one volumes of his sermons into the hands of King William IV in 1833.
Second, Simeon’s position at the University of Cambridge created an enormous potential for influencing students preparing for ministry in an age before theological colleges were commonplace. The “conversation parties” and sermon classes in his rooms at King’s College provided hundreds of future clergy with their only real training for ministry. Simeon’s aim was “to supply to undergraduates what he himself, in his own undergraduate days, had sought in vain.”[v] As “Simeonites” spread from Cambridge to the far corners of Britain, they gathered other pastors together and shared all that they had learned from Simeon.
Third, Simeon used his considerable personal wealth to advance the cause of the Gospel. He gave generously to ensure that those who were keen to serve God but lacked the means could have a university education. In addition, Simeon established a Trust to acquire patronage rights for parishes in growing urban centers such as Bradford, Derby and Liverpool.
However, Simeon’s influence was felt not only around the UK. He became an advisor to the East India Company, and recommended most of the men who went out to India as chaplains, including his spiritual son, the great Henry Martyn. In addition, Simeon lobbied hard for the establishment of the Church Missionary Society in 1799 and, in the years that followed, urged scores of men to dedicate themselves as missionaries. Promoting Christianity among the Jews was, in many ways, the strongest interest of Simeon’s life: he preached about it, recruited workers, collected funds, and advised societies on strategy. Indeed, while on his deathbed, Simeon dictated a message complaining that the Church had not done more to gather in the Jewish people.
As Simeon faithfully taught the Gospel, he could not have known that he would end up being respected, listened to, and followed by people from every class of society. Pastors today can take heart from Simeon’s example to be faithful teachers of the Gospel. Simeon “succeeded beyond Cambridge because he succeeded in Cambridge.”[vi]
[i] Cited in H.E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon of Cambridge, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977), 118.
[ii] Preface to Horae Homileticae, p.xxi; H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon: Pastor of a Generation, (Christian Focus: 1997), 79.
[iii] Hopkins, Simeon, 35.
[iv] Life and Letters of Henry Venn, sect.iv, cited in Moule, Simeon, p.31
[v] Canon Smyth cited in A. Pollard, ‘The influence and significance of Simeon’s work’ in Charles Simeon (1759-1836): Essays written in Commemoration of his Bi-Centenary, M. Hennell & A. Pollard (eds.), (SPCK: London, 1959), 165.
[vi] A. Pollard, ‘The influence and significance of Simeon’s work’ in Charles Simeon (1759-1836): Essays written in Commemoration of his Bi-Centenary, M. Hennell & A. Pollard (eds.), (SPCK: London, 1959), 181.