How Charles Simeon mentored a generation and kept evangelicalism alive in 19th-century England

Simeon’s Brigade
England’s churches were reawakened by 1,100 young ministers, who learned their craft from an awkward, unpopular, and sometimes angry mentor.
Chris Armstrong
(Published in Leadership Journal)

How did an awkward loner—unpopular in his youth for his affected manner—raise a generation of passionate ministers who changed a nation?

“Proud, imperious, fiery-tempered; a solitary individual, eager for friendship, whom others avoided because of his conceits, eccentricities, and barbed words.” This is how Charles Simeon’s biographer describes the great minister and mentor. Yet during his lifetime (1759-1836), he did more than any other to awaken churches in England. Over some 54 years, 1,100 young ministers sat with him on Sunday evenings, absorbing his passion for Christ, taking it to cold pulpits, and igniting parishes across the country.

He was an unlikely candidate to do so.

Bred and whine

Simeon began his education at England’s most celebrated public school, Eton, where he excelled at horsemanship and cricket. Although spirited and from a privileged family, Charles was not popular. He was not handsome. He had a bad temper. He tried too hard to gain friends. People tended to avoid him.

Simeon lacked any notable intellectual talent. Nonetheless, he traveled the well-worn path from Eton to Cambridge (King’s College). There, amid the usual distractions of a college town, including taverns and horse races, Simeon encountered the Christian faith.

The college chapel was well-attended, but only because it was required of undergraduates. Uninspired chaplains hurried through the twice-daily liturgy. Receiving communion was compulsory, whatever the student’s personal beliefs. Most of the faculty, clergy themselves, skipped chapel. Christianity lingered at Cambridge—after all, half the nation’s ministers were educated there—but the atmosphere bred lukewarm faith and downright hypocrisy.

Despite this climate, Simeon entered “a state of spiritual panic” upon his first summons to a communion service, according to biographer Hugh Evan Hopkins. Two months later, during Lent and Holy Week, this state had deepened into an oppressive sense of his own sinfulness. Reading a book on preparation for the Lord’s Supper, Simeon realized that by faith his guilt could be transferred to the Lamb of God. At last, on Easter Sunday, Simeon found Christ risen in his heart.

Not one for half-measures, Simeon soon held prayer meetings in his room, and before long he committed himself to become a minister. This was not unusual for a Cambridge student, where half the undergraduates were pursuing the priesthood.

Sadly, however, they were not trained well. Theological and biblical language courses were sketchy, and students received no instruction in preaching or administration. It was assumed they would pick these skills up once they entered the ministry. Not true.

Sim City

Even before finishing his degree, and still lacking experience as a curate (assistant to the senior minister), Simeon put his name forward for the pastorate of Cambridge’s Holy Trinity church. This was unheard-of impunity. But amazingly Simeon was given the parish, where he would labor the rest of his life.

The church, however, was less than pleased to receive this blustering minister who insisted that those who called themselves “Christian” be truly saved by grace and live lives more closely conformed to Christ. They distrusted his ivory-tower background—they were largely artisan’s families, or more bluntly, in Simeon’s words, “very poor church folks.” And they were wary of his fervor.

Opponents harassed Simeon—starting, on his second week, by locking the family-owned pews. Those who wished to hear the new minister were forced to find standing room as best they could. When Simeon brought in benches, church council members tossed them out into the churchyard. But he was undeterred.

Simeon had another work he was sure the Lord had assigned—to provide the Cambridge “gownsmen” (undergraduates) what he himself had never received—decent training in theology and pastoral ministry. In 1790 Simeon began holding talks for ministerial students on Sunday evenings—informal seminars on preaching. In 1812, he instituted weekly “conversation parties” in his rooms, essentially theological and pastoral Q&A sessions. By 1823, some 40 students were attending. By 1827 the number was closer to 60, straining the room’s capacity and keeping two servants busy distributing tea. Along the way, the eager participants acquired the labels “Simeonite” and “Sim,” which they wore as badges of honor.

Of the undergraduates Simeon trained during his 54 years at Holy Trinity, some 1,100 became effective—and many, distinguished— parish ministers, chaplains, and missionaries.

Secrets of a rough-edged coach

When we turn to the “secrets” of Simeon’s effectiveness as a mentor, we collide with a vexing fact: his personality.

Throughout his life, Simeon retained an affected manner, over-careful of gestures and speech, at pains to appear a gentleman. A friendly critic, Sir James Stephen, remarked that Simeon carried himself with “a seat in the saddle so triumphant, stories so exquisitely unbefitting him about the pedigree of his horses or the vintages of his cellar,” that he seemed to be “studying in clerical costume for the part of Mercutio, and doing it scandalously ill.”

How could such a man mentor others well?

1. His love for his students was genuine and sacrificial. Simeon called the conversation parties “a foretaste of heaven.” One student, Thomas Thomason, wrote to a friend, “Mr. Simeon watches over us as a shepherd over his sheep. He takes delight in instructing us, and has us continually at his rooms. His Christian love and zeal prompt him to notice us.”

2. He exemplified a high—and realistic—view of the calling. Simeon believed that of all vocations, the ministry was most difficult, “because it requires such self-denying habits and spiritual affections. The responsibility that attaches to it is such that no man would dare to take it upon himself, if he had not a promise of peculiar assistance in the discharge of it.”

He counseled divinity students that they must have an internal call, which would come not as a revelation, but “partly from a sense of obligation to him for his redeeming love, partly from a compassion for the ignorant and perishing multitudes around us, and partly from a desire to be an honoured instrument in the Redeemer’s hands.” He knew that only such a call could carry them through.

3. He offered practical help, at great personal cost. Simeon did not limit his care to the weekly discussions. “As soon as he was convinced that a young ordinand had true potential and was fully committed to Christ,” said Hopkins, “there was nothing he would not do for him. He longed to provide in his own person what he himself had so grievously missed when he was in their position—a wise, experienced, and kindly person to turn to for advice and encouragement. So he made himself as accessible as he possibly could.”

One of the most important helps Simeon gave protégés came after they left Cambridge. In that day, clerical positions were bought and sold, often given to unqualified and undevout sons descended from medieval landlords. Many “Sims” got their divinity degrees but found themselves unable to secure a pulpit.

Simeon, wealthy from both family money and the sales of his famed sermon outlines, addressed their dilemma directly: he bought them coveted “advowsons”—clerical positions in the burgeoning urban areas. Soon many of his fervent pupils found themselves preaching in influential city parishes long accustomed to slumber under the ministry of untalented sons of privilege.

4. He encouraged balance in ministry. Out of concern for their intellectual, spiritual, and physical health, Simeon imposed on his “Sims” a regimen of hard work, careful study, obedience to the university rules, and above all, exercise. Yet he counseled moderation even in these disciplines. He urged them, “Don’t let Satan make you overwork—and thus put you out of action for a long period.”

To an aged bishop he wrote this congratulation: “It requires more deeply-rooted zeal for God to keep within our strength for his sake, than to exceed it. Look at all the young ministers: they run themselves out of breath in a year or two and in many instances never recover it. Is this wise?”

5. He grew in his willingness to be corrected. Perhaps the most important aspect of Simeon’s character as mentor—certainly one most noted by his gownsmen—was his willingness to acknowledge his own faults and to accept correction. This humility did not come naturally—given his personality—but he developed it as he matured.

Thomas Lloyd, though five years younger than Simeon, proved himself a good friend by pointing out honestly some of the pastor’s failings. In response to one such observation, Simeon wrote a letter thanking him “most sincerely for your kind observations respecting misguided zeal” and expressing the hope that he might improve.

Simeon did indeed improve. He learned, for example, from observing the devout patriarch Henry Venn. On one occasion Simeon witnessed Venn lose his temper and speak ill of another person. But Simeon then also got to see the result: “I was particularly struck with the humiliation he expressed for it in his prayer the next day.”

Venn, in turn, testified to the fruit of his younger friend’s teachable spirit: “Mr. Simeon’s character shines brightly. He grows in humility, is fervent in spirit, and very bountiful and loving.”

Hopkins concurs, “As he grew older, although eccentricity and punctiliousness remained, humility and love triumphed over pride and harshness, so that during the latter part of his life there can have been few men who had more friends.”

Or disciples.

2 responses to “How Charles Simeon mentored a generation and kept evangelicalism alive in 19th-century England

  1. Thank you for this apt summary of Simeon’s “long obedience in the same direction.” He has long been my principle exemplar in the work I’ve been doing for over (a mere) 25 years: chaplain, teacher, coach, and now counselor in a boarding school. Your article kindled anew my imagination for the work. Grace & peace to you.

  2. Pingback: What Dante’s Inferno tells us about fallen and redeemed leadership | Grateful to the dead

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