Sometimes ministry is war: The remarkable ministry of Charles Simeon

One of my favorite people from the Patron Saints for Postmoderns book is the early 19th-century Cambridge pastor and mentor Charles Simeon. A curmudgeon, perhaps, with evident character flaws (albeit softened by increasing humility as he grew older), Simeon is perhaps most praiseworthy for sticking out a very difficult ministry in a very difficult time to be a “gospel preacher” in the England’s Established Church:

Destined to Wage War

The timing was both auspicious and difficult. If John Newton’s time was the gawky adolescence of the evangelical church in England, then Charles Simeon’s time was the movement’s early manhood—but it was a challenging manhood. During the early 1800s the movement, begun nearly a century before, was sustaining heavy damage from political intrigue within England’s state church, from an apathetic and dwindling Anglican membership, and from a continuation of the same internal struggles that had marred Newton’s day—Arminian vs. Calvinist, Established Church vs. nonconformist. It was beginning to look as though “gospel Christianity” had seen its day in its birthplace, and the calmer, more reasonable and less activist faith of the Deists and their ilk would swallow up the movement in its very cradle.

But not if Charles Simeon could help it.

Striding resolutely from his rooms at Kings to preach at Holy Trinity, only five feet eight inches tall but “accustomed to ‘bearing himself so well he seemed taller,’” Simeon walked with a hint of a swagger. He wore an ensemble on the showy side of formal, including a “short black coat, breeches and gaiters, black gloves, white ruffled shirt and voluminous preaching gown trailing behind.” Under his arm he tucked a fancy umbrella. The determination in his jutting chin and surging stride confirmed a friend’s portrait of Simeon as a man “destined to wage irreconcilable war with the slumbers and slumberers of his age.”

Yet around the flashing eyes were creases telling the tale of a kindly heart. The young pastor was learning to love and to work tirelessly for a difficult people. Indeed, “difficult” is a pale understatement for the harassment and persecution Simeon endured from members of his congregation.

Starting from the second week of his ministry at Holy Trinity, a sizable group of malcontents had simply locked their proprietary pews and walked out en masse—some of them never to return. This forced those who wished to hear the new minister to find standing room as best they could—for the next ten years. Simeon tried to fix this early on by buying and installing benches at his own expense, but church council members promptly tossed them out into the churchyard. Not long after, Simeon started a Sunday evening service to reach lost sinners, but those same members locked the church doors to try to keep them out. In fact, the wardens sometimes even tried to lock Simeon himself out.

When Simeon did reach the pulpit and begin his sermon, people would walk out. Some mornings, students would poke their heads through the back door of the vestry and yell out insults. At one point Simeon resorted to having ushers stand in the aisles with truncheons or clubs to threaten any of these would-be hecklers.

Simeon’s reception in town was no happier. The fastidiously dressed minister was pelted on a number of occasions with filth, stones and at least once, rotten eggs. This was undergraduate behavior, but the faculty at Cambridge hardly treated him any better—they slandered him and excluded him from their circle. Many of the townspeople, too, ostracized him, so that when one day a passing member of the working poor actually tipped his hat to him, Simeon “was so touched that he had to hurry back to his rooms where he broke down in tears of gratitude.”

In a time of particularly intense opposition, Simeon wrote in his journal, “In this state of affairs, I saw no remedy but faith and patience.” He clung to 2 Timothy 2:24, “The servant of the Lord must not strive [that is, be quarrelsome], but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient.”

Once, when he was feeling all of this opposition acutely, Simeon “went for a walk with his Greek Testament in his hand, and prayed that God would comfort him from his Word.” He opened his Bible at random and read, “And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon [Simeon] by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.” Wrote Simeon in his Memoirs, “When I read that, I said, ‘Lord, lay it on me, lay it on me. I will gladly bear the cross for thy sake.’” Looking back across his life, he would later write then whenever rejected, “I have wished rather to suffer than to act; because in suffering, I could not fail to be right; in acting, I might easily do amiss.”

Simeon would not give up. And after many years, he did begin to see a turnaround. Especially remarkable was his changing reputation among Cambridge undergraduates, who by 1818 filled his nine-hundred- seat church to the galleries, making up about half of his congregation. The persecution did not end, however, even after a decade and more of ministry. Even as late as 1820, his curate, Mr. Scholefield, regularly had to walk guests to Holy Trinity through a gauntlet of “coarse abuse” from “idle undergraduates who rejoiced in nothing more than hooting at Simeon or his curate.”

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