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Humility Was His Secret Strength

Charles Simeon (1759–1836)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

In my pastoral disappointments and discouragements, I have found great power for perseverance by keeping before me the life of a person who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace.

I have needed this inspiration from another century, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. And one of the pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. It hangs in the air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We blame easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition. And if we think that we are not children of our times, let us simply test ourselves to see how we respond when people reject our ideas or spurn our good efforts or misconstrue our best intentions.

We all need help here. We are surrounded by, and are part of, a society of emotionally fragile quitters. The spirit of the age is too much in us. We need to spend time with the kind of people whose lives prove there is another way to live. Scripture says, be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). So I want to hold up for us the faith and patient endurance of Charles Simeon for our inspiration and imitation.

Raised with Christ

Charles Simeon was born on September 24, 1759. His father was a wealthy attorney, but no believer. We know nothing of his mother. She probably died early, so that he never knew her. From age 7 to 19, he attended England’s premier boarding school, the Royal College of Eton. The atmosphere was irreligious and degenerate in many ways. Looking back late in life, he said that he would be tempted to take the life of his son rather than let him see the vice he himself had seen at Eton.

“I love the valley of humiliation. I there feel that I am in my proper place.”

At age 19, he went to King’s College in the University of Cambridge, and in the first four months God brought him from darkness to light. In January 1779, the provost announced that Simeon had to attend the Lord’s Supper. Simeon was terrified. He knew enough to fear that it was very dangerous to eat the Lord’s Supper as an unbeliever or a hypocrite. So he began desperately to read and to try to repent and make himself better. He eventually turned to a book by a Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper. As Easter Sunday approached, a wonderful thing happened. Here is his own account:

In Passion Week, as I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect — “That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” The thought came into my mind, What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer.

His hope gradually rose throughout the rest of Passion Week until, on Easter morning, “I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips: ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul” (Charles Simeon, 25–26).

Unwanted Vicar

Through the next three years, Simeon often walked by Trinity Church in Cambridge, he tells us, and said to himself, “How should I rejoice if God were to give me that church, that I might preach the Gospel there and be a herald for Him in the University” (Charles Simeon, 37). His dream came true when Bishop Yorke appointed him “curate-in-charge” (being ordained only as a deacon at the time). He received the assignment and preached his first sermon at Trinity Church on November 10, 1782. He met with opposition and difficulty from the start.

The parishioners did not want Simeon. They wanted the assistant curate Mr. Hammond. Simeon was willing to step out, but then the Bishop told him that even if he did decline the appointment, Hammond would not be appointed. So Simeon stayed — for 54 years! And gradually — very gradually — overcame the opposition.

The first thing the congregation did in rebellion against Simeon was to refuse to let him be the Sunday afternoon lecturer. This second Sunday service was in their charge. For five years, they assigned the lecture to Mr. Hammond. Then when he left, instead of turning it over to their pastor of five years, they gave it to another independent man for seven more years. Finally, in 1794, Simeon was chosen lecturer. Thus for twelve years he served a church who was so resistant to his leadership they would not let him preach Sunday afternoons but hired an assistant to keep him out.

“I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips: ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’”

The second thing the church did was to lock the pew doors on Sunday mornings. The pewholders refused to come and refused to let others sit in their personal pews. Simeon set up seats in the aisles and nooks and corners at his own expense. But the churchwardens took them out and threw them into the churchyard. When he tried to visit from house to house, hardly a door would open to him. This situation lasted at least ten years. The records show that in 1792 Simeon got a legal decision that the pewholders could not lock their pews. But he didn’t use it. He let his steady, relentless ministry of the word and prayer and community witness gradually overcome the resistance.

Despised in His Own University

As the students made their way to Trinity Church, they were prejudiced against the pastor by the hostile congregation, and for years he was smeared with all kinds of rumors. The students at Cambridge held Simeon in derision for his biblical preaching and his uncompromising stand as an evangelical. Students who were converted and wakened by Simeon’s preaching were soon ostracized and ridiculed. They were called “Sims” — a term that lasted all the way to the 1860s — and their way of thinking was called derisively “Simeonism.”

But harder to bear than the insults of the students was the ostracism and coldness of his peers in the university. One of the fellows at the university scheduled Greek classes on Sunday night to prevent students from going to Simeon’s service. In another instance, one of the students who looked up to Simeon was denied an academic prize because of his “Simeonism.” Sometimes, Simeon felt utterly alone at the university where he lived. He looked back on those early years and wrote, “I remember the time that I was quite surprised that a Fellow of my own College ventured to walk with me for a quarter of an hour on the grass-plot before Clare Hall; and for many years after I began my ministry I was ‘as a man wondered at,’ by reason of the paucity of those who showed any regard for true religion” (Charles Simeon, 59).

Deepest Root of Endurance

For decades, Simeon responded to trial and suffering in ways ordinary humans do not respond. Something else was at work here than a mere man. How did Simeon endure his trials for so long without giving up or being driven out of his church?

There were numerous biblical strategies of endurance. He kept before him, for example, a strong sense of his accountability before God for the souls of his flock. He learned to receive rebuke and grow from it. He saw suffering as a privilege to bear his cross with Christ.

But there was also a root that was deeper than any particular strategy of endurance. It is so utterly different from the counsel we receive today. Handley Moule captures the essence of Simeon’s secret of longevity in this sentence: “‘Before honor is humility,’ and he had been ‘growing downwards’ year by year under the stern discipline of difficulty met in the right way, the way of close and adoring communion with God” (Charles Simeon, 64). Those two things were the heartbeat of Simeon’s inner life: growing downward in humility and growing upward in adoring communion with God.

Growing Downward

The remarkable thing about humiliation and adoration in the heart of Charles Simeon is that they were inseparable. Simeon was utterly unlike most of us today who think that we should get rid once and for all of feelings of vileness and unworthiness as soon as we can. For him, adoration only grew in the freshly plowed soil of humiliation for sin. So he actually labored to know his true sinfulness and his remaining corruption as a Christian.

I have continually had such a sense of my sinfulness as would sink me into utter despair, if I had not an assured view of the sufficiency and willingness of Christ to save me to the uttermost. And at the same time I had such a sense of my acceptance through Christ as would overset my little bark [i.e., ship], if I had not ballast at the bottom sufficient to sink a vessel of no ordinary size. (Charles Simeon, 134)

He never lost sight of the need for the heavy ballast of his own humiliation. After he had been a Christian forty years he wrote, “There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty years to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ: and I have always thought that they should be viewed together” (Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, 518).

“The sigh, the groan of a broken heart, will soon go through the ceiling up to heaven, aye, into the very bosom of God.”

If Simeon is right, vast portions of contemporary Christianity are wrong. And I can’t help wondering whether one of the reasons we are emotionally capsized so easily today — so vulnerable to winds of criticism or opposition — is that in the name of forgiveness and grace, we have thrown the ballast overboard. Simeon’s boat drew a lot of water. But it was steady and on course and the mastheads were higher and the sails bigger and more full of the Spirit than most people’s today who talk more of self-esteem than self-humbling. He actually fled for refuge to the place that many today try so hard to escape.

‘My Proper Place’

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his work at Trinity Church, looking back over his many successes, he said, “I love the valley of humiliation. I there feel that I am in my proper place” (Charles Simeon, 159–60). Why? Why is this evangelical humiliation a place of happiness for Simeon? Listen to the benefits he sees in this kind of experience:

While we continue in this spirit of self-degradation, everything else will go on easily. We shall find ourselves advancing in our course; we shall feel the presence of God; we shall experience His love; we shall live in the enjoyment of His favor and in the hope of His glory. . . . You often feel that your prayers scarcely reach the ceiling; but, oh, get into this humble spirit by considering how good the Lord is, and how evil you all are, and then prayer will mount on wings of faith to heaven. The sigh, the groan of a broken heart, will soon go through the ceiling up to heaven, aye, into the very bosom of God. (Charles Simeon, 137–38)

My conclusion is that the secret of Charles Simeon’s perseverance was that he never threw overboard the heavy ballast of his own humiliation for sin, and that this helped keep his masts erect and his sails full of the spirit of adoration. As Simeon grew down in humiliation, he grew upward in worship and joy — all the way to the end. As he lay dying in October of 1836, a friend sat by his bed and asked what he was thinking of just then. He answered, “I don’t think now; I am enjoying” (Charles Simeon, 172).