Pastoring Through Opposition

The Painful and Fruitful Ministry of Charles Simeon

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Pastor, La Mirada, California

In the summer of 1782, Charles Simeon (1759–1836) was invited to fill the pulpit of St. Edward’s, Cambridge, for the vacationing Christopher Atkinson. At the time, Simeon was only 22 years old, had come to faith in Christ just three years before, and, by his own admission, “knew not any [sincerely] religious person.”1 Despite these limitations, God used Simeon to pack the pews of St. Edward’s, rivet his hearers, and lead the venerable John Berridge of Everton to compare the sight of this weekly phenomenon to “opening night of a London play.”

That summer was one of adulation and affirmation for Simeon. So one would expect both to follow him to his new appointment just blocks away at Holy Trinity. But they didn’t. For Simeon, the first twelve years there were filled with stiff and steady opposition from the leaders as well as the laity. And over his remaining years at Holy Trinity, 54 in total, Simeon faced a barrage of other challenges, each one formidable enough to potentially end his ministry. Through these very challenges, however, God shaped Simeon into the great gospel influence that he was then and remains now.

Appointment and Opposition

While still a Cambridge undergraduate, Simeon was named a fellow at King’s College, ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, and blessed with his blockbuster summer at St. Edward’s. In November of that year, the pastor of Holy Trinity, Henry Therond, died. Soon thereafter, the Bishop of Ely, James Yorke, appointed the young Simeon as Therond’s successor.

Despite Simeon’s triumph earlier that summer, the people of Holy Trinity quickly rose in opposition to the bishop’s choice. Their man of choice was the more experienced and politically savvy John Hammond. The bishop would not budge in his selection of Simeon, but neither would the people in their preference for Hammond. So, exercising their prerogative, the people hired Hammond as their afternoon lecturer.2 Then, those parishioners with rented pews locked them so that any Sunday-morning churchgoers (those who wished to hear Simeon preach) had to sit on benches rented at Simeon’s expense.3 Finally, after multiple attempts by Simeon to start a Sunday-evening service, the church wardens locked the building altogether, thereby prohibiting any kind of nighttime gathering within the walls of Holy Trinity.

After five years, Hammond left his position as afternoon lecturer. But instead of appointing Simeon as Hammond’s replacement, the congregation hired Butler Berry. Ultimately, in 1795, the people of Holy Trinity replaced the departing Berry with their pastor of twelve years. Simeon was now the minister of Holy Trinity in name as well as in spirit. More than a decade of deep-seated opposition was over. But Simeon’s challenges were not.

Ongoing Challenges

The list of Simeon’s ongoing challenges ranges far and wide, from Cambridge, community, and church to illness, loss, and battles with his own indwelling sin.

Even though Simeon worked for the University of Cambridge, he faced opposition from the university at large,4 as well as members of his own college.5 On at least three different occasions, Simeon was stridently opposed from the pulpit and in print for matters relating to biblically orthodox sermons he had preached before the university.6

Simeon faced opposition not only from inside the university, but from outside of it as well. In 1812, Simeon wrote to Thomas Thomason about two men who were disturbing a pair of religious societies for which Simeon was responsible.7 Five years later, Simeon again shared with Thomason about “a most malignant attempt to injure my character”8 from those in the community.

While Simeon was deeply devoted to the Church of England, he also faced opposition from some within it. In 1808, Bishop Yorke, the one by whom Simeon was appointed pastor at Holy Trinity and with whom he very much got along, died. From that time on, Yorke’s replacement, Bishop Dampier, became a perennial opponent to Simeon.

Simeon was saddled with a pair of enduring physical challenges. He struggled with his speaking voice from his late thirties to his early sixties — at one point leaving him with the feeling that he was “more like one dead than alive.”9 As Simeon was finally resolving his vocal issues, he began struggling with gout, a condition that he first described as a “bruised foot,” but later as “a very long step towards the eternal world.”10

Simeon bore up under the emotional challenges that come with the death of close family and friends — his brothers Richard (1782) and Edward (1813), as well as his close friends and former curates Henry Martyn (1812) and Thomas Thomason (1829). By 1817, Simeon himself was much aware of his own mortality, writing, “I feel that I am running a race against time; and I want to finish my work before ‘the night cometh, in which no man can work.’”11

Finally, Simeon faced lifelong challenges against his own anger and pride. These two tendencies were well-known both to others12 and to Simeon himself.13 As late as 1827, less than a decade before his death, Simeon admitted that he was still working on matters related to his temper.

Example and Lessons

What are some ways Simeon endured these challenges — such that he not only remained in ministry, but did so for 54 years and left a legacy that still bears fruit today? And what lessons might his example have for pastors today?

Attend to your own soul.

In the first place, Simeon endured his many challenges by attending carefully to his own soul. He learned a dictum early in his life that “to soar heavenward” one must “grow downwards in humility.”14 So, Simeon spent long hours every day in God’s word and prayer. In fact, he went to bed early so that he could get up early and give unhurried time to his Lord in these ways.15 He referred to prayer as the “grand means” for one’s “growth in grace,”16 while “a devout reading of Scripture . . . qualifies [one] to speak to others.”17

“Simeon endured his many challenges by attending carefully to his own soul.”

Simeon also attended to his soul by engaging in rich fellowship with others. For example, he was sincerely and deeply devoted to the Reformed content and rhythms of the Church of England, and the weekly worship of his church greatly sustained him. He was also an active part of the Eclectic Club, a group of pastors who regularly met for mutual theological edification. Finally, Simeon convened an annual weeklong retreat for ministers and their wives that was devoted to rest, Bible reading, and extended times of conversation and fellowship. These retreats were of such spiritual encouragement that he reflected on one as follows:

For half a day perhaps I have often known times as precious; but never for nearly three days together. The solemnity, the tenderness, the spirituality, and the love were equal to anything I have ever seen. God was truly in “the midst of us.”18

By diligently pursuing these means of grace, Simeon remained spiritually nourished and up to facing the challenges of ministry.

Attend to the souls of others.

Simeon endured his many challenges by attending not only to his own soul but also to the souls of others. He devoted himself to many projects — all focused on Scripture — that no doubt kept his personal challenges in perspective.

Simeon’s aim for Holy Trinity was to nurture his people by regularly and faithfully preaching the Bible. His aim for Cambridge undergrads was to teach them how to reason according to Scripture (which he did at Friday-night tea parties held in his rooms), as well as how to faithfully exposit the Scripture (which he did at Sunday-afternoon sermon classes also held in his rooms). Simeon’s aim for Britain and beyond was to put the Bible into the hands of as many people as possible. This led to his part in the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Simeon also worked to send faithful Bible teachers to as many places as he could. So he established the Society for Educating Pious Men for Ministry, of which William Wilberforce was a trustee.19 He also established a trust dedicated to purchasing pulpits throughout England into which biblically orthodox preachers could be placed.20 Finally, Simeon played an integral part in founding the Church Missionary Society21 as well as the Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews.

“Simeon’s long-term investment in a variety of Bible-focused projects led to a life of ministry stability.”

Simeon’s long-term investment in a variety of Bible-focused projects led to a life of ministry stability. So, for example, instead of being entirely consumed by his early difficulties at Holy Trinity, Simeon spent those years also initiating and developing his missionary interests in India, his sermon classes among undergraduates, and his earliest printed edition on preaching. These efforts beyond the parish kept the challenges at Holy Trinity from holding Simeon back in his overall desire to spread the word of God. Throughout the years, as Simeon faced setbacks in one area of ministry, his progress in others provided encouragement to press on.

Endurance in Every Challenge

Throughout his five-and-a-half decades of pastoral ministry, Simeon’s character was shaped by many of the same challenges that pastors face today. The following questions, each forged on the anvil of Simeon’s life and ministry, can help pastors reflect on our own work and, in doing so, further build up our endurance for a long life of effective ministry.

Like Simeon, do I habitually give myself to the word and prayer? If not, then am I doing what it takes to make the word and prayer a priority in my daily life?

Like Simeon, do I sincerely view my church’s liturgy (whatever form that may take) as a source of spiritual nourishment? If not, then what measures can I take to be fed by it rather than merely preside over it?

Like Simeon, do I regularly take time away for personal edification and encouragement? If not, then with what group of like-minded pastors or gospel workers can I associate for spiritual development and refreshment?

Like Simeon, do I creatively leverage my work in a variety of ways? If not, into what added areas could I extend my gospel burden, my sermons, and my experience?

As long as we pastor imperfect saints, in a fallen world, from a broken body and embattled soul, we will face challenges — some of which may tempt us to give up ministry altogether. But as with Simeon, God has more than enough grace to sustain us as we attend carefully to our own souls, the souls of others, and the Christ who saves us both.

  1. Charles Simeon, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, M.A., ed. William Carus (London: Hatchard & Son, 1847), 11. 

  2. They also paid him twice as much as Simeon. See Randall J. Gruendyke, “Charles Simeon: Faithful Shepherd to Hostile Sheep,” in 12 Faithful Men, ed. Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 106. 

  3. At one point, the benches were tossed out of the church building into the church yard by the church wardens. See Handley Moule, Charles Simeon (London: M.A. Metheun & Co., 1892), 38. 

  4. Moule, 62–64. 

  5. Moule, 170. 

  6. In 1805–6, he was opposed by Dr. Pearson, Master of Sidney, regarding “The Churchman’s Confession,” and again in 1810 regarding “Evangelical and Pharisaic Righteousness Compared.” In 1811, Simeon was opposed by Professor Marsh regarding his sermons “On the Excellency of the Liturgy.” See Carus, Memoirs, 209, 278–79, 293–94). 

  7. Carus, 345–47. 

  8. Carus, 452–53. 

  9. Moule, Charles Simeon, 167. 

  10. Carus, Memoirs, 437. 

  11. Carus, 446. 

  12. Moule, Charles Simeon, 45. 

  13. Carus, Memoirs, 194–95. 

  14. Moule, Charles Simeon, 41. 

  15. Gruendyke, “Charles Simeon,” 108. 

  16. Carus, Memoirs, 653. 

  17. Carus, 307. 

  18. Carus, 271. 

  19. Carus, 432. 

  20. This was a practice of the time referred to as an advowson. 

  21. The society was an outgrowth of his involvement in the Eclectic Club (Carus, Memoirs, 168–69). 

(DMin, Beeson Divinity School) is Pastor of Ministry Leadership at Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, CA. Along with his wife, Nancy, he has three adult daughters and lives in Whittier, CA.