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.
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, ...