THE REMARKABLE CONVERSION OF CHARLES SIMEON OF CAMBRIDGE 1759-1836
Extracted from ‘Charles Simeon of Cambridge’ by
Hugh Evan Hopkins
It is tempting and would not be difficult to enlarge on the academic negligence and religious indifference in Cambridge during Simeon’s days, for examples are legion. There were, no doubt, many splendid exceptions, but we need to realise the kind of conflict that an under-graduate would be faced with when as a freshman he discovered himself in a world where anything goes, little was expected of him, and few of his seniors either worked hard enough or were devout enough to win his or anyone’s respect.
Charles had been three days in residence when he and his fellow King’s Scholars received the customary note from the Provost requiring their attendance in chapel at Holy Communion in three weeks’ time. He was never to forget the date, February 2nd 1779, when the porter brought him this devastating piece of news. He had only just come up and had been busying himself with such mundane matters as getting his rooms in order, stocking his lockers with madeira at twelve shillings a bottle, and a crate of ‘Black Strap’ port at sixty shillings a dozen, all stored away in sawdust next to his coals. His furniture had to be sorted out as well, though the grey curtains for which Old Court was renowned he inherited from his predecessor. And there were also his coachman and two fine horses to be settled into their new quarters. Altogether a busy time.
As a freshman, or ‘Nib’ as he found himself called, he had to make the acquaintance of the man who had rooms above him, being a year senior. He was known as his ‘Chum’. From him Charles would learn the college customs, and be duly warned amongst other things not to fraternise with or even raise his cap to any of the golden-tasselled Fellow-Commoners whom he might encounter. They were better ignored by a pensioner such as him. So, while still hardly knowing his way about the college, let alone the town, out of the blue came this unexpected summons. Thoughts of religion were far from his mind at the time. What he had seen so far and gathered from his fellow-students neither commended chapel worship nor the serious study of divinity. But somehow this was different. It had the nature of a personal intrusion on his soul, or what he had of a soul. It struck him as a direct challenge to his integrity. Still at heart the gay, easy-going and rather conceited Charles, humbug he never was nor would be.
His first reaction was to try to dodge the issue, to get out of it if he possibly could, for he was far from feeling in the mood for quite so
serious an activity as going to Holy Communion. ‘Satan himself was as fit to attend as I,’ was how he put it years later. But finding that he could in no way be excused, he began to look for some guidance. His father’s advice would have been of little value. Christian friends he had none. Everything around him was still new and strange, unusual and bewildering. He had no idea what to do and time was short. The only religious book he had ever heard of in his nineteen years was a once popular seventeenth-century devotional writing called The Whole Duty of Man. George Whitefield is said to have so strongly disapproved of it that he made one of his Georgian orphans throw it in the fire. William Cowper blamed it for not helping him in his depression, calling it crossly a ‘repository of self-righteousness and pharisaical lumber.’ This was the book of which Samuel Johnson complained to Boswell, ‘Sunday was a heavy day to me when I was a boy. My mother confined me on that day, and made me read The Whole Duty of Man from a great part of which I could derive no instruction.’ Charles bought himself a copy and plunged into it, not surprisingly with little result. He then turned to a book by Bishop Thomas Wilson which he found much more helpful. Instruction for the Lord’s Supper. In a state of spiritual panic lest the day when he must go to communion catch him still unprepared, he made himself quite ill with his studies, his prayers and his acts of fasting. He became so obsessed with a sense of unworthiness that he said, ‘I frequently looked upon the dogs with envy’ (most Fellows at King’s in those days, we are told, sported a dog), wishing he had their mortality and they his immortal soul.
He does not record in his somewhat scanty memoirs how the dreaded compulsory communion went. He was at that point far from having achieved any peace of mind, and was still engrossed in his amateur theological researches. Happily for him, he persevered with Bishop Wilson’s book for another two months which brought him to Lent and Holy Week. He spent hours trying to reconcile his sense of guilt with the mystery of the sacrifice of Christ as portrayed in the communion service of 1662. He had had no evangelical training to throw light on the subject. There was no one he knew to whom he could turn. The skies seemed brazen overhead and when he looked down it was only to see his horrific reflection as a sinner beyond hope. In this frame of mind he suddenly came upon a phrase to the effect that ‘the Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering’. Like a flash it came to him, ‘I can transfer all my guilt to Another! I will not bear them on my soul a moment longer.’ Looking back in happy retrospect over the years, he recorded later, ‘Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on the Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope
increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter Day, April 4th, 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, and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour.’
Charles Simeon had begun his new life as a conscious Christian. He had been thoroughly converted. It was for him a peak experience such as Thomas Carlyle envisaged when, referring to a similar turning point in the life of Oliver Cromwell, he wrote in his most lyrical fashion: ‘Conversion . . . certainly a grand epoch for a man; properly the one epoch; the turning point which guides upwards, or guides downwards, him and his activity for evermore. Wilt thou join with the Dragons? Wilt thou join with the Gods?’ ‘Some twenty-five years afterwards Charles confided to his friend Arthur Young, the great agriculturalist, to the latter’s apparent .surprise, that for all that time he had never doubted of his future .salvation. Seeing that it had come to him in so strange and unpredictable a way, and had not depended on his virtue, his devotion or his piety, there is nothing particularly presumptuous in such a claim.
At the end of his life, in a private letter not intended for publication, he wrote with transparent sincerity, ‘The light of God’s countenance then first visited me, and in his great mercy he has never wholly withdrawn it from me during fifty-six years. I was then enabled by his grace to set my face towards Zion, and though I have had much to lament and mourn over, and for which to be confounded before God, yet, blessed be his name, I have never turned my face away from Zion!’ His was a life-time commitment. He made a special note in the margin of his massive study Bible against Deuteronomy 26.3, ‘That thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt, all the days of thy ife . . .’ ‘So must I, and God helping me so will I, the Easter week and especially the Easter Sunday, when my deliverance was complete.in 1779.’
It is convincing proof of the reality of Charles’ conversion that there was so clearly no human influence at work. No one had tried ‘to win him for Christ.’ No earnest believer had button-holed him and suborned him into making a decision about which he might have second thoughts later. Indeed, it was his total loneliness of his experience which was to influence his personality for the rest of his life. He was driven into an aloneness with God, where he found comfort and encouragement and the power to remain faithful to his newly-discovered Master for over half a century. In his last year, writing to a friend about the assurance which he had always had, he
said, ‘I stamp on the Rock of my salvation, and never find it shake under me; and whilst this is the case I never feel anxious about any little blast that may blow around me.’
In fact, the blasts he was to receive were far from being little ones. Many another convert would have given up if over a period of three years he could, like Simeon, find no one else with whom to have fellowship and to share the joys of his new life. It was a great deprivation. For lack of kindred spirits to talk to, he tried to make the most of the church and chapel services available, such as they were. Though he did not share the contemporary craze for keeping diaries, he did jot down some of his experiences during these vital months. We can thus trace the ups and downs of his spirit as he writes: ‘At Evening Chapel not so much wandering as usual . . . prayer tolerably fervent in and before Morning Chapel, and received the Sacrament so, but after Chapel found a lassitude… At Evening Chapel sad wanderings and coldness; at night I seemed almost to sleep over my prayers such was their weakness . . . Evening Chapel very fervent. At night very devout and penitent.’ We see him struggling with the new demands that his faith was beginning to make on his way of life and the uncertain feelings that worried him so much.
On Sundays he attended Great St Mary’s, the university church, little dreaming of the many occasions on which he himself would have the privilege of mounting that pulpit to address the Senate and undergraduates in years to come. But at the time of which we are writing Sunday was not a very inspiring day. In 1780 Charles says, Â‘Had no devotion at St Mary’s . . . the preacher did not keep my attention well.’ Only once does he mention having gone to Holy Trinity church. On this occasion he stayed on to receive Holy Communion and found himself one of only three communicants. In the year of his death he saw a very different Holy Trinity:
‘Yesterday I preached to a church as full as it could hold, and partook of the Lord’s Supper in concert with a larger number than has been convened together on such an occasion in any church in Cambridge since the place existed.’ Then referring to that first visit of his he remarks with the heavy wit with which he used to make wry comments from time to time, ‘So greatly has the Church of England been injured by myself and my associates.’