Charles Simeon was born in 1759, the youngest son of a Reading lawyer. After spending twelve years at Eton, he went on to King’s College, Cambridge, in January 1779.
After only three days in residence he received the provost’s usual summons to attend Holy Communion, a duty he could not avoid but which he felt unready to face. He tried desperately to prepare himself for it. He found Bishop Wilson’s Book on the Lord’s Supper, which gave him a true understanding of the Sacrament and led to his conversion on Easter Day. Of that day he wrote, “Peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul.”
After this traumatic experience Simeon continued his studies for three years before becoming a Fellow, a position which he continued to hold until his death because he was unmarried. In 1782, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. He continued to serve for the next fifty-four years, in spite of prolonged opposition from town and gown, because of the appeal of his preaching. To quote his epitaph: “whether as the ground of his own hopes or as the subject of his ministrations he determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
He was a striking example of Philips Brooks’ definition of preaching as “truth through personality.” Dr. Coggan reminds us that “the sermon, as distinct from the lecture or essay, consists as much in what the preacher is as in what he says. That is why preaching is so searching and humbling and sometimes terrifying a task.” “He made his name as a preacher of extraordinary power, but the discerning could see that it was what he was in his dedicated self that made his ministry so remarkable. He was a man of boundless energy: rising early to say his prayers, riding daily over the fens for exercise, visiting the sick and the poor in their homes and the prisoners in jail.
Simeon once related the substance of a conversation he had with John Wesley; from his own account and a reference to the same meeting in Wesley’s Journal, it is evident that they saw eye to eye on many things. Here is Wesley’s account: “I went to Hinksworth where I had the satisfaction of meeting Mr. Simeon. He had spent some time with Mr. Fletcher at Madeley, two kindred souls much resembling each other in both fervor of spirit and in the earnestness of their address. He gave me the pleasing information that there are three parish churches in Cambridge where true scriptural religion is preached and several young gentlemen who are happy partakers of it” (Wesley’s Journal, Dec. 20, 1784).
Few men have held a more reverent attitude towards the Bible than Simeon. He was a constant student of Scripture and an eager seeker after its meaning. He believed that the truths of revelation stand out clear and unmistakable in the Bible and that the Bible was the sufficient treasure house of the Christian faith and the ultimate criterion in matters of doctrine.
Simeon refused to treat the Bible as a storehouse of prooftexts. He said, “My endeavor is to bring out of the Scriptures what is true and not to trust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head, never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage which I am expounding.” In another place he writes, “I love the simplicity of the Scriptures and I seek to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way it is set forth in the sacred volume. Were this the habit of all divines, there would soon be an end of most of the controversies that have agitated and divided the Church of Christ.”
Simeon described the three great aims of his ministry thus: “To humble the penitent, to exalt the Savior and to promote holiness.” For him Christ was the center of all subjects for preaching and the Gospel was the sure remedy for sinners. He preached with an earnestness and an intensity of fervor that was uncommon in his day. His hearers were convinced that he deeply felt what he was saying and meant every word of it.
His delivery has been described as remarkably lively and impressive. His mannerisms and gestures were peculiar at times but they were forgotten as the people listened with breathless attention to an ambassador for God delivering a powerful message to each one of them. His distinct articulation and eloquence of style fixed the attention of the hearers not on the messenger but on the message.
James McGraw cites his “simplicity without tameness, eloquence without ornamentation, passion and earnestness without affection, a difficult goal for any preacher to achieve, but excellently practiced by Simeon, according to those who heard him preach” (McGraw, Great Evangelical Preachers of Yesterday, 32).
His preaching was soul-moving. It has been said that no sermon is what a sermon ought to be if it is not also an action. Simeon’s sermons were actions. They appealed to the poor and unlearned as well as to the educated minds of the scholars at Cambridge.
Simeon was a self-taught preacher. He once confessed that in the first seven years of his ministry “he did not know the head from the tail of a sermon.” It was after he discovered Jean Claude’s “Essay on the Composition of a Sermon” that he grew in confidence. He published this book by Claude, a Huguenot preacher, together with a hundred of his own “skeletons” as illustrations of how his principles could be carried out.
His method of preaching can only be judged by a study of his magnum opus, Home Homileticae — twenty-one volumes containing 12,536 sermon outlines on passages from Genesis to Revelation. His lectures on preaching reveal his understanding of the art which he so capably developed in his own ministry. He said that the sermon must have unity of theme and message, that it must be intelligible and interesting. Spurgeon said that the pastor who would keep his church full must first preach the Gospel and then practice it with three adverbs in mind: earnestly, interestingly, and fully.
Simeon believed that the preacher should not becloud a text but rather “let it speak.” He advised preachers to know what they mean to say and how to say it so as to arrest and receive attention. He insisted upon care in exposition, clearness of arrangement, and directness of appeal. He advised them to prepare their material carefully and fully, but to leave the wording of it to the moment of delivery. In advising a natural extempore delivery and a conversational tone, Simeon revitalized and revolutionized English preaching among those who followed his pattern.
He recorded one incident that shows his inner feeling. “When I was an object of much contempt and derision I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted, with my New Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some counsel from his Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text to sustain me. The first text that caught my eye was this, “They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name and him they compelled to bear his cross.” You know that Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here, what a blessed text for my encouragement, to have the cross laid upon me that I might bear it for Jesus … What a privilege. It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy, that Jesus was honoring me with a participation of His sufferings.”
William Carus, Simeon’s curate and successor at Holy Trinity, says in his memoir of Simeon, “The intense fervor of his feelings he cared not to conceal or restrain: His whole soul was in his subject, and he spoke and acted just as he felt.” He laid great stress on the need for the preacher to make sure that the point went right home. In one of his sermon classes he spoke of screwing the word of truth into the hearers. He went on, “A screw is the most powerful of mechanical forces. The screw as it turns round again and again is forced deeper and deeper and gains such a hold that it is impossible to withdraw it. In my sermons the application is always another turn of the screw.”
There were certain principles that Simeon insisted on in his interpretation of the Bible. His great theme was let the Bible speak and let no one misinterpret it. “I am willing that every part of God’s Word should speak exactly what it was intended to speak, without adding a single iota to it, or taking from it one particle of its legitimate import.” Simeon’s hope was to make biblical Christians of his hearers, and the true way to do this was to take each portion for study in its context and to try to discover what the writer had in mind when he wrote it. He said that in his own sermons he had earnestly tried “to give every text its just meaning, its natural bearing, and its legitimate use.”
Simeon would usually take a passage, explain its setting, describe its action, and then drive home the message. On no account would he isolate a text and then hang a sermon on it. This practice he called treating a text as a motto. If a preacher approaches the pulpit with a preconceived sermon in mind and only uses the Bible to find a suitable text to which he can attach it, he still has much to learn from Simeon. “Reading one’s own ideas into Scripture is not preaching God’s truth but self,” he said.
The secret of Simeon’s success is that “through evil report and good report he ceased not to preach Thy saving Word,” to quote the prayer said in King’s College Chapel on the anniversary of his death, November 13, 1836. He was utterly dependent upon God. Gifted though he was in many ways — with strong personality, clear mind, endless energy — yet he knew that without God’s continual help and grace he could do nothing.