Charles Simeon’s education took place at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, where, in 1779, his conversion took place while a student as he prepared himself to receive Holy Communion, an act required of the undergraduates. His first communion had been a deeply depressing and discouraging experience, because of his use of the popular devotional tract, The Whole Duty of Man, which emphasized law and obedience as the means of rightly receiving the Sacrament. When he was again preparing for his Easter communion, he was given a copy of Bishop Thomas Wilson’s Instructions for the Lord’s Supper. Here was a quite different approach, which recognized that the Law could not make one righteous, and that only the sacrifice of Christ, perceived by faith, could enable one to communicate worthily. This time, Simeon’s experience of Holy Communion was one of peace and exhilaration, a new beginning of a Christian life whose influence is difficult to exaggerate.
In 1783 Simeon was ordained to the presbyterate and in the same year was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, a living that he held until his death. At an early date he had come under the influence of the Henry and John Venn, and his entire future ministry was formed by their Evangelicalism. At first he met with open hostility both in the university and among his congregation, but his pastoral zeal broke down all opposition. He exercised a significant influence among Evangelical undergraduates and ordinands at Cambridge, and he was soon recognized as a leader in the Evangelical movement in the Church of England. He helped to found the Church Missionary Society in 1799 and was active in recruiting and supporting missionaries, including his own curate, Henry Martyn. After their reorganization, in part occasioned by initial resistance to English missions in India, the East India Company frequently consulted him on the choice of their chaplains. Simeon was a prominent supporter of the British and Foreign Bible Society. To further the cause of Evangelicalism in the Church of England, he founded a body of trustees for securing and administering Church patronage (appointments to livings in the Church) in accordance with Evangelical principles. As a preacher, Simeon ranks high in the history of Anglicanism, his sermons unfailingly biblical, simple, and passionately delivered.
The nineteenth century English historian Thomas Macauley said of Charles Simeon, “If you knew what his authority and influence were, and how they extended from Cambridge to the remote corners of England, you would allow that his real sway in the Church was far greater than that of any primate.” The Irish ecclesiastical historian, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, described the influence of Simeon and his friends and colleagues in ministry thus: “They gradually changed the whole spirit of the English Church. They infused into it a new fire and passion of devotion, kindled a spirit of fervent philanthropy, raised the standard of clerical duty, and completely altered the whole tone and tendency of the preaching of its ministers.”
Simeon died on the thirteenth of November, 1836. He is commemorated in the calendars of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Church of Canada on the twelfth of November, and on the thirteenth in the calendar of the Church of England.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
O loving God, we know that all things are ordered by your unerring wisdom and unbounded love: Grant us in all things to see your hand; that, following the example and teaching of your servant Charles Simeon, we may walk with Christ in all simplicity, and serve you with a quiet and contented mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Charles Simeon, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The image of Charles Simeon is from a series of silhouettes of Simeon’s postures while preaching, created by Augustin Edouart in 1828. Courtesy website of the National Portrait Gallery, London.