Charles Simeon (1759-1836) was senior minister at Holy Trinity Church from 1783 until his death in 1836 – 53 years in all (he lived and served as a fellow of King’s College for one more year than that)! During this time Simeon became well known and greatly beloved throughout Cambridge and beyond for proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Bible. His ministry led to a heightened understanding of the Scripture throughout England and around the world.
Family and Early Years
Simeon was born into a family of noteworthy though not extravagant means at Reading on September 24, 1759. At 8 years of age he was sent to school at Eton, and in 1779 enrolled at King’s College, Cambridge. Simeon came to faith in God through Christ during his first term at King's (for a brief description of his conversion go to the first stop on the Photo Tour of Cambridge). Upon graduating in 1782, Simeon served briefly as curate at St. Edward King and Martyr before being appointed senior minister at Holy Trinity Church.
Preaching and Sermons
Simeon was primarily known as a highly effective Bible preacher and teacher (for five lessons by Simeon on biblical preaching see this commentary). During a drought of serious attention to the Scripture in British pulpits, and especially those within the Church of England, Simeon devoted himself to carefully and clearly explaining a text within its immediate and overall context. He did this in a wonderfully natural and animated fashion for the time. Concerning Simeon’s first opportunity to preach the University Sermons at Cambridge, W. Carus Wilson writes:
The greatest excitement prevailed on this occasion. St. Mary's was crowded with gownsmen; and at first there seemed a disposition to disturb and annoy the preacher.... But scarcely had he proceeded more than few sentences, when that lucid arrangement of his [introduction], and his serious and commanding manner, impressed the whole assembly with feelings of deep solemnity, and he was heard to the end with the most respectful and riveted attention. The vast congregation departed in a mood very different from that in which it had assembled.
In an effort to help other ministers prepare effective, Bible-based sermons, Simeon compiled and published his preaching notes. By the end of his life, these outlines filled 21 volumes, a set of which Simeon was privileged to present to King William IV during a private audience. Simeon also had sets of his sermon outlines placed in libraries around the world. Today, this set (entitled Horae Homileticae) remains readily available in both print and electronic form (see, for instance, Logos Bible Software).
Simeon's heart for personal ministry led to engaging Cambridge University students in new and innovative ways. For instance, on Friday evenings during term time Simeon welcomed students into his rooms for an hour of questions and answers, mostly having to do with Scripture. He also taught an informal Sunday night preaching class that profoundly influenced generations of future Bible teachers. In many ways Simeon pioneered the field of contemporary campus ministries and pastoral training.
Local Church Ministry
Unlike many ministers of the day Simeon was active in pastoral visitation. During his early years Simeon called on parishioners in their homes. One day he divided his parish into sections and charged his lay leaders with the oversight of each division. This is arguably the beginning of what some refer to now as "home groups." Simeon also began holding an evening service at Holy Trinity (almost unheard of at that time) as well as personally catechizing boys and girls in preparation for making a public profession of faith.
Simeon was also very interested in spreading the Bible's message around the world. As early as 1786, he took special interest in India and sent former assistants ("Not my curate[s] – my brother[s]," Simeon would say) as chaplains with the British East India Company. Henry Martyn is the most famous of Simeon's former assistants. Martyn translated the New Testament into both Persian and Urdu and was held in high regard by the scholarly "Mohammetans" of his day.
Simeon's desire to proclaim the gospel at home and abroad led him to assist in founding the Religious Tract Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), and the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (1809). He was especially instrumental in the establishment of the Church Missionary Society, the evangelistic arm of the Anglican Church (1797). Simeon not only helped to start these organizations, but supported them as well. He is said to have given away a third of his income.
Simeon was associated with the Clapham Sect, an informal group of wealthy and influential men including Simeon's Cambridge contemporary, William Wilberforce. Most Clapham Sect members lived in London's high-end Clapham neighborhood and were instrumental in founding some of the above mission organizations. They also provided Wilberforce with moral support and Biblical reasoning throughout his multi-year battle to abolish slavery.
Reputation and Legacy
Early in his ministry Simeon endured much opposition for his evangelical convictions. By the end of his life on November 13, 1836, Simeon was highly esteemed throughout Cambridge, the Church of England, and beyond for the very same things. Those influenced by his life and legacy went on to found, among other things, the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship (Inter-Varsity in the U.S. and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students elsewhere).
Simeon's name and essential commitments are remembered today through the work of the Charles Simeon Trust, as well as the Charles Simeon Sermons at Taylor University. Simeon's evangelical influence in England is still realized through a number of Anglican patronages that he purchased during his lifetime. Today these are maintained by the Simeon's and Hyndman's Trustees (c/o Mrs. A. Brown, 6 Angerford Avenue, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S8-9BG).
More on Simeon
For more on Simeon's life:
- go to the Photos & Historic Sites page for a journey through seven key Simeon sites in and around Cambridge
- see the Bibliography page for a selection of books by and about Simeon
- click on the links below for additional online resources
For a brief biography focusing largely on Simeon's conversion and early ministry see John Kimbrough’s A Short Biography of Charles Simeon.
For an overview of Simeon’s life from both an Anglican and British perspective, see Pat Dearnley's piece written for The Church Times on the occasion of Simeon’s 250th birthday: "'Sims', the brains behind Evangelicalism."
For an overview of Simeon's life from both an Anglican and Australian perspective, see the unattributed 1999 Reformation Sunday Sermon [PDF] on the Anglican Church League website.
For a sense of what made Simeon the man that he was to students, parishioners and leaders inside and outside of the church, see Arthur Bennett's "Charles Simeon: Prince of Evangelicals" [PDF].
For an overview of Simeon's life as well as encouragement to remain faithful in the midst of opposition, see John Piper's "Brothers, We Must Not Mind A Little Suffering."
For an analysis of expository preaching in relationship to Charles Simeon, see J.I. Packer's chapter, "Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves" [PDF] on the Church Society website.
For seven points on why Simeon remains significant today see Paul A. Carr's "Are the Priorities and Concerns of Charles Simeon Relevant for Today?" [PDF]
For eight points on Simeon's ongoing relevance see Vaughan Roberts' "What We Can Learn From Charles Simeon."
For a glimpse at Simeon's approach to church (local and denominational) and country, see Max Warren's "Charles Simeon: His Methods in the Local Church, the Church of England and the Nation." [PDF]