Charles Simeon was born in 1759. As a young man, he attended Eton, England’s fabled boarding school. Eton was founded in 1440 and had a rich history. While there, Simeon was quite good at sports. He enjoyed horseback riding, and he was prepared to go to King’s College in Cambridge. Up to this point in his life, Simeon showed practically no interest in religion. But, as a student at King’s College, he needed to take communion, and this prompted him to look into one of the Christian societies there at Cambridge, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).
Through the SPCK, Simeon encountered many books, one of which was The Whole Duty of Man, an anonymous devotional book that was written in 1658. That book and others led to Simeon’s conversion on Easter Day, April 4, 1779. At the time, there was not much of a gospel or evangelical witness at Cambridge, in fact, there was not much of a spiritual life at all. But, Simeon started preaching. Even as a student at Cambridge he preached at St. Edward’s Church— that church that had a prominent place in the Reformation at Cambridge. Then he took a pastoral charge at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. He was there from 1782 up until his death in 1836.
Holy Trinity Church was a center of evangelical witness and spiritual life in Cambridge, but Simeon’s preaching had a mixed reception there. Some didn’t like his gospel-centered preaching at all, and they locked their pews and would refuse to go in protest. The students, however, came in droves.
Simeon’s ministry had three emphases. One was his influence on preachers and preaching. From the 1810s on, he held weekly “conversation parties.” These were for young men seeking ordination, and anywhere from sixty to eighty men would show up each week for this time with Simeon. He taught them how to preach, and he taught them about preaching. Simeon had a threefold criterion for a sermon. He said you can ask these three questions: Does it humble a sinner? Secondly, does it exalt the Savior? And Thirdly, does it promote holiness?
One thing to note about Simeon was that he did not emphasize theology or systematic theology in his sermons. He called himself a “Bible Christian” and not a “system Christian.” Even in the 1900s, people like Martyn Lloyd-Jones and some others pushed back on that emphasis, but there it was in Simeon. So, first, we see his influence on pastors and preachers not only in his time but for two centuries. In fact, John Stott is probably the prime example of a twentieth-century figure who was influenced by Simeon.
Both Stott and Simeon were lifelong bachelors, both were lifelong preachers, and both had an intense passion for missions. That was Simeon’s second emphasis: missions. He was involved in a number of missionary societies, and in April of 1799, he formed the Society for Missions to Africa and the East. He had a special interest in India, and over his time at Cambridge, he trained many missionaries through his conversation parties who took the gospel all over the world.
The third emphasis of Simeon: he was an Anglican through and through, and he worked tirelessly to reform Anglicanism, to bring a gospel wakefulness to the church, and to strive to make churchgoers become committed disciples of Christ. He promoted the Thirty-Nine Articles and The Books of Homilies, which go all the way back to Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer. He was not for the status quo, and he was not for nominalism. He was for a church that took the gospel and the Bible seriously.
Simeon died in the city he spent his life’s work. Charles Simeon, the Anglican minister, died in Cambridge on November 13, 1836.