IX. IN THE GREAT METROPOLIS
THE providences of God were most manifest in Dr. Simpson's call to New York City. His ministry in Louisville had been not only successful, but had marked an epoch in his life. It had been as much of a training school to God's servant as a ministry to God's people. He was ready for a new departure in life and service, and it was doubtful if his flock would follow their shepherd into these new pastures. Yet another person with ideals in consonance with theirs would find an exceedingly inviting prospect in the pastorate.
On the other hand, Dr. Simpson was coveted as the successor of his old friend, Dr. Burchard. It was in this pulpit that the Louisville elders had heard him preach before they recommended him to their congregation. It is said that on the occasion of one visit his message had so impressed the people and the pastor that Dr. Burchard would not speak from the pulpit for some time afterward, but addressed his flock from the floor.
New York City presented an unlimited field for such work as had been attempted in Louisville if only forces could be released to conduct it. The conviction of a call to such work was deeper than ever, nor was this young pastor yet prepared to admit that it could not be done in and through a regular church channel.
The call to the unevangelized did not come merely from a city, however great and needy. The "man of Macedonia" had beckoned the Canadian schoolboy to the South Seas, and in Louisville he had heard the same clamant call from China. In New York he would be at the missionary center of his own denomination and others, and plans were formulating for a personal ministry on behalf of the Christless millions.
All of these considerations and others weighed with Mr. Simpson in accepting the call from the Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church of New York City in November, 1879. His first discourse, on Acts 1 17, 8, left no doubt that he had come among them to declare the gospel in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. In the second week of January, 1880, a periodical reported that "As a result of a deep and growing work of grace which has manifested itself for several weeks, thirty-seven persons were welcomed into communion, twenty of whom were received on profession of faith. The attendance on the Sabbath and at the usual week services has largely increased. During the Week of Prayer meetings were held every evening, and are being continued this week. The people of God are greatly revived and strengthened, and many of the unconverted are seeking Jesus Christ and His salvation." This revival spirit continued, and the warm-hearted pastoral ministrations, combined with unusual preaching, greatly endeared him to the congregation, the surviving members of which still hold him in the highest esteem.
It is needless to say that no success within the limits of a church building and congregation, however marked, could have satisfied Mr. Simpson at this time. For two years he used every available means to imbue his people with his own ideal for a church located as was this one in the midst of the masses. He did not meet even with such response as was given him for several years in Louisville. The congregation and officers would support him in every effort towards their own edification and the extension of the work along accustomed lines, but they had no desire for aggressive evangelization of the unchurched masses, nor did they welcome attempts to turn the church itself into a home for all comers.
Dr. Simpson was always guarded in his references to the attitude of this church, whose affection he greatly prized, but on one occasion he related an illuminating incident. On the outbound trip of a church picnic, dancing was commenced on the deck. When the pastor expostulated, a church officer remarked that the young people must have the worth of their money. A prolonged discussion was ended with the ultimatum that unless the picnic were conducted in a becoming manner, the pastor would state the facts on Sunday morning and appeal to the congregation. Dancing was stopped immediately. On arrival at the park the pastor was wanted in every direction, until about four o'clock he slipped away, utterly weary, to find a quiet spot for a few minutes' rest. He had not gone far till he was attracted by music, and, his suspicions aroused, he hastened in the direction indicated. To his astonishment and chagrin he found that while he had been kept busy with all sorts of demands, the young people had been enjoying to the full the license granted them by the church officials. It came to him as forceful evidence that their ideals and his were irreconcilable and was, as he confessed, one of the indications that his hopes could not be realized.
In one of his last public utterances Dr. Simpson gave by special request a number of reminiscences, one of which referred to this crisis.
"For two years I spent a happy ministry with this noble people, but found after a thorough and honest trial that it would be difficult for them to adjust themselves to the radical and aggressive measures to which God was leading me. What they wanted was a conventional parish for respectable Christians. What their young pastor wanted was a multitude of publicans and sinners. Therefore, after two years of most congenial and cordial fellowship with these dear people, and without a strain of any kind, I frankly told them that God was calling me to a different work, and I asked them and the Presbytery of New York to release me for the purpose of preaching the gospel to the masses."
This step was taken after much deliberation and a week spent in his study in prayer. After discussing his decision with the Church Session he announced it to the congregation at a midweek meeting. His address was from the text "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor," and stated very simply and clearly his reasons for resigning and his ideals for a work in this great city. A daily paper reported that "as Mr. Simpson concluded, many of his hearers sat with bowed heads and with handkerchiefs at their eyes. Officers of the Thirteenth Street Church corroborated Mr. Simpson's statement about good feeling in every respect."
One of the issues which he faced at this time was the administration of the ordinance of baptism. He had become convinced that the Scriptural method was the baptism of believers by immersion and shortly before had submitted himself to this rite. In presenting his resignation he made reference to this. "He had said to the Session what he need not have said, but he did not wish to keep back even a minor matter, which he regarded as infinitely subordinate to the great work of the Gospel, that he felt he had no right under the New Testament to administer baptism to any one who is not old enough to make a confession of faith in Christ. As a minister of the Gospel he had stood in this spot two years before, taking the installation vows that he believed and would teach all the doctrines of the Church, and it would be false and dishonest for him, since he had changed his views, to remain. He had no intention of agitating this question. If he were a private member of the Church, he could still remain and hold his views on Christian baptism, since he did not regard this as such a necessary ordinance that it would separate him from the communion of any evangelical church."
Dr. Simpson never entered into controversy concerning this ordinance, and only one of the more than one thousand of his published discourses is on this theme. In the Gospel Tabernacle, baptism was administered only to believers and by immersion, but no one was excluded from membership whose conscience was satisfied with infant baptism. His presentation of the identification of the believer with our Lord Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection was so clear that almost everyone who accepted this teaching sooner or later came to see that baptism in water is a recognition of this participation. Consequently many applied for baptism at the conventions who had no thought of leaving their church affiliations.
He made no plea for a following from among his flock, but advised them publicly and privately to remain in the Thirteenth Street Church. Consequently there was no division in the congregation, and not more than two members withdrew from fellowship. He never became a separatist. In conversation with an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Canada not long before his Ufe work ended, he said, "Stay in the old church and give your testimony there. You are a blessing to my old friend, your pastor, and he and the church need you. Unless it becomes a matter of conscience, a choice between obedience to people and God, your place is where you are."
Nor did he try to deflect Christian workers from their associations, though he sorely needed help in those early days. Rev. Kenneth Mackenzie says: "As often as I could I met with him, for he seemed to long for me, and I was always blessed in fellowship with him. I confess I was more than once allured to think of following his step. In later years he once declared in public that he would much prefer to have Mr. Mackenzie's presence and teaching as a minister of the Episcopal Church than as a worker in the Alliance."
In due course Dr. Simpson's resignation was accepted by the congregation and the Presbytery, his farewell sermon being preached on November 7, 1881, He had surrendered a lucrative salary of $5,000, a position as a leading pastor in the greatest American city, and all claim upon his denomination for assistance in a yet untried work. He was in a great city with no following, no organization, no financial resources, with a large family dependent upon him, and with his most intimate ministerial friends and former associates predicting failure. Dr. John Hall said to him, in Presbytery: "We will not say goodbye to you, Simpson; you will soon be back with us."
Only seven persons were present at his first meeting which was held in November, 1881, in Caledonian Hall, Eighth Avenue and Thirteenth Street. One of this number was Josephus Pulis, the reformed drunkard, of whom Mr. Simpson afterward said that he was once the greatest sinner but now the sweetest saint in New York City. From this first meeting until his death in 1914 Mr. Pulis was closely associated with the work.
In one of his choicest books, The King's Business, Dr. Simpson referred to that humble beginning. "I remember well the cold and desolate afternoon years ago, when a little band of humble, praying Christians met in an upper room to begin this work for God, and we opened our Bibles, and these words were just before us: 'Who has despised the day of small things?' 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.' We knelt before Him there and thanked Him that we were poor, that we were few, that we were weak, and threw ourselves upon the might of the Holy Ghost, and He has never failed us."
Three services were held on Sunday and two every day during the week, the afternoon gathering being for the training of workers. The evening service was preceded by street preaching and usually closed with an inquiry meeting where many souls were saved. It soon became necessary to secure a larger place, and Abbey's Park Theatre was taken for the Sunday evenings. A feature of these meetings was the singing of a large choir which filled the stage.
The next step, a still further venture of faith, is recorded in Heavenly Places:
"Ten years ago when the Lord called me to step out into this work of faith and evangelization. He laid it upon my heart so strongly that I could not question nor resist that I was to take the Academy of Music. It seemed a very audacious and almost reckless thing to do in the feebleness and poverty of that young work, for few of us had any means, and it would seem that these should be husbanded and economized to the utmost."
"But there was no doubt left of the Lord's mind, and I obeyed and committed myself to the work. Afterwards I could see God's wise and holy purpose in giving breadth and height to the span of the work which was in His mind and which He wished us to begin; and as we stepped forward, the way was opened, the means were provided at the last minute, and the work was inaugurated with a sweep of blessing which in no other way it could have received."
In this great auditorium a series of evangelistic services was held in which Dr. George F. Pentecost participated, and Mr. and Mrs. George C. Stebbins assisted in the service of song. Dr. Pentecost was one of the first prominent leaders to associate himself with these campaigns. His attitude is expressed in a letter sent to the editors when he heard of the passing of his friend, whom he was so soon to join in the presence of the Lord.
"With thousands of others I have heard with profound sorrow of the departure of Dr. Simpson to be with the Lord whom he loved and whom he so valiantly and faithfully served. I have known Dr. Simpson for many years, in fact, from before the time he came to New York from Louisville. A most lovable and courageous person loyal to his deepest convictions, he launched out into the deep, cast his net on the other side of Church conventionalities, and took a great draughing of fishes. His missionary zeal was astonishing and put to shame some of our older and more conservative Boards. I have met some of his missionaries in various parts of the pagan world, and they all seemed animated by his spirit."
After this campaign they met in Steinway Hall, Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue, for the remainder of the winter. In May, 1882, Grand Opera Hall, Twenty third Street and Eighth Avenue, was rented and was the center of the work for about two years. A tent was presented by Mr. Heller, a Newark merchant, and a site on Twenty-third Street, offered without sohcitation by William Noble. An aggressive evangelistic campaign was conducted in this tent during the summer of 1882. The following summer, the tent work was located on Thirtieth Street near Seventh Avenue, in a section then the very heart of metropolitan sin and crime. A reporter wrote of the tent meetings, "Scores have been brought to conversion during the summer, and scarcely a less number have been completely cured of diseases, many being complaints of long standing that have bafifled the best medical skill. A list of names of those who had been healed was given, and a number of these were visited, all of whom gave their testimony' and evinced the most implicit belief in their healing."
The next place of meeting was unusual. On the second anniversary of Mr. Simpson's retirement from his city pulpit Madison Square Garden was transformed into some semblance of a chapel for the opening of a series of Gospel meetings. It was seven years since the Garden had been devoted to religious services, the last occasion being when Messrs. Moody and Sankey drew large crowds to the revival meetings. After the special meetings the work returned to Grand Opera Hall.
In the spring of 1884, a more suitable home, known as the Twenty-third Street Tabernacle, was secured. At the opening service Mr. Simpson said: "I am reminded of a providence I dare not fail to speak of. We desired to secure this building, then an old Armory, but a strong financial company, led by Salmi Morse, who had set his heart upon presenting the blasphemous 'Passion Play,' had secured it for fifteen years. We did not stop praying. One lady prayed 'O Lord Jesus, make the carpenters fit up that place for us. Make the Passion people just decorate and furnish it for us. We cannot afford to pay fifteen thousand dollars to do it ourselves.' God did put His hand on it, and He did stop the public production of that play. After spending seventy thousand dollars in remodeling the building, the project broke down, and the company gave up the lease. They offered to sell us their improvements for five thousand dollars. We prayed over it, and God stopped us from going too fast. The building was finally put in the market, and sold at auction, and the gentleman bought whom we prayed would buy it. The result is that we have been enabled to come in here without paying a penny for improvements."
Mr. Simpson left for England in 1885, and shortly afterwards, Mr. Henry Varley, one of the most gifted and effective of English evangelists, came unexpectedly in touch with the work in the Twenty-third Street Tabernacle, the outcome being that for six weeks in the heat of summer he conducted a most successful campaign. This provision was one of many providences discernible in the story of those early days. God's hand was so evident that nothing in the way of divine interposition excited surprise. In his subsequent visits to America, Mr. Varley never failed to appear on this platform, and was one of the most welcome speakers in the Tabernacle and the Alliance Conventions.
The Life of A. B. Simpson is the Official Authorised Edition by A. E. THOMPSON, M. A. with Special Chapters by Paul Rader James M. Gray, D. D. Kenneth Mackenzie, J. Gregory Mantle, D. D. F. H. Senft, B. A. R. H. Glover, M. D. W. M. Turnbull, D. D. Published by Christian Alliance Publishing Co. 318 West 39TH St., New York in 1920. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Life of A.B. Simpson - C&MA
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.