III. THE HIGH CALLING
IT was no easy path that led from the farm on the Ontario lowlands to the pulpit and the manse. In the Presbyterian Church of Canada the ministry was a sacred and carefully safeguarded calling. The Church Session, the Presbytery, the Faculty and the Senate of the College must all be satisfied as to the fitness of the candidate. Beyond these lay the supreme test, for in the Presbyterian democracy every congregation is a final court of decision as to its minister. He cannot be settled as a pastor until be has "a call" from a congregation, and in those days a call was never extended until a number of candidates had been heard in the pulpit, their merits determined, and a decision reached by vote of the church.
To a devout family no higher honor could come than to have a son in the pulpit, and many were the parents who, like the Simpsons, dedicated their firstborn as an offering to God and the Church. To have another son choose this path was a double honor. Dr. Simpson has given us a vivid picture of the family council when his father announced that Howard, the firstborn, had been dedicated to the ministry, and when he himself informed the family of his own desire. To one member of the circle that confession was no surprise. His sister says: "Like little Samuel, he was given to the Lord from his birth. My mother told me that she gave him to the Lord to use him in life or death; to be a minister and a foreign missionary, if the Lord so willed, and he lived to grow up and was so inclined." He had, in fact, given early indications of his inclination. The children were sometimes left at home when the parents journeyed nine miles to church in Chatham. On such occasions, Albert, when not more than ten years old, would fit up the kitchen table as a pulpit and preach to the rest of the children.
Yet honor meant accountability, and the parents felt a keen sense of responsibility for their full share in the making of a minister. Had their boy the "pairts," as the Scotch termed natural ability? Was the call of God upon him? Had he surrendered earthly joys and ambitions for this heavenly calling? Could the family provide for his education? All this and much more is evident in Mr. Simpson's description of the scene in the family circle where, with fear and trembling, he made known his desires. But when once the decision was made, the family never thought of turning back. The two boys had been the mainstay on the farm, but from now onthey were primarily students and not farmers. The parents made great sacrifices, and the other members of the family joined heartily in the plans for the education of their brothers.
Miss Louisa Simpson, who was older than Albert, recalls the struggle through which they went. "My brothers wanted to study the classics, so my father engaged as tutor a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church, a good scholar, and the boys commenced their classical education and made rapid progress. Later, after their tutor had left, our pastor, the Rev. William Walker, offered to give them lessons twice a week if they could go into town. My father gave them a horse each, and they rode the nine miles to the Manse to get their lessons, and thus continued their studies for a length of time."
Shortly afterward Albert thought it would be better to enter the High School at Chatham and give his entire time to study. Howard was in poor health and thought he would have to discontinue his studies, so he engaged as school teacher and taught instead.
"While Albert was in High School, the drowning incident which he has narrated occurred. Shortly afterward, Rev. H. Grattan Guinness, of London, England, visited Chatham, and under his pungent preaching Albert was deeply convicted. Still under conviction he walked home for the week end and was lost in the woods. He wandered upon some Indian graves which had been desecrated, and the gruesome sight greatly affected his sensitive spirit, not yet recovered from the effect of the drowning experience. His father found him and brought him home, but a long illness followed, during which he suffered intense spiritual darkness and often could sleep only with his father's arms about him. It was during this time that he was converted."
"As soon as he recovered, he received his certificate and secured a school and taught till the end of September when he went to Toronto, to Knox College, Howard remaining behind and teaching school another year. Two other members of the family were teachers and the farm was quite productive, and what was earned or raised was gladly drawn upon to help the boys in their education."
There is an apostolic succession in Presbyterianism which lies deeper than a formal consecration by the laying on of hands -- a succession of life, of spirit, of high traditions, of intangible realities. When a lad appears in that succession, it is the crowning glory of a pastor's ministry. Rev. William Walker had the unusual joy of introducing two sons of one of his elders into that fellowship. With the devotion that characterized the godly minister of the old school, he counseled them, tutored them, commended them to the Presbytery, and continued his friendly offices during their course of preparation for the ministry.
The Presbytery is a court composed of the ministers within a defined area and a representative elder from each Church Session. It is their prerogative to decide upon the merits of a candidate for the ministry, to accept him as a catechist, to grant him the privilege of preaching in the pulpit as occasion offers, to recommend him to the Church College which he wishes to attend, to license him as a preacher of the Gospel when his course is completed, and, when he is called to be the minister of a congregation, to ordain him to the ministry. The old time Presbytery took nothing for granted, nor did it trust the results of secular educational examinations, nor for that matter those given by the Church Colleges. Democratic to an extreme, it jealously guarded its own honors and insisted that the candidate, from the day of his first appearance before it until by its hand he was ordained, should prove himself and his spiritual and intellectual attainments in at least an annual appearance before them. By such means have Presbyterians maintained the high standard of their traditions.
Albert B. Simpson appeared with other candidates before the Presbytery of London, Ontario, on October 1st, 1 86 1. According to custom, they sat in silence while the Presbytery proceeded with its routine business. Presently a committee was appointed for the examination -- and what an examination! Their antecedents, their character, their spiritual experience, their attainments, their soundness in the faith, and their "call" must all be inquired into. When the report was presented to the Presbytery, happy were they on finding themselves excused from reading sermons of their own production in this fearsome presence. The Presbytery records show that they all passed a creditable examination and were recommended for admission to Knox College, Toronto.
We are curious to learn how a boy of seventeen, almost fresh from a country farm, met the test of filling the pulpits of those old-time Presbyterian churches. Presbyterians are the greatest "sermon tasters" in the world. The pulpit is the glory of the Church. They will bear much from their minister if only he fail not when he stands before them to declare the oracles of God.
Albert Simpson's testing was the severest that could have been put upon a boy. During his first Christmas holidays he was asked to preach in Tilbury, near his home. His father, his gifted, emotional mother, who cannot lift her eyes to her boy's face, his brothers, his sister, his playmates, his neighbors are in the audience. There may be a trace of jealousy in the pews, but intense interest is lacking in none. Yesterday he was Bert Simpson, their fellow, their rival in friendly contests of brain and brawn. Today he stands high above them in the pulpit, a minister -- no, not yet a minister -- but in the minister's place, back of the open Bible where not even his godly father would appear, to speak to them as a messenger of God. Can any one who has formed a part of such a scene ever forget it? The boy, whose voice was to thrill five continents, did not fail. Tense nervousness in pulpit and pew soon changed to tenser interest in the message, for even then the messenger became "A voice of one crying Prepare you the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight."
If any vivid imagination pictures his friends crowding around him, they little know an old-time Presbyterian congregation. They had subtler ways of manifesting either approval or disapproval. Albert Simpson expected no effusiveness, and one of the marks of his greatness was that, till the end, he maintained the spirit of his fathers in this regard, never allowing any one to congratulate him on his preaching. In the Memorial Service in the Gospel Tabernacle, New York, Rev. Edward H. Emett told that a short time before he had linked his arm into Dr. Simpson's, and had begun to tell him how much his preaching had inspired his own ministry. He was quietly but quickly interrupted with the word, "That is all very well, Emett, but tell me something about what Christ has done for you."
His success in the home church was repeated in others, though his boyish appearance sometimes caused embarrassing situations. On one occasion he was following the beadle, who was carrying the Bible into the pulpit, when one of the elders stopped him, and he had difficulty in persuading that worthy official that he was the duly appointed supply for the day.
One of his college friends, Rev. James Hastie, gives us the following account of their first meeting.
"One summer I taught a rural school a few miles from Sarnia, Ontario. The Presbyterian Church was vacant and was hearing candidates. On a certain Sabbath there was no supply, but unexpectedly a handsome lad entered the church and conducted the service. He gave his name as A. B. Simpson. A double surprise came to that Scotch congregation, surprise to see a lad of seventeen years in the pulpit, and still greater surprise to hear that youth preach sermons which in content would do credit to a professor of homiletics, and for diction and delivery would meet the demands of a teacher of elocution. During dinner, a lady from a church some distance away insisted that he repeat in the afternoon a sermon which she had heard him deliver three months before. Mr. Simpson replied that he had not used it since, nor had he the manuscript with him, nor any notes, and therefore he could not recall that sermon with any satisfaction. When she still insisted, the young preacher asked his hostess for the use of a room. In less than half an hour he came out, entered the pulpit, and without a word of explanation to the congregation delivered the sermon asked for, which was fully the equal of the one given in the forenoon in exposition, illustration, searching application, and beauty of diction."
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.
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