VI. PASTORAL EVANGELISM
CHESTNUT Street Church was the largest Presbyterian congregation in Louisville and the most influential in that Synod of the Northern Presbyterian Church. It had noble traditions and challenged the best effort of the brilliant young Canadian who had been called to be its spiritual leader. An annual stipend of five thousand dollars relieved him of financial anxiety, and the welcome accorded to him and Mrs. Simpson promised well for a happy pastorate.
The inaugural sermon gave assurance of a true Gospel ministry. It was a timely application of the text, "And they saw no one but Jesus only," leading up to a personal pledge and appeal to his people. "In coming among you, I am not ashamed to own this as the aim of my ministry and to take these words as the motto and keynote of my future preaching Jesus only."
The young pastor was still treading the well-beaten paths of the modern Church. How little he anticipated the developments that were to come in his life and ministry was shown by this sentence in his personal address to the congregation that morning: "I shall not prove to be the apostle of any new revelation or become the exponent of any new truth." New to him and to his flock were those revelations of the fullness of the Gospel which came when his own eyes had seen "no one but Jesus only." Strangely new would have sounded his great hymn, "Jesus Only," into which he compressed his later and richer conceptions, of which this is the refrain --
"Jesus only! Jesus ever! Jesus all in all we sing! Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Glorious Lord and Coming King!"
It was not long till Louisville awakened to the fact that a very vital force had appeared. The city lay on the border line between the North and the South, and denominations had been divided" on the question of slavery, some Louisville congregations adhering to one section and some to the other. A decade had not sufficed to reconcile brother to brother even within Christian circles. Mr. Simpson felt this hindrance keenly, and after much prayer, knowing that nothing would heal wounds like a revival, he invited all of the pastors of the city to meet in Chestnut Street Church to consult about bringing an evangelist for a series of union meetings. "But," said he, "we must have unity among ourselves first." They went to their knees and poured out their hearts for such a baptism of love as would sweep away their differences. When they rose, all but one were melted. At the second meeting two ministers who had not recognized each other since the war began shook hands."
This resulted in an evangelistic campaign conducted by one of the great evangelists of the day. Major Whittle, and that sweetest of Gospel singers, P. P. Bliss. The city was stirred as never before, and hundreds were converted. How greatly Chestnut Street Church was quickened is shown by a report of the communion service which appeared in a daily paper.
"The building was filled to the utmost capacity, chairs and benches having been placed in the aisles and around the pulpit. Since the last communion season, three months ago, one hundred members have been added to the church, eighty-four having been received on profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior since the beginning of the meetings conducted by Messrs. Whittle and Bliss. The pastor, Rev. A. B. Simpson has labored with untiring patience and zeal, and has now the great joy of seeing this large number saved by the blood of the Lamb and safely sheltered within the fold on earth. His pastorate has been greatly blessed, and during the few months he has been with them one hundred and seventy-five have been added to the roll. He is faithful, tender, abundant in labors, and the work of the Lord is prospering in his hand."
Mr. Simpson was convinced that a united Sunday evening Gospel meeting should be continued, and, failing to enlist the cooperation of the other churches, he determined to attempt it himself. Public Library Hall, where the revival meetings had been held, was engaged for these Sunday evening meetings, and the evening service in Chestnut Street Church was suspended. The Courier Journal and other dailies gave unstinted support and defended him against unwarranted criticism. They published some of his addresses verbatim, and their wide constituency always received at least the heart of his message and an appreciative report of each meeting.
From the outset this unprecedented procedure on the part of a fashionable church met approval from the masses and was attended with divine blessing. Consequently, what began as an experiment continued as an "institution." In the late spring, a reporter wrote:
"Public Library Hall, seating more than two thousand, has been filled to overflowing with the representatives of all classes of society. Mr. Simpson's forte is pathos; his pungent deductions, lucid illustrations, and incisive appeals arc but so many strands of a pathetic line of discourse that breaks down, oftentimes, the sturdiest indifference, takes sophistry by storm, and vitalizes the most dormant resolution." Another reporter says that, "He broke through the barriers of the pulpit, dissipated the reserve of a professional divine, and talked as one young man talking to another. The effect of this was, what Mr. Simpson may himself not have noticed particularly, that in the ensuing days every one who had heard him and who chanced to meet him saluted him as an acquaintance."
The singing of P. P. Bliss convinced Mr. Simpson of the wisdom of giving a large place to the ministry of song, and in all his subsequent work, not only chorus and congregational singing, but solos were special features. He was a keen critic of the work of the soloist and was satisfied with nothing less than a musical message given with the same motive and spirit in which he preached. Mr. Bliss returned more than once to sing in the Sunday night meetings, and his tragic death in a railway accident was a great blow to Mr. Simpson. The regular soloist, Mr. D. McPherson, was an effective coworker throughout the Louisville meetings.
The winter campaign was so successful that Mr. Simpson proposed to model the future work of the church on this pattern, and to this end suggested the erection of a Tabernacle in a central location on Broadway, a short distance from the old church. The congregation concurred, purchased a suitable site on the corner of Broadway and Fourth Avenue, and proceeded to build their new home. A conservative minority opposed this and withdrew, forming the nucleus of another church.
The Sunday night service was resumed in the fall of 1875. It seems that subtle opposition prevented the use of Public Library Hall, and consequently Macauley's Theatre was engaged. This led to another storm of criticism on the part of a certain element in the churches, and caustically censorious articles on ''Sunday Theatricals" appeared in a religious journal. The Kentucky Presbyterian defended the course taken, and the city papers were, if possible, more cordial in their support than during the previous winter. Even larger numbers attended than during the former season, and frequently many could not gain admittance. It was not uncommon to hold an after meeting for which many remained. During that winter hundreds confessed Christ as their Savior."
The Tabernacle was not opened till June 9, 1878, nearly three years after it was undertaken. The original estimates called for an outlay of $65,000, all of which was subscribed, but, contrary to the pastor's wishes, the plans had been altered and the completed structure cost $105,000. With a seating capacity of more than two thousand, the auditorium combined simplicity, beauty, and perfect acoustic effect, while in its external architecture it was one of the most imposing churches west of New York City. But the debt hung like a cloud on Mr. Simpson's spirit and, at the dedicatory service, he poured out his soul in a burning and almost pathetic plea to the congregation.
"Side by side with other churches, with a definite denominational basis and a broad and liberal spirit, we desire as our specific aim, besides the great work of edifying the Church and sending the Gospel to the world, to draw to this house, and through it to the Cross and the Savior, the great masses of every social condition who attend no church and practically know no God. It will expose us to just criticism if we have built a home we cannot afford to own. It will prove a fetter to our freedom and our energies. Church debts are properly called church bonds."
"There are two things this church must be if it is to be blessed. One is, it must he free, free in the full sense that all shall give gladly, freely to God according to their means -- the cents of the poor being as welcome as the thousands of the rich -- and no poor man excluded because the rich can pay $1,000 per year for a pew. But a church with a debt can never do this satisfactorily. The other is it must he unselfish and missionary. If this Tabernacle is not able to give up every year as much to the great cause of the conversion of the world as to its own support, it stands as a living embodiment of selfishness and will die of chills. Now a church with bonds cannot be a successful missionary church. Every call for the conversion of the world will be answered by the low, sullen word -- debt... And therefore the easiest way would be to make one brave, final sacrifice... This morning I desire to place on this pulpit the simple standard, Broadway Tabernacle Free! free from debt, free to God, free to all."
On that Sabbath morning a throng of nearly three thousand people saw the strange spectacle of a formal opening of a church without a dedication. The pastor's appeal had failed, and he refused to dedicate to God a building that was mortgaged. For two years he preached in it; and when he resigned, it was still mortgaged and undedicated.
Years afterward Mr. Simpson wrote: "Unable to get my people to pray about it, I prayed myself and claimed it of God in absolute, implicit faith. One year and a half after I came to New York I received one morning a telegram in these words: 'Tabernacle debt paid yesterday. Come next Sabbath and dedicate it. Bring Mrs. Simpson with you.' Of course we went, and the most wonderful thing about it was that the elder who regarded my prayer as impracticable gave $40,000 of the whole amount and was one of the first to receive us to the hospitality of his home as his guests."
At its dedication the name of the church was changed from Broadway Tabernacle to Warren Memorial, in honor of Mr. L. L. Warren, who had been instrumental in freeing it from debt. Two months afterwards it was destroyed by fire, but "rose, phoenix-like from its ruin, and stands today as a monument to its founder."
Robert Lowe Fletcher writes with keen insight of this period of Mr. Simpson's life. "It was in 1876 I heard him for the first time, became associated with him in religious work, and a member of his flock... The details of his ministry possibly are most valuable and interesting as showing the leadings of the Holy Spirit in preparing a person for a great work -- faith tried by fire... While his was not then the Spirit-filled life it afterward became, it was nevertheless characterized by zeal for souls and intensity of purpose of the Pauline type -- such as mocked the cross and flame in the direst period of primal Church History. But the rare enduement and endowment of intellectual gifts and graces were ever too conspicuous to escape the favorable attention of the most casual observer. At that time, his modest, shrinking nature would have forbade his entertaining such high hopes for his ministry as were realized, for to the very last he cared not that the world should hear of him but his message. Nevertheless, those who like myself were privileged to form direct impressions, recognized in that formative period of a divinely appointed career, a latent power, as here and there was a sparkling radiance in his pulpit oratory that was to be notable, under God, for efficiency and power."
One of his most distinguished fellow students, Dr. J. Munroe Gibson, of London, England, says in a recent letter:
"Since our student days I remember only one occasion on which I met him. It was in Louisville and must have been between '76 and '80. I thought, 'There is a person who must have made marvelous progress since the old student days,' and I felt rebuked in his presence. He now struck me as one of mark, and what is much more, a person of God."
Mr. Simpson's pastoral work in Louisville was quite as extraordinary as his pulpit ministry. On one occasion he was impelled to call upon a prominent citizen very late at night. It seemed the more unreasonable because a fierce storm was raging, but he finally yielded to the impulse. The gentleman was surprised, but invited him into his study; and when he learned that concern for his eternal welfare, about which he himself took little thought, had brought the pastor out at such an unseemly time, he was convicted and turned to the Lord.
There was a young man among the converts who was so earnestly seeking to follow the Lord that he secured the pastor's consent to spend half of his lunch hour with him daily, and under this influence seemed to be gaining strength and overcoming his temptations. When informed on one occasion that the pastor would be out of the city for a few days, his face fell. Then Mr. Simpson said, "Will, how would it be, if instead of spending a half hour with you daily, I could live in you?" "Oh, that would be fine," Will replied, "for then I should always think and do and say just what you would." "Then why not believe that Jesus Himself lives in you, Will?" said his pastor. When Mr. Simpson returned, Will did not come as usual at the noontime; so he went to see what was the matter. Will greeted him with a happy face and said, "Pastor, it works. I shall not need to trouble you now, for I have found that Christ really lives in me."
Another incident, which he narrates in Messages of Love, shows how he enlisted the service of his flock. "I found in the outskirts of the city one of our neglected poor so ignorant of human love that she could not comprehend at first what I meant when I told her of the love of God. She had been neglected, abused, and wronged so long that her hand was against every one, and every one's hand was against her. When I tried to lead her to the knowledge of Jesus, she looked up into my face and said, 'I do not understand you; nobody ever loved me, and I do not even know what love means.' I went home that night to my proud and wealthy church, and I told them I wanted them to make a poor sister understand the meaning of love. And so they began one by one to visit her, to give her little tokens of their interest and regard; until at last one day, months later, as I sat in her humble room, she looked up in my face and said with much feeling, 'Now I think I understand what love means, and can accept the love of God'."
In one of the last lectures he delivered to the students at Nyack he gave another experience from this period.
"I remember spending a whole month in the early part of my Christian experience in seeking a blessing. On the first day of the New Year I started to wait on God for a wonderful baptism. I said, 'I shall spend this week and set it apart, shutting myself away from everybody.' I went home occasionally to my meals, but dropped my visiting and pastoral work and just spent the time on my face before the Lord. The Lord met me, of course, but I did not feel satisfied at the end of the week. I was less satisfied at the end of the second; at the end of the third I began to have the strangest sensations, and at the end of the fourth week I was nearly crazy. I said, 'Lord, why don't You meet me? What is the matter?' and at last in desperation I opened my Bible and said, 'Show me what You want to say to me.' In the last chapter of Matthew I found the words, 'He is not here; he is risen; he goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see him.' In that moment I remembered there were a lot of sick people I had not visited for four weeks, and others in desperate need. I hurried up the street to the first home, where lay a suffering one whom I had not visited for some time. I had not prayed two sentences until the heavens opened, and I had a wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost. I found Him when I took Him by faith and went forward to use Him and turn my blessing into a blessing for some one else."
The story of Mr. Simpson's new revelation of Christ, of his physical collapse, of the growing missionary vision, and other threads interwoven in the Louisville ministry is part of later chapters. On November 7, 1879, after almost six years of strenuous service, he resigned to accept a call to a larger field and to new experiences.
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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