By James V. Heidinger II
It would not be long before I began hearing much about Matthew Simpson, the renowned son of Cadiz, Ohio. He was a nationally-recognized Methodist bishop and then president of Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University). He was also famously a friend and confidant of President Abraham Lincoln – preaching his memorial address at least twice, once in Washington D.C. and again in Springfield, Illinois.
I began to hear about Bishop Simpson (1811-1884) soon after my wife, Joanie, and I arrived in Cadiz in 1973 to serve the Drummond United Methodist Church. He was born in Cadiz in 1811 to a godly Methodist family.
You would not call Cadiz an impressive looking town. It is the county seat of Harrison County and when we came, it had some 4,000 people. Joanie and I still chuckle at her concern upon learning I had been appointed to the Methodist congregation in Cadiz. She had been in the small town years earlier with a boyfriend and after lunching at a downtown restaurant, walked out, looked at the weathered downtown, and said to her friend, “Wouldn’t you hate to live here?”
Well, in fact, we didn’t hate it, we loved it – and loved the people. We served there for eight years. (The Drummond church, dedicated by Bishop Simpson in 1876, became the Scott Memorial United Methodist Church in 1979, when the congregation moved into its newly-constructed church building.)
In 2011, Scott UM Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Matthew Simpson and invited us to come back to help celebrate. While preparing, I providentially came across The Life of Bishop Matthew Simpson by George R. Crooks (Harper & Bros., New York, 1890). As I learned more about Simpson, I discovered much that was instructive about his life and times. (The quotations cited are from Crooks’ work.)
First, Simpson’s life reflects impressively the influence of one’s community in shaping one’s life. Crooks writes that Cadiz (and the Ohio Valley area) in the early 1800s was a “virtuous community.” Religious feeling “was intense, and religious zeal active. A traveler on horseback might often stop on a Saturday, at a lone school-house, and find residents battling with each other on ‘the five points,’ the divinity of Christ, or baptism, with all the energy of Luther and Eck at Leipsic.”
The Cadiz of 1811 was also, wrote Crooks, a “town which has been … noted for the brilliant talents of the members of its bar.” He cites Edwin M. Stanton, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, who became Lincoln’s secretary of war, but prior to that he practiced law a few years in Cadiz and was elected prosecuting attorney for Harrison County. He also notes John A. Bingham, the prosecutor of Lincoln’s assassins, who is honored with a statue on Cadiz’s courthouse square. The Simpson family’s small, unpainted plain frame house was also used for a schoolroom by his uncle Matthew Simpson, who would later be elected to the Ohio Legislature as a state senator. Cadiz was clearly a community of impressive, talented men.
Second, one sees the importance of early religious training. At the time of Simpson’s birth in 1811, his father was in poor health and died the next year. Simpson wrote that “Both he and my mother consecrated me to God, and their prayer was that if he should see fit to call me, I might be made a minister of the gospel.”
The Simpson home was a guest house for traveling preachers. But think about these particular guests! Simpson reported: “Passing westward in 1811, Bishop Asbury stopped at my father’s house, and Father [Henry] Boehm, in his reminiscences, states that he remembers Bishop Asbury’s baptizing the little boy, though I remember to have heard my mother say that she was not clear who had baptized me. She was troubled at the time over my father’s approaching death.”
The influences on his own spiritual life obviously began early and were consistent. Simpson wrote, “From the earliest period of my memory religious ideas were deeply impressed upon my mind. The instructions I received from my mother and from my uncle [Mathew], and the religious services at which I was present, so influenced my heart that I had a deep reverence for God. Many times have I lain awake at night thinking of divine truths, and especially of that question which all hearts will turn over, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And how to come to Jesus? What I was to believe and how … were questions that deeply moved me.”
Third, Simpson’s life reveals the impact of early, rigorous education. This part of young Matthew’s childhood was remarkable to discover. It would be easy to consider Ohioans in the 1820s to be rustic, unlearned, and un-schooled people. Yet young Matthew wrote in his diary, “At 8 years of age, being pretty well acquainted with English grammar, I wished to study German. My uncle (Matthew) had a German Bible and an Old German grammar, and without the aid of a dictionary, but by comparing the English Bible with the German, I managed to read the German Bible through and to gain a knowledge of the elements of that language. In family worship every morning I was expected to read the German copy, while my uncle or my mother (in his absence) read in the English.”
At 12, he joined several young men in the academy that met in his uncle Matthew’s home, and while working half a day, he then studied Rosa’s Latin Grammar, read Historia Sacra, four books of Caesar, and a large part of Sallust’s Catiline. In the next 8-9 months, he finished a Latin course and studied Greek Grammar.
At 17 years of age, Simpson met the Rev. Dr. Charles Elliott, a professor at Madison College, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a small Methodist-related college in the Pittsburgh Conference. Elliott visited Cadiz, lodged at Simpson’s home, and offered Matthew – though he was still quite young – a position as an assistant teacher for some classes. He accepted and a few days later set out with $11.25 in his pocket to walk the 90 miles to Uniontown, arriving there the afternoon of the third day.
He boarded with Dr. Elliott, along with four or five other boarders. These (boarders) and one or two others read the Bible in family prayer, and they adopted the plan that each would read from a Bible in a different language from the rest, including the Vulgate, the Septuagint, as well as the Hebrew, French, and German Bibles. Simpson wrote that “after prayer, the various readings of the several versions were a subject of more or less extended conversation.”
After a few months teaching, Simpson felt he had benefited greatly from his studies there, but returned to Cadiz to attend to his family responsibilities, especially his widowed mother and his uncle Matthew. So much, though, for our thoughts of poorly educated, unschooled, Ohioans on the American frontier.
Fourth, his experience at the Dickerson camp meeting is instructive. I had heard while in Cadiz that Simpson was converted at that camp meeting. That was not the case. Just weeks after returning home from college in Pennsylvania, he heard about the revivals that were taking place, particularly the one in the Dickerson neighborhood several miles outside of Cadiz (the old Dickerson Methodist Church remains there today as an historical marker). So, he attended one Sunday and returned on Monday to accompany his sister home.
He wrote about that experience, “I found that a remarkable religious interest had appeared during the day, and that several boys and young men, some of whom had been very wild, were awakened.” He attended that Monday evening and was not “specially interested” until those who were seeking religion were invited forward. A large number went forward, among them some of the young men he had noticed. He was deeply interested in the scene and wondered, “Why I, who had been so religiously educated and whose life had been so guarded by Christian influences, should not experience the same religious emotions as they.”
He moved toward the front and noticed a young man with whom he had formed a “pleasant acquaintance,” but who was not “a professed Christian.” He made his way through the crowd, then “I laid my hand gently on his shoulder and asked him if he would not like to go forward for prayer. His head dropped, the tears started from his eyes, and he said to me that he would go if I would go with him.” They went forward, found a place to kneel and pray.
There were many earnest prayers and Simpson wrote, “I was sincere, wished to be a servant of Christ, but did not feel any special earnestness of spirit.” This is a fascinating glimpse of a godly young man who grew up in an intensely Christian home, reading the Scriptures daily, and probably never knew the “moment” he became a believer, or of a time when he did not believe. (Such an experience is unusual in our day. Interestingly, the late Ruth Bell Graham, wife of the late evangelist Billy Graham and reared in a godly home, said she could not remember the time of a conversion.)
Soon after this experience, however, Simpson was resolved that he would unite with the Church, which he did. And having done so, he writes “I became intensely anxious to benefit in every possible way the young men who were the subjects of the revival.” He proposed a young men’s prayer meeting which was kept up for some time and “was the product of great good.” Soon after this, Simpson felt the need for a Sunday school in Cadiz. Two or three efforts had been tried, but had not continued. So, with Simpson’s lead, a Sunday school “began in the Methodist Church in Cadiz with some half-dozen scholars, and has not been abandoned from that day until this.” (“This” being probably 1890, when Crooks’ book was published.)
Fifth, Simpson’s election to the episcopacy reflects great integrity. In May of 1852, Simpson was elected a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In viewing episcopal elections in today’s church, I am saddened by what they have become. Simpson’s comments about it were refreshing to me. “The choice of my brethren led me to very serious reflection. I had greatly enjoyed the society of my family, and had several children in whose education I was deeply interested. But, as I had resolved to accept the voice of the Church as the will of God, and as I had never solicited in any manner a vote as a delegate to the General Conference or for any office connected with it, I felt that the arrangement was wholly providential” (emphasis mine.) From what I have read of him, Simpson would never have sought status or prestige. That would have been repugnant to him.
Sixth, Simpson became a giant on the American stage. Somehow during the course of his episcopacy, Simpson became a friend and a confidant of Abraham Lincoln. When the president was invited to speak and could not accept, he would sometimes pass the invitation along to Bishop Simpson. The latter had become a gifted orator, often bringing crowds to their feet with his persuasive blend of Christian piety and love for America.
It would fall to Bishop Matthew Simpson to preach Abraham Lincoln’s memorial service, which he did at least twice as noted earlier, once in Washington, D.C. and again in Springfield, Illinois.
In his memorial address, Simpson said, “Abraham Lincoln was a good man; he was known as an honest, temperate, forgiving man; a just man; a man of noble heart in every way.” While admitting not having spoken at length with Lincoln about his faith, he said: “This I know, however; he read the Bible frequently, loved it for its great truths, and he tried to be guided by its precepts. He believed in Christ the Savior of sinners, and I think he was sincere in trying to bring his life into harmony with the principles of revealed religion. … He never spoke unkindly of any man. … I doubt if any president has ever shown such trust in God, or in public documents so frequently referred to divine aid.”
His words became more moving as he continued, “Standing, as we do today, by his coffin, let us resolve to carry forward the policy so nobly begun. Let us do right to all men. Let us vow, before Heaven, to eradicate every vestige of human slavery; to give every human being his true position before God and man.”
And then becoming lyrical, he said movingly: “Chieftain, farewell! The nation mourns thee. Mothers shall teach thy name to their lisping children. The youth of our land shall emulate thy virtues. Statesmen shall study thy record, and from it learn lessons of wisdom. Mute though thy lips be, yet they still speak. Hushed is thy voice, but its echoes of liberty are ringing through the world, and the sons of bondage listen with joy. … We crown thee as our martyr, and Humanity enthrones thee as her triumphant son. Hero, martyr, friend, farewell.”
Simpson’s eloquence was seen in one further public gathering, nearly a year later, February, 1866, in the Hall of the United States House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. The occasion was the final meeting of the U.S. Christian Commission, and the presiding officer was Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Commission had been formed in 1861 “to promote the spiritual and temporal welfare of the soldiers in the army and the sailors in the Navy, in cooperation with the Chaplains.” The Commission, which had offices in most of the nation’s major cities, was then going out of existence. Gathered in the audience were recognized political and religious leaders from across the country who had helped carry the nation through its trials. (Interestingly, there was no concern then about the separation of church and state.)
Simpson was the speaker for the impressive gathering. Hear his moving words: “But beloved workers, as we part, we go to other fields. We shall not be an organized body, but we shall be active laborers. There are other fields. Vice in many forms is to be encountered and vanquished. Cities are to be evangelized. Freedmen are to be educated. But when the law and the sword have accomplished their utmost work, they cannot change unwilling minds. The moral work remains to be done.”
Then before the large, influential gathering of American leadership, Simpson became the evangelist, saying: “We must carry the gospel to men of all ranks, classes, sections, and prejudices, for one thing alone can make us truly one – the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
He continued with great passion: “Workers of the Commission, continue to shine as stars. Your light cannot be hid. … But the workers are not all here. Scattered over the land they are with us in spirit. They are not all visible. Some fell on the battle-field, whispering with their dying breath the name of Jesus. Some fell by disease contracted while ministering in the hospital. May they not be here also? [He is beautifully aware of the “great cloud of witnesses.”] These galleries are densely crowded. Are there not higher galleries? Above this light, beaming so softly upon us, may there not be purer and brighter lights? May not the unseen be very near us? May it not even be that he, our martyred one, whose seat is vacant here, but who cheers us twelve months since, looks lovingly upon the scene?”
But after his mention of his beloved friend, he moves on from Lincoln, urging all to fix their eyes on Christ. “Be that as it may, there is a far greater among us, who hath said, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’
Brave workers, go to your fields! They are ripening to the harvest. Work for Jesus, and ‘what your hands find to do, do it with all your might!’”
I still find his words moving, even after many readings. Simpson did not seek fame or recognition. He felt unworthy of the call to preach and nearly withdrew from candidacy, saved only by the encouragement of a godly neighbor. He was an authentic, scripturally-grounded servant who reminds me of the one of whom Jesus said, “You have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” And so He did.
James V. Heidinger II is the president emeritus of Good News. He was the president of the United Methodist renewal ministry for 26 years. Dr. Heidinger is the author of The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed). It can be ordered HERE.
Photo: Mathew Benjamin Brady, Library of Congress Prints (Public Domain).