You look much younger than I thought you would," a disappointed Methodist leader told Matthew Simpson. Matthew had just accepted the presidency of newly formed Indiana Asbury University in Greencastle, Indiana (now De Pauw University).
Eyes sparkling with fun, Matthew replied, "That is a difficulty which time will help to cure."
It was hard to believe that there was once a time when Matthew was so shy that he could not speak up or look a girl in the eye. It was obedience to Christ that changed him.
Raised in frontier Ohio, he worked incredibly hard not only to help his widowed mother and the uncle who raised him, but to educate himself. When he went to school, he hoped to find teachers who would take him by the hand and lead him to knowledge. He was disappointed. Teaching was just a job for most of them. However, he learned what he could by snatching spare moments for study and apprenticed himself to a physician.
Although reared in a Christian home, he had never given his heart to Christ. When he did, it was at a camp meeting, but without the usual emotional experience. He began to feel an inward pressure to preach. Given his shyness, that seemed impossible. He had his mother to care for. However, he responded when asked to speak at religious meetings and gradually gained more confidence. He took his medical license.
But he had only practiced medicine eight months when he closed up shop. Charles Elliott, a Methodist educator, had asked him to become a circuit rider. Matthew spoke to his mother, afraid of her reaction. "My Son, I have been looking for this hour since you were born." She had prayed daily that Matthew would become a preacher, but had said nothing, wanting the Spirit of God to lead him. Matthew reported to Elliott that he was available. Elliott arranged for Matthew to ride a route near home so he could still care for his mother. On this day, April 5, 1834, Matthew Simpson saddled his horse and rode out on his first circuit.
The shy man became a master educator, the most influential Methodist of the day and a powerful speaker who never used notes. Audiences wept, clapped and leapt to their feet during his sermons. He was asked to repeat favorite messages over and over again. One of them was on the United States flag. Another famous sermon emphasized victorious faith. He made people think as he was thinking.
In a typical message, he noted: "If you live for fame, men may turn against you. If you live for pleasure, your ability to enjoy it may pass away and your senses grow dim...If you live for your children, they may be smitten down and leave you desolate, or, what is far worse, they may desert you and leave you worse than childless in a cold and unfeeling world. If you live for any joy on earth, you may be forsaken; but, oh, live for Jesus, and he will never forsake you!"
An abolitionist, he became a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, with whom he often prayed. He was asked to speak at the President's funeral.
- Clark, Robert D. The Life of Matthew Simpson. New York: Macmillan, 1956.
- Macartney, Clarence Edward. Six Kings of the American Pulpit. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1942.
Last updated June, 2007