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A. B. Simpson: A Study in Spiritual Altitude
By A.W. Tozer
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1943 Christian Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A child is born
The world's great men usually enter incognito. Emerson was wont to put his hand reverently upon the head of any urchin that might come his way. "Who knows," said he, "but I may be patting the head of a future president." The tough youngsters who gathered in Jesse's back yard of a summer afternoon to play the ancient equivalent of piggy-move-up would not have shoved Jesse's youngest boy around quite so freely if they had had a touch of second sight to let them see that they were taking liberties with the greatest king Israel was ever to know. But their blindness made possible many a glorious day of fun for the boys in the neighborhood, and it also guaranteed to David an uninhibited and normal childhood. Such are the ways of God when He prepares His saints and heroes: He leaves them unrecognized by the world until the day of their "showing unto Israel."
About all we know of the circumstances of the birth of little Albert Simpson is who his parents were, and that it was a bitter cold day the day that he was born. For he was born in Bayview, Prince Edward Island, Canada, December 15, 1843, and any day in December is cold on Prince Edward Island.
The plain, stove-heated room where was heard his first baby cry—that strange frightening sound, like nothing else in nature, and having no human quality about it—was made snug against the outside chill by the honest toil of the baby's father, hard-working James Simpson, the merchant, miller, and ship builder.
Jane Simpson, the mother heard that cry and smiled, and when they told her the child was a boy she may have wept a little, too, but her tears were tears of happiness, and not of sorrow. Her first baby had been a boy, and when he was just old enough to toddle over the floor and to say "mama" and "papa," he had died, and the light had gone out of her heart, and not even the presence of her other children, William Howard and Louisa, could bring it back again. So she had prayed that God might send her another son to take the place of the one who had gone, and her faith would have nothing less than that he become a minister or a missionary, though with good Scotch caution she had made her prayer plenty broad, "if the Lord so wills, and he lives to grow up, and is so inclined." It would not do to be too specific with the sovereign God, but, after all, He might listen to a suggestion.
And now what should the new boy be called? Well, plain James Simpson looked over his glasses and, with singular lack of imagination, announced quietly that he should be called Albert. James Albert had been the name of the lad who had died, but Albert was a good name, and it saved a lot of thinking, so Albert it was. And the dutiful little wife agreed, and then timidly suggested that a second name be added, maybe a good Bible name such as Benjamin, if the father think it well. Perhaps she could not tell her husband why—that quiet, good man who worked every day, read heavy books on Calvinism, and had a reputation for great evenness of temper—but she remembered Jacob, and she treasured in her heart the hope that this boy should be her Benjamin, the son of her right hand. So it was settled, Albert Benjamin Simpson should be his name.
And when the neighbors gathered in to see the new lad, they must have remarked—with that friendly liberty we allow ourselves on such occasions—that the big noble-sounding name was pretty heavy for such a sweet wee mite to carry, and that if he lives a month with such a great fine name as that, he is as good as reared! And the mother's face shines with joy, and even the father allows himself a considered smile.
Right here we may as well see what history has been at long pains to teach us, that if you get a good mother it will not do to be too particular about your father; you cannot have everything. Give the boy a superior mother, and he will make the grade somehow. The women know this well enough, though they are not saying so in front of the men. Hannah looks down at the floor modestly and says nothing, but she searches for her own features in Samuel—and finds them there. And Manoah's wife, and the mother of Zebedee's children, and Monica, and Suzanna Wesley; what do all these teach us but the same thing every scientist knows, that greatness follows the maternal line? The men have impressive voices, they look knowing, and claim credit for every sign of intelligence in their offspring, but their masculine pride takes a terrible beating from biology.
There can be no doubt about it, Dr. A. B. Simpson, boy and man, can never be explained apart from his mother, Jane Clark Simpson. She gave him wings. Of a fine Scotch line she came, a line that could trace its history back to the old heroic days of Scotia's grandeur, of the persecutions, and the Covenanters and the fight to keep alive the faith once delivered. High strung and temperamental, with more than a dash of high romance, she had a soul too large for her small body. Straight from mother to son, following the laws of life, went this great soul, sensitive, poetic, beauty-loving, lofty. By the miracle of inheritance there appears again in him her ambitions, her aspirations, her soaring imagination. She had been accustomed to the refinements of the best society, and she never accepted the drab life of a Canadian farm wife as her own. A "guid wife" and mother she undoubtedly was to her unpoetic husband and her brood of boys and girls, but there were times when the dullness and monotony of her existence drove her almost to distraction. Then it was that her children, when she thought them fast asleep, would hear her sobbing out her disappointment and frustration long into the night. But these times were not many, and they seldom lasted long, for she had a mounting fancy, and she had her friends, and they would come to her even there in the ice-locked farm house. The poets, they were her friends, and she entertained them all, (except those wicked geniuses, which no nice woman would read). But there were many good ones, Milton and Scott and Cowper and Dryden and Pope and Thompson; these and scores of others she loved, and to them she went for comfort when her heart was overwhelmed within her. Then she could dream her dreams, and live in fancy the life she had hoped to live, and be what she had wanted to be.
Not that James Simpson, the father, was not a good man. He most certainly was that. "Clean, capable, and industrious," they said he was, and religious, too. He probably had more religion than his temperamental little wife. Did he not pray every morning? And whip his children for laughing on the Sabbath? And believe in the shorter catechism and the five-point star of Calvinism? But imagination he had not. And poetry? Well, it was to be tolerated, and especially the metrical psalter was good, but he was busy, and after his daily portion of Baxter's Saint's Rest and Doddridge's Rise and Progress, he had little time left for poetry. But he was a kindly man and only looked mildly amused when he came in of an evening and found his wife nursing the baby with Milton's Complete Works propped up in front of her. He lived a quiet life and did well by his family, and was an elder in the Presbyterian Church for half a lifetime. Louise Simpson, writing at a very advanced age, recalls that there was "sunshine" in her father's life, but Albert apparently saw little of it, and the picture he presents of his father is certainly not marked by sunshine. Albert remembers something else much more vividly; severe discipline, those endless Sunday afternoon drills in the catechism which began with the philosophical poser, "What is the chief end of man?" and concluded twenty-four pages and 105 questions later with, "What doth the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer teach us?" That was the shorter catechism, but not a boy or girl standing in line in the dimly lighted parlor of the Simpson farmhouse while the sun shone soft on the flowers outside would believe there was anything "shorter" about it.CHAPTER 2
As the twig is bent
And the child grew, and his mother stole many an admiring glance at him, for she saw that he was a proper child, and his sweet, tender face, with great shining eyes that reminded people of Shelley, was good for a mother to look upon. But religion must come first, and the Simpson household was nothing if not religious. The parents had set themselves to bring up their children after the manner of their Scottish forbears. Sharp discipline, stern rules, severe restraint upon conduct, all these young Albert knew, with big chunks of theology which he confessed later he could not understand, crammed into his head daily. Then there was church, family prayer, the catechism, and long dry books by the reforming fathers, more prayer, and church again. Strange it is that in the midst of all these religious calisthenics no one remembered to tell the sensitive, eager boy how to be saved. The love that gave all, even life itself, for its enemies, was tragically overlooked in the boy's education, and it nearly proved to be the undoing of him.
While the rigorous religious training which the boy received did not bring him to a state of grace it did instill into his impressionable young mind the all-importance of religion to the race of men. By the time he was ten he already had a secret yearning to become a minister, and while still short of his teens he was struggling with the idea, desiring to be a minister, but unwilling to pay the price. The preachers he knew in those days must have been a dour and artificial lot, for the sum of his testimony is that he wrestled with himself over the question of whether to become a minister or to flee the service of the church and remain a human being, After several rounds with death when the old Leveler came so close that the boy felt his cold breath on the back of his neck he finally decided to renounce his humanity—and he felt that it would mean nothing less than that—and preach the Gospel. Duty dictated this, and it is to his credit, and to the everlasting honor of his parents, that he could muster enough courage to make his decision to "do right though the heavens fall." Imperfect as it all was and as tragically lacking in the accents of grace it yet revealed a heart that was feeling after God, and more than all it showed that God had not forgotten Jane Simpson's timid request, "that the boy might be a minister or missionary, if he live to grow up, and is so inclined," nor yet the impassioned prayer of inspired John Geddie, the Apostle to the South Seas, who had baptized the lad and dedicated him to the ministry shortly after he was born.
So are the ways of God with men. The facts are there to prove it, no matter how our sleek orthodoxy may kick against the pricks—Albert Simpson was called to the ministry before he was converted, and God said of him, "I have even called thee by thy name though thou hast not known me." If God could—and would—ordain Jeremiah to the ministry before he was born, then he could call Albert Simpson to preach, the lad being yet unregenerated—and he did just that. As far as the boy was concerned he would preach the Gospel somehow, that was settled for him.
About this time James Simpson called one of those painful family councils where solemnity is so thick you can cut it with a knife and the atmosphere is heavy with a wholesome chastening misery, and with the wife and mother sitting by proceeded to charge his two pre-adolescent sons with their respective duties and to map out their future for them. He was a good man, a product of his times and a faithful son of his stern religion, and he is not to be censured that he did not know a swan when one appeared among his brood of ducklings. David's father had made the same mistake, had tried to push every son he had under the prophet's oil except the one whom God had chosen. Howard, the eldest son, is to prepare to enter the ministry, and Albert is to stay at home on the farm and help with the chores! If the good man had only crossed his arms like Jacob he would have been right in his decisions, but he failed to do so, and was one- hundred percent wrong. The blindness that would hang up such genius as young Albert's along with his torn straw hat on the wall of the farm kitchen is too deep and dismal to excite anything but pity. But we have all done as badly at some time; we have all failed to recognize the prophet behind his disguise, so modesty dictates that we pass over this mighty error with no cocksure comment.
Even at that tender age the boy had pretty well learned to discipline his feelings, so apart from a few impulsive and eloquent gulps, he made no remonstrance as his father pronounced the words that meant the end of all his secret hopes. Then a glance at his mother and courage comes to him: He rises and stands respectfully before his father with clasped hands and, with "broken words and stammering tongue," he pleads for permission to enter the ministry, provided he can get his education at his own cost and make all necessary preparation, with no expense to the family exchequer. It must have been a moving plea, for it took something to unmake the made-up mind of a Scotch Presbyterian elder. When the boy is done and has sunk down exhausted into his chair, his father rises, stands a moment to get control of his voice, and then in trembling tones gives his consent and a "God bless you, my boy." So it is finished. The boy will be a minister. God has willed it and the lad is so inclined.CHAPTER 3
Out of the paw of the lion
His determination to enter the ministry never left the boy, and we see him at fourteen, physically weak, but possessing a mind far beyond his years, studying Latin, Greek and higher mathematics under a private teacher, as a step in the direction of his goal. But the stripling was attempting the impossible. Remember that up to this time he had had no satisfying experience of grace, and he was trying to do as a son of Adam what can only be done by a son of God. He was preparing for a ministry in the Spirit, and his troubled heart told him that he was yet in the flesh. And temperamentally he was at cross purposes with himself by his very nature and upbringing. No matter how hard his intellect tries it cannot keep up with his racing soul, his soaring imagination. Already the poet and the theologian are at war within him; John Keats and John Calvin are having it out to the finish, and young Albert is both of them, taking a brutal slugging no matter which one wins. His teachers have tried hard to make him into a good, solid, logical young man, staid and conventional, with his two feet firm on the hard ground; but nature will not work along with them. She will be forever singing to him, forever tempting him away from the sullen earth and bidding him stretch his wings to the blue heaven.
When just short of fifteen he leaves his private teacher and enrolls in Chatham High School, which is located nine miles from the Simpson home. Of course, this necessitates a daily trip of eighteen miles through all kinds of weather—and they have all kinds in that part of Canada. He rode a horse as often as one could be spared from necessary work on the farm, but it seems that he still had to commute on foot more frequently than a boy of fifteen should have done, especially one of his delicate constitution.
Excerpted from Wingspread by A.W. Tozer. Copyright © 1943 Christian Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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