IV. COLLEGE DAYS
KNOX COLLEGE is now situated on the campus of the University of Toronto occupying one of the finest seminary buildings on the continent. It was opened in 1844 in one room when the disruption of the Church of Scotland resulted in a similar division in the Canadian Church. In Mr. Simpson's day, Elmsley Villa, formerly the residence of Lord Elgin, Governor of Canada, located where Grosvenor Street Presbyterian Church now stands, was its home.
In October, 1861, Albert B. Simpson entered Knox College as a student for the ministry. He was brought up in the United Presbyterian Church and had looked forward to attending the denominational seminary in Toronto, but in that year it was absorbed into Knox College when the Canadian Presbyterian Church was formed by the union of the United Presbyterian with the Free Church, He had studied so diligently under his ministerial tutors, in High School, and during the time he was teaching that, though he was only seventeen years old, he was admitted to the third or senior year of the literary course. The college required either the full arts course in the University of Toronto, with which it was the first seminary to affiliate, or three years of Academic work in its own halls as a prerequisite to the three years' course in Theology.
The college staff, though not a large body, was excellent. The head of the Literary Department was Professor George Paxton Young, who afterward occupied the Chair of Philosophy in Toronto University, a man who is remembered for his brilliant scholarship, his exceptional ability as a teacher, and his never-failing devotion to his students. The Principal of the Theological Department was Professor Michael Willis. Dr. Robert Burns, one of the great figures in the Church of that day, was Professor of Church History and Christian Evidences, while Professor William Caven, who was to leave his mark on Knox College by nearly half a century of service, was lecturing in his quietly brilliant way in the Department of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. These people and their associates were real educators, untouched by the blight of rationalistic criticism which has fallen upon many theological professors of our day.
Among the students were J. Munroe Gibson, LL.D., who became the most outstanding figure in the Presbyterian pulpit of London, England; Francis M. Patton, D.D., President of Princeton University; James W. Mitchell, D.D., Henry Gracey, D.D., James Hastie, John Becket, George Grant, M.A., and Robert Knowles, all of whom have survived Mr. Simpson, though none of them are in active service; R. N. Grant, D.D., known in literary circles as Knoxonian; Mungo Eraser, D.D., one of Mr. Simpson's successors in Knox Church, Hamilton; and Robert Warden, D.D., for many years Treasurer of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Dr. J. W. Mitchell, who has followed Mr. Simpson's career sympathetically, has this to say of his college days: "My earliest recollections of Dr. Simpson go back to the early sixties when he came up to Knox. Your photogravure gives a fair representation of him as he then appeared, fresh from his father's farm and his country school teaching, giving little intimation of the mighty man of God that he was to become in later years. He did not take a full course at the University. He had popular gifts of a high order, and I opine was eager to get into the field where he could exercise them, and v/as sure he would forge his way to the front, I was his senior, being graduated in 1863. In that summer, after Simpson's first year in theology, he was assigned to do some work as a student supply, I had recently been licensed and contemplated postgraduate work in Edinburgh after the summer's work in the field. During part of the time we alternated. The field was Welland, Crowland, and Port Colborne, I did my work faithfully and acceptably, but was quite thrown into the shade by my junior, for already his pulpit gifts were notable,"
Another of his classmates, Rev, James Hastie, thus describes him: "He was a most striking young man -- his body lithe, active, graceful; his face beaming with kindness, friendship, generosity; his voice rich, musical, well controlled. Often, no doubt, flattery was showered upon him, and strong compliments were paid by admirers and relatives, all of which would tend to develop vanity and self-importance; but I never saw a trace of these traits, which are so common in brilliant young people, in young Mr. Simpson, 'Meek and lowly in heart' after the pattern of his divine Master was his characteristic then and subsequently."
Rev. J. Becket, who was also in college with him, writes that "he was a favorite with the students and in urgent request as a preacher of the Gospel." A friend who knew him intimately says that he was never a slavish student, and displayed in his college days the same ability to grasp a theme quickly and, if necessary, to restate it in an almost offhand fashion which characterized him in his later years.
Though he entered the third or final year in the Academic course, he proved his ability and scholarship during that first year in college by winning the George Buchanan Scholarship of $120.00 in a special competitive examination in the Classics. His aptitude in doctrinal discussion appeared when the next year he received the John Knox Bursary prize for an essay on "Infant Baptism." One of his life long characteristics was a love for history. It is said that he and his brother had read Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire while mere children. Little wonder, therefore, that he won the Prince of Wales prize for an essay on "The Preparation of the World for the Appearing of the Savior and the Setting Up of His Kingdom." This prize, open to first and second year students in Theology, was tenable for two years.
The scholarships and prizes which he won were of great financial assistance. The modest remuneration given for student supply in the summer added to the little store. He had to fall back on tutoring in the winter. Even then he was sometimes in sore straits. Facing an audience in Grosvenor Street Church in Toronto in 1896, where many students were gathered, he related one of these experiences. "Many a time I found myself without a penny. I have thrown myself down on the college lawn, not far from where I stand, in the darkness of the night and deeper darkness of soul, crying to God for money to pay my board bill. And, fellow students, He did not fail me then, nor has He failed me yet. Neither will He fail you if you will dare to trust Him." Yet even in such circumstances, that almost reckless generosity which was always evident in him would manifest itself. Not long since his daughter recalled that her father had once confided to her that on one occasion when he had received the then munificent sum of ten dollars as a fee for his Sunday services, he at once proceeded to spend it for a present for his sweetheart.
A few years ago, when called upon to address the students of Toronto University, he captivated his audience by one or two reminiscences of his college days. Then, turning to the young ladies, he remarked that their presence made him feel quite at home, for fifty years before he had left his heart at the door of a Toronto residence as it was opened by the fair daughter of the house.
That was an eventful day. Dr. Jennings, whose church the Simpson brothers attended, had become interested in them, and one day he said to his leading elder, Mr. John Henry, "You have a room that you are not using, and there are two students in Knox who need it. Will you not ask them to call upon you and see what you think of them?" It was this invitation that brought Albert Simpson to the door of Mr. Henry's home and face to face with his eldest daughter, Margaret. Quite unconscious that the boy already had been sorely wounded by Cupid's arrow, the father and mother graciously invited him and his brother to accept their hospitality, with the inevitable result that before the winter was over the fate of two lives was sealed. Margaret Henry as a girl had all the quiet dignity and resourcefulness that she has shown through a long and eventful life as the wife and for fifty years the partaker of the joys and sorrows of one of the great leaders of our time.
Dr. Simpson has left us the following personal reminiscences of his life in college.
"It would be of little interest to recite the ordinary experience of a college student, and it is only necessary to sketch a few of the special pictures that come back to memory from these early years. My deep religious impressions still continued, and they kept me from the temptations of city life. But I was thrown with a roommate in the first year of my college course, whose influence over my heart was most disastrous. He was a much older man, and, although a theological student and a very bright and attractive fellow, was a man of convivial tastes and habits. It was his favorite custom once or twice a week to have what he called an oyster supper in our room, and to invite one or two of his friends, who happened to be medical students, and whose habits were worse than his. On these occasions both beer and whiskey would be brought in, and the orgy would go on until very late at night with laughter and song and story and many a jest that was neither pure nor reverent. I had not firmness nor experience sufficient to suppress these entertainments, and I was compelled to be a witness, in some measure a partaker, although the coarse amusement was always distasteful to all my feelings. But gradually these influences had a benumbing effect upon my spiritual life. My room-mate was cynical and utterly unspiritual. At the same time he had a fine literary taste and was fond of poetry, which he was always reading or repeating. There was a certain attraction about him, but altogether his influence over me was bad."
"I did not cease to pray or to walk in some measure with God, but the sweetness and preciousness of my early piety withered. I am sorry to say that I did not fully recover my lost blessing until I had been a minister of the Gospel for more than ten years.* My religious life was chiefly that of duty, with little joy or fellowship. In a word, my heart was unsanctified, and I had not yet learned the secret of the indwelling Christ and the baptism of the Holy Ghost."
"At the same time there must have been a strong current of faith and a real habit of prayer in my college life, for God did many things for me which were directly supernatural and to me at the time very wonderful. There was a system of college scholarships, or bursaries, consisting of considerable amounts of money, which were given to the successful student in competitive examinations. I set my heart on winning some of these scholarships, not merely for the honor, but for the pecuniary value, which would be about sufficient to meet what was lacking in my living expenses. One of them required the writing of an essay on the subject of baptism, and after much hard study, and, I am glad to say, very much prayer, I wrote an essay proving to my own satisfaction that children ought to be baptized and that baptism should be by sprinkling and not by immersion. Through God's great goodness I won the prize, but in later years I had to take back all the arguments and doctrinal opinions which I so stoutly maintained in my youthful wisdom."
"My next venture was for a much larger prize, amounting to $120.00, for which an essay was to be written on the difficult historical and philosophical subject, 'The Preparation of the World for the First Coming of Christ and the Setting Up of His Kingdom.' While I studied hard and long for the materials of this paper, I deferred the final composition till the very last moment. I am afraid that my mind has always had a habit of working in this way, namely, of leaving its supreme efforts until the cumulative force of constant thought has crystallized the subject into the most intense form. So I found myself within two days of the moment for giving in the papers and the entire article yet to be written out in its final form from the crude first copy which had been prepared."
"The task proved to be a longer and harder one than I dreamed; and when the last day had ended, and the paper had to be given in by nine o'clock the following morning, there was still seven or eight hours' work to be done. Of course the night that followed was sleepless. Toiling at my desk, and literally tearing along like a race horse for the goal, I wrote until my hand grew almost paralyzed, and I had to get another to write for me while I dictated. But soon my brain began to fail me, and I found myself literally falling asleep in my chair. Then for the first and last time in my life I sent out to a drug store for something that would keep me awake for six or seven hours at any cost, and my brain was held to its tremendous task, till as the light broke on the winter morning that followed, the last sentences were finished, the paper folded and sealed and sent by a special messenger to my professor while I threw myself on my bed and slept as if I should never wake."
"Some weeks passed during which I prayed much for the success of my strenuously prepared paper. I found there were about a dozen competitors, some of whom were students in a higher year. There seemed little hope of my success, but something told me that God was going to see me through. At length the morning came when the name of the successful candidate was to be announced. I was so excited that I slipped away to a quiet place in the college yard where I threw myself on my knees and had the matter out with God. Before I rose, I dared to believe that God had heard my prayer and had given me the prize which was so essential to the continuance of my study. Then I returned to the class room and sat down in my place. I instantly noticed that every eye was turned on me with a strange expression which I could not understand. At the close of the lecture my professor called me to his room and congratulated me on my success, and I learned for the first time that while I was out praying in the yard, he had told the class that the prize had come to me. I mention this instance especially to show how all through my life God has taught me, or at least has been trying to make me understand, that before any great blessing could come to me I must first believe for it in blind and naked faith. I am quite sure that the blessing of believing for that prize was more to me than its great pecuniary value."
"During the summer vacations, as I was a theological student, I was sent out to preach in mission churches and stations. In this way I also earned a little money, besides gaining a much more valuable experience in practical work. But I remember well the look of surprise with which the grave people of the congregations where I preached would gaze at me as I entered the pulpit. I was extremely young and looked so much younger than I really was, that I do not wonder now that they looked aghast at the lad who was presuming to preach to them from the high pulpit where he stood in fear and trembling."
"The greatest trial of all these days was my preaching for the first time in the church in which I had been brought up and in the presence of my father and mother."
In some way the Lord helped me to get through, but I never once dared to meet their eyes. In those days preaching was an awful business, for we knew nothing of trusting the Lord for utterance. The manuscript was written in full, and the preacher committed it to memory and recited it verbatim. On this occasion I walked the woods for days beforehand, repeating to the trees and squirrels the periods and paragraphs which I had so carefully composed."
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.
Reach for the Calling Creator
Life of A.B. Simpson - C&MA
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