A.B. Simpson: A Canadian maverick
By Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird
The Christian and Missionary Alliance Church (C&MA), was founded by an unsung Canadian visionary, A.B. Simpson. He once said that people “must always dream dreams before they blaze new trails and see visions before they are strong to do exploits.” D.L. Moody said of Simpson, “No man gets at my heart like that man.” Simpson was a man of the heart, even experiencing what he called the baptism of laughter.
Albert Benjamin Simpson was born on Prince Edward Island on December 15, 1843 of Scottish Covenanter heritage. The Simpson family had emigrated from Moray, Scotland to Bayview, P.E.I. After the collapse of his father’s shipbuilding business in the 1840’s depression, his family moved to a farm in western Ontario. Rev. John Geddie, on his way to the South Sea Islands as Canada’s first missionary, baptized baby Albert and in prayer committed him to future missionary service.
Fresh out of seminary in 1865, Simpson had accepted the call to pastor Knox Church in Hamilton, a congregation with the second largest Presbyterian church building in Canada. Over the next eight years, 750 new people joined the congregation. Dr. William McMullen, another Presbyterian minister, said that Simpson “stood out at that time as one of the most brilliant young ministers of our church in Canada…”
Out of the blue, Simpson was called to lead a Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The recently-ended Civil war had left bitterness and division between the various churches. As a neutral Canadian pastor, Simpson was used to bring racial reconciliation and forgiveness among the churches. At Simpson’s encouragement, the pastors went to their knees and poured out their hearts for such a baptism of love as would sweep away their differences. From reconciliation among the clergy came two months of continuous nightly gatherings across the denominations. As the pastors joined their hands together in unity, over 10,000 local residents joined them in prayer meetings lasting for a year.
Simpson’s success led him to being invited to lead 13th Street Presbyterian Church, a prestigious New York congregation. Simpson loved to reach out to those who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. When 100 Italian immigrants responded to Simpson’s message, he asked his church board to admit them as new members. His board “kindly but firmly refused” for fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants and poor people. Out of that rejection came Simpson’s vision of a fellowship of Christians where everyone was welcome, regardless of race, income, denomination, or social class.
Simpson decided to abandon his security and reputation in order to start a community where all were welcome in Christ. He began afresh with just seven other people, in a poorly heated dance hall.
Simpson had recently discovered an inner strength and resilience that kept him from slipping into discouragement. In the past he had been such a workaholic that he had destroyed his health. Simpson’s medical doctor had given him three months to live. But upon meeting an Episcopalian (Anglican) physician, Dr. Charles Cullis, at Old Orchard Camp in Maine, he experienced a remarkable healing of his heart. The next day, Simpson was able to climb a 3,000 foot mountain, and successfully pray for his daughter Margaret’s healing from diphtheria – the very disease which had earlier killed his son Melville.
Word spread fast in 1881 of these healings. He was besieged by many with pleas for help. By others, he was vilified and ridiculed as another quack miracle worker. Despite such criticism, Simpson received strong support from medical doctors like Dr. Jenny Trout, the first female doctor & surgeon in Canada, Dr. Robert Glover from Toronto, and Dr. Lilian Yeomans, a Canadian-born surgeon in Michigan. He also received much encouragement from well-known Canadian Anglican priests like Dr. Henry Wilson, & Dr. W.S. Rainford. Many of Simpson’s strongest supporters were Canadians, like William Fenton, Albert Thompson, & E.D. Whiteside, who had been healed from diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, and epilepsy. Simpson started Friday-afternoon healing & holiness meetings, which quickly became New York’s largest attended spiritual weekday meeting, with 500-1,000 in attendance. He even turned his own home into a healing place where people could come for prayer ministry.
Simpson taught that “the great secrets of a happy and holy life are the Scriptures and prayer.” He was relentlessly Jesus-centered, writing his famous ‘Jesus Only’ poem. His passion for Jesus gave him a deep love for other Jesus-followers. Simpson had a deep love for the whole Christian community, regardless of denomination or nationality. He said: “I want to enjoy the broadest fellowship possible myself, and I want my people to receive the benefit of the ministry of all God’s gifted servants, regardless of whether they agree with me in everything or not.”
We thank God for Canadian mavericks like Albert Benjamin Simpson, who have helped tear down the walls of misunderstanding, bitterness, and mistrust between the churches.
Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird, co-authors of For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship www.edhird.com