At 87, Chapman was still taking his early morning walks. Just as the residents in New Buildings in earlier days had seen a young man striding off into the country before dawn, so those who now lived there, and were early enough astir, saw the old gentleman set out, wearing an Inverness cape, and carrying a lantern.
More and more as the years drew on, he was occupied with prayer, and with the writing of letters to God’s people. To Henrietta Soltau he wrote when he was 94: “I cannot but rejoice with you in your resolve to see fellow-labourers in China. They all, with dear Brother Hudson Taylor, have ever been in my heart at the throne of grace. Go, and the Lord be with thee.”
Since Chapman’s views were not entirely those of Henrietta, or of Hudson Taylor, this letter is another example of the sincere love and patience which marked all his dealings with others. To many who lived and worked with him, he represented the true spirit of the Brethren movement. They felt that the intentions of the 1830’s were carried out in practical detail in his life.
Some who had turned away in disgust from the fleshly strife which had marred the witness of some assemblies, were drawn to New Testament principles by Chapman’s loving words and example. History has shown that “Brethren-ism” is the worst of all “isms,” for it takes the sublimest truths and makes them the tools of party strife. But the true principles of Brethren, as worked out in Chapman’s life, compel the admiration of all spiritual people, and, for that matter, of many unconverted folk.
Chapman hated false doctrine with a perfect hatred. On the great foundation truths of the faith he was uncompromising. But he never read heresy into the words of those who were innocent of it. He was particularly gentle with younger brethren, and nothing that he ever said to any of them was known to discourage, or to check the development of their gift.
On minor issues he held that any breaking-off of fellowship was a sin. His views on prophecy differed considerably from those of most of his “Brethren” contemporaries —as his little-known book “Suggestive Question” reveals— and he did not completely agree with Hake on some matters of interpretation. But this was never made a subject of bitter contention.
The question is sometimes asked: “To what extent is it possible to maintain a New Testament fellowship and ministry, and apply New Testament principles, in the present day?” Certainly the fact that believers—including pastors, teachers and evangelists—are split into so many groups, does not make it easy to do so. But the ministry of Chapman shows what can be achieved where the practice of love goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
As the 19th century drew to a close, Chapman became almost a legendary figure in the minds of many Christians. He was the grand old man of the Church. He had been intimate with Darby, Cronin, Groves, and a host of others who had long since passed into glory. He had begun his ministry at Barnstaple two years before C. H. Spurgeon was born, and Spurgeon died eight years before the turn of the century. His knowledge of men and affairs within the Church of Christ was unparalleled. His experience was deep and rich beyond measure. Men spoke of his great holiness with awe. Amazing stories were told of his undaunted faith; of times when he had risked everything for God; of a day when he had stood waiting on a railway platform, confident that an express train would stop to take him to his destination, and how it did stop, to the amazement of the stationmaster and booking clerk, who had thought him mad. Stories such as these, perfectly authentic, caused men to glorify God, and led some to set out on the life of faith.
When George Müller passed away, the news was received by a Christian lady staying at New Buildings. Knowing Chapman’s sincere love for Müller, she was afraid to break the news to him. What was her surprise to find the revelation anticipated by the question: “Has Mr. Müller gone home?” Receiving a reply in the affirmative, the aged saint bent his head, reflecting on the event. After about five minutes, he quietly said: “It is not for any man to judge his Master, but I was saved five years before George Müller, and I think I should have gone first.” A few days later he picked up his pen and wrote to a friend: “My friendship, ever growing, of more than sixty-six years, with our dear departed brother George Müller, will by-and-by be perfected. How precious! We shall bear the image of the Heavenly (Adam) as we have borne the image of the first Adam. I mourned for myself until the earthly house was in the grave; then I rejoiced with him and his proving how far, far better it is to be at Home with the Lord than to remain below.”
Chapman continued to preach until he was 98, though other brethren took turns with the Gospel service. One Sunday, just a few weeks before his 98th birthday, Grosvenor Street Chapel was packed to hear him. He preached for an hour-and-a-quarter, and afterwards showed no signs of fatigue. Those who saw him in the pulpit on that occasion were amazed by the vigour with which he proclaimed the good news of salvation. There was a mental freshness and a spiritual power behind all his words. “The guiltiness of the Pharisee, not less than the guiltiness of the drunkard,” he cried, “is to be measured by the greatness of the sacrifice at the Cross of Christ. When you consider the third chapter of Romans you will find that in verse 19 the Spirit of God makes every mouth stopped and all the world become guilty before God. As I read this I call to mind what is written in the Gospel according to Luke, of the two men who went up to the temple. One said: ‘God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.’ He boasted of his righteousness. But the other smote upon his breast, and his words were: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ The poor man accepted this truth. As in the eye of God he was guilty, so in the eye of his own conscience he was guilty, condemned and lost. But he went justified. How justified? Because he made God his refuge; because he made the crucified Lord of glory a resting-place for his conscience. Let me say—I have said it times out of number from my early days when I first believed in Christ—that while in this land there are, alas! alas! there are drunkards going to hell on the filthy side of the broad road, yet there are others who, like the Pharisee, go to what they call ‘The Church’ and to religious meetings, but they know not what is here taught—‘guilty before God!’ Oh, no! But how precious the truth. For if you look into the 23rd verse of the 3rd chapter of Romans: ‘For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’—what follows? Why, ‘Being justified freely by His grace.’ How so? Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood.’ What is meant by the blood of Christ? It should be read of Him that the blood of the body was not shed until the Lord of glory was enabled to say: ‘It is finished.’ After the soldier that brake the legs of the men crucified with the Lord saw that Christ had died already, what did he do? Not a bone of him must be broken! The Scripture was fulfilled. The soldier pierced the dead body of the Saviour, and out came blood—significant of the one perfect sacrifice for sin. Therefore, when you read or speak of the blood of Christ cleansing from all sin, you must take heed to bear in mind ‘It is finished,’ that is, the atonement, the sacrifice complete. In affection and love I warn all who have not received Christ into their heart, not to suffer your conscience to go to sleep by the teaching of Satan. Multitudes are in that state, especially in this so-called religious land and in neighbouring lands, particularly the North of Ireland. Beware of going to hell the clean side of the broad road. Let me say in regard to the poor sinner, the self-condemned, self-abhorred sinner, that he is more welcome to Christ than Christ to him.”
When he reached his ninety-ninth birthday, Chapman received congratulations from all over the world. The press took note of the occasion, because as one reporter wrote: “He has been regularly engaged in religious work in the same town for over seventy years—a record that no other preacher in the kingdom can approach.”
The same reporter wrote: “Mr. Chapman is a man of scholarly attainments, and as a Biblical student his fame is widespread. Save that his memory is not so good as it was, his faculties remain unimpaired. He can converse fluently in half-a-dozen languages, and he can still read without the aid of glasses. Last November Mr. Chapman had a serious illness, but he entered upon his 100th year in excellent heath. Mr. Chapman is accustomed to retire to rest between 8 and 9, but he rises at 3.30, when he takes a cold sponge bath. He has a light breakfast, reads, meditates, and prays until 6.30, when he takes a walk, sitting down with his household (in New Buildings) to breakfast at 7. In the course of each day he gets through much correspondence, and finds exercise and recreation in working a lathe. Just before his birthday he made several wooden platters to present to his friends. The effect of preaching some months ago was found to tell upon the venerable leader, and he has not occupied the pulpit since, but he has continued to conduct the weekly Bible readings which are regarded as a precious privilege by those attending them—and the members of the meetings are drawn from all parts of England and from many distant countries. A gentleman who recently stayed at the ‘house of rest’ in New Buildings writes: ‘Mr. Chapman is “given to hospitality” according to the Apostolic injunction, and entertains Christian people of various denominations, and especially missionaries and other Christian workers. No one can more heartily say: “Grace be with all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and truth,” and it is said he lives as his departed friend, George Müller, did, without any settled income, but simply by “faith in the Lord.” And the Lord, His dealings and His Word, is the main topic of conversation at his table. He rejoices to talk about the Lord at his home as much as he does at his chapel. No one can estimate the influence that has been exerted by the saintly life and beautiful faith and glorious example of Robert Chapman. And not the least of Barnstaple’s claims to distinction is that she has been identified with the unique life-work of this scholar, saint, author, and preacher.”
Among the messages that reached him on his 99th birthday was one from a relative, Captain W. D. Chapman, himself of advanced years, and a believer. His reply was:
“My dear Relative—Your letter of love for my birthday found me highly accountable to God our Heavenly Father, because of freedom from all bodily infirmity and the peace of God reigning within.
“We both of us are highly accountable as living witnesses to the unseen Lord Jesus Christ.
“Affectionately yours in Christ Jesus,—R. C. Chapman.”
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Chapman could say that he had prayed earnestly for her from the day of her accession. The Jews were also constantly in his prayers, together with a vast number of correspondents, missionaries and others. This ministry of intercession continued to the end.
Great changes had taken place in Barnstaple since the day when he had walked down the High Street looking for simple lodgings. The town had increased in size and importance, and there was much less ignorance of the Gospel. Undoubtedly his 70 years’ ministry had improved the spiritual condition of the place. In Spain and Ireland, too, there were many fruits of his work and prayer, and workers and people in those lands thought with gratitude of this great man who had shown himself their brother, whilst many assemblies, and countless individuals all over the world, some of whom had never seen his face, praised God for one whose wise and loving counsel had guided them through times of difficulty.
At last in 1902 the end came. Early in June that year he was taken ill, but after giving some initial cause for concern, his condition improved, and on June 12th he seemed to be well on the road to recovery. Yet that very day things took a grave turn, and before nine in the evening he was with his Lord.
Throughout these days of illness he was full of peace. When asked one morning how he was, he replied: “God is dealing very tenderly, very lovingly, with me.” And another time he said: “I can lie quiet now by faith.” His most frequent word was “We know not yet what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He now is.”
His last words were: “The peace of God that passeth all understanding …” Yes, peace had marked the whole of his Christian experience—unruffled, uncomplaining peace! From the day when he first found peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, he had lived in the enjoyment of Divine peace.
Large crowds attended the funeral, which took place at Barnstaple. Christians were present from all over the country. Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Anglicans mingled with Brethren at the graveside of him who had taught them by word and example that all born-again people were brethren and sisters in Christ. Though he had never swerved an inch in his belief and practice regarding the worship and government of the church, they knew that he had loved them all, and had sincerely mourned the lack of unity of judgment amongst God’s people. They felt that they had lost a brother indeed.
Among those who spoke at the funeral was Dr. Henry Soltau, for the famous Soltau family had spent years under his ministry. It is remarkable that the grave in which Chapman was buried was that where his fellow-worker, Miss Paget, had been buried forty years previously. The plain white stone says simply:
GOD IS LOVE
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
IN MEMORY OF
who departed to be with Christ
16th March 1863
ROBERT C. CHAPMAN
Born Janry 4th 1803
Departed June 12th 1902
If hundreds paid their last respects to him that day, what multitudes of spiritual children must have greeted him over yonder! Irish orphans, Spanish peasants, redeemed sinners from the slums of “Derby,” and from every class of society. It was aptly written:
“Oh, what a welcome from the friends of years,
Dear, aged Father-brother, thou wouldst have
Within the gates of pearl! The golden street
Would echo and re-echo with their song—
‘Ten thousand welcomes, aged pilgrim, home!’
For nigh a century thine arms and heart
Were opened wide to welcome every saint
Who loved the name of Jesus Christ thy Lord.
Those whom thou didst embrace, embrace thee now,
And many more besides…
Kept calm thy heart, and showed upon thy face
’Mid many a storm; till, with thy latest breath,
‘Peace, passing understanding, God’s own peace,’
Told out the unruffled peace which dwelt within!”
The modern Christian, looking back upon the life of Chapman from a distance of some years, may well ponder whether God has not given us the example of such a life to serve as a witness to the true nature of New Testament Christianity. One fact is clear:
“Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”