The letter, sent from abroad, was simply addressed to:
R. C. Chapman
University of Love
Robert Cleaver Chapman (1803-1902) was so renowned for his wisdom
and compassion, that the postal service knew where to deliver that
Robert was born into a wealthy English family. His mother tutored
him at home until he was about nine. As a child he showed aptitude for
language study. At age fifteen, Robert was sent to school in Yorkshire.
Henry Pickering says he "studied law and became a solicitor. In this
profession he soon occupied a good position, and had he pursued the
course on which he started there is little question that the high
honors to which it can lead might have been his. But God had honor in
store for him, great and abiding, such as the world cannot give."
The pivot in Robert's story came when he was twenty. Elderly John
Whitmore invited him to hear James Harington Evans. There his eyes saw
the true grace of God and he was saved. Robert's experience shows that
you need not have been a profligate vagrant in order to have a dramatic
conversion experience. Despite Robert's outwardly blameless conduct,
the change was startling. Soon he learned from the Bible that believers
should be baptized. When he told brother Evans so, the cautious
preacher said, "You will wait a while, and consider the matter."
"No," said Chapman, "I will make haste, and delay not, to keep His
commandments." This eagerness to obey his God marked his long Christian
In April, 1832, when he was 29, Chapman left the legal profession
(he had been an attorney of the Court of Common Pleas and at the Court
of the King's Bench) and went to minister the Word in a Baptist
congregation at Ebenezer Chapel in Barnstaple, County of Devon,
England. He had been unhappy with compromises he felt he had been party
to in the legal profession. In one case, he discovered that both the
plaintiff and the defendant were believers, which, of course, is an
obvious violation of 1 Corinthians 6:1. When Robert announced that he
felt God had called him to take the message of salvation to the poor,
friends said, "Robert will never make a preacher."
He answered, "There are many who preach, but not so many who live Christ. My aim shall be to live Christ."
So Robert stepped down the social ladder to labor in lower class
Barnstaple. He would say, "We shall not escape the tongues of others,
unless we first escape from self-love and self-flattery." One of the
luxuries Robert left was his chauffeur-driven coach. Giving up these
status symbols, he said, "My pride never got over it." Thereafter, his
mode of travel to his daily preaching appointments was his shoe
leather, regularly walking 20 miles in a day. Once in a letter he
wrote, "I was obliged to use conveyances; but, oh! how much rather do I
choose to travel on foot for the work of the Lord, and communion with
This move was in 1832, the same year that George Mueller and Henry
Craik began to labor in Bristol. These servants of Christ would have a
strong influence on the believers in Barnstaple and vice versa. Their
close friendship would span 68 years. Chapman also came into contact
with John Nelson Darby about this time.
The words "given to hospitality" (Romans 12:13) could have been written over the
entrances at Numbers 6 and 9, on the short street called New Buildings.
Number 6 was Chapman's dwelling, a simple apartment "where any
Christian, even the poorest, could come without hesitation." Chapman's
open house was a rendezvous for workers from abroad. He greeted
visitors with a warm, "Dear brother, if you come by invitation, you are
welcome; if you come without invitation, you are doubly welcome."
Battle-worn evangelists like Anthony Norris Groves, George Brealey,
David Rea, Alexander Marshall, and John Knox McEwen would resort there
for counsel and rest.
The book, The Growth of a Work of God, tells about Hudson Taylor's
private interviews "with the saintly Robert Chapman." "Saturday was the
day Mr. Robert Chapman set apart for special waiting upon God, though
it was his habit to rise always at or before daylight and give hours to
fervent intercession--and this until he was well over ninety years of
age. His 'workshop' claimed him, however, in a special way at the close
of every week. It was his sanctum, containing little but his turning
lathe and a shelf on which he could lay his open Bible. Here he spent
hours at a time, denying himself on Saturdays to any and every visitor,
and going without his midday meal that he might be the more free in
spirit. The mechanical occupation of the lathe he found helpful to a
connected line of thought; so looking at the Bible from time to time,
or dropping on his knees in prayer, he would turn out plates and
trenchers, his mind occupied the while with the eternal interests of
the Kingdom of God. 'Dear brother,' he exclaimed on meeting Mr. Taylor
again six or seven years later, 'I have visited you every day since you
went to China.' Who can tell how much the Inland Mission owes to the
prayers that went up from that hidden corner in Barnstaple?"
A lifelong bachelor, he made prime use of his time. In bed by 9:00
p.m., he would rise at 3:30 or 4:00 each morning. He decided that a
servant of God should spend as much time in the Word and in prayer as
other men spend at their work benches. He often spent his entire
morning in such occupation. He said, "It is one thing to read the
Bible, choosing something that suits me (as is shamefully said), and
another thing to search it that I may become acquainted with God in
In later years, Chapman took breakfast with his house guests at 7:00
a.m., dinner being at 12:00. The tabletalk was happy and edifying.
After breakfast, Chapman commented on a chapter of Scripture--preceded
by a hymn, and followed by prayer.
Chapman shunned backbiting. If someone told him of another's fault,
he would say: "Let us go to our brother at once and tell him this."
This silenced most accusers. Once a sister came to New Buildings to
say, "I am greatly distressed about the conduct of..."
Chapman listened and when she ran out of accusations, he asked, "Is that all?"
"Well, there is another thing."
"Then tell me all." Once the story was all out Chapman said, "Please
excuse me," and walked out of the room. When he re-entered, he had on
an overcoat. With Bible in hand, he announced, "I am going now."
"But, Mr. Chapman, I came for your advice!"
"I will give it," he replied, "when you come with me to call on the
sister. You see, I never judge by appearances but always hear both
sides." After a string of protests, he convinced her to come along.
When they came to the home of the accused, a remarkable change
occurred. The complainer completely broke down in repentance, for she
had been the culprit, and the Spirit of God convicted her of her
unChristlike conduct. She was forgiven, and everyone rejoiced at the
work of God in her heart.
After enduring a rather mediocre message, someone turned to Chapman and said, "I didn't think much of that, did you?"
"Let us tell him so," said Chapman, making as if to immediately
confront the preacher. But seeing the critic was quite stunned, he then
pointed out the uselessness and harm of such remarks behind the
Chapman refused any salary or financial arrangement with the
congregation in Barnstaple or anywhere else. He never knew from week to
week how the shelves of his pantry would be stocked.
Brother F. G. Bergin of Bristol related the following incident.
Captain Henry Chapman, a cousin, came to Barnstaple out of curiosity,
to see what his cousin had gotten involved in. Puzzled by how such a
large household was supplied, he peeped into the pantry and found it
almost bare. He asked his cousin to do him a favor--allow him to order
some groceries. Robert consented gratefully, but on condition that the
order should be given at a certain shop that he named.
When the grocer asked where the goods were to be sent, and was
directed to send them to Robert Chapman, his face changed, and he said
he feared the order had been placed at the wrong shop. "No," said the
Captain, "I wanted to make my cousin this little present and he
specially directed me to come to you."
A tear came on the grocer's cheek: "I have heard of such things
being done, but I never thought they really were. It was only last
Saturday, at an open-air meeting, that I spat on Mr. Chapman's face!"
Frank Holmes told the rest of the story: "The man was completely
broken down by this because he had for years made Mr. Chapman the
target of his abuse and wicked criticism. In a short while he was at
New Buildings, where Chapman's relative was amazed to see him lying
prostrate before the man of God in tears and sincere repentance, asking
for forgiveness, and yielding to Christ as his Saviour."
As before mentioned, the congregation at Ebenezer Chapel was
denominationally affiliated when Chapman first came to Barnstaple.
Reception into the congregation was one of the early issues Chapman
faced. Despite his personal convictions, Chapman did not insist on
immediate change at Ebenezer Chapel. For a time he followed their
ingrained practices. He himself gladly went where there was room for
the whole Bible, but he would not acknowledge sectarian distinctions.
He treated denominational titles like the sound of fingernails
squealing across a chalk board; their very mention grated upon his ears.
John Darby advised him to move more quickly to abandon the
Particular Baptist tradition. Chapman shared the same goal, but felt
that the aggressive approach would lead to fisticuffs in the foyer. So
he patiently prayed, persuaded, and taught. He later wrote, "When 60
years since I came to this place, I waited for unity of heart and
judgment among the company who called themselves Baptists; and when, by
the power of the Scriptures, the greater part of them were minded to
throw down their wall, we waited on in patience for fullness of unity
of judgment...What we now enjoy here of mutual love and the Spirit's
unity would never have been our portion had any other course been
Often confronted with potentially explosive issues, Chapman did not
forget that "love is patient" (1 Cor. 13:4) and that God's servants
must be "gentle" (1 Tim. 3:3). In one circumstance, a breakaway party
demanded the possession of the auditorium that the assembly used. With
Chapman's encouragement, when the building was yielded over to them, he
commented, "Just as I should give up my coat to a man who demanded it."
When doctrinal problems surfaced at Plymouth in the 1840s, Chapman
found himself in a disagreement with John Darby about how those
problems should be addressed. The unhappy outcome was polarization.
This remained a lifelong sorrow to these brothers. Thereafter Chapman
referred to those known as "exclusive" as "brethren dearly beloved and
longed for," and as "brethren whose consciences led them to refuse my
fellowship and to deprive me of theirs."
Likewise Darby respected his brother Chapman. The anecdote is told
that Darby once heard some brothers speak critically of Chapman. He
interrupted, saying, "You leave that man alone; he lives what I teach,"
and, "We talk about heavenly places, but Robert Chapman lives in them."
These difficulties, however, did not dampen his missionary zeal.
Chapman was especially burdened for the work of the gospel in Spain. He
was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese. (In all, Chapman could
preach in five languages.) He visited Spain in 1838. Frederick Tatford
summarized that mission: "...Accompanied by two brethren named Pick and
Handcock. Although it was illegal and extremely risky, they took a
number of Spanish Bibles with them and discreetly passed on the
smuggled Bibles to interested persons. When they returned to England,
Robert Chapman's prayers and his advocacy of the spiritual needs of the
country aroused a considerable interest in British assemblies...At his
next visit in 1863, he was accompanied by two workers, W. Gould and
George Lawrence, whom he had encouraged to give themselves to the
Lord's service in that country...They were pioneers in days of
difficulty; it was five years before the first liberties were allowed,
and they were faced by opposition and persecution in many places."
On his last trip to Spain in 1871, he was arrested for distributing
Gospels at a train station. At the police station, he held up some
money from his purse and asked, "Have I a right to throw this to the
poor who beg at the station? Here is bread; have I a right to give this
also?" Confounded, the police let the undaunted missionaries continue
The large-framed, erect gentleman looked a bit like old man winter
with a smile. Called "the Patriarch of Barnstaple," he maintained a
regular open-air preaching schedule until shortly before his
home-going. The local newspaper editor so respected Chapman that he
occasionally printed his entire messages.
His hymns, Jesus in His Heavenly Temple; No Bone of Thee was Broken;
No Condemnation, O My Soul; Oh, My Saviour Crucified; Show Me Thy
Wounds, Exalted Lord; The Lamb of God to Slaughter Led; and With Jesus
in Our Midst, help us gauge Chapman's spiritual elevation. A. T.
Pierson (who had hoped that he could write Chapman's biography) said
that Chapman brought to mind the words, "There were giants in the earth
in those days."
J. R. Caldwell said, "Truly the memory of his visit remains with us
as a precious illustration of how far God can reproduce in a believer
even here the image of His Son."
Material for this article has been gathered from:
W. H. Bennet, Robert Cleaver Chapman of Barnstaple
Frank Holmes, Brother Indeed: The Life of Robert Cleaver Chapman, John Ritchie
Robert L. Peterson and Alexander Strauch, Agape Leadership: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the Life of R. C.
Chapman, Lewis & Roth
David J. Beattie, Brethren: the Story of a Great Recovery, John Ritchie
G. H. Lang, Anthony Norris Groves: Saint and Pioneer, Schoettle Publishing
Books written by R. C. Chapman include:
Choice Sayings: being Expositions of the Scriptures, Gospel Tract Publishers
Hymns and Meditations, John Ritchie
Seventy Years of Pilgrimage: being a memorial of William Hake
The Good Shepherd and His Ransomed Flock, John Ritchie