One Sunday morning early in the last century, the congregation at John Street Chapel, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, were startled by the sight of a young man dressed in a sky-blue swallow-tailed coat, ascending the pulpit steps to stand side by side with their minister. Large gilt buttons added the finishing touch to his outfit and marked him as a member of the fashionable set of the day. But when he began to speak there was a hush; for in restrained, aristocratic tones he explained his purpose in entering the pulpit. He had come, he said, to testify to his new-found peace and delight in Christ.
Such was the setting for the first public witness of Robert Cleaver Chapman. Those who heard him were impressed by his obvious sincerity, but who would have thought that morning that this young man of twenty had seventy-nine years of active service before him, during which his character and influence would be increasingly acknowledged throughout the country, and indeed in Ireland and Spain also, whilst his name was to rank with George Müller and J. N. Darby as one of the “chief men among the brethren.”
Chapman was the son of Thomas Chapman of Whitby. The Chapmans of Whitby were an ancient and honourable family boasting a coat of arms with the motto “Crescit sub pondere virtus.” Thomas Chapman was a wealthy merchant at the time of Robert’s birth. He was then resident in Elsinore, Denmark, and his large family grew up there, surrounded by affluence and luxury. Few of those who had dealings with Robert Cleaver Chapman in later years guessed that this humble man, who often had to look directly to the Lord for his next meal, could look back to a childhood whose earliest memories were of a great and richly furnished house, a staff of servants, and a coach bearing the family coat of arms.
At first Robert took lessons in the nursery with his mother. She does not appear to have been such a stern disciplinarian as Mrs. Wesley, but Chapman was always prompt to acknowledge his debt to her. She inculcated good morals, and saw to it that her children were brought up to attend church regularly. But the clear knowledge of the Gospel, and the teaching of the need of a personal Saviour were not part and parcel of the home-life. And the father’s lax attitude towards these things is shown by the fact that he engaged a Roman Catholic, a French abbe, to take over Robert’s education.
How easily might this young child have been drawn to Rome! But God overruled, and either the teacher was a lukewarm emissary of the Pope, or the scholar was stubbornly Protestant, for not a vestige of Romanism stuck to him. From the start Chapman did well at his lessons and evinced a special aptitude for languages. His linguistic ability, which stood him in such good stead on his evangelistic tours in Spain, is partly explained by the fact that in these early years he heard English, French and Danish spoken constantly.
He was still a boy when the family returned to England. The abbe was dismissed and his father sought out a good English school for his son. Eventually a school in Yorkshire, the county with which the family had had such long associations, was chosen, and Robert found himself a new boy whose life abroad constituted him an object of curiosity for some weeks.
When the newness and strangeness had worn off, the lad settled down to his studies with a will. In particular he revealed a love of literature and a gift for writing. Often when he was away from the other boys he would daydream of the time when he himself would be an author of books or a poet. He kept up his language study, too, and delighted his masters by his eager interest in the classic literature of other countries.
Schooldays soon passed, and early in 1818 Robert left Yorkshire on the London coach. He was only fifteen, but life was beginning in earnest. When he stepped out into the inn-yard at his journey’s end and found himself surrounded by the noise and bustle of the metropolis, the thrill and adventure of this new experience must have been vividly impressed upon him. He had come to London to obtain a legal training.
On February 6th he was bound clerk to James William Freshfield of New Bank Buildings. Freshfield was an attorney of the Court of Common Pleas, and Robert was to serve for the term of five years.
The walls of a lawyer’s office must have seemed oppressive to the youth who had formerly but the dimmest conception of a world in which men toiled for a living. The mechanical labour of copying documents must have appeared very dull to his lively mind. The formal language of the profession must have grated on ears attuned to the music of poetry. But, distasteful as this new occupation was, Robert determined to make the best use of the opportunities it offered him. He settled down to hard work, intent on rising as high as he could in the Law.
Five years passed by—years of study and hard, practical work. Long hours spent at the office were followed by hours of stiff reading at his lodgings. Persistent application—a habit which never left him throughout his long life—saw him through his studies, and at last, in 1823, when he had served his five years with Freshfield, he was admitted an Attorney of the Court of Common Pleas and an Attorney of the Court of King’s Bench.
Older and more experienced men took notice of him and complimented him on the progress he had made in legal matters. It was commonly said that a brilliant future lay before him. There is no doubt that his being a Chapman of Whitby was an advantage to him, for he had the entry into fashionable circles. He was constantly invited to select parties in the West End where he was regarded as an attractive personality, for at the age of twenty he was tall and athletic with an engaging smile and an easy, confident manner.
At this period he had definite ideas about religion. He had read the Bible carefully and had become convinced that it was the inspired Word of God. Yet the real nature of the Gospel had not dawned upon his soul. It was his aim to keep the law and find salvation by good works. Years later, when he was ninety-one, he wrote to Gladstone, and the letter contained the following passage about the false hopes of his youth:
“The undersigned, in his years of youth, sought diligently, and with strong purpose, to establish his own righteousness, in hope thereby to obtain eternal life. In the eyes of all who knew him he had become a blameless young man, religious and devout…”
But the day was fast approaching when the hopelessness of obtaining God’s approval in this way was to dawn upon him. Those were not happy years, despite the popularity he enjoyed. There was no peace, no satisfaction in the path of self-righteousness. Yet he was unwilling to heed the Gospel. “I hugged my chains,” he says. “I would not—could not—hear the voice of Jesus.” Conviction of sin came. He saw that despite his outward respectability there was a corrupt heart within. “My cup,” he says, “was bitter with my guilt and the fruit of my doings. Sick was I of the world, hating it in vexation of spirit, while yet I was unable and unwilling to cast it out.”
When he was in this condition, God led him into touch with one of the deacons of John Street Chapel. This man invited him to come and hear James Harrington Evans, the pastor of John Street. The chapel—which was damaged by a bomb in World War II, and later demolished—had been erected by a Member of Parliament, Mr. Henry Drummond, to provide a centre for the ministry of Evans, of whose talents Mr. Drummond held a very high opinion. Evans was an eloquent preacher, but Chapman was such a devoted son of the Establishment that it is remarkable that he ever went to hear him.
As the young attorney came down John Street and turned into the chapel he was probably ill at ease, for he had only a vague idea of the habits of Nonconformists. What sort of service would be inflicted on him? And what sort of sermon would he hear? Would he be treated to an exhibition of rant and enthusiasm?
Entering the chapel, he found that it was simple and unadorned. As Evans conducted the service, Chapman realised, much to his own relief, that he was listening to a man of culture. No liturgy was used, though Evans had formerly been a clergyman of the Church of England. The prayers, however, were reverent, and the whole atmosphere was one of quiet dignity. When the sermon came, it proved to be thoughtful, balanced and challenging. Evans was always faithful in his exposure of the follies of self-righteousness. He had once been self-righteous himself, and this gave him an insight into the hearts of those who were seeking to justify themselves before God. In one of his sermons he cried: “What shall we think of him who is building his hopes of pardon, acceptance and salvation upon his own wretched and miserable doings? What shall we think of him who, instead of building on the safe and sure foundation of a crucified Saviour, is building on tears, on prayers, on almsdeeds, on religious, or rather, irreligious services; who builds his expectations of heaven upon the ruins of God’s holy law, and thinks that in order to save him, God must undeify Himself? All this is sand—treacherous, yielding sand; for it is as possible for God to cease to be, as to cease to be just. ‘A just God and a Saviour, there is none beside Me.’ An unjust God is no God, and he who tramples on his own law is no better.”
Sitting in his pew, listening to a sermon similar to this, Chapman saw his beautiful edifice of good works come tumbling into the dust. Undoubtedly his hopes of gaining acceptance with God on the grounds of doing his best were finally shattered that day. He saw and embraced God’s provision. Writing of his conversion in after years he said in words almost poetical:
“In the good and set time Thou spakest to me, saying, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest, and this is the refreshing.’ And how sweet Thy words, ‘Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.’ How precious the sight of the Lamb of God! And how glorious the robe of righteousness, hiding from the holy eyes of my Judge all my sin and pollution.”
He walked home from that service with a new joy and a deep assurance in his heart. From that time he gave up all hopes of pleasing God by the strivings of the flesh. He had learnt that “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God.” He pinned all his faith to the Person and Work of Christ. He made no secret of his new profession. In the office he was not ashamed to speak of His Saviour, and he made up his mind that as soon as possible he would testify publicly to Christ’s saving power. And so it came about that a short time after his conversion the incident already related took place, when he stood in the pulpit with Mr. Evans and openly confessed Christ. This was the dramatic prelude to a life of usefulness.