James Harrington Evans was soon impressed by the zeal of this new convert. In a very short time Chapman came to him and asked for baptism. “You will wait awhile, and consider the matter,” said the cautious pastor. “No, I will make haste, and delay not, to keep His commandments!” exclaimed the young man. This reply so impressed Evans that he arranged for the baptism forthwith.
It was evident to Chapman that he could not go on in the ways and companionship of the world. He came right out from all worldliness. He refused to soft-pedal his Gospel convictions in order to retain the good-will of wealthy and distinguished sinners. And so he ceased to be invited to many of the great houses where his former religion of works had been regarded as harmless and acceptable. His talk about conversion and the blood of Christ was resented, even by his own family. In his “Meditations,” he says: “The offence of the cross hath not ceased; no sooner did I know Thee, and confess Thee, than I became a stranger to the sons of Hagar, who genders only to bondage, whose child I was by nature. Thy love drew me aside from the path of the worldling, whether wicked or devout; I became an offence to those I forsook, even those of my own flesh and blood. And wherefore were they angry? Because in taking up my cross I became witness against them by my boasting only in Thee, and counting all who are of the works of the law to be under the curse.”
It was a difficult period. From various quarters he met determined and bitter opposition. But instead of indulging in fleshly argument and losing his temper, he left his opponents with the Scriptures and the Spirit of God, and turned to the Lord for strength and joy. Happily there was a loving and understanding fellowship among the believers at John Street, and the ministry of Evans provided real food for the afflicted young convert.
Each Lord’s Day Chapman attended the services. The chapel at John Street was not a Brethren assembly. At that time there was nothing answering to this description in the country. But Evans held views on Christian unity which have a striking similarity to the teachings of the early Brethren. Only scant attention appears to have been paid by students of Chapman’s life to the influence upon him of this godly man, yet that influence was undoubtedly very great. Converted when a curate whilst he was reading one of Cooper’s sermons to his congregation, Evans became such a soul-winner that he was given notice to terminate his curacy. After a time of struggle he seceded from the Church of England and later began his work in John Street.
Each Sunday evening Chapman stayed to the Communion service. Few of the believers did so, being content to meet around the Lord’s Table once a month in common with the greater part of nonconformity. But Evans emphasized that the first disciples always broke bread on the Lord’s Day, and Chapman learnt to treasure this weekly breaking of bread.
Before long the young convert realized that not all who were in fellowship had been baptized by immersion. Evans, though strong on believer’s baptism, was equally strong on the unscripturalness of demanding anything beyond a living faith in Christ from a convert before accepting him into fellowship. He held that all that was required for unity was a common life. If a man had been born into God’s family he felt that he had no right to exclude him from fellowship merely because he could not see the need for believer’s baptism.
Chapman was early impressed by the deep love which Evans showed towards the weak and erring among the flock of God. If any transgressed materially and could not be brought to repentance, it was only after long pleading that such a one was “cut off” from fellowship. There was no harshness or precipitate condemnation in the discipline applied at John Street.
A strong friendship sprang up between the young attorney and the experienced preacher. Chapman was specially impressed by his pastor’s humility. Exposed to the peculiar temptations to pride which beset the path of a successful minister of Jesus Christ, Evans consistently regarded himself as “less than the least of all saints.” The force of this example was not wasted on his young friend, who afterwards confessed that in those early days he had many a tussle with his old pride. People who heard Chapman say that in later years were amazed, for pride seemed far removed from his character. So complete is the victory which Christ gives!
One way in which he learnt the lesson of humility was by spending a good deal of his spare time in visiting the poor in the black, miserable districts which lay off Gray’s Inn Lane and Theobald’s Road. His evenings now contrasted strongly with those he had spent in the West End. It was only with difficulty that he could bring himself to enter some of these dirty, disease-ridden hovels. But night after night he carried on his visitation, taking the Gospel of Christ to the poor and the outcast.
Three years went by and Chapman’s worldly prospects greatly improved. He inherited a private income and began to practise as a solicitor on his own account, with offices at 3, Copthal Chambers, Throgmorton Street. In this, as in almost everything else he had attempted, he met with much success. His gracious manner commended him to his clients, and he put the best of his knowledge and ability into his work. Yet still his spare time was spent in work in the slums. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have subscribed liberally to slum work and left it to someone else, but nothing satisfied him short of doing the work himself. This burning desire for the spiritual and material welfare of the poor never left him for the rest of his life. He always regarded it as a mark of the true work of Christ that “the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
By this time the congregation at John Street were used to the sight of the tall, smiling-faced young solicitor tenderly leading along a certain poor, decrepit blind woman who had no one else to take her to the services. As they came down the aisle together they were a living rebuke to those who, whilst sound in doctrine, were selfish and unloving in practice.
As a preacher Chapman was not showing much promise. He obviously fell into the trap which threatens every young preacher—he tried to model his sermons on those of his pastor. Such a course is rarely fruitful. John Kelman, when he was colleague to Dr. Whyte, once tried to ape his senior, but after the sermon, Dr. Whyte placed his hand on his shoulder and said: “John, preach your own message.” In the same way Chapman struggled to express himself in Evans’ manner. He took a text, drew up formal divisions of his subject, and then wrote the whole thing out in studied English. Evans could do this and still be eloquent in the pulpit, but Chapman, seeking to imitate him, had but poor success.
After practising as a solicitor at Copthall Chambers for four years, Chapman removed to 72, Cornhill. He was now twenty-seven, and prospering in every way. Few members of his family took any notice of him, but one cousin who had married a West Country lawyer named Pugsley was friendly. The Pugsleys were not believers, but they were not bitter opponents of the Gospel. One day Mr. Pugsley came to stay with Mr. Chapman. It was a great surprise to Pugsley to find the young fellow so engrossed in the service of the poor, for it seemed to him inexplicable that a man situated as Chapman was, should bother about the condition of people who lived in slums.
To do him justice, however, Pugsley felt that Chapman’s actions were prompted by inner forces of which he himself was ignorant. He determined to find out what it was that he lacked. He told Chapman quite frankly what his position was, and the two had prayer and studied the Bible together. The result was that when Pugsley returned to his home in Barnstaple he was a changed man.
For Chapman, however, a new problem had arisen. He was finding that there were many things in his work which were distasteful to him as a Christian. He had such a tender conscience that he found many of his duties painful. One day, for example, he was working on a case when he discovered that the defendant and plaintiff were believers. He promptly asked both his own client and the other party to call at his office at the same time. Sitting at his desk he directed them to 1 Corinthians 6:1: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?” Then he got them to discuss the grievance as before the Lord, and the result was a settlement acceptable to each. But not all his difficulties of conscience could be solved so satisfactorily, and although he knew that if he remained in his profession his prospects were brilliant, he felt that the time was fast approaching when he must give it up.
In the summer of 1831 Chapman went down to Pugsley’s home at Barnstaple for a visit. He found Pugsley working amongst the poor of the place. Each Sunday, cottage meetings were held in Pilton Almshouses on the edge of the town and Chapman was asked to preach there. News of the young London solicitor who was preaching to the people at Pilton Almshouses spread, and he was nicknamed “The man with the little eyes.” One Sunday evening whilst he was there a party of young girls decided to go and hear him, and see his “little eyes” for themselves. They were out for a lark and no doubt believed their presence would be very disconcerting to a young fellow of twenty-eight. They came in late, probably with the intention of creating a disturbance, and Chapman was preaching. One of these girls was called Eliza Gilbert, and the Spirit of God spoke to her in the instant she entered the room. Chapman was quoting the Scriptures and she was arrested. She went away sobered and said: “He hurt me. I must hear him again.” She came back the next week and was converted.
His holiday in Devon over, Chapman returned to London. The business of his office went on as before and he applied himself to it with his accustomed assiduity. But he was becoming aware of a Divine Call to full-time Christian work. Yet his friends were very doubtful about this. They told him frankly that he was a poor preacher, and at that time they were undoubtedly right. The discourses which he read to his congregations went right over the head of the average person. The following extract shows how he tied himself and his hearers up in intellectual knots in trying to express the simple thought that it is against nature for a child not to love its parents:
“That child must indeed be void of all sense of feeling, who has no love for its parents. It is the first impulse of the mind, and as its powers expand we may observe that in proportion as the sense of moral duties is inculcated by education, do the affections of the heart become excited, and nothing exhibits to our experience a stronger proof of the natural depravity of the human heart than that uncultivated minds digress from every moral or religious duty, and being left to indulge in uncontrolled desires without any restraint of either religious or moral law would degenerate into a state beneath that of the brute creation.”
Who could have imagined that a preacher of this type could become the Chapman of later years? But whatever his fellow believers thought of his preaching, they were convinced of his holiness of life and his devoted personal evangelism. He undoubtedly had the gifts of a pastor and evangelist except in the important matter of preaching. It may be that intellectual habits and prejudices prevented him at that stage from being the preacher he could have been.
And now, without any knowledge of the future, he took a momentous step. Months of waiting upon God had convinced him that he should sell all his possessions, give away his private fortune, and relinquish his profession to devote all his time to the Lord’s work. It is possible that in taking this attitude to possessions, Chapman, like George Müller, was influenced by the example of Anthony Norris Groves, who had so acted six years earlier. It is related that long years afterwards, at a conference at Leominster, it was observed one day that Chapman seemed to have lost his usual cheerfulness and to be under a burden. He remained in his room that afternoon and was his usual self when he reappeared. It was learned later that a considerable sum of money had been given him, and he had spent the hours getting relief from the weight by sending gifts to various persons. Many others might relieve themselves of a burdened spirit by this method!
But now God’s plan began to unfold. Chapman received an invitation from the members of Ebenezer Strict Baptist Chapel, Barnstaple, to be their pastor. Believing that this was of the Lord, he left London to reside in Barnstaple. Many who knew him in London were critical. They forecast failure. They repeated that he was a poor preacher. His reply was: “There are many who preach Christ, but not so many who live Christ; my great aim will be to live Christ.”