After Mr. Chapman had lived for a time in Barnstaple, he took a house in New Buildings. His idea was to get right into the heart of the “Derby” district and live amongst the poor. New Buildings was a cul-de-sac not far from “Ebenezer.” Its cottages were very small and simple. Strange odours sometimes assailed the nostrils of its inhabitants, for beyond the end wall there was a tan-yard. All this presented a contrast to the circumstances in which Chapman had lived in London. Speaking of this time, he afterwards said that at his conversion he knew that pride was likely to be his besetting sin, so he presently went to the town where he had on occasions driven in a carriage and pair with coachmen and footman (this probably refers to visits to the Pugsleys) and there lived in a workman’s cottage in a side street. “My pride never got over it,” was his typical comment. Thus early, with one well-directed blow, he scotched this deadly viper.
Chapman lived at No. 6, and he determined from the start to make his house a place where any of God’s people could freely come and stay. He lived by faith, receiving no stipend, and he felt that if people would come and live for a week or two in a household where the smallest item was received at God’s Hand by faith, it would help them in their own lives. When he first took the house, he prayed that visitors would come, and they soon did. But only for a short period. After that they dropped off and he was left alone. This puzzled him a great deal. It would not have puzzled many people, who would simply have explained it by saying: “People who come to Barnstaple to stay are not likely to be satisfied with the housekeeping of a young batchelor of thirty, carried on in a little whitewashed cottage in the poorest part of the town.” But Chapman was convinced that the Lord had led him to take this house and had given him confidence to expect a regular flow of visitors. He was therefore deeply distressed, and got down on his knees, humbly examining his own life before God. “Why, Lord, dost Thou not send Thy children to me?” he cried. He never had to repeat that question. From that day there was never any lack of visitors under his roof.
It was always a point with Chapman that no questions were asked as to how long visitors intended to stay. When a guest arrived he would be shown his bedroom, told what were the habits of the household, and requested to leave his boots outside his door for Mr. Chapman to clean. People sometimes suggested to Mr. Chapman that it must be awkward to have visitors arriving at all times, and staying as long as they pleased, especially when his house was so small. “But God arranges that!” he would reply. And if anyone were sceptical, the facts were open for investigation and they showed unmistakably that God did arrange it. In nearly seventy years there never was a single occasion when visitors had to be turned away because there was no room.
Sometimes at the end of the day, provisions would run out and there would be no money to buy more. Chapman did not regard this as an emergency. It was simply the way that God was working that day. “We must pray about it,” he would say. And so next morning’s breakfast would be provided solely through prayer. So naturally and unostentatiously was the life of faith lived that those who stayed at No. 6 were quite unaware of anything out of the ordinary. Mr. Chapman did not wish to convey the impression that childlike dependence upon God was an extraordinary thing. Least of all did he wish to draw attention to himself, even on the grounds that by so doing God would ultimately be glorified. It is true that as the years passed he became a well-known figure in many parts of the British Isles, but this was simply because so many people found his ministry powerful. “There were giants in the earth in those days,” wrote Dr. A. T. Pierson after Chapman’s death. Chapman was a spiritual giant. Not an inch of his stature was owed to the carnal methods of publicity experts.
No task was too lowly for Chapman. Visitors were particularly impressed by his habit of cleaning the boots and shoes of his guests. Indeed, it was on this point he met with most resistance, for those who stayed with him were conscious that despite the simplicity of his house he was a man of good breeding, and when they had heard him ministering the Word with gracious authority, they were extremely sensitive about allowing him to perform so menial a task for them. But he was not to be resisted. On one occasion a gentleman, having regard no doubt to his host’s gentle birth and high spiritual standing, refused at first to let him take away his boots. “I insist,” was the firm reply. “In former days it was the practice to wash the saints’ feet. Now that this is no longer the custom, I do the nearest thing and clean their shoes.”
The people of New Buildings could scarcely have been long in discovering that no ordinary man had come to live among them. At four o’clock in the morning he could be seen striding down the street and out of the town. These early morning walks sometimes took him to Ilfracombe for breakfast—twelve miles away over Devonshire hills. On one occasion, at least, he walked to Exeter—a distance of forty miles—before lunch. Normally, however, he would walk a few miles and then return to clean the shoes and call his guests.
It will be gathered from this that he rarely rose later than 3.30 a.m. By his bedside was a large, square, lead-lined bath. Each night, punctually at 9 o’clock, he said “Goodnight,” had a hot bath, and went to bed. Each morning, while the town was still asleep, he jumped into a cold bath, and then dressed. He once said to a young visitor: “You see, dear brother, God has given us a valuable body, and He expects us, as good workmen, to keep it in good order. I open the pores of my body at night, and close them with a cold bath in the morning.”
Up till midday, whether he was indoors or out, the greater part of his time was given up to prayer, Bible reading and meditation. A conservative estimate would be seven hours of definite communion with God before noon. This was undoubtedly the secret of his spiritual power. The present generation of believers would do well to take heed to his example. Quietness and the strength that comes from long waiting on God are not always valued as they should be. The activity of the flesh is too often substituted for the power of the Spirit. A certain amount of work is rushed through, God is asked to bless what has been done, and plans are feverishly laid for the morrow. Robert Chapman got through a vast amount of work, but without a vast amount of stir and bustle. His life was like the steady flow of a mighty river, which is of far greater moment than the noisy trickle of a choked-up gutter.
On Saturdays he gave his mind a complete rest before the duties of the Lord’s Day. He usually spent the whole day in his workshop. Walking and carpentry were his chief recreations, and Saturday was the day for carpentry. At the rear of his little cottage he had fitted up a tiny room for this purpose. Here there was a bench, and a fine set of tools, but the main feature was a lathe. The lathe was his great delight. On it were turned innumerable bread boards. These he presented to his guests, or sold for Missionary funds.
Normally no one was permitted to see him on Saturdays. It was well understood by friends in the neighbourhood that if they wanted a talk with him about some matter they should choose some other day. One highly favoured young brother who ventured to the door of the workshop on one such occasion, was told: “You can come in. But talk about the lathe.”
Yet even this recreation was accompanied by spiritual exercises, for he always fasted on Saturdays, and, while he was working, poured out his soul in communion with his Lord. This habit of combining the spiritual and the practical was characteristic of Chapman. He prayed as he walked or as he did household duties. In fact, he refused to recognize any artificial distinctions between religious and material duties, but was always conscious of the Divine command: “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).
Perhaps in some ways Saturday was the richest day of the week for him; for on every other day his mind was occupied with pastoral matters. Saturday was a day given up to the necessary refreshment of his own mind and spirit. One who burst in upon him one Saturday in some emergency, said that his face shone as the face of an angel.