Robert C. Chapman
Robert Chapman is
not well known. He did not author any monumental books. When he began
to minister friends said he would never make a good preacher. Chapman
was not a world-wide evangelist. He lead no great mission to foreign
lands; rather he labored for 70 years in a small town in a remote
corner of England. Yet he became a living legend. As a young man,
Winston Churchill was taken to visit him. Charles Spurgeon called him:
"the saintliest man I ever knew." Robert Cleaver Chapman is important
because of the life he lived. He said: "My business is to love others
and not to seek that others shall love me." When they said he would
never make a great preacher, Chapman replied: "There are many who
preach Christ, but not so many who live Christ; my great aim will be to
live Christ." John Nelson Darby said of Robert Chapman: "He
lives what I teach." On another occasion Darby said: "We talk of the
heavenlies, but Robert Chapman lives in them." A biographer wrote:
"What then made Chapman so beloved and effective in his time? Quite
simply, his utter devotion to Christ and his determination to live Christ." (Peterson, p. 15) Let us look at his life.
Birth and Background
Robert C. Chapman
was born on January 4, 1803, the 6th of 10 children born to Thomas
& Ann Chapman. He was born in Helsingor, Denmark, where his father
ran a prosperous import-export business. It seems that the family
practiced nothing beyond the usual religious observances. As a boy he
displayed the virtues of enthusiasm and diligence in his pursuits. His
mother said of him "Robert always has a passion, whether literature or
the flute, and whatever he takes up, he pursues diligently." Chapman
also displayed linguistic abilities in English, Danish & French,
languages spoken in the home; he became proficient in German and
Italian. After his conversion he studied Hebrew and Greek so he could
study the Scriptures in the original languages. To pursue missionary
work he studied Spanish and Portugese until he attained fluency.
childhood the Napoleonic wars between France, Denmark etc. and Britain
adversely affected the Chapman business in Denmark. The Chapman family
returned to Yorkshire, NE England. There Robert Chapman completed his
Robert Chapman left
home at age 15 to begin a 5-year legal apprenticeship in London. While
in London, Robert probably stayed with relatives. He lead an active
social life in the large city. Meanwhile there were signs of spiritual
awakening - at age 16, he began to read the Bible. Later Chapman
described his condition at that time as: "Sick was I of the world,
hating it as vexation of spirit, while yet I was unable and unwilling
to cast it out." (Peterson, p. 21)
After his 5-year
apprenticeship, Chapman became an attorney. Three years later, at the
age of 23, he inherited a small fortune and set up his own law
practice, which began to prosper. His future looked bright. However, a
few years earlier an event happened which was to change the course of
When Chapman was 20
years old he was brought to salvation by James Harington Evans. Evans
had been an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, but resigned due
to his Scriptural views. He began to preach at the John Street Chapel,
a congregation not affiliated with any denomination.
A lawyer invited
Robert Chapman the John Street Chapel. Evans preached justification by
faith based on the redemption of Jesus Christ. Robert Chapman accepted
Christ. Once saved Chapman studied his Bible with renewed interest.
Following the pattern he read, Chapman desired to be baptized
immediately. Evans advised him to wait, saying : "You will wait a while
and consider the matter." "No" said Chapman, "I will make haste, and
delay not, to keep His commandments" (Pickering p. 69). Chapman
insisted on following the Lordâ€™s charge as soon as possible. Evans
agreed; Robert Chapman was baptized a few days after accepting Christ.
Testifying and Bearing Fruit
The new believer
began to witness to friends and family. Later he wrote: "I became on
offence to those I forsook, even those of my own flesh and blood"
(Peterson, p. 26) Not all took his testimony as a â€™savor of deathâ€™; to
some it was a â€˜savor unto lifeâ€™. One cousin and her husband were drawn
on hearing Robertâ€™s experience. Chapmanâ€™s cousin, Susan had married a
wealthy lawyer, Thomas Pugsley and lived in Devon, SW England. The
couple traveled to London to hear more; they studied the Bible with
Robert. The Pugsleyâ€™s accepted Christ. Chapman also began to visit and
preach among the poor who lived in the neighborhood.
Having led him to
Christ, Evans spent considerable time with Robert Chapman. Later Evans
said concerning Chapman "He is one of my stars. I hold him to be one of
the first men of the age. He has no ebbs or flows. ... he is ... ready
for anything- everything - it matters not what." In his pursuit of
Christ, Chapman displayed both stability (â€˜no ebbs or flowsâ€™) and
eagerness (â€˜ready for anythingâ€™). Evans encouraged the young believer
to speak for the Lord.
'My Great Aim'
After his first
efforts to minister, some friends remarked that Robert would never make
a good preacher. Chapmanâ€™s reply was to characterize his life. He said:
"There are many who preach Christ, but not so many who live Christ; my
great aim will be to live Christ (Phil. 1:21)" If Romans 1:17,
â€˜The just shall live by faithâ€™ is Lutherâ€™s verse, then this Scripture -
Philippians 1:21, â€˜...for to me to live is Christâ€™ is Robert Chapmanâ€™s
Work in Devon, England
Susan and her husband, Thomas observed Chapmanâ€™s gospel labor among the
poor in London. On returning to Devon, they began a similar work at the
workhouses for the poor. Their service grew and soon Thomas Pugsley
gave up his profession to serve the Lord in the area. The following
year the Pugsleys met an enthusiastic young German believer named
George Mueller whom they invited to preach.
In the Summer of
1831, the Pugsleyâ€™s invited Robert Chapman to vacation with them and
help with the evangelistic work. Chapman preached at the cottage
meetings and found the labor exhilarating.
After his visit
Chapman received an invitation to become pastor of Ebenezer Chapel - a
congregation of "Particular Baptists"in Barnstaple, Devon. He felt this
was the Lordâ€™s leading and accepted if he could preach whatever he
found in the Bible. In April 1832, Chapman left his successful law
practice in London, gave away his personal fortune (keeping only enough
to purchase a house) and moved to Barnstaple. Chapman ministered
according to the Scriptures and was not confined to denominational
practices . This lead the congregation away from its Baptist
principles. The local Baptist "Book of Remembrance"
records that Chapmanâ€™s "settlement eventually introduced a new order of
things which separated the church from the [Baptist] Association and
the [Baptist] body at large." (Rowdon, p. 145) Soon the Barnstaple
congregation was associated with the growing number of "assemblies" -
gatherings of believers who forsook all designations to meet as
brothers gathered in the Lordâ€™s name.
In that same year,
August 1832 in the nearby city of Bristol, George Mueller began to meet
with six others "at Bethesda Chapel, Mr Mueller, Mr Craik, one other
brother, and four sisters (only seven in all) sat down together,
uniting in church fellowship, without any rules, desiring to act only
as the Lord should be pleased to give light through His Word."
(Pickering p. 70).
In 1832 Barnstaple
was a small, bustling market town of several thousand people. With a
seaport on the Bristol channel it was an active center of trade in
agricultural products. The town boasted a hospital, prison, newspaper,
2 or 3 hotels and a multitude of bars. Although there were people of
considerable wealth, a great number lived in poverty. Alcohol was a
great evil; there were eighty licenced houses "pubs" which could open
24/7- 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Other beer houses were even
more numerous. It was the kind of town described by Charles Dickens.
wanted a home that could be a place of rest and encouragement for
discouraged and tired Christian workers. For this purpose Chapman
bought a row-house at #6 New Buildings Street. Chapman lived at that
address for the next 70 years (he never married). Many Christian
workers stayed there for short or long periods, while Chapman
ministered to their spiritual and physical needs. He cleaned and shined
their shoes nightly, shared a Bible verse each morning and ministered
at meals. He conducted this as a work of faith - depending on the Lord
for funds to cover the expenses of the Lordâ€™s servants who took
hospitality there. Later the adjoining house, #8 was purchased for
Chapman visited from
door to door, contacted individuals on the street, preached the gospel
in the open air at the town square and in the surrounding villages. On
occasion he teamed up with Thomas Pugsley & Robert Gribble (an
The Lordâ€™s Table
Chapman brought in
the weekly celebration of the Lordâ€™s Supper. All believers were
encouraged to participate. They denied the clergy - laity system and
practiced the priesthood of all believers. Among the early brethren,
the Lordâ€™s Table meeting was the focal point of their church-life.
Chapman stressed the
importance of believerâ€™s baptism. However, he did not make baptism a
requirement for church membership nor for participation in the Lordâ€™s
Supper (in contrast to the Particular Baptists). He taught what he saw
as the biblical view on this matter with patience. He said later: "We
waited in patience for fulness of unity of judgment ... What we now
enjoy here of mutual love and the Spiritâ€™s unity would never have been
our portion had any other course been taken."
Robert Chapman felt
that not enough hymns lead one through the cross of Christ to God
Himself. He set out to develop a new collection of such hymns. By 1837
he had written enough to publish a new hymn-book. Our Hymn book has
only one: #297 (see below)
Chapman was opposed to denominational distinctions. All believers in denominations were "Christian brethren" to him. In Choice Sayings,
a compilation of Robert Chapmanâ€™s quotes, we read: "The titles given to
the Church in Scripture bespeak heavenly unity, such as the body, the
vine, the temple of God, a holy nation, a chosen generation, a royal
priesthood. Such words set forth the Church of God as a witness for Him
in the world; but the names which have been invented by men are names
of sects, and declare our shame."
Increase & Fruit
Chapmanâ€™s emphasis on the Bible and the example of his Christian life,
new people began meeting at Ebenezer Chapel. William Bowden, aged 20
was saved through Chapman. Another young brother, George Beer, also
about 20 was an uneducated man having been apprenticed to a farmer as a
boy. Chapman encouraged both brothers to participate in the open air
preaching. Bowden and Beer worked together, preaching the gospel and
evangelizing the surrounding villages. When Anthony Norris Groves
returned from India to seek more workers for the gospel. Chapman
encouraged Bowden & Beer, together with their wives to join Grovesâ€™
labor. They settled in the Godavari Delta of India and began a strong
Relinquishing the Hall
In 1838 a group of
Particular Baptists, who had left Ebenezer Chapel, demanded that
Chapmanâ€™s group vacate the building because they were not using it in
accordance with the original intention of the Particular Baptists.
Robert Chapman examined the original trust document and found that no
provisions were being violated. The opposing group persisted in their
demand. Although Chapman was a trained lawyer, he did not stand on his
legal rights, but sought to live Christ. After prayer and fellowship,
Chapmanâ€™s group handed over the title deed, giving up their building -
their legal claim- to the group of dissidents. Chapman saw this action
as equivalent to giving up oneâ€™s coat to someone who demands it.
About 1840 a site
became available for an assembly hall. The lot was purchased and
construction of Bear Street Chapel (later called Grosvenor St. Chapel)
was completed by 1842. It could seat 450 people. In 1851 300 people
attended Lordâ€™s Day morning, plus 100 children in the Sunday School.
The Lordâ€™s table meeting in the evening was attended by 150. By 1870,
Chapman preached regularly to 700 people every Lordâ€™s day. Since
Barnstaple was a small town, a gathering of that size represents a
significant percentage of the population. At the end of Chapmanâ€™s life
there were eighty assemblies in the towns and villages surrounding
Missions to Spain, Portugal & Ireland
Chapman labored for the Lord in a small town in rural England, his view
of the Lordâ€™s interest extended far beyond the borders of England.
Travels to Spain & Portugal
Both countries were
strongholds of corrupt Roman Catholicism. Evangelicals were persecuted.
Chapman was burdened for these countries and studied their languages
until he was fluent. He took several walking trips through these
countries carrying smuggled Bibles and engaging individuals in
conversation with a view to the gospel. Later he lead several families
to migrate from England to Spain for the gospel and returned to
strengthen and encourage them.
Long Walk in Ireland
1848 Chapman, then age 45, took three months to walk through Ireland visiting the assemblies and preaching the gospel.
Robert Chapman's Coworkers
Elizabeth ("Bessie") Paget
Miss Bessie Paget
met with believers meeting outside the established Church of England.
She had a profound influence on Anthony Norris Groves and George
Mueller, as well as Robert Chapman. In the 1820's Elizabeth Paget
raised up a church in the village of Poltimore. By the 1830's she moved
to Barnstaple, residing at #9 New Buildings St. There she opened her
home and lead the Sunday School work. Bessie also set up a soup kitchen
for the poor at her home. Bessie Paget was Chapmanâ€™s constant helper
until she passed away in 1863 aged 80. In life sister Paget and Robert
Chapman were co-laborers in the Lordâ€™s service; in death they shared
the same funeral plot and gravestone.
George Mueller had a
close companion in his labor- Henry Craik. The Lord also provided a
yoke-fellow for Robert Chapman. William Hake was 7 years older than
Chapman and had a large family. Chapman was single. However, as Chapman
wrote, "Our hearts were presently knit together in the fellowship of
the Spirit ... Each found in the other a lover of the Scriptures, and
bent upon obedience to the Lord without reserve." Hake had a quick
temper "but Godâ€™s grace is all sufficing to subdue what it forgives."
For many years the Hake family resided in Exeter (40 miles away in S
Devon.) In the 1840's Hake moved to Bideford, only 10 miles from
Barnstaple. When Bessie Paget died, the Hakes moved into #9 New
Buildings St. They added a large dining room on the rear which became
the regular location of a Thursday evening District meeting. Because of
the large number, believers from various districts met by rotation for
Bible study and fellowship.
Hake and Chapman
systematically visited the homes of Barnstaple, beginning at the
southern edge and working their way to the north side, distributing
gospel tracts and visiting homes. William Hake continued his visitation
ministry until he was 95. The towns-people referred to the two elderly
brothers as "the patriarchs". They must have presented a striking scene
- two white-haired brothers: William Hake, tall and slim; Robert
Chapman, shorter and stocky, visiting the homes from door to door to
share the gospel and minister Christ!
William Hake died
peacefully in 1890 at the age of 95. Robert Chapman was greatly grieved
by his coworkers death. He wrote: "Though so sorely bereaved, I am
strengthened and guided to carry on the service in which I once had my
beloved yoke-fellow to bear burdens with me. â€˜The night is far spent,
the day is at hand." He edited a volume of Hakeâ€™s letters and writings
entitled: Seventy Years of Pilgrimage.
Robert Gribble was
born into a poor family and received a minimal education. He supported
his family through a drapery (cloth) business. He was awakened
spiritually about 1815 and began settling up Sunday Schools in villages
around Barnstaple. After one year about 300 children were attending.
Parents asked Gribble to speak to adults on Sunday evenings. His
ability increased and several house churches or cottage meetings were
raised up through his preaching. Robert Gribbleâ€™s strategy of gospel
labor was to stay in a village for a period of time, preaching the
gospel and raising up the new believers, typically 20 to 100 and then
moved on. John Nelson Darby remarked to Wigram concerning Gribble: "How
is it Wigram, that although you and I preach the gospel more clearly
than many, we see so few results, yet they tell us, that in N. Devon,
this Mr. Gribble in his meetings, only repeats a few Gospel texts and
makes a few simple remarks, and souls are saved and assemblies formed."
(Rowdon, p. 252-3)
Relationship with Hudson Taylor
In 1852 when 20-year
old James Hudson Taylor was burdened for China, he eagerly sought the
advice of Robert Chapman. Later Chapman encouraged him to start the
China Inland Mission and became one of its first "referees"- supporters
and advisors. Hudson Taylor visited Chapman several times in
Barnstaple. One invitation reads : "My dear brother Taylor. Consider
our claim on you. We desire to fellowship with you in your work. Oh!
Come and speak to us your brethren here. Say when you can come. "
(Peterson, p. 159)
To a sister about to
visit China Chapman wrote: "I cannot but rejoice with you in your
resolve to see fellow-laborers in China. They all, with dear Brother
Hudson Taylor, have been ever in my heart at the throne of grace." He
interceded daily for that work in China until the end of his life.
One writer says:
Chapman "was one of George Muellerâ€™s oldest and most intimate friends.
More than once, in critical periods of this work [among orphans], Mr.
Mueller sought and obtained his valuable counsel." (Peterson, p. 163)
George Muellerâ€™s published diary masks the identity of individuals.
However, it is likely that Chapman is Brother â€˜C----nâ€™ who spent more
than 2 months at Bristol in late 1835 (Rowdon p. 146)
Dealing with Division
in the practices and views of various Brethren assemblies. Assemblies
in Barnstaple & Bristol (where George Mueller ministered) had a
recognized eldership Assemblies in which Darby was influential did not
have a formally identified leadership. John N. Darby believed that God
had rejected organized denominations and began asserting that
Christians should separate themselves from such organizations. Chapman,
Groves, Craik, Mueller and quite a few other leaders did not share
Darbyâ€™s separatist views.
There were different
views about relationships among assemblies. Many assemblies, including
most of those from the original Dublin group believed that unity
required a strong interdependence. Chapman, Mueller and others held
that no assembly or group of assemblies should dictate the actions of
any other. Each assembly was responsible to Christ alone and could
interact freely with any believer or group that was sound on major
The origin of the
split in the Plymouth assembly also lies in a clash of personalities
and views (eg concerning prophetic matters) between Darby and Benjamin
Newton (the leader in Plymouth).
Brief Chronology of Events
Darby did not agree
with the situation of the Plymouth assembly under Newtonâ€™s leadership.
In 1845 Darby announced his intention to start a second assembly in
Plymouth. Chapman urged Darby not to proceed with his plan. Darby
refused Chapmanâ€™s advice saying: "I will go out and whoever will may
follow me." Darby began a separate gathering late in 1845. Now there
was division in Plymouth.
In early 1846
Chapman sent a circular letter to the assemblies calling for a day of
prayer, confession and repentance over the divisions occurring among
the brethren. However, many of the assemblies rejected the call and
criticized Chapman for his proposal.
Later Darby became
aware of 10-year old writings of Newton which could be interpreted as
questioning the sinless humanity of Christ. When the offending
statements and their logical implications were brought to Newtonâ€™s
attention, he recognized his errors and withdrew them publically and in
writing. Darby and his colleagues however, believed that Newtonâ€™s
reversal was not genuine and influenced most of the assemblies in South
Devon to exclude the Newton assembly from their fellowship. Darby had
won. Newton left Plymouth at the end of 1847.
By April 1848 this
controversy had engulfed Bethesda Chapel in Bristol, where George
Mueller served. A family from the Newton assembly in Plymouth moved to
Bristol. When they asserted that they did not hold Newtonâ€™s errors,
they were accepted into fellowship in Bristol.
George Mueller and
the other elders at Bethesda wrote explaining their reasons for
accepting those from Plymouth. However, Darby and his supporters
rejected this explanation. At Darbyâ€™s urging, many assemblies
throughout Britain excluded Bethesda (and any assembly or individuals
who supported their stand) from their fellowship. Thus began the
"Exclusive brethren". The brethren assemblies were divided between the
"Open" (including Mueller and Chapmanâ€™s gatherings in N. Devon) and
"Exclusive" (lead by Darby).
A meeting of twelve
influential leaders among the brethren was convened at Bath. During
this meeting Chapman, challenging Darby, said "You should have waited
longer before separating" (referring to Darbyâ€™s formation of a separate
assembly in Plymouth in 1845). "I waited six months" Darby replied.
"But if it had been at Barnstaple, we should have waited six years"
division, Darbyâ€™s followers criticized Chapman for being deficient in
some basic doctrines. Darby, however, defended Chapman: "You leave that
man alone; he lives what I teach." On another occasion Darby testified
concerning Robert Chapman: "We talk of the heavenlies, but Robert
Chapman lives in them."
The divisions among
the brethren grieved Chapman. He referred to the "exclusive brethren"
as "brethren dearly beloved and longed for (Phil. 4:1)". They were
"brethren whose consciences lead them to refuse my fellowship and
deprive me of theirs."
Later a leader in
Barnstaple was accused of teaching an unscriptural doctrine similar to
that of Newton. Chapmanâ€™s written reply emphasizes the believerâ€™s
responsibility to judge himself rather than other brothers. Chapman
"Oh, that we, yea
all saints, might be moved each one to prove himself before God ... Our
answer to your enquiry is, first, that if anyone seeks our fellowship
here after having listened to such teaching, whether he come from one
party or the other (we hold both parties alike dear to us as our
fellow-members in Christ our Head), such an one must be judged
according to the Word of God and the rule of Christ. Cases differing
should not be confounded. If anyone brings an evil doctrine ... his
welfare and his healing would be sought by brethren here ... but to
fellowship he would not be received ... Then as to the particular case
you mentioned, we have exercised godly jealousy and find that the evil
doctrine is not held by the brother you name ... May we and all saints
cease to grieve the Spirit of God ... Shall we not then have the joy of
seeing the self-judged flowing together from all quarters."
Concerning Serving the Lord
"The servant of the
Lord Jesus ... seeing that he is to be continually ministering to
others, he must be receiving fresh supplies from the God of all grace
through all channels. Meditation on the Word and prayer should occupy
the chief part of his time. " (Peterson, p. 145)
Concerning the Believerâ€™s Growth
"There are so many
people who are satisfied with just knowing they are saved. Tell them
not to be satisfied with this. I want them to study the word and grow
in the knowledge of God. Tell them I want them to become intimate with
the Lord Jesus Christ."
Concerning Different Understanding of Scriptural Matters -
The Example of the Rapture
biographer writes: "Chapman, together with George Mueller and a small
group of leaders among the Brethren, did not believe that the
Scriptures told of a secret rapture of all believers before a
period of great tribulation on earth. They believed that the church as
a whole must go through the period of tribulation." (Peterson, p. 171)
Chapmanâ€™s coworker, did not agree with Chapmanâ€™s views. When Hake
referred to the Lordâ€™s coming at any moment to rapture all the
believers, Chapman replied "Well, brother Hake, I am ready, but itâ€™s
not in the Bible." It is worth noting that different understandings of
the Scriptures did not hinder Hake and Chapman from cooperating in the
One writer says that
"Mr Chapman firmly held there would be a selection and that he ... so
sought to walk in obedience to the whole revealed will of God that he
might not shut himself out of the honor of being one of these, and that
he failed to see from other Scriptures any promise held out to the
whole of the people of God being removed from the earth at the Lordâ€™s
coming." (Peterson p. 171) Chapman believed in the partial rapture of
the Lordâ€™s people.
Other elders at
Barnstaple held and taught other views concerning the rapture. Robert
Chapman valued harmony among the believers in Barnstaple, above his own
understanding of the Scriptures. This is seen in the following
incident: "In 1896 93-year-old Chapman called a meeting of the elders.
â€˜I have called you together,â€™ he said, â€˜to explain that I shall not
create dissension by teaching the opposite view [concerning the
rapture] in the Assembly." (Peterson p. 172)
Concerning Loving the Brothers
"On one occasion an
excluded man became bitter and vowed never to speak a word to Chapman
again. Later the two found themselves approaching one another on the
street ... Chapman embraced him and said, â€˜Dear brother, God loves you,
Christ loves you, and I love you.â€™ This action broke the manâ€™s
animosity; he repented and was soon breaking bread at Bear St. Chapel."
(Peterson p. 174)
Chapmanâ€™s Goal - to Please Christ
"My chief desire is to please Him. If I please my brethren, I am glad. If I fail, I am not disappointed." (Peterson, p. 189)
A Hymn by R. C. Chapman (Hymns #297)
"No condemnation!" precious word!
Consider it, my soul!
Thy sins were all on Jesus laid,
His stripes have made thee whole.
In Godâ€™s own presence now for us,
The Savior doth appear;
The saints, as jewels on His heart,
Jesus doth ever bear
"No condemnation!" O my soul,
â€˜Tis God that speaks the word;
Perfect in comeliness art thou
In Christ, the risen Lord.
Teach me, O God, to fix mine eyes
On Christ, the spotless Lamb,
So shall I love Thy precious will,
And glorify His name.
Chief Men Among the Brethren, by Pickering, Henry, Pub. Loizeaux Brothers Inc., Neptune, NJ 1986 (1st printing 1918)
Robert Chapman, A Biography, Peterson, Robert L. Pub. Loizeaux Brothers Inc., Neptune, NJ 1995.
The Origins of the Brethren,. By Rowden, Harold H., Pickering and Inglis, London, 1967
Anthony Norris Groves, by Lang G. H. (2nd edition; London, The Paternoster Press, 1949)
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 letter.
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 career.
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 Him!"
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" 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 Christ."
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 preacher's back.
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 taken."
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 their journey.
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