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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Samuel Butler and the Simeonites

Samuel Butler and the Simeonites

Readers of Samuel Butler’s remarkable story The Way of All Flesh will probably recall his description of the Simeonites (chap. xlvii), who still flourished at Cambridge when Ernest Pontifex was up at Emmanuel. Ernest went down in 1858; so did Butler. Throughout the book the spiritual and intellectual life and development of Ernest are drawn from Butler’s own experience.

“The one phase of spiritual activity which had any life in it during the time Ernest was at Cambridge was connected with the name of Simeon. There were still a good many Simeonites, or as they were more briefly called ‘Sims,’ in Ernest’s time. Every college page 267 contained some of them, but their head-quarters were at Caius, whither they were attracted by Mr. Clayton, who was at that time senior tutor, and among the sizars of St. John’s. Behind the then chapel of this last-named college was a ‘labyrinth’ (this was the name it bore) of dingy, tumble-down rooms,” and here dwelt many Simeonites, “unprepossessing in feature, gait, and manners, unkempt and ill-dressed beyond what can be easily described. Destined most of them for the Church, the Simeonites held themselves to have received a very loud call to the ministry … They would be instant in season and out of season in imparting spiritual instruction to all whom they could persuade to listen to them. But the soil of the more prosperous undergraduates was not suitable for the seed they tried to sow. When they distributed tracts, dropping them at night into good men’s letter boxes while they were asleep, their tracts got burnt, or met with even worse contumely.” For Ernest Pontifex “they had a repellent attraction; he disliked them, but he could not bring himself to leave them alone. On one occasion he had gone so far as to parody one of the tracts they had sent round in the night, and to get a copy dropped into each of the leading Simeonites’ boxes. The subject he had taken was ‘Personal Cleanliness.’”

Some years ago I found among the Cambridge papers in the late Mr. J. W. Clark’s collection three printed pieces bearing on the subject. The first is a genuine Simeonite tract; the other two are parodies. All three are anonymous. At the top of the second parody is written “By S. Butler. March 31.” It will be necessary to give a few quotations from the page 268 Simeonite utterance in order to bring out the full flavour of Butler’s parody, which is given entire. Butler went up to St. John’s in October, 1854; so at the time of writing this squib he was in his second term, and 18 years of age.

    A.T.B.