Apostle of Love
Publisher: Lewis & Roth
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
J.C. Ryle you’ve likely heard of, likewise J.N. Darby and C.H. Spurgeon. But what of R.C. Chapman? What if I told you that Darby said of Chapman, “he lives what I teach”? And that Spurgeon referred to Chapman as “the saintliest man I ever knew”? Would you want to learn more about this Victorian-era figure? If so, I would counsel you to procure Robert L. Peterson’s biography of Robert Chapman, Apostle of Love.
Chapman was born into a wealthy British family. The youngest child, he was extraordinary well-read. A lawyer by training, Chapman was converted under the preaching of Harington Evans, a dissenting preacher in London, and soon after gave away most of his share of the family money. Following his God, his heart, and his newfound Christian friends, Chapman soon relocated to Devon where a thriving early Christian brethren work was beginning. He settled in Barnstaple and lived there for the remainder of his 99 years as an elder of the dissenting chapel in the town.
As the subtitle of Peterson’s book indicates, Chapman became well known for his love and hospitality. Whereas many of us show rough edges when we are in our natural habitats (i.e. our homes), Chapman never showed such a side – and his house was open to guests virtually every day of the year. This was a man who delighted to polish his guests’ shoes every morning after rising at 4am for a cold bath and a few hours of prayer, followed by a long, brisk walk before breakfast with the rest of the household.
But Chapman was not only a gracious host, he was a godly pastor. Even into his nineties he undertook regular pastoral visitation, leaning on the arms of his co-worker William Hake, who was an octagenarian himself. But Chapman not only pastored his church, but the town at large. This book contains a number of stories about Barnstaple natives who were at one time or another overwhelmed by Chapman’s kindness, straight into the kingdom of God. But Chapman not only pastored the town, but the entire Brethren movement in the British isles. As personality conflicts ravaged the relationships between the first generation of Brethren leaders, Chapman’s voice was calling for forebearance, tolerance, and unity.
As might be expected from such a godly man, Chapman’s legacy is manifold: he was a pioneer of Protestant missions to Roman Catholic Spain, he was the prayer power behind George Muller’s orphanages, and he was the wise and patient force behind what unity there was among the Christian Brethren in Britain for much of the nineteenth century. Peterson spends a chapter highlighting Chapman’s views of many doctrines, some essential and some non-essential. What shines throughout is Chapman’s devotion to biblical priorities and practice of Christlike virtues.
This invites the question, why have we heard so little about Chapman? True to his humble character, Chapman himself had a hand in his own obscurity. After writing his first and only book, he decided to destroy all his correspondence and never write another extended work so that his parishioners would not lean on any other writings except the Bible. Hence the majority of the insights into Chapman’s character are derived from his friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries. Biographer Peterson makes judicious use of these sources, providing us with a well-paced and interesting account of Chapman’s life and ministry. At his death, a younger pastor delivered Chapman’s eulogy, saying that with Chapman gone, the Christians would have to lean more on Christ. Such is the quiet legacy of the Brethren patriarch of Barnstaple.