ENGLISH VERSION - Bulletin Nº 48 August 15, 2021
SIMONTON – PIONEER OF PRESBYTERIANISM IN BRAZIL
by Rev. Renato Souza Prates
On November 27, 1858, young Simonton sent his formal request to be a missionary to the Board of Foreign Missions, mentioning Brazil as his preferred field, leaving, however, the final decision to the Board. In August 1859 he arrived in Rio de Janeiro. Simonton was born on January 20, 1833, in West Hanover, Pennsylvania, of descent from Scottish-Irish Presbyterians who had migrated to the United States. He was the son of William Simonton and Martha Davis. He had nine brothers, five men, called the quinque frates (the five brothers): William, John, James Thomas and four sisters: Martha, Jane, Elizabeth (Lillie) and Anna Mary. From an early age, Simonton received the best moral, intellectual and spiritual influences from the Presbyterian faith in which he was raised and which can be easily observed in his diary, written from the age of nineteen onwards. When traveling to the southern United States, acting as a teacher, he showed, in his reflections and sensitive personality, a deep interest in spiritual things, although, until then, he had not made his profession of faith. He looked at the social problems of his time, for example, he was radically opposed to the issue of slavery.
On the trade in Africans, he considered it an “inhuman trafficking and no man with a humanitarian feeling could engage in it” (MATOS, p. 27). He did not agree with the behavior of men who took advantage of their fellow men to benefit themselves economically. He also cared for the poor and, on the eve of Christmas, he expressed his feelings thus: “Winter has come violent, snow and cold for the pleasure of the rich and the despair of the poor (...) This winter there will be more suffering among the poor classes of the that there never was. Thousands of workers have already been made redundant in cities and industrial agglomerations; rents and food are expensive” (MATOS, p. 78).
The precarious situation of thousands of people bothered him: “this was a serious social problem, which did not go unnoticed by him. Simonton was a person concerned with the social, striving for the well-being of everyone” (ATAÍDES, p. 19). Until then, he had not made a decision to serve Christ because he lacked a deep experience with God. However, his conversion didn't take long to happen. In March 1855, the church, of which his mother was a member, held a prayer campaign where he gave himself to Christ, publicly making his commitment to God. From that moment “he started to consider the ministry as a possibility in his career.
He then made a courageous decision that forever changed the meaning of his life: he responded affirmatively to the pastor's appeal” (ATAÍDES, p. 20). In response to the call, in July of that year, he entered Princeton Seminary to prepare for the ministry. During the first semester, he heard a sermon in the seminary chapel that awakened him to missions. “The preacher was Dr. Charles Hodge, an eminent theologian and seminary professor, who made him seriously consider the possibility of devoting himself to missionary work abroad. That sermon deeply touched the sensitive heart of the young seminarian Simonton, making him think seriously, for the first time, about missionary work” (ATAÍDES, p.23).
With his mother's consent, on November 27, 1858, he sent the formal request to be a missionary to the Board of Foreign Missions, mentioning Brazil as his preferred field, leaving, however, the final decision to the Board of Directors. . He was accepted and ordained a pastor, beginning preparations for the trip the following year. On the morning of June 18, 1859, he said goodbye, in the port of Baltimore, to his mother and brother John, who accompanied him to the ship. His mother wrote in her diary at that time: “It is difficult to separate yourself from those we may no longer see on earth. But when I think about the value of immortal souls that are being lost for lack of the pure Gospel… I commend you with prayers and tears to the Lord, who does everything for good” (www.missiodei.com.br. In: 25/08/06 ). They prayed fervently for him and then boarded a sailing ship called the Banshee, bound for Brazil. He was leaving behind his homeland, family and friends, many of whom he would no longer see on this earth. The trip took 55 days, but it finally landed in the port of the capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, on August 12 of that year.
When Simonton arrived here there were many English Protestants (Anglicans) who had come here over half a century, liberated by a commercial treaty between the Empire of Brazil and England. However, they did not evangelize because of the restrictions that were part of the agreement. The official religion of Imperial Brazil was Roman Catholicism. Simonton had great anticipation of preaching the gospel here. He was well aware that he must he was going to love people to win them to the Lord, because being a missionary without love was bad business for him. As a method of evangelization, he began to teach English, as a way to establish contact with people and improve his fluency in the Portuguese language, which was a big problem for him. He struggled to learn the language as quickly as possible so that he could communicate the gospel well.
Three months after his arrival in Brazil, he wrote: “What interests me most now is learning the language… and until I complete it, I am unable to be useful here… All the efforts I have made so far to learn Portuguese have not been successful. ” (MATOS, p. 132). After a few months in Brazil, “on April 22, 1860, on a Sunday, Simonton held the first Sunday School at his house, this being his first work in Portuguese” (ATAÍDES, p. 40), which left him very much happy. Simonton not only stayed in Rio, but visited several cities in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, leaving the seed of the Gospel in them, where many Presbyterian churches were born. In late 1862, he returned home to visit his sick mother.
Unfortunately, when she arrived she had already left for the Lord. She had the opportunity to see her siblings for the last time, describing this meeting thus: “Last night we were talking until late about the past and about the departed. Each contributed more or less of the treasures of his memory; many incidents and memories were relived and the connection of the present with the past seemed complete” (MATOS, p. 154). Later that year, Simonton met the young Helen Murdoch, whom he had married on March 19, 1863. Then they came to Brazil and here Helen lived for about a year and died of complications in childbirth.[ 1] Simonton, bereaved and alone, wrote his most painful words: “God have mercy on me now, for deep waters have rolled over me. Helen is stretched out in her coffin in the entrance hall. God took her suddenly that I walk like someone who dreams” (MATOS, p.164). His wife's death was an irreparable loss, a blow from which he never recovered. However, he continued his ministry with great ardor. With his ministry colleagues: Blackford, Schneider and Chamberlain, he founded some Presbyterian churches (Rio, São Paulo and Brotas), organized a Presbytery (the Presbytery of Rio de Janeiro), a newspaper (Imprensa Evangélica), a Seminary (Primitive Seminary) and a Parish School (in Rio de Janeiro).
All of this took place in a short period of eight years and four months. Simonton tirelessly did God's work and his work prospered in many places. One of the most important fruits of his ministry was the conversion of Father José Manuel da Conceição, known as JMC, who became a key player in the evangelization of many cities in the states of São Paulo and southern Minas Gerais. JMC was the first ordained Brazilian pastor. In November 1867 Simonton was stricken with yellow fever and no longer recovered. Despite being duly assisted by doctors, he did not resist and died prematurely, on December 9, 1867, at 33 years of age. The tomb of the missionary Simonton is next to that of JMC, in the Cemetery of Protestants, in São Paulo. On August 12, 1959, on the hundredth anniversary of his arrival in Brazil, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil placed, at the foot of the pioneer's tombstone, a commemorative plaque with the following inscription: “First centenary of the arrival of Rev. Ashbel Green Simonton to the Brazil.
His work was not in vain in the Lord” (MATOS, p. 30). On August 12, 2009 we commemorated the 150th anniversary of Simonton's arrival in Brazil to establish Presbyterianism. As Presbyterians we have reason to praise God for his life. We recognize the importance of his work, which continues to bear fruit for the glory of God! Amen.
ATAÍDES, Florêncio Moreira de. Simonton: the missionary who made an impact Brazil. Arapongas, PR: Alleluia, 2008. MATOS, Aldery Souza (ed.).
Simonton's Diary. São Paulo, SP: Christian Culture, 2002.
www.missiodei.com.br. In: 8/25/06  Helen Murdoch Simonton, daughter of Ashbel and Helen, lived most of her life in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, and died at the age of 88, on January 7, 1952.
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