Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Life and Times of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

by Donald John Maclean (Cambridge) http://jamesdurham.wordpress.com/
“Thomas Chalmers, as all the world knows, was born in the Fifeshire town of Anstruther in the year 1780”.  If that was true in 1908 when William Beveridge published his “Makers of the Scottish Church” what a change the past 100 years have seen.  In his own timeframe Thomas Carlyle called him “The chief Scotsman of his age,” he even came to the notice of Karl Marx who labelled him the “arch parson.”  When he died it was said that though it “was the dust of a Presbyterian minister which the coffin contained; and yet they were burying him amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours.”  But today, Chalmers is a forgotten and largely neglected figure.  And that is nothing short of tragedy.

Thomas Chalmers
And in many ways it is hard to explain.   Some people are forgotten because they don’t publish much.  This is not true of Chalmers.  His collected writing published in his lifetime run to 35 volumes.  Some people might be forgotten because they don’t found anything that endures.  But to take two institutions that Chalmers founded, the Free Church of Scotland and New College Edinburgh – both exist today.  Nor was his influence confined to Scotland.  William Wilberforce heard him preach and said that "all the world was wild about Dr. Chalmers."  In America the theologians of Princeton Seminary read and appreciated Chalmers.  Samuel Miller said that from Chalmers writings he received “impressions of his moral and heavenly grandeur.”
But perhaps there are two reasons for his neglect.  First, he addressed the specific political and economic problems of his day, as well as the spiritual, and so he wrote a number of works which are heavily dated.  Even faithful sons of the Free Church of Scotland may struggle to get overly excited by works like “On Political Economy in connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society” with chapters like “On the Increase and Limit of Food”.  Nor is a work like “On Cuvier's Theory of the Earth” going to grab attention today.  And because he wrote much on social themes, secondary literature on Chalmers has often focused on these areas – perhaps creating the false impression of a man who spoke to his time, but does not have much to say to ours.  Second, perhaps some who we might expect to warm to Chalmers are put off because of his view of the relation between science and Scripture.  Chalmers for example accepted, and it is fair to say enthusiastically embraced, the views emerging in his day over the old age of the earth.  Now, we will return to critical of Chalmers on this topic later – but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and ignore Chalmers because of his views here.  I remember a few years ago I was talking to someone at a wedding and as we struck up conversation he asked who I was reading.  I replied “Thomas Chalmers”.  He looked puzzled and said, “but he was a raving liberal.”  While we have to wrestle critically with Chalmers here, to call him a liberal is a tragedy.
Now, it is hard to capture the genius of Chalmers in a brief discussion – due to the sheer scope of his life.   His life moves from being a minister in a rural church, to leading large city congregations, to being a professor of moral philosophy, to being a professor of theology.  He leads over 1/3 of the Church of Scotland out of the denomination to form the Free Church of Scotland, launches a massive church building programme and sets in place the structures to support the church.  All the while he maintains renown as an orator, preacher, political economist, philanthropist, educationalist, ecclesiastical statesman and – above all – as an incomparable motivator of his fellow Christians. 
What we will try and do is look at his life and draw lessons from it as we go through.
Chalmers the Moralist
Chalmers was born in 1790, as we all know, in Anstruther in Fife.  He grew up in a godly home as the 6th of 14 children.  His parents were sincere Christians.  At the age of 15 he went to St Andrews to study and there fell into the deadly trap of “Moderatism.”  It is important to remember that there have been few if any “golden ages” in church history.  We might think of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as prime candidates for such.  The age before Darwin, the age before higher criticism, the age before atheism was the “default” position.  But no.  Unbelief manifests itself in many ways, religious as well as irreligious.  For instance, it is hard to imagine a more religious people than the Pharisees, and yet it is also difficult to imagine a group of people so dead in unbelief.  And so it was in the Scottish Church.  Vital religion had largely died.  There was the form of godliness but the power had long gone.  To be “evangelical,” to be “serious” about religion was no less despised in those days than our own, particularly among ministers.  The great, and none too tactful, Highland minister Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron (1754-1819) said “If people go to perdition in these days it is not for want of ministers.  The clergy are likely to become soon as plentiful as the locusts in Egypt, and which of them is the greatest plague of the two, time and the experience of the church will discover.”
So when Chalmers arrived in St Andrews, destined by his father for the gospel ministry, he encountered the chilling and deadly atmosphere of Moderatism.  Chalmers said there that he “inhaled not only a distaste only, but a positive contempt for all that is peculiarly gospel.”  When he finished his studies he eventually was called to be the pastor in Kilmany.  At this stage he is unconverted with, as he said, a “contempt” for what he later embraced as the gospel.  He rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, “The tenets ... that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus for the reparation of violated justice are rejected by all free and rational enquirers.”  He rejected justification by faith alone, “Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can recommend us to the Almighty.”  And this he did as one who subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith!
Chalmers also had a very low view of the ministry, holding an assistantship in Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and offering lectures on science as well.  Part of his natural drive and self-confidence can be seen in that he lost his position at the University through criticising his senior college in Mathematics.  In a statement which he was later to bitterly regret he reflected his derisory view of the ministry by stating that: “The author of this pamphlet can assert from what to him is the highest of all authority – the authority of his own experience – that, after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage.”  Some years later when this statement was thrown back in his face a converted Chalmers said, “Alas!  So I thought in my ignorance and pride.  I have now no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of it, I penned what was most outrageously wrong.  Strangely blinded that I was!  What, sir, is the object of mathematical science?  Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude.  But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes – I thought not of the littleness of time – I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”
Chalmers Conversion
As Chalmers went about his leisurely ways he was brought into the valley of the shadow of death.  His brother and sister died of tuberculosis in 1806 and 1808 respectively.  As the “clergyman” in the family he had to pastor them in their dying days.  His brother asked Chalmers to do something that was distasteful to him - read aloud puritan sermons to him!  His sister asked him to do something even more uncomfortable, namely sing the psalms to her!  Over this period he sang through the Psalter 5 times to her.  Chalmers then became ill himself in 1809.  While he recovered, he faced more crises, for example, another sister died.  Through this God was working in Chalmers, and in 1810 as he was reading William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians a revolution came about in his spiritual life.  Chalmers was a converted man.  He later wrote: “as I got on in reading it, [I] felt myself on the eve of a great revelation in all my opinions about Christianity … I am now most thoroughly of the opinion, and it is an opinion founded on experience, that on the system of “Do this and live” – no peace and even no true and worthy obedience, can ever be obtained.  It is “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”  When this belief enters the heart, joy and confidence enter along with it.”
Application: Perhaps somewhere around the UK today there is someone labouring in a parish, confused in unbelief, whom God will use, like Chalmers, to awaken a nation.  May this be our prayer!
Chalmers Renewed Pastorate in Kilmany
A passion was ignited in Chalmers heart for the bible.  Before his conversion, one of the members of his congregation said to him: “I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another; but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.”  “Oh!” said Chalmers, “an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that.”  But regarding the converted Chalmers the same man said, “I never come in now, sir, but I find you at your bible!”  To which Chalmers responded: “All too little, John, all too little”.
Application: Perhaps we lack Chalmers power because we lack his acquaintance with the word of God?
This love of the Bible became evident as Chalmers threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the emerging Bible society movement.  Remember the Bible Society began in 1804 in London, and the Scottish Bible Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1809.  Being new, being innovative was something that never troubled Chalmers.
As well as the work for Bible Societies, and related to it, was Chalmers passionate attachment to mission and the emerging missionary societies.  In 1813 he published a sermon “The two great instruments appointed for the propagation of the Gospel.”  This was a powerful sermon on the text “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word.”  Here is his conclusion: “Those to whom Christ is precious will long that others should taste of that preciousness.  Those who … [rejoice in] the sufficiency of the atonement will long that the knowledge of a remedy so effectual should be carried around the globe … In a word those who love the honour of the Saviour, will long that his kingdom be extended till all the nations of the earth be brought under his one grand and universal monarchy – till the powers of darkness shall be extinguished – till the mighty Spirit which Christ purchased by His obedience shall subdue every heart, shall root out the existence of sin, [and] shall restore the degeneracy of our fallen nature…”  As a result of this he became a director of the London Missionary Society. 
Application: Chalmers, like another great Presbyterian Charles Hodge, was a man who transcended denominational boundaries.  He embraced the new voluntary societies for bible distribution and mission.  He worked with those outside the Presbyterian tradition.  How comfortable are we doing working with those outside our circles?
Another example of Chalmers willingness to embrace change was that he was willing to adapt the form of his language to his hearers, stating that, “I feel that I do not come close enough to the heart and experience of my hearers, and begin to think that the phraseology of the old writers must be given up for one more accommodated to the present age.”  It was said that [Blakie] “not a vestige did he borrow of traditional forms, hardly any of the traditional phraseology.” In his famous sermon on “the common people heard him gladly.”  Chalmers said that “We hear of the orator of fashion, the orator of the learned, the orator of the mob.  A minister of Jesus Christ should be none of these; and if an orator at all, it should be his distinction that he is an orator of the [whole] species.”  That was his goal, to speak to all in his age, whatever their station in life.
Chalmers was by all accounts an extraordinary preacher.  This he achieved while breaking all the conventional rules of pulpit eloquence of his day.  First, he read his sermon from a manuscript rather than preaching extemporaneously.  Second, he suffered from “the obstacles of a provincial education, an ungraceful person, and an unharmonious voice.”  But despite this he had a power that captivated.  Hear the classic description of his preaching: “His voice is neither strong nor melodious, his gestures neither easy nor graceful; but on the contrary exceptionally rude and awkward; his pronunciation not only broadly national, but broadly provincial, distorting every word he utters into some barbarous novelty … He commences in a low drawling key, which has not even the merit of being solemn, and advances from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph, while you seek in vain to catch a single echo that gives promise of what is to come … But then, with what tenfold richness does this preliminary curtain make the glories of his eloquence to shine forth … I have never heard either in England or Scotland, or in any other country, any preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible.”
Two key things about Chalmers preaching:
-          “By far the most effective ingredient of good preaching is the personal piety of the preacher himself.”  This is the “spiritual conviction” that was identified as the key to his preaching.
-          “The great aim of our ministry is to win souls.”
Application: Is this the great aim or our lives, and our ministries?
W.G. Blakie stated that “his whole discourse was … a boiling, foaming current, a mingled stream of exposition illustration and application, directed to the one great object of moving his audience to action.  His soul was so penetrated with his subject, his whole nature was so roused and electrified by it, that others could not but be roused and electrified too.”
Two Glasgow Pastorates
In 1815 Chalmers was called to Glasgow, to the Tron Parish Church.  Some of his greatest work was done in Glasgow.  When he arrived he was responsible for a parish of around 12,000.  His church could accommodate 1300.  And of his church, which was full, less than 100 people came from his parish.  His parish was working class - his congregation was the emerging middle class.
And so what would you do?  You have a large congregation. You have a lot of duties to perform.  Surely you are content with your lot?  Well this is where Chalmers “heart for mission” begins to shine through.  We have seen it a little in his support for bible societies, in his willingness to adapt his language, but here it really shines out.
First, he engages in systematic parish visitation.  That is over 2,200 households.  Over two years he visits them all.  As part of this he reenergises the eldership in his parish increasing the number of elders from 8 to 25 one year after moving to the Tron.
Second, he organised mid-week services in conjunction with visitation.  For many this was the only service they would have.  Remember the church was woefully small in comparison to the number of people in the parish.  Recall also that in those days you had to pay a “seat rent” to get a seat in the church - which for those who were poverty stricken was not straightforward!
Third, he embraced the emerging Sunday School movement.  He organised his parish into districts giving each teacher a manageable size of catchment area.  He established 47 schools in his parish.  A number of his teachers went on to be ministers having received a grounding in visiting working class homes, getting to know the conditions in which people lived, and trying to make the Christian faith understandable to groups of children who, one suspects, would not have necessarily been the most willing listeners.
Fourth, he fought against the secularisation of the ministry.  It is almost staggering to think what the duties of a parish minister involved in those days.  From administering what today is social security benefit, to sitting on town councils debating whether pig or ox broth was better for the ill.  He stated “I am gradually separating myself from all this trash, and long to establish … [that my] entire time [be] disposable to the purposes to which the apostles gave themselves wholly, that is the ministry of the word and prayer.”
Application: Chalmers was clearly comfortable breaking the accepted mould.  Be that in adopting contemporary language.  Be that in taking the church out in to the world.  Be that in embracing bible societies and the missionary movement.  Chalmers clearly and wisely distinguished between what were fixed principles and matters simply of preference and form.  What can we do today?  How do we become “all things to all men” without abandoning our duty to “contend earnestly for the faith”?
Application: Breaking the mould can be a bad thing.  When in Glasgow Chalmers published works (e.g. Astronomical Discourses) accepting the emerging geology.  This raises the question of whether Chalmers’ embrace of the teachings of natural science ultimately set the scene for the embrace of higher criticism and the death of the Free Church he founded. For myself, I think the answer is that he set a trajectory which could, and sadly did, lead the Free Church astray.
Iain Murray correctly notes that for Chalmers “the care of souls was not to end in the pulpit.  He pressed upon his divinity students what became known as the “aggressive principle”, that is to say, they must take the gospel to the people; the unchurched must not be left alone, rather they must be pursued wherever they are to be found.”
A couple of interesting anecdotes:
·         Chalmers drew huge crowds and at times this could present a danger to safety.  On one occasion he later related to a fellow pastor the steps he had taken to reduce crowds:  “I preached the same sermon in the morning and for the very purpose of preventing the oppressive annoyance of such a densely crowded place I intimated that I should preach it again in the evening.  Have you ever tried that plan?”  “I did not smile,” said the other minister, “I laughed outright.  ‘No, my friend,’ I replied.  ‘Very few of us need to resort to special means to get thin audiences!’”
·         Chalmers was preaching in the High Church, Edinburgh. A report of his sermon: “In those days his action was violent in the extreme.  The whole energy of the man seemed to be thrown into his limbs: the pulpit cushion got such a dusting as it had not known since the days of John Knox.  He was enveloped in a cloud of dust – his gown flew around his shoulders; but he held his audience rapt until one was unconscious of time and space.”
In order to cope with the large scale population movements and to try his ideas in a new setting Chalmers took advantage of plans to set up a new parish, St Johns.  He also wished to demonstrate that the Church itself through the diaconate could care for the poor, without specific state levies.  He also set up schools for general education, with a Christian base.
The success of the St John’s experiment has been much debated.  What is clear is that a passion for church planting to meet population growth, combined with a revitalisation of the deaconate to care for the poor, aligned with his earlier revitalisation of the eldership was a key achievement, and a large step to better days ahead.
Chalmers the Professor
In 1823 Chalmers moved back to St Andrews to be Professor of Moral Philosophy.  Why did he do this?  Chalmers was aware of St Andrews as a stronghold of the “moderates”.  Why did he abandon his church in Glasgow?  Well the answer I think lies in strategic usefulness.  What he could do in one congregation himself, he could inspire scores of students who passed through his classroom to do.  It was as a teacher of the rising generation he felt he could do most for “the Christian good of Scotland.” 
When in St Andrews Chalmers remained an enthusiastic supporter of mission – encouraging the first Church of Scotland missionary Alexander Duff as he went to India.  He was chair of the St Andrews Missionary Society.  While in St Andrews 300 students passed through his hands.  He used his planned influence well, having many groups of students round for meals and holding fellowships on Sabbath evenings. After 5 years in St Andrews, (now 1828) during which his wife threatened to become a non-conformist to escape the moderatism of the Church of Scotland, Chalmers transferred to the Chair of Divinity in Edinburgh.  Here he became the leading evangelical in the church, and in 1832 was appointed moderator of the General Assembly.
Chalmers had a longstanding vision that “through every district of the land there would be a church to which the people may repair.”  In 1834 he was appointed to lead a new “Church Extension Committee.”  Over the next 7 years he raised funds equivalent to £22m today and saw 220 new churches planted.
In Edinburgh he was appointed to the Church’s foreign mission board, he was a patron of the Edinburgh University Missionary Association and took an honorary position on the Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in America.  However, by this time the balance of power in terms of mission support in Scotland swung from voluntary societies to the Church.  That I think was a good thing.
In Edinburgh Chalmers was able to influence a rising generation.  Names you may have heard of came under is sway: Robert Murray McCheyne, William Cunningham, Andrew Bonar, Horatius Bonar, George Smeaton and others.  One example of what he did is on Saturday mornings he got his students to gather for prayer in New College and in pairs visit the poorest areas of the city.  One of those who gathered was McCheyne and it was said of him that “In Chalmers more than any other person that McCheyne found the mould for his ecclesiastical and religious thought.”
The Disruption
Through the labours of Chalmers and others an evangelical revival had been occurring and in 1834 they had the majority in the Church.  A controversy had been brewing for some time over the right of congregations to choose their own ministers, rather than the rich landowners imposing their choice.  The 1834 assembly gave congregations the right to veto the appointment of any minister that they could not agree to.  This led to a significant dispute between the Church and the state which eventually was decided in the House of Lords against the rights of the Church.  Believing that “the crown rights of King Jesus” had been violated by the state Chalmers led nearly 40% of the ministers out of the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland.  Soon 800 churches were established and a new theological college in Edinburgh founded. Some key features of Chalmers vision for the Free Church:
-          Strong churches support the weak by giving funds to support their work.  This was known as the “sustentation fund” and was a practical expression of Presbyterian unity.
-          Passionately evangelistic e.g. reaching out in the West Port of Edinburgh
-          Non-denominational e.g. despite being the leading founder of the denomination, Chalmers could say “Who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland.”
-          Committed to evangelical unity e.g. Chalmers was one of the founders of the Evangelical Alliance.
What is a real testament to Chalmers is that when the Free Church split from the Church of Scotland, every single missionary identified themselves with the new Free Church!
Chalmers died 4 years after the Free Church was founded.  Andrew Bonar said: “Remember that very few men, and very few ministers, keep up to the end the edge that was on their spirit at the first.” Chalmers did.
Application: How does Chalmer’s founding a new denomination fit with Christian unity?  Why split the church over the election of ministers when there is a “plague” of Moderate ministers in the church?  Which if any of these should have split the Kirk?
So, the life of Thomas Chalmers.  Wouldn’t it be good if a day could come when articles on Chalmers could once again begin: “Thomas Chalmers, as all the world knows, was born in the Fifeshire town of Anstruther in the year 1780”!


  1. I recently found a serman of my father's preached on September 28, 1947, entitled "The Thomas Chalmers Centennial and the Glory of Preaching. He noted that Mr. Chalmers, in May of 1843, led 400 ministers who had assembed at St. Andres in Edinburgh, in a parade as they left behind their positions, their incomes, and their homes. This certainly attests to the eloquence of Chalmers desire to leave the Church of Scotland and his impact in starting the Free Church of Scotland.

  2. Very helpful in my History of Evangelicalism module! Thanks Andy...