Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)
Reformer, Preacher, Theologian, Philosopher
Thomas Chalmers was born in Anstruther, on the south-east coast of Fife, on March 17th, 1780. He was the son of John Chalmers, a dyer, ship-owner and general merchant in Easter-Anstruther, and Elizabeth Hall, the daughter of a wine-merchant of Crail, who, in the course of twenty-two years, had nine sons and five daughters, of which Thomas was the sixth. John Chalmers inherited a very prosperous business from his father, but due to bad business, economic conditions and the cost of a large family, he largely lost his inheritance. Although not a good businessman, he was a devout Calvinist and a warm hearted family man. Elizabeth was not a religious woman, but she involved herself a great deal in humanitarian concerns.After enduring the tyranny of a severe nurse, when he was three Thomas went to the local parish school where his schoolmaster was equally severe. The young boy was taught mathematics by his uncle, who was a retired sea captain.
At eleven, after having learned to read, and acquired as much Latin as he could under such unpromising tuition, he was sent to St Andrews University. There he studied an arts curriculum in Greek, the humanities and natural philosophy. It was a four year course, but they only studied for five months a year. Chalmers was very young to begin University; most boys would have gone to a grammar school first for training in Latin and Greek which they needed for University. Chalmer’s parents probably could not afford to send him, but for whatever reason it resulted in him struggling in his studies for the first two years. In the third year he began to excel and started a course in mathematics where his talents were really noticed. At the age of fifteen he entered the Divinity College to study theology. Though he was quite lazy during his first year, during his second year he devoted more attention to his studies. In the spring of 1798, after his third year, he became a tutor for the children of John Stevenson, near Arbroath, where he was given time to complete his final year. By doing this he was able to have free accommodation, plus a little money and he would be able to observe the manners and morals of the wealthy propertied classes. However the family treated him with such disdain that he left them in November, and went to St Andrews to finish University.
When ready to apply for license as a preacher, an obstacle was in his way; for he was not yet twenty, and according to the rules of the Church, no student should be licensed before he had reached the age of twenty-one. This difficulty, however, was overruled by an exceptional clause in favour of those possessing "rare and singular qualities." When he went before the St Andrew’s Presbytery, one of its members raised objections, so Chalmers visited the man several times, eventually persuading him to withdraw his objections. Having passed his oral examination in doctrine and satisfactorily given a series of trial sermons, he was licensed on July 31st, 1799.
His father organised another tutor’s position for him, but Chalmers refused it because he said he would only work for a family who had influence, who would help him get settled in a comfortable parish. He went to Edinburgh, there refusing to take up a role as an assistant minister that his father had found for him. Edinburgh had too many attractions for him. He stayed with a cousin, earning a little money through part-time tutoring in mathematics. He remained in the city for two years, attending lectures by John Robinson, Professor of Natural Philosophy. Robinson’s teaching on the scientific method greatly impressed Chalmers and he accepted that science could never reveal to man the whole of God’s plan. He became excited about the potential for scientific progress, wanting to become a natural philosopher.
His friend, James Miller, wrote, “His character, during all my acquaintance with him was that of the strictest integrity and the warmest affection. He was enthusiastic and persevering in every thing he undertook, giving his whole mind to it, and often pursuing some favourite and even foolish idea (as we thought) whilst we were talking around him, and perhaps laughing at his abstractions, or breaking in on his cogitations, and pronouncing him the next thing to mad; and then he would good naturedly join in the merriment with his common affectionate expression, ‘very well my good lads.’” He was also described as having prolonged periods of depression and then periods of elation.
The Anstruther family owned most of the land in the area, and had the patronage of several parishes. The awful system of patronage had been a blight on the Church of Scotland for a hundred years. Patrons were allowed to appoint their man to a parish, whatever the parishioners might think of him. Chalmers’ father had been using his influence locally in favour of the family for years and was thought of as their ‘man.’ It was through the Anstruther family that Chalmers was hoping for a position, and indeed Sir John had promised his father the next vacancy within his gift. Unfortunately Sir John died, and when the next vacancy occurred his son was overlooked. This made Chalmers very angry, and he railed against the arrogance of the gentry (confirming his experience as a tutor) and tried to persuade his father to transfer his political support over to the Whig party. He spoke against the ‘gentry’ to anyone who would listen, and began to think about different systems which could replace the power of the landed class. However, in 1801 he found out that the parish of Kilmany, nine miles from St Andrews was vacant and in the gift of the University. After string pulling and politicking, Chalmers was appointed to the parish, which gave him a salary of £200pa, to look after only 800 people. This was a choice parish for him. However, it took several months for everything to be arranged, so in December 1801 he accepted a position as an assistant to a friend of his at Cavers.
At heart Chalmers wanted to pursue an academic career, so he applied for the position of assistant to William Vilant, Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews. Although they had their differences in the past, Vilant appointed him. In September 1802 he resigned from Cavers and on the 2nd November he was appointed minister at Kilmany. At this time Chalmers was interested in money, academia and doing as little work as possible in the parish. Another evil of that age was pluralism. It was quite common in St Andrews that someone had a parish and a position at the university, so that they were able to get two incomes. It was great for the person with the two incomes; not so great for the poor parishioners, as it was difficult enough to do the work in a parish, without only working there part-time. This was a time when the Moderate party was ruling in the Church of Scotland. For fifty years the teaching of living a moral life full of works, reason and intellectual elitism, had been taught in Scotland, rather than living a life for Christ. One person said that the main religion of the Church of Scotland was Deism. It was a terrible time for Scotland, with large areas not knowing much, if anything, about Jesus. Chalmers could not have been described as anything but a Moderate at this time.
Chalmers was an eloquent lecturer, but his students did not learn as quickly as they should, so Vilant began to have doubts as to his competency as a teacher. At the close of the year Chalmers accused Vilant of granting passing certificates to students without consulting him; consequently he was fired after just one year. In May 1803 he was ordained in his parish and moved into the manse with two sisters and a younger brother, who he was looking after to help his father. Over the summer he planned what to do, because being fired by St Andrews would have been very damaging to his reputation. He decided to have a mathematics class of his own in St. Andrews, and thereby show his detractors that he was fitted to be a Professor of mathematics. He wrote to his father in October saying, “You may perhaps by this time have heard of my intention to open Mathematical classes next winter. I believe the measure will be opposed by a certain party of the St Andrews professors. But I am sure they will not be able to ruin the success of my intended proceedings except by having recourse to dishonourable artifices. These artifices I shall be obliged to expose for my own vindication.” Chalmers was showing some fairly dreadful characteristics at this time: pride, arrogance, a desire for revenge, an unteachable spirit etc. Not good characteristics for any man to have, let alone a minister. In addition, he was more interested in justifying himself in the academic world, than to look after his parishioners, something his religious father would have been very unhappy about.
He began lectures in the Town Hall, these exciting a great deal of interest as it was a fairly unique event. He opened his first lecture claiming to not be there for vengeful purposes, but only to restore his reputation. He came into violent argument with the Tory professor, John Rotherham, over an alleged slander and received much opposition from the Tories of St Andrews, but drew support because of this from the Whigs. In spite of the determined hostility of some professors, the three classes of mathematics which Chalmers opened were so full that he opened a class of chemistry as well.
The Presbytery which covered the parish of Kilmany were unhappy with the principle of anyone having two offices, so in May 1804 they resolved that Chalmers should give up one of them. In a public meeting of the Presbytery Chalmers gave a lengthy defence. He said that he needed to do the classes to restore his reputation which had been unjustly damaged; that he had no powerful patronage to protect him, so he had to take these measures and that it was still legal for him to have two offices. He won the argument, largely because the Presbytery was really against powerful men increasing their influence through having more than one office, so they had sympathy with Chalmers as he professed to be fighting those same influential men.
In November his enemy, John Rotherham died, so he applied for the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy. Unfortunately George Hill, a Tory, was concerned at the possibility of the Whigs gaining control of the University, so he was determined to get a Tory appointed, which he achieved through his brother-in-law.
In the following year a similar vacancy occurred in the University of Edinburgh, by the death of Dr. Robinson, and again Chalmers entered the lists; but here also he was disappointed. As always, Chalmers blamed his failure on privilege, even though the man who succeeded, Jon Leslie, was a very eminent man.In the course of the battle for this office, Chalmers wrote his first pamphlet in response to a written criticism about a Chair in mathematics not being compatible with the role of minister. He wrote, "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." Later he really regretted writing this, but he was sadly declaring what many Moderate ministers thought. To many, giving an irrelevant sermon on a Sunday was satisfactorily discharging their duties.
Soon after this Chalmers attended the bedside of his brother who was dying of consumption. One of his duties was to read to his brother portions of religious works which he had denounced from the pulpit as savouring of fanaticism. It must have been difficult for him to hear his brother exclaim, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes." After his brother’s death he went on a three month trip to England. He was fascinated by a lot of what he saw, particularly the factories in the midlands, although he did not approve of the condition of the workers. He also visited the docks, the financial district of London, exhibitions etc. Britain’s economy was under threat from the Napoleonic War, and he became very interested in the new science of political economy, so in March 1808 he brought out his "Inquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources." Unable to find a publisher he printed 500 copies at his own expense, sending 200 to London. His work received little publicity and little success, probably because his social vision was in opposition to many of the values that people of that age held dear. He was not initially disappointed as he had expected initial opposition, but he thought his second edition would be really accepted and understood. However, he could not afford to publish himself and his edition was turned down flat by the London publishers. Chalmers was very hurt by the failure of something that he thought could benefit mankind, however he was on the track of caring for the condition of the masses that he would be on for the rest of his life.
He was going to go to London to try again, thinking of enlarging his work and even contemplated writing against the arguments of Adam Smith regarding free trade, but his older sister, whom he was very close to, died of consumption, so he cancelled the trip. Soon after this he too became very ill with consumption; forcing him to recuperate in a rented house, as he had allowed his manse to fall into such disrepair that it was virtually uninhabitable.
The spiritual atmosphere of Scotland had been changing over the last few years. James Haldane went on tours of the north and other parts of Scotland in the last few years of the eighteenth century and helped awaken the people out of their slumbering state. There were some local revivals through his ministry, particularly in the north: in 1798 there was a revival in Moulin, in 1802 a small revival in Breadalbane, in 1804 a revival in Arran, and then in 1812 another revival in Arran and one in Skye. Through this time Robert Haldane had opened seminaries from which 200-300 Evangelical preachers were sent out in a few years, and he built new churches for Evangelical congregations. There was also help from the south, with people seeing how effective Evangelicals like William Wilberforce were in their work for the poor and underprivileged, and they saw the number of missionaries that were leaving the English shores. This awakening meant that the Evangelical party was expanding at the expense of the Moderates.
By 1811 Chalmers had turned from the man described above to a passionate evangelical Christian and a wonderful preacher. How did this transformation happen? Unfortunately, I have not found an account of his conversion moment. The following are occasions in his life that probably led him towards the prize, but in my opinion there had to have been a conversion experience for there to have been such a change in him. First of all, the deaths of his brother and sister must have impacted him considerably. They both had a saving knowledge of Christ, and Chalmers could see in their deaths that they were not frightened; something he could not say for himself. Secondly, his sickness, which was the same as killed his brother and sister, took him to thinking about eternity. Thirdly, he had a broken engagement. Chalmers had become engaged to Anne Rankine, a beautiful woman he probably had known since they were children. He was very jealous of her, but despite her denying any wrong doing, he pulled away from the relationship. Instead of coming running to him, she told her friends that she had broken off the engagement. He responded in his usual way by speaking out against Anne and her family, though still desperate for a reconciliation. The way he gossiped about her was the end for Anne and she closed the door on any possible reconciliation. Chalmers was passionate about her, but he lost her through his own stupidity. Fourthly, he came into contact with some young Evangelicals. He had spoken at Assembly in 1809 against the landed gentry, which was therefore against the Moderate party and against the Tories. As a result, some Evangelicals started to court Chalmers because they were against the same people. The various conversations they had must have been an influence on him. There were also other tragedies at home. His father had gone senile and another sister died of consumption. The finances of his parents were dire and it was his job as eldest son to look after them, and his own finances were dreadful as well. In his grief and sadness he withdrew to his room at his parents’ home and read ‘Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians,’ by William Wilberforce, which had a major impact on him. Having read it he recalls that he was, ‘on the eve of a great revolution in all my opinions about Christianity.’
It appears that the moment of his conversion happened soon after or at the time of reading Wilberforce’s book in December 1810, because on the 14th February he preached at the nearby parish of Dairsie, an Evangelical sermon that had a profound effect on the congregation. The change in him was soon apparent to his own congregation.Up until now he had preached a sermon that nobody was interested in, as can be seen from the more than halving of the collections compared with his predecessor. The following excerpt shows the type of sermon these poor people had to listen to; one full of Enlightenment theory, "In what particular manner the death of our Redeemer effected the remission of our sins, or rather, why that death was made a condition of this remission, seems to be an unrevealed point in the Scriptures. Perhaps the God of nature meant to illustrate the purity of his perfection to the children of men; perhaps it was efficacious in promoting the improvement, and confirming the virtue of other orders of being. The tenets of those whose gloomy and unenlarged minds are apt to imagine that the Author of nature required the death of Jesus merely for the reparation of violated justice, are rejected by all free and rational inquirers." But now he was preaching ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ A neighbour of Chalmers tackled him once on the fact that whenever he visited he was never preparing for the Sunday sermon, but after the change in him the visitor said that whenever he called, he found Chalmers studying the Scriptures. He now attracted large crowds to his sermons. In 1810 there were 270 adults at the annual Communion, but 458 the following year. He was now in demand by Evangelicals all over the country. The power in his preaching was what made him stand out, and what was so different before his conversion. Surprisingly though, he always read his sermons, unlike most Evangelical preachers of the time. He was not an attractive man and he spoke with a strong Fife accent, but he spoke with passion and eloquence.
Chalmers had decided not to get married, owing to his small income. His income and his church and manse were the responsibility of the local landlords or ‘heritors’ as they were called. Chalmers took these heritors to court in 1810 and 1811 to force them to repair the manse and to increase his salary. He won both cases and by 1811 he had a lovely ‘new’ home and the following year his salary was increased by around thirty percent. He was now in a better situation to get married, and this he did on August 4th 1812 to the twenty-one year old Grace Pratt, daughter of an army captain. She was no beauty, but an intelligent, sensible, warm woman who brought with her a dowry.
Sometime earlier, Chalmers had been asked to write an article on ‘Christianity’ for the "Edinburgh Encyclopedia," the article appeared in 1813, arguing that Scripture was indeed divine revelation. The originality of his arguments, the force of his conclusions and the eloquent, clear and vigorous style in which they were expressed, caught the public attention. Because of its success he made the article into a book, which came out in January 1814. Although now an Evangelical, Chalmers still retained some ties to Moderatism. He was still an intellectual, a man of science and someone who loved literature; all attainments admired by the Moderates who believed more in works than faith.
Chalmers was a great advocate of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He set up a branch in his parish with the aim of getting contributions from his parishioners of around a penny a week to support this work. He had opposition from the gentry, but many of the poor gave willingly. He then worked to extend this to other parts of Scotland. Next, he promoted overseas missions. He gave a sermon in Dundee on the subject, which was extraordinarily successful both sides of the border; copies of the sermon could hardly be printed fast enough. He was disappointed, however, at the less than expected funds that were raised for these two ventures. He discovered that people were thinking that money given to missions was money taken away from the poor in Scotland, so he published a pamphlet entitled, "The Influence of Bible Societies upon the Temporal Necessities of the Poor." He argued that these different institutions would be of mutual aid to each other; for that Bible Societies had a tendency not only to stimulate and enlarge Christian generosity, but to reduce the amount of poverty by introducing a more industrious and independent spirit among the poor. To Chalmers, poverty was an issue that would be solved through people working together through community. However, he realised that nothing would change while the Moderates held power in the Church of Scotland.
Due to Moderatism, many parishes in Scotland were poorly looked after. Many ministers felt that they had a right to their position so long as they preached on Sunday and conducted marriages, funerals etc. However, part of their duties was to visit the sick, provide education and collect money to distribute to the poor. As already mentioned, Moderatism was on the wane and there was an increasing view that parishes needed to be looked after better. After neglecting his parish so long, Chalmers threw himself into correcting that error. He paid a lot of attention to the parish school and introduced a Bible school for the children. He introduced mid-week Bible lectures, which were well attended. He visited his parishioners, encouraging them to do Bible reading at home, and he visited the sick and dying. His visits to the homes of his parishioners made Chalmers more aware of the situation and problems of the poor. He also acted to reform the basis on which the poor were financially helped, but he was prevented by the heritors from doing all that he would have liked.
Chalmers’ plans to change the lot of the poor in Scotland depended on a hard working minister. As a reformed pluralist, he well knew how impossible it was for a minister to look after a parish properly while working at the University as well. There was a case in point going through the Assembly, with the Assembly narrowly voting in favour of William Ferrie holding two posts, but his Presbytery went against the wishes of the Assembly by refusing to ordain him to the parish. Ferrie then appealed to his Synod, of which Chalmers was a member, so he led the fight against Ferrie. However, for whatever reason, perhaps because he was to speak in front to his old professor, George Hill, Chalmers lost his nerve when it was his time to speak and the case was lost. As a result, he became depressed and ill. However, he had another chance when he was allowed to put the case against pluralism on behalf of his Synod, to the Assembly of 1814. The argument was won and the Assembly banned pluralism. George Hill rallied his troops and at the 1816 Assembly there was a fourteen hour debate on the issue. The Moderates considered this a vital issue as it threatened their whole position as an intellectual elite clergy who could dominate the Church and Universities through their influence. This debate had caught the public’s attention, so the public galleries were full. Chalmers spoke very eloquently, but Hill persuaded the Assembly that their vote two years before was illegal as no law had been passed against pluralities. The result was a compromise, with a new law being passed that no teacher could be appointed to a parish outside the boundaries of a University town, and anyone who neglected their parish would be strictly disciplined. This partial victory by the Evangelicals showed that the tide had turned, and the Moderates’ power was in decline. This was also an important stage in Chalmers’ career. The Glasgow Courier commented, “This topic was illustrated by the speaker in a torrent of eloquence which seemed to astonish the house, and which has, in the opinion of the best critics and judges, perhaps never been exceeded.”
In 1814 he was approached to accept the ministry at Tron, Glasgow. He was not sure about leaving Kilmany, indicating that he would do nothing himself to secure this new position, he would leave it to God to bring it about or block it. There was much opposition to his appointment from the Moderate party, as they tried to persuade city councilors, who had the patronage over the appointment, to choose their man. However, the Evangelical party won, with Chalmers getting 15 out of 29 votes. He was still not sure about accepting the position. Obviously he had a loyalty towards the people of Kilmany, but he was also worried that he would not be able to live up to his reputation in the big city, and that he would be tied down with superfluous duties. In the end he put his worries aside, trusting that this was God’s will.
Chalmers began his ministry in Glasgow on July 21st, 1815. His reputation had gone before him; the church seats all being sold in no time. At this time the population of Glasgow was around 120,000, around three times what it was thirty five years earlier. It had grown through the proliferation of manufacturing, particularly cotton.
His worries about superfluous duties were not groundless. The people demanded clergy to be at every committee meeting, procession etc; he even had to decide whether a gutter should be covered. In the end he just refused to attend such occasions. Another problem was his fame. Everyone wanted to meet him and then invite him to social gatherings. He dealt with this problem in the same way, saying no. Something else he was burdened with was having to re-organise his parish. In order to free up the minister there were deacons and elders to carry out some of his duties, but their work had reduced to practically nothing. He began by visiting his parishioners as he did at Kilmany. He could not spend much time with each one, but he did what he could, and invited them to a week-night service that he would put on in a local building. There was little opportunity for the poor to attend church, because they could not afford the seat rents or the smart clothes that people wore to church. He later commented, “I can say that out of 10,000 individuals whom I visited, there were not six by whom I was rudely or disrespectfully treated.” However, it took him a year to tour his parish, so the effectiveness of this work was very limited. To solve the problem, he appointed twelve new elders who had the time and resources to visit the parishioners. Apart from speaking to people about Christian issues, they were also to identify who had financial or other needs, and they were to recruit other, like minded men who had time and money to help them in the work. As they found people in need, they would use their own funds to give relief, but in extreme circumstances they would be referred for institutional relief. The aim was to ensure that the spiritual and temporal needs of the parishioners were looked after: quite a radical proposition in a large urban parish.
Chalmers then tackled education, or lack of, in the parish. He had discovered that only 100 children went to school in his parish. He started Sabbath-schools which only took students from his parish. He appointed teachers who visited the houses in his area to ask each child to come to the school. Soon there were 40 teachers and 1,200 children attending classes. The model that Chalmers created, only allowing children from the parish to attend and the teachers visiting homes, was duplicated in other cities very successfully. His idea of the parish being a community was beginning to be understood. His idea of helping to build up the poor so that they could help themselves, rather than relying on handouts, was quite revolutionary.
While Chalmers was spending so much time in his parish, there were murmurings from his congregation who wanted him to spend more time with them. When he told them that he was thinking of moving to Stirling, they got back into line, even giving him an assistant.
Chalmers’ reputation as a preacher reached new heights in Glasgow. He soon became known as the greatest preacher in Scotland. His greatest success was probably a series of six talks, known as his ‘Astronomical Discourses,’ that he preached at the Thursday lecture in his church, which was rotated with eight city ministers. He finished them towards the end of 1816, and on their being published early in 1817, 6,000 were sold in a month and nearly 20,000 within the year. No sermons had sold like this before, and Chalmers was invited to London to preach the anniversary sermon for the London Missionary Society. He spoke four times while in London to vast crowds, with many being turned away for lack of room. William Wilberforce noted, “All the world is wild about Dr Chalmers.” (He had received a Doctorate from Glasgow University.) His friend who came to England with him wrote, "I write under the nervousness of having heard and witnessed the most astonishing display of human talent that perhaps ever commanded sight or hearing. Dr. Chalmers has just finished the discourse before the Missionary Society. All my expectations were overwhelmed in the triumph of it.” Even Canning, who was one of his hearers, and who was melted into tears by his sermon for the Hibernian Society, declared that, "notwithstanding the northern accent and unpolished manner of the speaker, he had never been so arrested by any kind of oratory."He met all sorts of dignitaries and formed friendships with Wilberforce and some of his friends who were doing such wonderful work to do with the slave trade and social reform.
Because his church on a Sunday morning was full of the middle and upper classes who could afford the seat rates, he started an evening service for the poorer members of his parish. These meeting also tended to be full. He then set about the question of poverty. He had long been against the legal poor relief that the poor had to rely on, as it was demeaning, and it encouraged the poor not to get themselves out of their situation, as they could rely on the poor relief. His proposal was to stop any more people getting assessed poor relief. New people needing help would get it from the collections in church; the elders would investigate applicants to ensure they were genuine cases and the wealthy would be encouraged to help the less severe cases. In this way those receiving poor relief would gradually die off or regain their independence, until nobody was receiving it. All the money saved from the poor relief would be used to build more schools and churches (he proposed 30 more in Glasgow). The extra churches would mean that the parishes would reduce in size from 10,000 to 3,000, which would make it easier to establish the communal spirit Chalmers advocated, such as he developed in Kilmany. The communal Christian ethos would mean everyone would be aware of their neighbours’ situation, and their love of Christ would encourage them to help those in need.
There were many critics of Chalmers’ proposals, including leaders of the Evangelical party, but he found an influential ally in someone on the Town Council who persuaded the council to give a church they were building in Chalmers’ parish as an experiment for his ideas. They agreed to several conditions so that the experiment could be carried out effectively. However, Chalmers’ old insecurities rose up again, so he wrote to the Council asking them to confirm again their promises. On not receiving a reply, he thought that they had gone back on their word, so he spoke to the Edinburgh Whigs to see if they would propose him to the vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy. When the news got out there was an uproar everywhere as it looked like he was betraying his church, the Town Council and the public. As a result his name was withdrawn. In the end the Town Council delivered their promises, but Chalmers’ reputation was greatly damaged.
St John’s, was opened on September 26th, 1819, and was crowded by its new parishioners. It was a parish of around 10,000, but not as poor as Tron; it did not have the close living conditions of his former parish. Chalmers set about organising the parish according to his plan. Within four years he reduced the number of official paupers by 23%. During the same period those who were still receiving relief reduced by 30% and the amount of money required to support them reduced by 40%. At the suggestion of his elders and deacons he took over the remaining cost of those who were receiving state relief. Chalmers also set up Sabbath-schools as he did in Tron. Soon after starting he had 35 teachers looking after over half the children in the parish. The teachers, elders and deacons joined together as an administrative body. In 1820 he opened the first parish school in Glasgow, having raised the money to pay for it. The families had to contribute a modest amount, so that they would value education; the remainder was paid for by public subscription. He employed teachers who would give a superior education to the children. The school was full as soon as it opened, such was the demand for education. Another school was opened the following year to cope with the demand, and together the schools taught 42% of the boys of the parish.
Despite the success of his plan, Chalmers decided in 1823 to leave Glasgow to take up the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrew’s University.He had proved his point, but was very tired of the opposition he received from the press and particularly from the Glasgow clergy, who considered him an ambitious outsider who had done everything against their wishes, and who was trying to change what had been in existence for generations. The plan carried on until 1837 when it was closed down. Unfortunately, Chalmers never achieved his goal of a mutually supporting community with the church at its centre. He was also experiencing health problems due to the huge workload involved in setting up his experiment, so he considered that he was not healthy enough to look after a parish.
Despite having only a partial success with his new church model, and some disappointments, Chalmers had many successes while in Glasgow. Although his reputation suffered through his leaving Glasgow, he had still built up a reputation as a speaker second to none, and, whether you agreed with him or not, he was now recognised as a social reformer. Chalmers delivered his farewell sermon on November 9th, 1823, and on this occasion such were the crowds, not only of his affectionate congregation, but admirers from every quarter, that the church, which was built to accommodate 1700 people, on this occasion contained twice that number. On the 11th, a farewell dinner was given to him by 340 gentlemen; and at the close, when he rose to retire, all the guests stood up at once to honour his departure.
It was somewhat of a surprise that Chalmers, an Evangelical with Whig tendencies, and with the problems of his last connection with the University, should be invited to St Andrews which was full of Moderate Tories. The reason was that the University was in significant decline and they needed someone of Chalmers’ standing to give the University a boost. Chalmers was looking forward to working five months a year, and then having the rest of the year to proceed with his projects. However, his first five months were going to be tough because he had to create a year’s lessons from scratch as he did not agree with any of the moral philosophy that had been taught before. He often was intensely preparing his class lecture the day before he gave it. He writes, "I shall be lecturing for six weeks yet, and am very nearly from hand-to-mouth with my preparations. I have the prospect of winning the course, though it will be by no more than the length of half-a-neck; but I like the employment vastly." Most of these lectures were afterwards published as they were written, a sure indication of the deeply-concentrated power and matchless diligence with which he must have occupied the winter months.
Soon after arriving, he became president of the St Andrew’s Missionary Society that had been almost moribund for a decade. In no time, they had to move the meeting to the Town Hall due to the demand to participate. Within a year there was a Missionary Society made up of about a third of the students (there were 220 students in the University). Chalmers began a Sabbath-school which he taught himself, and some of his students followed his example. He was stirring up Evangelical enthusiasm to some effect. Some of his students did local visitations and he met some for prayer and Bible study. A future missionary wrote, “…in the course of his lectures, he communicated something of his own life and warmth, and expounded principles of which objects like the preceding were some of the natural exponents and developments. He then faithfully exemplified the principles propounded in his own special actings and general conduct. He was known to be a man of prayer; he was acknowledged to be a man of active benevolence. He was observed to be going about from house to house, exhorting adults on the concerns of their salvation, and devoting his energies to the humble task of gathering around him a Sabbath-school. He was seen to be the sole reviver of an all but defunct missionary society. All these, and other such like traits of character and conduct, being carefully noted, how could they who intensely admired, revered, and loved the man, do less than endeavour, at however great a distance, to tread in his footsteps, and imitate so noble a pattern?" This shows the vital work that Chalmers was doing in the University. By influencing the students to become active Christians, he was influencing future ministers and missionaries, who would change Scotland and the World.
Double the number of students attended the Moral Philosophy course the next winter.He also opened a separate class for Political Economy, which he found to be still more attractive to the students than the science of Ethics. There were of course those at the University who did not like what Chalmers was doing. His popularity amongst his colleagues at St Andrews was about to go into freefall. Francis Nicholl, who recommended Chalmers for his position, was a pluralist and because of the amount of work, he wanted to appoint someone from the University to help him in his parish. Chalmers organised a move to oppose the man’s appointment and he demanded that Nicholl resign from his parish. Nicholl asked Chalmers, as a friend, to withdraw his attacks as the University would suffer, but he wouldn’t withdraw. With Chalmers’ unremitting opposition, Nicholl decided to resign, but the Presbytery voted the man who was to be his assistant to be minister of the parish. Chalmers’ attack on his friend and colleague made him terribly unpopular amongst all his colleagues with just one exception. Chalmers’ always seemed to show a total lack of tact or diplomacy. It seems that it was always all or nothing with him.
Because of the resentment of his colleagues, Chalmers found life at St Andrew’s fairly uncomfortable, so he was tempted to accept the offer of a Chair at the new London University which had not yet opened. However, a Royal Commission was looking into Scottish Universities, and he was hoping that they would recommend the reforms he was advocating, so he did not want to make a decision until the recommendations were published.
Chalmers’ reputation in the Assembly was growing due to his leading the cause against pluralism, which came up again as an issue in each of the three years from 1825 to 1827. The issue was decided when the Royal Commission gave a preliminary decision against pluralities in 1828. They were debates that caused a lot of interest amongst the public, which put Chalmers again in the public limelight, due to his extraordinary power in preaching. Many wanted to keep such a talented man in Scotland, so he was offered one of the most prestigious churches in the country, St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, but he did not want to return to a parish, considering it more important to train ministers than to be one. He was then offered the divinity chair of the University of Edinburgh by the Town Council, which he accepted, despite the low salary of £196 pa. Andrew Thompson was now the leader of the Evangelicals, and it was through his assuring the Council members of Chalmer’s Calvinistic orthodoxy that he got the appointment.
In the years 1827-1829 Chalmers became involved in the issue of Catholic Emancipation. He had long been a supporter of this view, but now the government was considering passing an Act. It was a subject that brought much passion, from both sides of the argument. There were marches and meetings, and sometimes there were great concerns about public order. In March 1828 Chalmers gave possibly his greatest speech at a public meeting where an estimated 2,000 people were crammed into the Edinburgh Assembly Hall. The Act was passed in April.
Next the issue of the poor in Ireland came to the attention of Parliament, with a Committee being set up to look into the matter. Chalmers was invited to speak to the Committee, which of course he accepted, but his views were not included in their recommendations. In 1832 he published ‘On Political Economy…’ an updated version of his ‘Inquiry.’ Because of his fame, this work was given a lot of attention, but little support. Later the same year, Parliament formed a Committee to look into poor-law reform in England. The Committee decided to also look at Scotland, so asked Chalmers for his help. The Commissioner commended the St John’s project in the report, but noted to Chalmers that he was amazed at the hostility towards the project from other parishes. Despite this, the Committee’s report opposed Chalmers’ theories.
In 1831 Andrew Thomson died suddenly, leaving a big hole at the head of the Evangelical party. The Whig party was now in power in Westminster after 25 years in opposition, and the Evangelical party was anticipating a move forward in their fortunes, as they had been supporting the Whigs for some time. Chalmers was the only eminent Evangelical who could take over from Thomson, but his past record for causing trouble was a major blot on his credentials. His extreme weakness in this area was highlighted by another pluralist issue. The Chair of Ecclesiastical History at Edinburgh had become vacant and, unfortunately, a pluralist had been recommended by the Evangelical Whigs to the Crown without consulting Chalmers first. Obviously, Chalmers was against the appointment, so he was told to find an alternative quickly or the pluralist would be confirmed. Chalmers found an alternative, but unfortunately the money for the post was very small, so the candidate finally turned down the offer. Owing to a misunderstanding, a serious argument arose between the candidate and Chalmers, which as usual Chalmers took personally and spoke out about the issue all over the place. He once again lost friends and made enemies through his crass behaviour. (This weakness in Chalmers appears over and over again, and it is difficult to discount as he hardly shows the character of a Christian. His tendency to harbour grudges, gossip, be unforgiving and not show the love of Jesus; indicates an unredeemed character.)
In 1833 Chalmers’ contribution to the ‘Bridgewater Treatises’ was well received. In the following year he was made a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Institute of France and in 1835 he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity at Oxford University. His fame was spreading.
In 1829 the issue that would dog the Church of Scotland for the next fourteen years arose. Voluntarism, or the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland. About a third of the church-going public was Dissenters, mainly in groups that had pulled away from the Established Church because of a perceived liberalism. From around 1800, several of these groups were prepared to talk about re-union with the Established Church so long as the evil of patronage was abolished. Patronage had been around for around a hundred years at that time, and it resulted in wholly unsuitable men being given a church at the whim of one of the landed gentry. Disestablishment had been buzzing around for years, but it really came to life as a result of the policies of the liberal Whig government. With the rising strength of Evangelicalism, a group decided to bring the patronage issue, which had lain quiet for some years, to the front again. In 1833 and 1834, nearly a third of the parishes flooded parliament with petitions for anti-patronage laws. Patronage was a leading argument by the Voluntaries for disestablishment, and it was clearly wrong, so ministers from all sides of the Established Church realised that there was a need for reform. The attack from the Voluntaries also gave Chalmers some new adherents to his Christian community ideas, as that was a perfect argument for keeping an Established Church.
In 1832 Chalmers was made Moderator of the General Assembly, which was the top job in the Church. As Moderator he was meant to be neutral, so he tried to guide the Church through a middle course on the patronage issue. Early in 1834 Chalmers had a stroke which partially paralysed his right side; he was able to return after a few weeks, but was weak and continued to have attacks, so he went away to recuperate.
The Church was fed up with the slowness of the Whig government to come up with the funds to build the new churches which were so sorely needed, so it set up the Church Accommodation Committee under Chalmers to collect funds for a building campaign. Even though weak from his illness, Chalmers did much planning and much politicking, and after a year he was able to report to the Assembly that the local societies and the general fund he had set up had collected sixty-five thousand pounds, and the local societies were building sixty-four new churches. His report was received by the Assembly with great acclamation. The Assembly added the Church Endowment Committee, which was negotiating with the government for the endowment of the new churches, to Chalmers’ responsibilities. This made him the most powerful man in the now Evangelical dominated Church.
In July 1835 Chalmers and a deputation went to see Melbourne in London, but were disturbed to find that he did not give them the support they were expecting, and even more disturbed when he announced that a Royal Commission, made up of people opposed to Church Extension in Scotland, would look into the matter. The Commission took its time doing its work, so the uncertainty of the situation affected the donations towards the new churches to such an extent that Chalmers was worried the whole project would collapse. The Assembly gave permission for him to send out agents into the countryside to promote the need for the new churches, so with them and the distribution of Tracts, the public came to understand the need.
In 1837 there was an attempt to overthrow Chalmers by the old Whig Evangelicals. In the election of the Moderator for the Assembly of that year, the name of John Lee, a Whig Moderate, was put forward. Chalmers at first had no objection, but then he found out how Lee had made statements to the Royal Commission which were against the Church Extension plan. A major battle ensued, with Chalmers, as usual, taking no prisoners. He put in print his criticisms of Lee and some of his supporters, which lost Chalmers a lot of support; but when Lee and his friends did likewise, public support then swung back to Chalmers. Then the Royal Commission published its findings, showing that Chalmers and the Committee were right, there were not enough churches to accommodate the masses. On the vote at Assembly for the Moderator, Lee and the anti Church Extension party were routed, receiving less than 20% of the votes. In addition, Chalmers was able to report a resurgence in donations for new churches, with 157 being built in three years. Chalmers and the Church Extensionists stood supreme.
Chalmers in power revealed even more his dictatorial manner. His reactions were so extreme towards people who differed from him on a subject, that people were afraid to give their honest opinion if it did not agree with Chalmers’.
In 1838 the Royal Commission published its findings, showing that churches were needed, but for political reasons Melbourne granted no money, so Chalmers planned to stir up public opinion to change his mind. In April he gave a series of lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches in London to inform the English people of the state of affairs. In August he toured the West of Scotland speaking about Church Extension, but his attempt to get the working classes to support the scheme only had patchy support. Not to be dismayed, Chalmers redoubled his efforts to put more life into the societies to raise money, going on an extensive tour to rally the troops. All was to be in vain though, because in 1839 the Courts declared that these new churches did not legally exist. The Court gave the right to heritors to seize the collection boxes of these new churches for poor-relief. This in effect destroyed Chalmers’ parish community plans. Chalmers was devastated, he wrote, “It grieves me that I should have to tell the noble-hearted contributors to our great cause that all the money which they meant for the Christian instruction of the poor in Scotland passes into the pockets of the Heritors.”
In 1840 Chalmers resigned from the Extension Committee, an action which, in effect, brought it to an end. For Chalmers, all his work had come to nothing because his ideas of parish community in the cities would not happen: also the failure to get the government to provide endowments on the new churches to pay for the clergy meant that seat rents had to be put up, which prevented most of the poor from attending. However, Chalmers had done a magnificent job of organisation, and there were after all 220 new churches in Scotland. The failure of the Church Extension Scheme made many of the Evangelicals angry with the State, for not only had the government failed to supply the funds, but the Courts stole the churches. What was the point in being part of the State Church if the State was going to treat it so badly? The problem was that Melbourne relied on parties opposed to State Church Expansion (like Dissenters) to stay in power. If the Tories were in power the situation might have been different.
A student of Chalmers described him when he was in his fifties, “..his great look, large chest, large head, his amplitude everywhere; his broad, simple, childlike, inturned feet; his short hurried, impatient step; his erect, royal air, his look of general good-will…the twinkle of his eyes; the immediately saying something very personal to set all to rights, and then the sending you off with some thought, some feeling, some remembrance, making your heart burn within you; his voice indescribable…”He was a man of little culture and he was not well read. He was an unscrupulous politician and a dictatorial leader, and yet he was warm, as described by his student, and inspired so many people. He had a terrible temper, was offended by friends for no real reason, and could easily turn on friends, although insisting on loyalty from them. He was unforgiving and vengeful. Yet he was also the man described by his student; warm, gentle, personable and inspiring.
He was dictatorial at home as well as in the Church, and yet he loved his six daughters as they loved him. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “He was a man of much natural dignity, ingenuity, honesty, and kind affection, as well as sound intellect and imagination. A very eminent vivacity lay in him, which could rise to complete impetuosity (glowing conviction, passionate eloquence, fiery play of heart and head),-all in a kind of rustic type, one might say, though wonderfully true and tender. He had a burst of genuine fun too…” Chalmers had deserted his family all these years to fulfil his vision; at sixty he planned to retire to spend more time with them, but it was not to be.
The economic situation in Britain in 1841 and 1842 was dire. There had been several years of harvest failures and poverty was increasing rapidly. There was much discussion on how to help the poor. William Alison published a pamphlet describing the terrible condition of the poor in Scotland; his answer was to extend England’s Poor Law Act to Scotland, but at the same time he criticised Chalmers’ St John’s experiment. Chalmers took up the challenge, and in September 1840 he debated the issue with Alison for four days at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The crowd that came to listen was immense and Chalmers’ oratory won the day, but a year later public opinion had got behind Alison’s view. In 1843 a Royal Commission was set up to look into the issue, but by this time even the leading Evangelicals were supporting Alison. Chalmers’ vision was virtually dead.
In 1834 a patron presented his choice for the parish of Auchterarder, but the heads of family vetoed the appointment with a vote of 287 to 2. The following year the Assembly confirmed the veto, but then it went to court, with the decision of the Court of Session coming through in 1838 that the civil rights of the patron had been infringed. The Assembly of 1838 passed a resolution affirming its spiritual independence, and also decided to appeal the Court’s decision to the House of Lords. This was strange, because having said it was spiritually independent, it then asked for a decision from a government body. A year later the House of Lords upheld the decision. Cockburn, one of the five judges that upheld the veto in the Court of Sessions wrote, “There never was a greater cause adjudged in the House of Lords on reasons more utterly unworthy of both. A case about a horse, or a £20 bill of exchange, would have got more thought. The ignorance and contemptuous slightness of the judgement did great mischief. It irritated and justified the people of Scotland in believing that their Church was sacrificed to English prejudices.”
Chalmers had been concentrating on his Church Extension scheme, so was not really interested in this patronage case. The House of Lords decision however said that parishioners had no voice in the selection of their minister. Chalmers spoke on the subject for three hours at the General Assembly. It was such a physical effort for him that he had to leave the chamber to go and rest and he did not even vote. The debate went on for fourteen hours, at the end of which Chalmers’ motion was passed.
Chalmers was appointed head of the Non-Intrusion Committee, which was to negotiate with the government. Chalmers was very angry over the House of Lords decision, so his speech was very forceful and some would say extreme. He introduced for the first time the idea of Disruption; some clergy leaving the Establishment if the State continued to encroach upon their spiritual independence.
Cockburn wrote, “I cannot blame them for trying to assert what until lately no man doubted was their right, and what seems essential to their existence as a Church.” Another patronage issue aggravated the situation. This was in the parish of Marnoch in the Presbytery of Strathbogie. The patron had chosen John Edwards, but the parishioners disliked him a great deal, so they voted 261 to 1 against the appointment. The 1838 Assembly rejected him, so the patron put up another candidate who was acceptable. Edwards got a ruling from the Court of Session preventing the induction of the new man. The 1839 Assembly told the Presbytery to obey the ruling. The Court then ordered that Edwards be inducted. Seven of the twelve ministers in the Presbytery went ahead with testing Edwards, ignoring the decision of the Assembly. The seven were then suspended and the Assembly appointed ministers to provide services in the seven parishes. The Court then forbade any preaching by these ministers in the buildings of the parishes, so the ministers preached in the open-air. In February 1840 the Courts banned preaching in the open-air, which was not in their jurisdiction. Chalmers and others saw this as a first stage in the Civil authorities telling the Church what to preach. The open-air preaching continued without trouble.
In July 1839 Chalmers and his Committee went to negotiate with Melbourne over patronage. Melbourne really disliked Chalmers, because of the Extension issue, and would not even acknowledge his presence at the meeting, but said he would introduce a bill early in 1840 that would help the Church in the matter of patronage. However, the Earl of Aberdeen, a leading Tory, thought that he could come up with a solution to the problem. He wrote to Chalmers that Melbourne had changed his mind about introducing a bill, and offered to introduce a bill instead. Both of them thought that they could work something out, so Chalmers sent him a draft bill, but Aberdeen was unhappy about parishioners being able to veto a patron’s candidate. Negotiations went backward and forward, with Chalmers agreeing to a Presbytery veto instead. By the end of February Aberdeen had changed his mind, owing to the strong words spoken over the Court’s ban of open-air preaching at Strathbogie and his belief that Chalmers’ position as head of the Evangelicals was being eroded. Aberdeen introduced his bill, giving only a limited veto of patronage to the Presbytery, which to Chalmers was totally unacceptable. Chalmers felt betrayed and angry correspondence went back and forth between the two men; both accusing each other of lying. Chalmers had to resign from the Committee after his failure; the Assembly voted against the bill. Chalmers openly accused Aberdeen of deceiving him, with the result that Aberdeen published all his correspondence with Chalmers; a most unusual thing to do. The bill failed as it could not survive without the support of the Assembly. Chalmers did not come out well from this affair, due to his usual extreme reaction when he felt let down, but Aberdeen also seems to have behaved duplicitously. Chalmers now had the enmity of the leaders of both political parties.
In January 1841 the Strathbogie seven ordained Edwards at Marnoch after the Court ruled that their suspension was illegal. All the congregation attended, but just before the ceremony they all left the church. A year later they opened a new church. At the 1841 Assembly, Chalmers called for the seven to be deposed from their ministry unless they repented. The motion was passed, and then one of the seven read a statement that they did not recognise the authority of the Church over the State, so the Assembly had no choice but to depose the seven. Later in the year the Tories came to power, but Peel was also against the non-intrusion issue.
In 1842 a middle party of around 40 ministers arose, which strengthened Peel’s resolve not to help the Church unless the seven were restored to their ministries. The tone of the Assembly that year was set by the Courts forbidding the ministers of Strathbogie who were recognised by the Church from attending the Assembly; they responded by asking them to attend. The Assembly passed an Act abolishing patronage, something which Chalmers was not keen on, and they also adopted the Claim of Right which set out the demand for spiritual independence. Chalmers moved for its adoption; it was an ultimatum to the government that either it recognised the spiritual independence of the Church of Scotland, or there would be a disruption. Peel soon made it clear that he was going to do nothing to resolve the situation. Shortly afterwards the House of Lords came down with a decision on the original patronage case, awarding £16,000 damages against the Presbytery. This decision made it clear to anyone who had any doubts that a disruption was inevitable.
In November 1842 a special meeting of ministers who supported the disruption met at St George’s church, Edinburgh. The meeting was organised by Chalmers and others, and he opened the meeting which 465 ministers attended. He put forward a plan to finance the new Church. On hearing of the meeting, Peel wrote, “I believe the main cause of the present embarrassment is the subjection of very many Ministers of the Church of Scotland, through fear and against their own conscientious convictions, to the violence and menaces of their leaders.” In other words, Chalmers. In January 1843 Peel made it clear that nothing would be done to stop the inevitable.
In the few months before the Assembly, Chalmers and his helpers had done an amazing job raising money to finance the split; it was opportune that the organisational structure which was put in place for the Church Extension Scheme could be easily resurrected. At the Assembly a long statement was read, and then most of the Evangelicals got up and left the building. A procession of hundreds of ministers and elders, led by Chalmers and two others, walked to Tanfield Hall where the Free Church would meet for the first time. Chalmers was appointed Moderator, and 470 ministers signed the ‘Act of Separation and Deed of Demission.’ It was a great act; so many ministers giving up their security for an uncertain future for themselves and their families; standing up for their God. In the end, 38% of the ministers joined the Free Church.
A couple of months later, 756 congregations of the Free Church had started, but there were only 600 ministers (including probationaries) available. Amazingly, within a year there were 470 new churches and three years later there were 730. The recession that the country was in meant that building costs were very low; on the other hand there was difficulty obtaining land in some areas due to the antagonism of the local gentry. Chalmers was mainly involved in his Sustentation Fund scheme, to raise money for the support of ministers. He realised how vital it was for this to succeed. He went on a tour of north east Scotland to explain the scheme to the leaders of the new congregations. From the sums raised, each minister was paid £122 in the second and third year of the scheme, and then congregations would supplement the payment as they could. This was only £28 below the minimum salary of a Church of Scotland minister. It was not a perfect scheme, but it was amazing that so much was achieved in so short a time. 408 teachers were fired from the Established Church for supporting the Free Church, so a fund was setup to support them as well, and by 1847 the Free Church was educating 44,000 children, almost the same number as were in Church of Scotland schools. In November 1843 a University, New College Edinburgh, was opened, with Chalmers as Principal and Professor of Divinity. The Disruption was an astonishing achievement.
Unfortunately for Chalmers, his dream of parish community, which had been resurrected with the Disruption, would never happen in the Free Church. Younger minds were now coming to the fore, and in 1845 he was forced to resign from the Sustentation Committee. He was still respected as the father of the new Church, but few people shared his vision any more. In 1844 the Royal Commission recommended the extension of the poor law to Scotland, rejecting Chalmers’ ideas for those of Alison.
Chalmers was determined to fulfil his vision somehow; he was determined to reach the poorest people. He announced a plan to raise up sixty new churches for the working classes in Edinburgh. His plan depended on the support of all denominations. Chalmers decided to set up his plan in one small area, much as he did at St John’s. He chose West Port, one of the worst districts in the city, where Burke and Hare had conducted their grizzly work a few years earlier. There were around 2,000 people in the chosen are