Thomas Chalmers - St John's Church (1819)




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 fro 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 f 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 As a result his name was withdrawn.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.

Additional Information

This is taken from an 1859 map which can be seen on the Library of Scotland's website. St John's is marked in the middle of the map at the top.

The building on the site is to cater for poor women -quite apt.