Thomas Chalmers - Minister (1802-1814)

At heart Thomas Chalmers wanted to pursue an academic career, so he applied for the position of assistant to William Vilant, Professor of Mathematics at St Andrew's. 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 their 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 a violent argument with the Tory professor, John Rotherham over an alleged slander, and he 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 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. Chalmer’s 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, and he was also thinking of enlarging his work, and he 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 there was a small revival in Breadalbane, in 1804 there was a revival in Arran, and then in 1812, there was another revival in Arran and one in Skye. Through this time Robert Haldane had opened seminaries where 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, but 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 on issue that was 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," and 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 expect 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 parishioner, 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.

Chalmer’s 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 that was outside the boundaries of a University town, and that 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 Chalmer’s 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.