As Chalmers went about his leisurely ways he stumbled 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 time God was working in Chalmers, and in 1810 as Chalmers 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.”
Challenge: I love stories like this. Perhaps somewhere around Cambridge there is someone labouring in a parish, confused in unbelief, whom God will use, like Chalmers, to awaken a nation. May it 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”.
Challenge: Perhaps we lack Chalmers success 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. Embracing the new, the innovative, 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.
Another example of Chalmers willingness to embrace change was that he was willing to adapt the form [not content!] 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, what ever their station in life.
Chalmers by all accounts became 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 from his writings:
– “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.”
Blakie: “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.”