Thomas Chalmers (Part 1)

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

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

And in many ways it is hard to explain. Some people are forgotten because they don’t publish much. Not true of Chalmers. His collected writing published in his lifetime run to 25 volumes and there were 10 additional volumes of his works published posthumously – including his Institutes of Theology. Some might be forgotten because they don’t found anything that endures. But to take two institutions that Chalmers founded, the Free Church of Scotland and New College Edinburgh, both exist today. Nor was his influence confined to Scotland. William Wilberforce heard him preach and said that “all the world was wild about Dr. Chalmers.” In America the Princeton men read and appreciated Chalmers. Samuel Miller said that from Chalmers writings he received “impressions of his moral and heavenly grandeur.”

Perhaps there are two reasons. First, was that he addressed the practical problems as well as the spiritual and so wrote a number of works which are heavily dated. Even I struggle to get overly excited by works like “On Political Economy in connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society” with chapters like “On the Increase and Limit of Food”. Nor is a work like “On Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth” going to grab my attention. And because he wrote on social, and other themes secondary literature on Chalmers has often focused on these areas … perhaps creating the impression of a man who spoke to his time but does not have much to say to ours. Second, perhaps some who we might expect to warm to Chalmers are put off because of his view of the relation between science and Scripture. Chalmers for example accepted, and it is fair to say enthusiastically accepted, the views emerging in his day over the old age of the earth. Now, later I am going to be critical of Chalmers on this topic. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ignore Chalmers because of this. I remember a few years ago I was talking to someone at a church. He asked who I was reading. I said Thomas Chalmers. He looked and said “he was a raving liberal.” While we have to wrestle critically with Chalmers here, to call him a liberal is a tragedy.

Now, it is going to be hard to look at Chalmers in a brief evening discussion. His life moves from being a minister in a rural church, to leading large city congregations, to being a professor of moral philosophy, to being a professor of theology. He leads over 1/3 of the Church of Scotland out of the denomination to form the Free Church of Scotland and launches a massive church building programme and sets in place the structures to support the church. All the while he maintains  his interests mission, science, economics, education and poverty relief.  To cover even half of this adequately is not remotely possible.

What we will try and do is look briefly at his life and draw lessons from it as we go through.

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