Thomas Chalmers – 2

Chalmers the Moralist

Chalmers was born in 1790, as we all know(!), in Anstruther in Fife. He grew up in a godly home as the 6th of 14 children. His parents were sincere Christians. At the age of 15 he went to St Andrews to study and there fell into the deadly trap of “Moderatism.” It is important to remember that there have been few if any “golden ages” in church history. We might think of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as prime candidates for such. The age before Darwin, the age before higher criticism, the age before atheism was the “default” position. But no. Unbelief manifests itself in many ways, religious as well as irreligious. For instance, it is hard to imagine a more religious people that the Pharisees, and yet it is also difficult to imagine a group of people so dead in unbelief. And so it was in the Scottish Church. Vital religion had largely died. There was the form of godliness but the power had long gone. To be “evangelical,” to be “serious” about religion was no less despised in those days than our own, particularly among ministers. The great, and none too tactful, Highland minister Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron (1754-1819) said “If people go to perdition in these days it is not for want of ministers. The clergy are likely to become soon as plentiful as the locusts in Egypt, and which of them is the greatest plague of the two, time and the experience of the church will discover.”

So when Chalmers arrived in St Andrews, destined by his father for the gospel ministry, he encountered the chilling and deadly atmosphere of Moderatism. Chalmers said there that he “inhaled not only a distaste only, but a positive contempt for all that is peculiarly gospel.” When Chalmers finished his studies he eventually was called to the be pastor in Kilmany. At this stage he is unconverted with, as he said, a “contempt” for what he later embraced as the gospel. He rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, “The tenets … that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus for the reparation of violated justice are rejected by all free and rational enquirers.” He rejected justification by faith alone, “Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can recommend us to the Almighty.” And this he did as one who subscribed to the Westminster Confession.

Chalmers also had a very low view of the ministry, holding an assistantship in Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and offering lectures on science as well. Part of his natural drive and self-confidence can be seen in that he lost his position at the University through criticising his senior college in Mathematics. In a statement which he was later to bitterly regret he reflected his low view of the ministry by stating that: “The author of this pamphlet can assert from what to him is the highest of all authority – the authority of his own experience – that, 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.” Some years later when this statement was thrown back in his face a converted Chalmers said, “Alas! So I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have now no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of it, I penned what was most outrageously wrong. Strangely blinded that I was! What, sir, is the object of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes – I thought not of the littleness of time – I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”

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3 Responses to “Thomas Chalmers – 2”

  1. westportexperiment Says:

    Excellent site. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Thanks. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Chalmers!

  3. David Sanger Says:

    Thank you for the site–very helpful and instructive.

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