Account of a London Sermon
The growing evils of the Poor-laws, as then administered in
England, were attracting much of the attention of public men; and while they
were only planning methods for mitigating these evils, it must have surprised a
London audience not a little to hear from the pulpit a bold and uncompromising
attack on the principle and expediency of all forms of legalized charity. Upon
the Saturday which followed the delivery of this discourse, Mr. Smith
(Dr.Chalmers' publisher who was with him on this visit to London) writes - "
The Doctor has come off with great eclat. Sir James Mackintosh, Lord
Elgin, and all the literati, were at the Church on Thursday last. To-morrow
will be a day of much expectation.
"On the forenoon of Sabbath the 25th, Dr. Chalmers preached in the Scotch Church, London Wall, for the benefit of the Hibernian Society. "The desire," says the Rev. Dr. Manuel, who at that. time was minister of this church, "felt by all classes, but particularly by the higher classes of society, to hear him upon this occasion, was extreme, exceeding almost all precedent. Among his auditors were a number of the most distinguished clergy of the Church of England, several Peers, many members of Parliament, the Lord Mayor of the city, and literary characters of all classes and denominations.
Anticipating the pressure, a large chapel in the neighbourhood was engaged to receive the overflow. Not only the Scotch Church, but this chapel also was crammed to suffocation, hundreds seeking admission, but going away without getting into either place of worship. * * * At the close of the sermon the Lord Mayor went up into the pulpit, and importuned Dr. Chalmers to preach on behalf of some city object, which he was obliged to decline." "All the world," writes Mr. Wilberforce in his Diary, "wild about Dr. Chalmers. He seems truly pious, simple, and unassuming. Sunday, 25th. - Off early with Canning, Huskisson, and Lord Binning, to the Scotch Church, London Wall, to hear Dr. Chalmers. Vast crowds. Bobus Smith, Lords Elgin, Harrowby, etc. I was surprised to see how greatly Canning was affected; at times he was quite melted into tears." The passage which most affected him was at the close of the discourse. He is reportcd to have said, that although at first he felt uneasy in consequence of Dr. Chalmers's manner and accent, yet that he had never been so arrested by any oratory. "The tartan," so runs the speech attributed to him, "beats us all."
On the afternoon of the same Sabbath Dr. Chalmers preached for the Rev. Dr. Nicol, minister of the Scotch Church, Swallow Street. The crowd here had nearly lost its object by the very vehemence of its pursuit. On approaching the church Dr. Chalmers and a friend found so dense a mass within and before the building as to give no hope of effecting an entrance by the mere force of ordinary pressure. Lifting his cane and gently tapping the heads of those who were in advance, Dr. Chalmers's friend exclaimed, "Make way there - make way for Dr. Chalmers" Heads indeed were turned at the summons, and looks were given, but with not a few significant tokens of incredulity,and some broad hints that they were not to be taken in by any such device, the sturdy Londoners refused to move.
Forced to retire, Dr. Chalmers retreated from the outskirts of the crowd, crossed the street, stood for a few moments gazing on the growing tumult, and had almost resolved altogether to withdraw. Matters were not much better when Mr. Wilberforce and his party approached. Access by any of the ordinary entrances was impossible. In this emergency, and as there was still some unoccupied space around the pulpit which the crowd had not been able to appropriate, a plank was projected from one of the windows till it rested on an iron palisade. By this privileged passage Mr. Wilberforce, and the ladies who were with him, were invited to enter, Lord Elgin waving encouragement. and offering aid from within. "I was surveying the breach," says Mr, Wilberforce, "with a cautious and inquiring eye, when Lady D., no shrimp you must observe, entered boldly before me, and proved that it was practicabla"
The impression produced by the service which followed, when all had at last settled down into stillness, was deeper than that made by any of those which preceded it, and we may hope it was also more salutary, as the preacher dealt throughout with truths bearing directly on the individual salvation of his hearers.
( * I have not been able to ascertain positively what sermon Dr. Chalmers preached on this occasion. From the brief notice of it by Mr. Wilberforce - " Chalmers most awful on carnal and spiritual man," and from the subjoined sketch taken from the Morning Chronicle, I am inclined to believe that it was the sermon which stands first in the tenth volume of his Works.)
"Monday, May 26th, 1817. - Rev. Dr. Chalmers. - Yesterday the public had another opportunity of hearing this eminent Divine previous to his leaving town for Glasgow. He preached in the forenoon for the Hibernian Society, in the Rev. Mr. Manuel's Church, London Wall, and in the afternoon in Swallow Street. In the forenoon he advocated the cause of the Society with his usual ability, but his sermon in the afternoon, on the degeneracy of man, was one of the finest specimens of eloquence that could possibly be delivered from the pulpit, and displayed the most profound knowledge of the human mind. The progress of vice, its fascinating allurements, and its tendency to the eternal ruin of its votaries, were depicted in the most glowing colours. The discourse was concluded by an animated and powerful address to the vicious on the folly and absurdity of their conduct."
Should you desire to read the sermon preached upon that occasion, click here.
* Amid all this excitement, which of course would be greatest among Dr. Chalmers's own countrymen, there was at least one Scotchman in London who continued quite unmoved. His own brother James never once went to hear preach. He could not escape, however, hearing much about him, for the stir created had penetrated even into his daily haunt, the Jerusalem Coffee-house." Well," said one of his merchant friends to him one day, wholly ignorant of his relationship,"have you heard this wonderful countryman and name sake of yours?" "Yes," said James, somewhat drily, "I have heard him." "And what did you think of him?" "Very little indeed," was the reply. "Dear me! " said the astonished inquirer "when did you hear him ?" "About half an hour after he was born."
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