THOMAS CHALMERS and the GODLY COMMONWEALTH
THE VISION FADES
With the breakup of the Established Church of Scotland,
the State moved rapidly to assert increased authority over poor relief. The
Royal Commission of Inquiry into Scottish poor relief, appointed by the
Government in 1843, had proceeded with its investigation throughout the final
months of the Church-State conflict. On 23 March 1843, several weeks before the
Disruption, Chalmers had appeared before the Commission, and delivered a
poignant defence of his parish community ideal for Church-directed poor relief.
After the Disruption, however, his parish community ideal seemed only more
Utopian, and the testimony of William Pulteney Alison and his supporters proved
more convincing to the Commission. Late in May 1844, the Royal Commission
finally published its report, recommending that the principles of the English
poor law be extended to Scotland. Accordingly, the Government proceeded to
draft a new Scottish poor law bill. The Scottish public, meanwhile, had been
profoundly shocked by the Commission's report, with its revelations of
appalling social conditions, particularly in the urban slums. The report
stirred an immediate public outcry. In early June 1844, Adam Black, Lord
Provost of Edinburgh, issued an urgent appeal to all the city churches for a
united effort to combat urban poverty and degradation. Soon another voice was
also heard. Disappointed by the failure of the Free Church to embrace his
vision of the godly commonwealth, and deeply disturbed by the Commission's
report, Chalmers had determined upon a final campaign for his Christian
In June and July 1844, he delivered a series of public lectures in Edinburgh, in which he announced the beginning of a new Church Extension campaign to create no fewer than sixty additional working-class territorial churches in the city. The Royal Commission on Scottish poor relief, he asserted, had opened the nation's eyes to the suffering and human degradation in the urban slums. There was a growing and just rage among the working classes directed toward a social elite which for too long had ignored their needs. The Royal Commission had recommended that increased State action, particularly a new poor law based upon the English act of 1834, was necessary to preserve the social fabric. But Chalmers could not accept this judgement. Legal poor relief and 'bastille' workhouses, he argued, would in fact increase social devisiveness and further degrade the poor. Only the dissemination of Christian and moral principles among all social classes would restore the bonds of communal benevolence and educate the poor to communal responsibility. For thirty years, he had struggled to implant his Christian communal ideal in the nation. But looking about himself now, he perceived only the triumph of the Voluntary principle. Everywhere, there were only gathered churches, competing with one another to attract the financial support of middle- and upper-class Christians, while ignoring the poor and the irreligious, who, it was argued, demonstrated no 'demand' for religion. The churches had withdrawn from their social welfare responsibilities. This evil could not be allowed to continue. Despite his poor health, he decided to make one final attempt to realize his parish community ideal. He would begin in Edinburgh. But eventually, he maintained, the sixty proposed working-class territorial churches in Edinburgh would serve as an inspiration to the entire nation.
To create the new churches, he appealed to Christian philanthropists in Edinburgh to form societies of about twenty members. Each society would select a destitute district of the city as its field of operation, and begin a territorial operation consisting in three distinct programmes. First, the society would divide the district into twenty sub-districts, or 'proportions', with a society member assigned to each proportion to conduct regular household visitations, collect information regarding neighbourhood needs, encourage church and school attendance, and organize a neighbourhood sabbath school for children and a prayer meeting for adults. Secondly, the society would organize a district school, with a salaried schoolmaster, supported by modest fees from the students. Thirdly, the society would employ a salaried missionary to conduct regular sabbath services for the district inhabitants. The cost of the entire operation, Chalmers maintained, would be modest (perhaps £100 per annum), and would be met by contributions from society members. In a few years, the combined action of the three programmes would create a viable working-class Christian community in the district. The new working-class community would then undertake, through its own efforts, the expense of erecting a church and school building. Working class community leaders would assume the responsibility for visitations, sabbath schools, and prayer meetings. Its task complete, the original voluntary society of philanthropists would be disbanded, and a new working class territorial church would assume an equal place among the existing churches in the city. This emphasis upon creating working class lay leadership represented a significant shift in Chalmers's social thought. In St. John's, he had placed permanent authority in the hands of middle, and upper, class people. His later home mission experiments at St. Andrews and the Water of Leith had also emphasized middle, and upper, class paternalism. As a result, he had inspired considerable effort and sacrifice from wealthy Evangelicals, but little or no working-class enthusiasm. Now, he made full working-class participation the clear and definite goal. If the working-classes were to be redeeemed by self-reliance and communal benevolence, they would have to assume responsibility for their communities. While the initial effort for cultivating the impoverished irreligious neighbourhoods would be made by outside upper-class philanthropists, their primary purpose would be to prepare the working-class community for self-sustained growth.
The key to Chalmers's new campaign lay in the concept of interdenominational effort. He had now relinquished all hope for a Free Church territorial 'establishment'. He appealed, therefore, to philanthropists from all Protestant denominations - Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterian seceders, Free Churchmen - to join him by forming local community-building societies. On the surface, the interdenominational effort would assume the form of competition. Each of the sixty proposed working-class territorial churches would have to be affiliated with an existing denomination. Affiliation, in turn, would depend upon which denomination's members assumed the greater part of the financial and visitation effort in the initial organization of the distict. 'Woe betide the hin'most!' he exclaimed. 'Let us all set forth - let us strive to outrun each other in this good work - see who will get congregations formed soonest, and who will form most. Chalmers had failed to reach the poorest working-class neighbourhoods with his Church Extension campaign of the 1830s, because, he believed, the Government had refused to provide the endowment grant. He had also failed to reach them through the Free Church. Now, he based his hope upon a vigorous interdenominational competition. There was, meanwhile, another goal to be achieved through interdenominational effort. Ultimately, he argued, competition between the denominations would lead to co-operation in a shared social ideal. The participating denominations would gradually realize that their doctrinal differences were subordinate to the practical Christian duty of benevolence. He confessed to having little appreciation for the theological differences separating the denominations - 'for those people, who ... speak of standing up for every "pin in the tabernacle.'" If the denominations could co-operate to restore the Christian communal ideal, 'there is no saying what the effect may be'. 'The most blessed result', he observed, 'would follow from such a plan of intermingling cooperation, not only to the district toward which their labours would be directed, but also to themselves. The line of demarcation which separates the various denominations would in that way be trodden and retrodden, so soon to be altogether effaced and invisible. Eventually, his godly commonwealth of parish communities would be created, not, as he had previously anticipated, by either the Established Church or the Free Church, but by a union of the Protestant denominations.
It was an ambitious programme, and a token of Chalmers's tenacity. Despite the failure of Church Extension, the trauma of the Disruption, and his disappointment with the Free Church, he refused to relinquish his ideal of the godly commonwealth. At the public meeting in February 1842, it will be recalled, Chalmers had promised that once the existing outgoing congregations had been provided with ministers and churches, he would return to his 'old work of Church Extension'. He now resolved to fulfil this promise. With sincere concern for the suffering of the working class, he refused to relent in what he believed was their only hope for a better life - their moral and spiritual regeneration. Weary of the incessant denominational strife of the last decade, he now appealed for Church union, which would be achieved through interdenominational co-operation in a territorial home mission. The campaign represented his final appeal for unity of Christian purpose. He refused to be deterred by those who dismissed his vision as unrealistic. 'Utopian-ism!' he exclaimed defiantly. 'Who are the Utopians?' Surely not those who believed with him that human nature was essentially the same the world over, and that those 'brought up in the smoke of factories, and amid the ringing din of our mills', nevertheless possessed a soul and conscience, which could be stirred by Christian teaching and human kindness. From the experience of a long career, he assured his audiences that his proposed community-building operation was practical in any district of the country. To prove his point, he announced that he was beginning a model operation in the West Port, one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden districts in Edinburgh. If his operation succeeded in the West Port, he argued, it could be emulated anywhere.
The selection of the West Port demonstrated Chalmers's flair for the dramatic. Sixteen years earlier, the district had achieved national notoriety.as the scene of the nefarious deeds of Burke and Hare, two Irish immigrants who made their living smothering drunks, prostitutes, and aged derelicts in the lodging houses for sale as cadavers to the Edinburgh University medical faculty. Their celebrated trial had first awakened the public to the sordid underworld of urban Scotland. While critics had questioned the extent of real poverty in the St. John's parish of Glasgow, there was no doubt that the West Port population was as poor, ignorant, and irreligious as could be found anywhere in Britain. The West Port district was in the south-west portion of Edinburgh's Old Town, under the shadow of the Castle rock. The main road through the district wound down a gradual slope from the edge of the city to the Grassmarket - the traditional site for public hangings in Edinburgh. Immediately to the north of the district was a cattle-market and slaughterhouse. A number of closes, or narrow alleys, branched off from the main road, each forming a separate neighbourhood. At the north-eastern end of the West Port, near the Grassmarket, stood a number of large, ramshackle tenements, like that at 'number one West Port', which according to the 1841 census schedule housed 180 lodgers, mainly unmarried labourers, journeymen, and female servants. To the south-west, there were smaller family dwellings, housing more substantial master masons, butchers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. No map of the exact district of 2,000 inhabitants selected by Chalmers has survived. While it included the main West Port road, it evidently did not include all the adjoining closes.
Some idea of the district's social composition was revealed by the 1841 census schedules for the main West Port road, and three closes, Killie Brae, Stevenson's Close, and St. Cuthbert's Close, which most certainly were included. The population of this area was 836, of whom 348, or 42 per cent, were born outside Edinburgh, and 110, or 13 per cent, were described as Irish. Occupations were listed for 353 individuals. The largest occupational category was that of general field or farm labourer (70), many of whom had probably recently arrived in the city in search of work. Other major occupations listed were female servants (29), shoemakers and apprentices (25)( street-hawkers and pawnbrokers (21), smiths, nailers, and apprentices (21), and carters (10). Virtually all were independent tradesmen or labourers in small manufacturing shops, reflecting the fact that Edinburgh was not an industrial city. Geographical mobility among West Port inhabitants was high. Of a random sample of thirty families with children under five years of age taken from the 1841 census, only six families remained in the area in 1851. Mobility among single lodgers in the overcrowded tenements was even higher: most inhabitants left the district at the first opportunity. A survey conducted by Chalmers and his associates in September 1844 revealed that of 411 families surveyed only 45 families belonged to a Protestant church and 70 families were practising Roman Catholics. Of over 400 school-age children, only 122 attended school. The challenge confronting Chalmers, then, was twofold. First, he had to create a sense of community among the impoverished and fluid population. Secondly, he had to convince them of the value of religious and moral instruction. The West Port exhibited the collapse of the traditional Christian communal ideal in urban Scotland.
Chalmers had, in fact, proposed a territorial church-building operation in the West Port as far back as Januay 1839, when he had delivered a public lecture on the subject, and requested subscriptions and volunteers. The collapse of the Church Extension movement, however, had delayed the project until May 1844, when he began communicating with James Ewan, a young salaried agent of the Edinburgh City Mission, a Dissenter-dominated voluntary society. Ewan was conducting sabbath services on behalf of the City Mission in the old Portsburgh courthouse for the West Port and Grassmarket districts. After receiving permission from the City Mission directors, Ewan agreed to assist in Chalmers's West Port territorial operation. Chalmers, meanwhile, gathered a group of supporters, and on 27 July 1844, the first meeting of the West Port Local Society was held in the Portsburgh court-house. By this date, he had recruited ten voluntary visitors - seven middle-class professional men from Edinburgh's wealthy New Town and three respectable West Port inhabitants, selected by Ewan from his congregation. With Ewan's help, Chalmers had also divided the West Port district into twenty proportions of about 100 inhabitants each. At the initial meeting, each of the ten visitors was assigned a proportion and requested to begin regular household visitations immediately. The Society, meanwhile, agreed to meet on a weekly basis, in order to allow the visitors to share with one another reports of their progress and problems. Chalmers experienced difficulty in recruiting the additional ten visitors needed to fill all twenty proportions . The prospect of walking alone through the dangerous West Port closes and stairs was enough to intimidate all but the most intrepid. None the less, by early January, he had managed to recruit at least one, and in some cases two visitors for each proportion. The visitors formed the vanguard of the West Port community-building operation, with responsibility for permeating the district with religious and moral principles, creating a demand for a church and school, and encouraging communal cohesion and responsibility. Each visitor was to become closely acquainted with the inhabitants of his proportion. He was to introduce them to the gospel and encourage their attendance at Ewan's City Mission sabbath services at the Portsburgh court-house. Above all, he was to encourage working-class participation in the operation, informing the inhabitants of the Society's plan to establish a church, school, and other programmes in the district, but assuring them that their assistance was crucial. Chalmers avoided giving strict directions to his visitors, preferring that they should use their initiative to respond creatively to the unique conditions in each neighbourhood. He was also concerned to dispel the myth that a territorial operation could not succeed without his personal supervision. 'Be assured', he informed the Society on 6 September 1844, 'that our doings will be regarded as far more imitable [by philanthropists elsewhere in the country] if, instead of being stimulated by the personal influence of any one individual, they are quietly and perseveringly performed by each man doing his duty. He was confident that, in a short time, each visitor would develop a warm, sympathetic relationship with the inhabitants of his proportion. In marked contrast to his St. John's experiment of 1819-24, Chalmers did not involve his West Port visitors in the distribution of poor relief. The Society maintained no poor-relief fund, and visitors were discouraged from distributing private gifts from their own resources. He would not have his West Port Local Society become simply another voluntary charity society, distributing money on behalf of the upper and middle classes. Nor did he wish to create a competition among the inhabitants for material charity, which would subvert the basic communal purpose of the operation. The only means for the long-term improvement of West Port social conditions, he believed, was to encourage self-help and communal responsibility among the working-class inhabitants themselves. Indeed, a fundamental purpose of the operation was to emancipate the working classes from any need for middle- and upper-class charity. He later explained to the Countess of Effingham in 1846: 'I have raised no fund and recommended no method for providing for the temporal wants of the inhabitants of the West Port - convinced that if this formed any ostensible part of our proceedings, it would vitiate and distemper our whole system and raise an insuperable barrier in the way of achieving a pure Christian and moral good among the families of our district.
Although he refrained from distributing material charity, Chalmers did instruct his visitors to be sensitive to social conditions. They were to seek jobs or apprenticeships for the unemployed, petition the Edinburgh Town Council to close local taverns and remove public health nuisances, and bring cases of extreme destitution or illness to the attention of the city poor-relief authorities Above all, they were to encourage the poor to develop habits of regular saving. Chalmers placed great hope upon a plan for a West Port district savings bank, open exclusively to West Port inhabitants and operated with the assistance of the visitors. Through participation in a district savings bank, he believed, the inhabitants would learn self-reliance and foresight, while at the same time accumulating enough capital to carry them through periods of unemployment in reasonable comfort. On 9 May 1845, following an address to a meeting of West Port inhabitants, Chalmers formally opened the new bank. According to the plan, the visitors solicited 'penny-a-week' deposits during their visitation rounds. An individual's savings then accumulated in a West Port district bank office until they reached one shilling. At this point, an interest-bearing account was opened for the individual in the National Security Savings Bank of Edinburgh. Money could be withdrawn from this account only with the written permission of the West Port savings bank treasurer. By January 1846, over sixty separate accounts had been established. Although the deposits were small, Chalmers was satisfied that a fair beginning had been made.
Chalmers, it will be noted, placed heavy burdens of responsibility upon his voluntary visitors. Armed with moral and religious principles, they provided the operation's primary thrust into the district. They did not bring with them material charity. Rather, they endeavoured to organize the West Port into a self-respecting and self-sustaining working-class community. At their weekly Society meetings, the visitors discussed their experiences, while Chalmers provided them with occasional instruction in what he regarded as the latest innovations in philanthropic activity - emphasizing public sanitation, temperance, and savings banks. None the less, the burdens placed upon the voluntary visitors were onerous, and their progress was slow. Some visitors demonstrated initiative, organizing weekly neighbourhood prayer meetings and achieving some noticeable improvement in their proportions during the initial months. But for most, as will be seen, the personal dangers of household visiting, the horrors they often discovered in the overcrowded tenements, and their inability to communicate with the inhabitants, proved disheartening.
Once the visitation effort was begun, Chalmers turned his attention to the establishment of a West Port territorial school, and requested William Gibson, superintendent of schools for the Free Church, to help locate a suitable schoolmaster. Gibson recommended Alexander Sinclair, a young teacher who had achieved notable success with working-class youth in Greenock. Late in October 1844, Chalmers invited Sinclair to join his operation, promising him national exposure for an experiment in 'plebian education'. He made no attempt to conceal the grim reality of West Port conditions, but he reaffirmed his belief that intellect was not a function of social class or environment. 'Be assured', he informed Sinclair, 'that you will meet with a full average of talent among the ragged children of this outlandish population. Our great object in fact is to reclaim them from their present outlandishness and raise them to a higher platform. Sinclair accepted the challenge, and on 11 November 1844 the West Port school was opened. Classes were held in large furnished rooms above a deserted tannery, only a few feet from the tenement where Burke and Hare had dispatched their victims. There were in fact three separate sets of classes under Sinclair's superintendence. First, young boys attended a day school, taught by Sinclair. Secondly, young girls attended Sinclair's day school with the boys in the morning, and in the afternoon received instruction in domestic skills from a Miss Rodgers. Thirdly, adolescents and young adults, of both sexes, attended an evening school for two hours each week-night, taught by a Mr Thomson. The teachers were assisted by several 'monitors', advanced students from the nearby Free Church Normal Academy for teacher training.
The basic curriculum at the school consisted in reading, writing, natural science, geography, and Bible study. There was also additional instruction in English grammar, mathematics, and Latin available to the 'lad o'pairts' who demonstrated special promise or interest. School fees were a modest 2s. per quarter for day school pupils, and l/6d. for evening students - about a quarter of the fees required at other Edinburgh schools. Publicly, Chalmers insisted that the fees were mandatory, and he instructed the visitors to collect the fees during their visitation rounds. The fees, he argued, were necessary to impress the families with the value of education. Privately, however, he and Sinclair agreed that no child should be excluded for non-payment, as this would punish children for parental irresponsibility. At no point between November 1844 and March 1846 (the only period for which information on fee payments exists), did more than half the pupils pay their fees, and consequently the schools remained dependent upon funding by the Society. School attendance, meanwhile, increased steadily. In November 1844, 64 attended the day school, and 57 the evening classes. By November 1845, attendance had grown to 250 and 70 respectively.
The success of the schools encourged additional welfare and educational programmes. In December 1844, a laundry room and public bath were constructed in rooms adjoining the school, and a 'bleaching field' for drying clothing was set up on property behind the tannery. All school children were regularly bathed, and boys received periodic haircuts at the Society's expense. In April 1845, Chalmers established a district lending-library in the deserted tannery, with an adult reading-room offering several newspapers and journals. In May 1845, a nursery school was begun, with a divinity student hired as the teacher. Nor did Chalmers neglect his old plan for district sabbath schools. Initially, he requested each visitor to establish a sabbath school in his proportion. The visitors, however, were already overburdened with other responsibilities, and by September 1845 only three sabbath schools had been formed. In October, Chalmers made a fresh start - organizing a separate West Port Sabbath School Society of twenty-two voluntary teachers, mainly women. The sabbath-school movement now progressed rapidly, and by March 1846, about 150 pupils were receiving regular sabbath instruction.
On 6th August 1845, Chalmers held a public exhibition of the West Port schools, inviting a number of influential Edinburgh citizens to the old tannery to view the classrooms and other facilities, and to observe an oral examination of the children. The day went beautifully. The children performed well, and afterwards Chalmers joined them for strawberries and cream - a look of benign contentment upon his face as he sat amid the noise and confusion of the excited youngsters. 'Smile as one might,' Hugh Miller, editor of the Witness newspaper, observed of the exhibition in his paper a few days later, 'there is no mistaking the fact, that the minds of these children, which save for this school, would in all probability have slept on for life, were fully awakened.
While the schools were being organized, Chalmers was also working to create a West Port Free Church congregation. Before the beginning of his operation, it will be recalled, James Ewan was conducting services for the City Mission in the Portsburgh court-house, with an average attendance of 50 at the morning service and 100 at the evening. Although Ewan was not a Free Church member, Chalmers decided that he would make an excellent minister for the proposed West Port Free Church. In November 1844, Ewan's services were moved from the court-house to the schoolrooms above the tannery, and Ewan was enrolled in the Free Church College, in preparation for Free Church ordination. Chalmers's plan went awry, however, when in January 1845 Ewan was discovered to have augmented his meagre £40 per annum City Mission salary by accepting a bribe while arbitrating a financial dispute between two West Port inhabitants. The City Mission requested Ewan's resignation. Although Chalmers's Society retained Ewan's services and now took on the payment of his £40 per annum salary, Chalmers decided he could not risk appointing Ewan minister.
In early February 1845, Chalmers decided upon William Tasker for the West Port ministry. Tasker, a former school teacher and home missionary in Port Glasgow, had entered the Free Church College in late 1843. He was a superior student, and had a bright future ahead of him. Nevertheless, at Chalmers's invitation, he relinquished his considerable prospects elsewhere and committed himself to the West Port. Free Church leaders in Scotland had intended Tasker for the pleasant rural parish of Kilmalcolm, and were enraged when they learned that Chalmers had enlisted him. 'Edinburgh has the command of more than one half of our preachers', Chalmers's long-time supporter, Patrick MacFarlan, complained to another Free Church leader on 6 March 1845. 'If Dr. C. cannot find one so well-fitted as Mr. Tasker for the district in which he takes so deep an interest, he is at least in a better situation than we are who can find none at all for Kilmalcolm.' Chalmers's visionary interdenominational campaign, MacFarlan argued, should not be allowed to deprive real Free Church congregations of needed ministers. But his remonstrances were in vain, and in April 1845, Tasker began work as the West Port missionary, with a salary of £100 per annum (later raised to £150) paid by the West Port Local Society. Tasker pursued his duties with dogged determination, visiting families, assisting in the schools, and conducting three services each Sunday. Chalmers gave Tasker valuable assistance, accompanying him on visitation rounds, and occasionally preaching for him (which attracted vast crowds and large collections). The two men became close comrades, with shared enthusiasm for the practical details of West Port progress. Chalmers found this return to the parish ministry exhilarating, redolent with the memories of younger days. He felt a satisfaction in immediate, personal relationships with the West Port poor, which he had missed in his national campaigns. There was again a sense of communal belonging, and of performing manifest service. Chalmers and Tasker soon created a regular congregation of over 200 West Port inhabitants.
It had been Chalmers's original plan that the working-class congregation itself would gradually accumulate the capital needed to build a church. But he now grew impatient to provide the nation with a more substantial symbol of West Port progress. In the summer of 1845, he purchased property in the district for £330, supplied by the West Port Local Society, and in January 1846 he began soliciting public contributions for a new building to replace the now overcrowded tannery. Plans for a simple but dignified brick structure, large enough to accommodate church, schoolrooms, meeting-hall, library, laundry, and other facilities, were drawn up by a noted Edinburgh architect. The building was completed in early 1847, at a cost of £2,007.34 Chalmers dedicated the church on 19 February 1847. Tasker was ordained to the ministry, and the West Port Territorial Church was admitted into the Free Church. The completion of the new church, 'the child of Dr. Chalmers' old age', marked for him the fulfilment of the communal vision for urban society, which he had first introduced in Glasgow over three decades before. 'I wish', he wrote to an American correspondent on 27 March 1847, 'to communicate what to me is the most joyful event of my life. I have been intent for 30 years on the completion of a territorial experiment, and I have now to bless God for the consummation of it.
His achievements were impressive. In less than three years, he had organized well-attended schools and a substantial Free Church congregation in perhaps the most destitute and crime-ridden district in the city. Hundreds, hitherto untouched by organized philanthropy and religion, had been provided with opportunities for education, better hygiene, and neighbourhood worship. None the less, some questions remain. Had Chalmers in fact fulfilled his promises in his lectures in the summer of 1844? Had his visitors succeeded in creating a viable, self-sustaining working-class community? Had he emancipated the West Port working-classes from the need for middle- and upper-class charity, or produced significant improvements in social conditions? In truth, despite the very considerable achievements, his West Port territorial experiment had proved less than successful in three central purposes of the operation.
First, the visitation effort, intended to permeate the West Port with Christian communal purpose, had in fact collapsed. Many visitors, as mentioned earlier, had rapidly grown disheartened in confronting conditions of poverty and human degradation which were. alien to their whole experience. Despite their good intentions, they found themselves unable to communicate with many inhabitants, such as the mother Tasker had discovered pawning a loaf of bread in front of her hungry children for drink, or the participants in a funeral whom he found collapsed in drunken stupor around the corpse. They distributed religious tracts (indeed, by June 1846, the visitors reported having distributed over 4,000 tracts), but to what purpose in a district where most inhabitants were illiterate? They introduced Bible teachings, and gave moral advice, but to what effect? In truth, they would have required more training and stricter direction in order to penetrate the barrier of social class and recognize the real needs of the district. But as Chalmers had become increasingly enthusiastic about the church, schools, and other programmes, he had neglected attending the weekly meetings of the visitors. Gradually, visitors began quitting the Society, while even those who remained ceased regular household visiting. By September 1846, the Society had been forced, because of lack of visitors, to reduce the number of proportions from twenty to fourteen. Of these, two were unoccupied, two had been assigned visitors only within the last three weeks, and one had received no attention from its visitor for several months. Only six visitors reported having even entered their assigned proportions during the previous month. Of the ten original visitors of July 1844, only two remained.
At the 6 September meeting, William Wilson, the most active of the original visitors, confessed 'his district to be sinking into a worse condition than ever'. He had given up his weekly prayer meeting, 'owing to the bad attendance'. At the same time, the Society expressed its despondency over 'the increasing immorality and destitution which prevails in the West Port'. This was, in fact, the last meeting of the West Port Local Society. Chalmers attempted to revive the vistitations with a letter to the Society on 26 September, in which he apologized for his frequent absences and promised to exercise more leadership in the future. His letter, however, was too late. The Society had dissolved and the visitations ceased. The West Port visitors had been among the most dedicated and determined Christian philanthropists in Edinburgh. Their failure demonstrated more than simply Chalmers's flagging power to inspire sustained voluntary philanthropic activity. Rather, it raised serious questions about the effectiveness of purely voluntary effort in the urban slums of the 1840s.
Secondly, the operation had not served to emancipate the West Port working-class community from dependence upon outside middle- and upper-class charity. On 7 March 1845, Chalmers had asserted in a public meeting at Glasgow that a territorial operation for a population of 2,000, such as that in the West Port, could be successfully pursued at a cost of £100 per annum. Several months later, in a public lecture at Edinburgh on 27 December 1845, he raised this estimate slightly to £150 per annum. He had also argued that within a few years, the working-class community would become self-sustaining and assume the responsibility for building and supporting its own church and schools. But in fact, the West Port expenses were far greater than Chalmers claimed. The initial costs for constructing the schoolrooms and other facilities in the deserted tannery, and for providing books, paper, soap, haircuts, heating, etc. had been high. Further, in part because of the ineffectiveness of his voluntary workers, Chalmers had been forced to rely to a greater degree than anticipated upon salaried agents. By 1846, the West Port Society was supporting two missionaries (Tasker and Ewan) at a cost of £190 per annum, and four schoolteachers at £150 per annum. It also employed eight part-time monitors and a part-time librarian.
During the first sixteen months, Chalmers received and spent at least £1,137 in outside donations for his West Port operation. He may, in fact, have received and disbursed far more than this amount, for it is difficult to ascertain precisely the financial arrangements. In marked contrast to his St. John's experiment and Church Extension campaign, in which he had been very forward in publicizing the financial details, he was secretive about West Port finances. The funds were originally kept in a bank account under the authority of several Society business managers. In May 1845, however, Chalmers cleared this account, and deposited the funds in two personal accounts. On 11 October 1845, moreover, he informed the Society that he would no longer regard himself obliged to reveal the amounts he received or disbursed. He evidently intended to conceal the growing costs of the operation. If these costs had become public knowledge, critics might have argued that a West Port operation could succeed only where there was a Chalmers to mobilize donations from wealthy admirers.
Nor would such criticism have been unjustified. Between September 1844 and January 1846, for instance, James Lenox, a wealthy New York lawyer of Scottish descent, donated £1,000 to Chalmers for his West Port operation, on the condition that the gifts remained anonymous. Lenox had never visited Scotland, and his donations were largely an expression of personal admiration for Chalmers. According to William Hanna, £5,500 in outside donations were spent on the West Port operation between 1844 and 1852. Even after 1852, moreover, the West Port church continued to draw large subsidies from the Free Church Sustentation Fund. Chalmers should not be faulted for the amounts spent. There was almost certainly no financial mismanagement. None the less, the fact remains that the West Port operation had consumed nearly ten times the amount of outside financial assistance he had claimed it would require, and that the operation had not become financially self-sustaining. At a similar rate of expenditure for other operations, it would have required over £300,000 for the sixty territorial operations he had requested for the Edinburgh slums alone in his 1844 lectures - nearly three times the sum that had been collected for the general fund during the entire Church Extension campaign of the 1830s.
Finally, Chalmers's operation did not effect significant improvement in West Port social conditions. By 1851, to be sure, Tasker's congregation included more than 400 communicants, while the system of day, evening, and sabbath schools provided instruction to 470 children and young adults. The church and schools attracted a group of upwardly mobile working-class families, prepared to pursue opportunities for social advancement and respectability. Most of these people, however, eventually left the West Port district, only travelling back from other neighbourhoods to attend Tasker's services or the West Port school. The church and school, in fact, functioned largely upon a 'gathered church' principle, attracting the new working-class elite which began to take shape with improving economic conditions in the 1850s. The great mass of West Port inhabitants, however, remained rootless, impoverished, and often lawless. As late as 1869, Tasker complained to the Edinburgh Lord Provost that the overcrowded tenements remained the same 'sink of social and moral pollution' that they had been when 'Dr. Chalmers and I set up our Church and Schools in 1844'. The West Port, in fact, remained one of the worst slum districts in Edinburgh throughout the nineteenth century. Religious and moral instruction alone had not proved sufficient to transform it into the closely-knit community Chalmers had envisaged.
At the same time as he was pursuing his West Port model operation, Chalmers had worked vigorously to create public enthusiasm for his interdenominational community-building campaign. In 1844 and 1845, he published three articles in the North British Review, in which he again repeated the arguments in favour of his parish community ideal. Only a vigorous territorial ministry, he argued, would preserve the nation from the growing evils of pauperism and working-class political disaffection. A new Scottish poor law, such as that recommended by the Royal Commission, would only aggravate social divisiveness and class conflict. In March 1845, he delivered a public lecture in Glasgow, describing the West Port operation as the culmination of his earlier St. John's experiment and urging Glasgow philanthropists, particularly those who had participated with him in the St. John's experiment and the Church Extension campaign, to join him by beginning similar territorial operations. In Many 1845, it will be recalled, he resigned his convenership of the Free Church Sustentation Fund. He now pledged to devote his remaining strength to his interdenominational campaign. In 1845, moreover, he assumed an active role in organizing Scottish participation in the 'Evangelical Alliance' of Reformed Protestant denominations in Britain, Europe, and America, which was being organized by his friend, the English Dissenter, Edward Bickersteth. He endeavoured in particular to direct the attention of the Alliance to his territorial plan. In the introductory essay to a volume of Essays on Christian Union, published in London by supporters of the Alliance in late 1845, he developed his argument that an interdenominational urban mission enterprise would provide the catalyst for Church union. Urban poverty, he argued, was a pressing problem in the entire Western world, and demanded a co-operative territorial mission among all Protestant denominations.
On 27 December 1845, Chalmers invited a group of Edinburgh civic leaders to the Royal Hotel, in the city's New Town. The purpose of the meeting, he explained to his guests, was to report that the Edinburgh campaign which he had announced in his public lectures in the summer of 1844 was now under way. First, he asserted, his West Port model territorial operation was making substantial progress. Indeed, he argued, the West Port model had already demonstrated conclusively that a successful territorial operation could be pursued in any district of the country for the modest cost of £150 per annum. Secondly, and most important, he announced that his West Port model was beginning to inspire additional territorial efforts in the Edinburgh slums. No fewer than five districts for territorial operations, he claimed, had been mapped out by new local visiting societies in the city's destitute Old Town, which promised to establish 'a chain of forts all the way from the South Bridge to the Main Point'. In addition to these five 'forts', he understood that the Duchess of Gordon had promised to pay the expenses for an operation at the lower end of the Canongate, and that members of the Revd James Robertson's United Secession congregation in the Vennel might undertake an operation in the Grassmarket. In a word, it appeared that Chalmers's plan for organizing Edinburgh into Christian communities would soon be fulfilled.
He now appealed for still more effort and financial donations. He described again the elements of his plan, emphasizing the need to enlist the active participation of the working-class inhabitants of a district in the community-building operation. 'I don't think', he observed, 'that you will achieve any permanent good for the population, unless you list them as fellow-workers in, or at least fellow contributors to the cause. I think that a great and radical error in the management of our population has just proceeded from the idea that they are utterly helpless and unable to do anything for themselves ... Unless you enlist their co-operation, you will never achieve anything like permanent good'for them.' The entire campaign must be interdenominational. He bristled at accusations by critics that his campaign was in fact an underhanded manoeuvre to secure interdenominational contributions for extending his Free Church. 'Who cares about the Free Church,' he exclaimed, 'compared with the Christian good of the people of Scotland? Who cares for any Church, but as an instrument of Christian good? For, be assured that the moral and religious well-being of the population is infinitely of higher importance than the advancement of any sect.' (Little did his critics realize the extent of his disappointment with the Free Church.)
Impressed by Chalmers's apparent progress, the Edinburgh City Mission now attempted to establish an institutional structure for his campaign. At a public meeting on 30 January 1846, chaired by the Whig Lord Provost, Adam Black, the City Mission directors announced a plan by which each territorial operation established by Chalmers's West Port model would send one delegate to a City Mission general committee. This committee, headed by a salaried, full-time superintendent, would advertise the campaign, collect subscriptions, and supervise the operations on city-wide level. Because of ill-health, Chalmers was unable to attend the meeting, but he sent a letter of encouragement which was read aloud and published in the report of .the proceedings. On 28 February 1846, moreover, he sent further recommendations to Charles Spence, the City Mission secretary. He opposed too much central direction over the individual operations, which he feared might discourage local initiative. But he agreed that a general committee would be valuable for collecting and administering a central mission fund, from which local operations could draw according to their needs. In short, the effort should be pursued along the lines of his former Church Extension campaign, with a balance of local initiative and central direction. It was interesting that the Dissenter, Adam Black, who ten years before had caustically compared Chalmers's territorial communities to Robert Owen's Utopian 'parallelograms', should now assume a leading role in organizing Chalmers's teritorial campaign. With the Established Church broken up, Black had evidently reconsidered his former objections to a territorial ministry, at least among the urban working classes.
Despite initial progress and City Mission support, Chalmers's campaign soon lost momentum. Most of the proposed territorial operations which he had described in his address of December 1845 collapsed during the next few months. The 'chain of forts', in Edinburgh's Old Town never materialized. Only three operations modelled upon his West Port experiment were actually pursued - two in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow. These apparently had some success in extending church accommodation and educational opportunities, but like the West Port operation, they required considerable financial contributions and did not radically transform their working-class districts. After several months of effort, the City Mission relinquished its plan for the general committee, and by late 1846 Chalmers's campaign was effectively finished.
His concept of a territorial urban mission for the revival of Christian communal sentiment had failed to capture the imagination of Scottish philanthropists. Despite his new emphasis upon working-class participation and interdenominational co-operation, Chalmers's West Port operation had represented essentially the same social position that he had advocated in Kilmany over three decades before - that only religious and moral instruction, directed towards restoring traditional Christian values, would secure the welfare of the working classes. But by the mid-1840s, public interest in his godly commonwealth ideal had waned, hastened by the failure of Church Extension and the Disruption. In August 1845, the new Scottish poor law received the Royal assent, and secular poor-law districts and workhouses began to replace the traditional system of parish poor relief. The secular State also began to extend its influence in the areas of public health and education, and the Scottish churches increasingly withdrew from social welfare. Chalmers's West Port operation had represented an impressive effort to revive the social ideal to which he had devoted most of his life's work; but he now lacked the energy and tenacity of his younger days. With the failure of his territorial mission in 1846, he began to realize that Scotland had changed radically since his youth in rural Anstruther and Kilmany, and that these changes perhaps could not be reversed.
In December 1846, shortly after the collapse of Chalmers's final church extension effort, Richard Oastler, the celebrated Tory factory reformer, travelled to Scotland to agitate for the Ten Hours Bill, a proposed Parliamentary measure to limit the working day for factory labour. Oastler placed particular emphasis upon gaining Chalmers's support. For a significant portion of Scotland's middle and upper classes, Chalmers remained the most dedicated 'friend of the working classes'; yet he had consistently opposed factory legislation. Through Chalmers's friend and former student, George Lewis, Oastler managed to obtain an interview with him. So important did Oastler regard the conversation, that he later wrote a full account of it from memory.
At first, Chalmers expressed his total opposition to Oastler's campaign. He was, he claimed, an advocate of free trade, who had long opposed State intervention in industry and commerce, as well as in social welfare. Only the Christian and moral education of the working classes would rescue them from their present misery. But Oastler refused to accept Chalmers's objections. Throughout his career, Oastler insisted, Chalmers had in fact opposed Classical Liberal economics, especially the Liberal economists' emphasis upon self-interest and the 'invisible hand'. 'The Christian', Oastler asserted, in paraphrase of Chalmers's often-expressed sentiments, 'knows that Society is one compact body, each individual member being dependent on the rest, each requiring the protection of all. The Free-Trader, on the contrary, persuades himself that each member is a separate piece of independence, an isolated self.' Oastler reviewed at length the horrors of factory conditions, horrors that Chalmers himself had vividly described in his 1832 debate with J. R. McCulloch. Only Parliamentary legislation, Oastler maintained, could now preserve the Christian commonwealth against the growing evils of unrestrained industrial capitalism. Chalmers suddenly relented. He did not relinquish his lifelong support for free trade. But he did now pledge his full support to Oastler's Ten Hours Bill, and gave him a letter of introduction to several influential friends. At a public meeting in Edinburgh on 24 December 1846, Oastler was able to announce that Chalmers was now a participant in the Ten Hours movement, an endorsement of no small consequence for the movement in Scotland. It was, for Chalmers, a significant conversion. With the collapse of his territorial church and community-building campaign, he began to acknowledge that the State was perhaps the only available regulator of social relations with sufficient power to preserve the weak from the strong.
In the autumn of 1845, the potato crop in Ireland, and in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, had failed, leaving literally hundreds of thousands facing starvation. This was followed by an even worse failure in the autumn of 1846. The famine was the great tragedy of nineteenth-century British history, and a tragedy peculiarly localized on the Celtic fringe. In November 1846, Chalmers assumed an active role in organizing the famine-relief effort, and issued urgent appeals for subscriptions. Largely through his efforts, the Free Church collected over £15,000, assuming the leading role among Scottish churches in the relief effort. In the early months of 1847 the situation grew more urgent. Typhus and other epidemic diseases swept through the famine-stricken populations, and numerous cases of death by starvation began to be reported.
Private philanthropy, meanwhile, was proving insufficient. Many, in fact, refused to contribute to relief efforts, on the grounds that it would only encourage the 'notorious' lack of foresight and 'moral restraint' among the Gaelic poor of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. The poor, had brought their misery upon themselves; to support them through the famine would only be to attempt to circumvent Malthus's iron law of population - an attempt doomed to failure. Better to let nature take its course and remove by starvation the redundant population, than to attempt to keep it alive by artificial means. The Whigs, moreover, were now back in office. In their commitment to the doctrine of laissez-faire, their Government was hesitant to provide State relief in any significant amounts, and indeed was attempting to close the public-works projects, soup-kitchens, and other relief facilities currently in operation.
Chalmers was appalled by such attitudes. It was, he asserted in a letter published in the Edinburgh Witness on 6 March 1847, 'presumptuous and unwarrantable in the highest degree' to attribute the famine to the faults of the suffering poor themselves. It was not the Christian's place to condemn his fellow man; rather, he should do all in his power to relieve suffering, according to the simple Scriptural law of compassion. 'If the agonies and cries of those dying creatures', he warned, "do not reach our ears to the awakening of an effectual compassion, it may be that they shall reach the ears of Him who sitteth above, to the effect of a fearful retribution upon ourselves.' Above all, he demanded more substantial Government relief grants to supplement private philanthropy. 'It would have been wrong, certainly, in the public to have abstained from their subscriptions in the hope that Government would do all. But is it right in the Government to abstain from their grants in the hope that we, the public, will do all?'
Chalmers developed these ideas further in a long article, 'The Political Economy of a Famine,' published in the North British Review in May 1847. Only a massive redistribution of national wealth, he argued, would save the British nation from the horror and guilt of mass starvation within its shores. He agreed with Daniel O'Connell that at least £30,000,000 was now needed. Private philanthropy would not be sufficient to raise such a sum. Rather, the Government must raise most of the money through massive direct taxation upon the luxuries of the wealthy. The nation must finally transcend the doctrines of laissez-faire economics, forsaking its 'deification' of commercial and industrial expansion in favour of the higher glory of compassion. Nor, he insisted, would mere grants of State relief assistance be enough. There must be a Parliamentary Commission to supervise the distribution of relief, and to halt profiteering by grain merchants. Further, this Commission must broaden its inquiry to include a large-scale survey of social conditions in Ireland, in preparation for major land reform and poor-law reform once the crisis was over. In describing his plan for massive State intervention in the economy, he cited his first major work of political economy, the 1808 Enquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources. He reaffirmed his adherence to the basic principles of this work - that massive Governmental taxation and management of the economy were necessary to preserve the common welfare against self-interested commercial and industrial elites. In 1808, the occasion for his appeal for increased State intervention had been the Napoleonic threat to Britain's independence; now it was the threat of starvation to a significiant portion of Britain's population. In his conclusion, Chalmers promised to publish several more articles in the North British Review detailing his plans for reform of the Irish land tenures and poor law.
His social thought had finally run full circle. With the collapse of his church extension effort in 1846, and the prospect of mass starvation in Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, he returned to many of his 1808 views. His Evangelical Christian faith remained unshaken, but he now accepted that the power of the Church and private Christian philanthropy to preserve the general social welfare against the self-interest of the few was declining. He began to relinquish his ideal of the godly commonwealth directed by a territorial national Church, and to regard the State as the only institution capable of enforcing social justice. It was ironic that his attempts to inspire a private relief effort in Scotland should have been shadowed by the very Malthusian doctrines which he had helped to disseminate. In fairness, however, it must be observed that Chalmers had never allowed his Malthusian views to supersede Christian compassion, nor suggested that the 'redundant' population should be allowed to starve. It is interesting to speculate on what views he might have expressed in his proposed North British Review articles - whether he would have retreated still further from his opposition to legal poor relief and the secularization of social welfare in the wake of the famine. But although the proposed articles were never written, one thing is fairly certain: like so many other dreams, Chalmers's godly commonwealth ideal succumbed to the grim realities of the great famine of 1846-7, which both devastated the Celtic population and destroyed his confidence in the sufficiency of purely voluntary benevolence.
Early in May 1847, Chalmers travelled to London in the company of his son-in-law, John Mackenzie. His primary purpose in the journey was to deliver oral testimony before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to investigate Free Church complaints of difficulties in obtaining sites for new churches. A number of landed proprietors, including the powerful Duke of Sutherland, had persisted in refusing to sell property to the Free Church. In some districts, particularly in the Highlands where individual landholdings were vast, this made it impossible for congregations to build churches. Chalmers appeared before the Committee on 12 May. Sir James Graham, evidently hearing of Chalmers's dissatisfaction with some of the positions taken by the Free Church, pressed him hard during the examination about the entire Disruption controversy, hoping for a partial recantation that might open the way for eventual reconciliation. But Chalmers refused to back down from his position that it was the State's refusal to recognize the Church's spiritual independence which had forced the Disruption. Frustrated, Graham grew increasingly caustic in his questioning, and the examination degenerated into a cruel but unsuccessful attempt to catch Chalmers in inconsistencies. Chalmers held his ground remarkably well, until finally the other Committee members were obliged to silence Graham and end the testimony. There had been no recantation.
While in London, Chalmers took the opportunity to call upon old acquaintances. He visited and prayed with the widow of his brother James, who had died a few years before. 'It was a serious interview,' he wrote his wife, 'and my brother's faithful and vivid picture has haunted me ever since.' On 14 May, he called upon Thomas Carlyle and his wife at Chelsea. Carlyle raised the subject of the Disruption and the 'Free Kirk War', but Chalmers had no desire to speak of this, and 'softly let it drop'. Instead, they spoke of Chalmers's territorial community ideal, and of his boyhood friend from the Anstruther district, the painter, Sir David Wilkie, who had died a few years before. Chalmers had just been viewing Wilkie's work in the National Gallery, and he now related how Wilkie had often struggled 'long and to no purpose' before he could capture precisely the right symbol to convey the moral message in one of his romantic pastoral paintings. The conversation circled around the communal virtues of rural Scotland in which Chalmers and Carlyle had been raised, and which both had struggled to convey to a rapidly changing nation. 'Chalmers', Carlyle later recalled, 'was very beautiful to us during that hour; grave, not too grave, earnest, cordial; face and figure very little altered, only the head had grown white, and in the eyes and features you could read something of a serene sadness, as if evening and silent star-crowned night were coming on, and the hot noises of the day were growing unexpectedly insignificant to one. '
Chalmers arrived back in Edinburgh on the evening of 28 May, after an overland journey that included a visit to his sister in Gloucestershire. He was weary from the trip, and rested in bed most of the following day. Friends and family were concerned about his health, but vjiiuimeu he waved off their anxieties. 'I do not by any means feel unwell,' he informed a caller whom he received at his bedside, 'I only require a little rest.' On Sunday, 30 May, he attended worship, and called upon his old friend from the Kilmany district, Janet Coutts. He was too weary to conduct family worship that evening, but promised to lead family prayer in the morning. He retired early, 'bidding his family remember that they must be early tomorrow' for prayer, and wishing all 'a general good-night'. But the next morning, he was not up as promised. At eight, the housekeeper entered the room to wake him. She found him sitting half-erect in bed, leaning against the headboard. He had been dead for hours. Apparently he had succumbed to a sudden heart failure shortly after leaving his family the night before.
Chalmers was buried in Edinburgh on 4 June 1847. The funeral service was held in Free St. Andrew's church, in the presence of the Free Church General Assembly and deputations from the Presbyterian Churches of England and Ireland. Following the service, a procession of over 2,000 mourners, headed by the Magistrates and Town Council, began a slow, winding march of three miles through the city to the Grange cemetery. Most of the shops and businesses were closed for the solemn event, and the route was lined with an estimated 100,000 silent spectators. As the procession moved through the Old Town, it was joined by the congregation of the West Port church. It was a gloomy day, with a heavy mist and a raw east wind. Nevertheless, as the funeral procession reached the Grange cemetery, it found the surrounding fields already filled with thousands of mourners. 'The appearance', recalled one observer, 'was that of an army.' 'Never before, in at least the memory of man,' the Witness reported the following day, 'did Scotland witness such a funeral.... It was the dust of a Presbyterian clergyman that the coffin contained; and yet they were burying him amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours. '
Chalmers had been a man of one seminal vision - the elevation of the nation through a communal social ideal, based upon a shared Christian purpose. The social dislocations of early industrialization had convinced him that social happiness would not be achieved by the iron laws of the market economy. While he acknowledged the role of self-interest in the economy, he argued that it alone was not enough to preserve the larger social fabric. Rather, individuals had to subordinate self-interest to the general welfare and embrace the values of communal responsibility and benevolence. True freedom for the individual would be achieved only through conscious subordination of self-interest to a Divine purpose. His godly commonwealth ideal offered a communal alternative to the social anxieties and suffering of early industrialization - a turning backward to an idealized past, when, he assured the nation, the social orders had lived in communal harmony, and sacrificed together for common ideals represented by a national covenant with God. Chalmers was a communitarian, part of a rich early nineteenth-century communitarian movement that included such varied figures as William Godwin and Robert Owen. His considerable influence in Britain indicated that a large portion of the population was profoundly disturbed by the rate of social change in the early industrial era, and longed to return to a stable social organization characterized by close, personal interrelationships.
With his communal vision, Chalmers provided a social direction to the early nineteenth-century Evangelical revival. His Evangelical piety embraced not only an intense passion for men's souls, but also a genuine concern for their temporal happiness, which for him meant not only a degree of material comfort, but also human companionship, and faith in a loving and forgiving God. He was an inspiring preacher, who motivated the educated middle and upper classes with a combination of Evangelical piety and communal benevolence. Some of his specific remedies for the social suffering in early nineteenth-century Britain, to be sure, were misguided - for instance, his demand for the total abolition of assessment-based legal poor relief, and his insistence that religious and moral instruction alone would greatly improve the condition of the working classes. None the less, his demand that Christians express their faith through social service, and his support for the extension of popular education and church accommodation, constituted significant steps towards improving social conditions. By encouraging middle- and upper-class Evangelicals to enter the urban slums on visitation programmes, moreover, he helped to increase public awareness of social conditions and to foster debate over the causes and cures of industrial poverty, which had considerable impact upon later developments in social policy.
Chalmers's influence was limited mainly to the educated upper and middle classes, and especially to the young. He managed to inspire impressive voluntary efforts from lay-visitors and sabbath-school teachers, who embraced his Christian communal vision with enthusiasm. He never succeeded, however, in inspiring the same enthusiasm among the working classes. Despite his concern for their moral and material welfare, he neither gained their full confidence, nor convinced them that their condition would improve within his ideal parish communities. The new industrial working classes were being lost to organized religion during the nineteenth century, and Chalmers proved unable to reverse this trend. None the less, he was a great theorist of an Evangelical pastoral ministry, whose influence upon the clergy and laity of the Church helped to alleviate some of the worst suffering of the early industrial revolution - until the secular State began to realize that neither the Church nor private philanthropy was sufficient to meet the social challenges, and that new systems of social service administration had to be developed under State authority.
Chalmers was also a considerable ecclesiastical politician, who extended the social influence of the Scottish Establishment. In the late 1830s, he created a personal ascendancy within the Church of Scotland unlike any since the era of John Knox. With his Church Extension Committee, and (after 1837) his dominance of the hierarchy of Church courts, he managed to consolidate his power at virtually every level of Church activity. The Church Extension campaign of 1834-41 was the climax of his career. Through this campaign, he thwarted the Voluntary threat of disestablishment, formed a solid Evangelical majority around his godly commonwealth ideal, and created over 220 parish churches, most of them in the new urban centres. He convinced a considerable portion of the Scottish nation (although not the British Government) that the Establishment had to be made sufficient to provide religious and moral instruction to every inhabitant, not simply the wealthy or those with previous Christian conviction. For a time, it appeared that he would realize his vision; but in the final event, the State refused to provide the endowments that were necessary to enable the Church to expand to the urban slums, and the movement collapsed. In truth, the British State ultimately had no intention of allowing the Church of Scotland to reassert the authority it had once held over Scottish society. It was committed to defending the rights of Dissenters, which would have been threatened within Chalmers's ideal Evangelical commonwealth. Perhaps more important, the State was beginning to expand its own administrative authority, and in particular was endeavouring to create administrative uniformity in such matters as poor relief throughout every part of Britain and Ireland. Some kind of conflict between the militant Evangelical Church of Scotland and the expanding British State had become almost inevitable by the late 1830s. This conflict finally surfaced in the non-intrusion controversy, and later developed into the more fundamental controversy over the Church's spiritual independence. Once the conflict had begun, the State's condition for peace was the Church's acknowledgement of the State's sole and absolute sovereignty. There could be, both the civil courts and Parliament declared, no 'two kingdoms' - spiritual and temporal - with shared authority over Scottish society; there could be no 'spiritual independence' for the Established Church. But Chalmers would not acquiesce. He chose to lead the Disruption, rather than passively witness the humiliation of his Church.
The Disruption represented the final failure of his godly commonwealth ideal. His attempts to revive it through the Free Church, and later through his interdenominational church-building campaign, proved unsuccessful. Indeed, the Disruption was not only the greatest failure of Chalmers's career, but also a tragedy for organized religion in Scotland. It broke up the Establishment, ensuring that the Church would never again exercise the same influence over Scottish society as it had before 1843. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, Scottish religious life was characterized by competition between the residual Establishment, the Free Church, and the Dissenters, which thwarted the revival of any national feeling of Christian community. Chalmers has been blamed for the Disruption, and characterized as the 'evil genius' behind the decline of religious influence in Scottish society. In many respects, to be sure, he did contribute to the growing tension between Church and State in the years prior to the Disruption. One of the great ironies of his career was that although a superb ecclesiastical politician, he was never able to function effectively in secular politics.
In part, this resulted from his failure to understand either the conventions or the dominant personalities of political life. Further, he was an idealist, and once firmly convinced of the righteousness of his causeonce he believed he was representing God's will for mankind - he found it difficult to retreat from his principles. He tended to regard his opponents as enemies of God's cause and to indulge in expressions of 'moral loathing' for Voluntaries, Whigs, Tories, or any group or individual who thwarted his purpose. The same stubborn tenacity which had characterized him as a young man, struggling for a church living or university chair, remained with him after his Evangelical conversion and his discovery of a larger social vision. He looked for truth in the Bible, in Church traditions, and in his own reason, rather than in the political Constitution, or the debates between adversary groups in the political forums of Parliament and the public press. In many respects, the very characteristics which had enabled him to rise to leadership within the militant Evangelical Church of the 1830s - his tenacity, single-mindedness, and certainty in his principles - made it difficult for him to lead the Church in retreat before the civil courts and Government in the 1840s. Adding to these difficulties, moreover, was his opposition to privileged elites - an opposition which remained a powerful motivating force throughout his life. The British State was dominated by such elites - the landed interest, rising commercial and industrial interests, and professional politicians. He found it difficult to understand or respect these holders of real power.
However, Chalmers should not be held entirely responsible for the bitter controversies which led to the Disruption. Leading politicians, including Melbourne, Peel, and Aberdeen, demonstrated lack of understanding for the conventions of the Church of Scotland, and a tendency to dismiss Chalmers as a 'madman' or 'scoundrel' when he refused to accept their demands. If he hated their 'privilege', they, in turn, often treated him with contempt, and evidently sought to discredit him personally, as a means of breaking up the Evangelical ascendancy and restoring the Church to quiescence. They failed in this attempt, for in the final analysis the issues at stake in the Church" State controversy - endowments for new churches, the need for an increased popular voice in the administration of church patronage, the 'spiritual independence' of an Established Church - transcended the personalities involved. Despite all the bitter consequences of the Disruption, Chalmers had surely been right in the stand he had taken. Although it had meant sacrificing his godly commonwealth vision, he and the Evangelicals had delivered a powerful message to the modernizing British State - that a Christian Church, whether Established or not, must be independent from State authority in matters of internal spiritual discipline, and must be free to pursue its spiritual mission to the whole of society.
As an ecclesiastical politician, Chalmers had also advanced the laicization of the Church. The Moderate party of the early years of the nineteenth century, with its social ideal of 'enlightened elitism', had discouraged any popular voice in the appointment of parish clergy, and neglected the traditional lay offices of elder and deacon. Chalmers's Evangelical ministry, however - in particular his organization of sabbath-school teachers into what amounted to a third lay office, his Church Extension campaign, and his advocacy of the right of heads of families in a parish to veto an unacceptable presentation - represented a major attempt to increase the role of the laity in Church affairs.
In all these efforts, to be sure, his emphasis had been upon middle-and upper-class lay participation. In the West Port operation of the 1840s, however, he also began to perceive the need for increased working-class lay participation in Church affairs. Although not a political democrat, Chalmers's policies which extended lay authority helped to ensure that Church life reflected the movement towards democracy in nineteenth-century Britain. Here again, his lifelong opposition to privilege had been translated into positive action. It was this aspect of Chalmers's work that most impressed many American observers, among them Charles Richmond Henderson, the late nineteenth-century advocate of the 'social gospel' and Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. 'The lofty and noble figure of Dr. Chalmers', Henderson observed in the American Journal of Theology in January 1900, 'characterizes the transition from clerical and aristocratic dominance to modern democracy in church and state.'
Along with his impact upon ecclesiastical life, Chalmers also made significant contributions to the development of method and theory in the administration of charity, particularly in the urban environment. In his work in St. John's, the Water of Leith, and the West Port, he provided a model of Christian philanthropy, which influenced the development of social work as an independent discipline. Three themes of his social ideal exercised particular influence. First, there was the principle of 'locality', or the idea that social activists should focus upon improving conditions in a small and well-defined territorial district. Secondly, there was his principle of 'aggression', or the concept that activists should regularly visit the households of a district, seeking out the 'invisible' victims of poverty, convincing the ignorant of the value of education, and reaching to the immoral with kindness, concern, and advice. Thirdly, there was his emphasis upon moral and religious intruction as the most effective response to poverty, and his opposition to legal 'pauperism' as a degrading influence upon the poor. Every effort, he argued, had to be made to preserve the self-respect and independence of the poor. Only when there was no other recourse should an individual be granted material charity; and then that charity should be combined with careful investigations by visitors, and be given discreetly, in order to avoid public stigma upon the recipient. From the early 1820s, voluntary charity societies throughout Britain had begun adopting Chalmers's principles, particularly as they were described in his Christian and Civic Economy, published between 1819 and 1826. Chalmers's writings also apparently had some influence upon the development of the Elberfeld system of poor-relief visitations in Rhenish Prussia, which was established in its mature form in 1853, and which inspired similar operations in towns and villages throughout Germany. It was, however, upon the Charity Organization Society of London, founded in 1869, over twenty years after his death, that Chalmers's teachings exercised their most direct influence. The COS assumed a major role in rationalizing and refining the techniques of charitable administration and visiting; within twenty-five years, it had disseminated its principles to over eighty-five corresponding organizations in British cities and towns. The founders of the COS, and especially its first secretary, Charles Loch, had regarded Chalmers as their 'patron saint'. Their movement borrowed heavily from his ideas, including the principles of local territorial administration, household visitations, thorough investigation of all applicants for relief, and the use of educational methods to encourage independence and social responsibility among the poor. The COS, to be sure, made some departures from Chalmers's teachings, advocating, for instance, State involvement in social welfare, and regarding assessment-based legal poor-relief as an absolute necessity in industrial society.
In the United States, advocates of the 'social gospel' in the late nineteenth-century urban centres also discovered Chalmers's writings, in part through the publications of the London COS. In 1900, Charles Richmond Henderson of the University of Chicago published an abridged edition of Chalmers's Christian and Civic Economy, with a lengthy commentary recommending the work as a model for rational Christian philanthropy in industrial society. Chalmers's pragmatic and comprehensive approach to social problems, Henderson argued, had established him as one of the pioneers in the development of the science of sociology. In her highly influential text on social work, Social Diagnosis, first published in 1917, the American reformer, Mary Richmond, credited Chalmers for being one of the founders of case work in social welfare administration, citing his emphasis upon systematic visitations and investigation of relief recipients.
Chalmers also made significant contributions to educational reform, and particularly to the extension of popular education. He was, indeed, primarily an educator, spending most of his career as a university professor. His Christian communal ideal rested largly upon the education of all men in a set of shared Christian and moral ideals. As a university professor, he contributed to reforms in patronage and financial administration. He helped to broaden the study of moral philosophy in Scotland, rejecting the obsessive concern with epistemology that had characterized the eighteenth-century 'common sense' school, and giving fresh emphasis to questions of practical ethics. He was not an original theologian, and his posthumously published Edinburgh lectures in theology, the two-volume Institutes of Theology, has been a disappointment to many of his supporters. The most original aspect of the Institutes is the organization of the work, which in many respects is in the form of an extended Evangelical sermon. Beginning with the 'disease' of mankind - man's innate sinfulness and alienation from God - he demonstrates how only the doctrines of salvation in Scripture can penetrate beyond the mere symptoms of man's alienation and reach to the actual disease. In truth, the Institutes- reveals a mind struggling against doubts about some of the harsher doctrines of scholastic Calvinism and seeking a more personal form of Christianity - while at the same time concerned not to challenge openly the Calvinist orthodoxy of the Westminster Confession which he was bound by his professorial office to.uphold. The experience of Erskine of Linlathen and Macleod Campbell had evidently made a profound impact on Chalmers, and his concern for the ecclesiastical organization and Evangelical mission of the Church discouraged him from experimenting in his lectures or in print with new theological ideas. In another, more peaceful time, Chalmers might have been a first-rate theologian, but he did not perceive the turbulent 1830s and 1840s to have been such a time.
His real impact as a Professor of Divinity lay in his regular lecture-hall discussion of such subjects as pastoral visiting and counselling, administration of charity, and political economy - which until his professorship were not regarded as proper subjects in the Divinity Hall. He also encouraged his students to gain practical experience through missionary work in the Edinburgh slums. If the Church, he believed, were to assume a more decisive social role, its candidates for the ministry would require a broad exposure to the social, economic, and political challenges confronting society. He succeeded in training a generation of dedicated parish ministers sensitive to the challenges of rapid urbanization and industrialization. His influence helped to broaden the scope of education in divinity throughout Scotland.
But probably more important were his contributions to the development and expansion of popular education. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, his parish day-schools and sabbath-schools became models for similar efforts throughout Scotland. He had demonstrated not only that it was possible to establish inexpensive territorial schools in urban working-class districts, but also that there was a tremendous demand for educational opportunity among the urban working classes. Even in the grim West Port of Edinburgh, the inhabitants embraced education as affording hope for their children to enjoy a decent life. Chalmers argued with eloquence and power that society owned every individual the opportunity to receive a good education, in order to fulfil his human potential. Indeed, society could only neglect this obligation at the peril of profound upheaval. Chalmers's Church Extension campaign created dozens of parish schools as well as parish churches, while the Free Church later continued his emphasis upon the extension of popular education. His efforts helped to preserve Scotland's Reformation heritage of the 'democratic intellect' into the industrial era.
Chalmers failed to realize his vision of the godly commonwealth. His life was, in one sense, a tragic disappointment. He lived long enought to witness the collapse of the Church Extension campaign of 1838, the breakup of the Establishment in 1843, the rejection of his social ideal by the majority of the Free Church by 1845, and the failure of his final interdenominational Church Extension campaign by 1846. After his death in 1847, his godly commonwealth vision faded rapidly from the public imagination, lost amid the sectarian controversies of the later nineteenth century, and overshadowed by the new materialistic visions of capitalism and State socialism. None the less, in striving for his ideal, he had also made substantial and lasting contributions to ecclesiastical, social, and educational reform. In the final analysis, perhaps the greatest contribution of Chalmers and his godly commonwealth ideal was an inspirational one - encouraging others to strive for social improvement with a sustained and unselfish commitment to God and the future good of mankind. 'We never met with an individual', one of his students later recalled, 'who had the power Dr. Chalmers possessed of lifting the mind above earthly views.' He was, in many respects, an emphatically practical social reformer, with well-defined programmes for the reorganization of the nation. But he was also a visionary, who touched the conscience of his age.
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