Thomas Chalmers - Preacher of the Gospel

Preacher of the Gospel.

DURING his life of sixty-seven years, Chalmers gave forty-four years of public service. Twenty of these he spent as a minister in three parishes - twenty-four he spent as a professor in three different chairs.
His ministry began in 1803, when he was ordained at Kilmany, a quiet, rural parish in the north of Fife, with about one hundred and fifty two families in it, among whose members were one or Walking Cyclopaedias. His other parishes were in the busy city of Glasgow. During the earlier years of his ministry at Kilmany he conducted, as has been mentioned, mathematical classes at St. Andrews, and threw himself into that work and later into lectures on Chemistry with a zest which he did not show as a minister.

Like Henderson at Leuchars, Erskine at Portmoak and Gordon at Kinfauns, he had little interest in the spiritual work of the ministry, and was more attentive to his studies than to his flock. A story - perhaps apocryphal - is told of how once during the interval of worship he had gone botanising. The bell for service began to ring. Putting the flowers he had gathered into his hat he ran to the church. As he entered, he took it off hurriedly when, to the amazement of the worshippers the flowers came tumbling out.

His first work, An Enquiry into the National Resources, was published at this time. It reveals the interests of his mind. For a time he lectured to his parishioners in Kilmany, to their delight if not altogether to their edification. It is related how, among other experiments, the powers of some bleaching liquid were exhibited. "Our minister," said one old woman to a friend, "is naething short o a warlock; he was learning the folk to clean claes but (without) soap." "Eli, woman," was the reply of her friend, "I wish he would learn me to make parritch but (without) meal."

These efforts, involving his absence from Kilmany so large a part of each week, were resented by some members of the Presbytery. But attempts to stop him were none too successful and, in the flush of his success, he applied for a chair in St. Andrews, and a little later for the mathematical professorship in Edinburgh. In the contest for the latter he was led by some strictures in Prof. Playfair's letter to the Lord Provost to launch into authorship. His Observations on Playfair's letter was one of the sensations of the day, and became later the occasion of one of his most thrilling utterances.
Naturally, with so many schemes on hand, his pulpit work was quickly prepared and as quickly passed. It was like a parenthesis in his life. Everybody liked him, nobody was moved to the depths. According to his friends, he had his own little peculiarities. Watch him go down the roads to the houses of his parishioners swinging his stick by the rules of arithmetic. According to Sheriff Mackay it was said that he regulated the strokes of his razor by the theory of maxima and minima.

He had no taste for music; he liked it he said, as well as any other din.
But he was kindly in his bearing, and the manse where be brought his young bride had a good name for its hospitality. Amongst his visitors at Kilmany was David Wilkie. Wilkie was conscious of his power to sway men, and, by and by, when Chalmers was dazzling London with his eloquence, he took Sir Thomas Lawrence and Thomas Phillips to hear, and to be introduced to him.

From the first he was a powerful man at Kilmany, but for some years he was an aimless man. His life lacked a centre, and he was indifferent to the spiritual welfare of his people. And then came a change, sorrow being his tutor. The death of his brother George in 1806 made a deep impression upon him, and was the first step in his true turning to God. In this his experience was like that of McCheyne and Macleod. Then two of his sisters were stricken with sickness, one of them died and he himself was prostrated by illness. His eyes were opened, his life and outlook were changed. Of books that helped him may be mentioned Wilberforce's Practical View, Pascal's Thoughts, Baxter's Call to the Unconverted.

He studied with care the evidence of the faith, and as a result wrote the article on "Christianity" for the Edinburgh Encycloptrdia, edited by Dr. Brewster. It may be well to notice the influence which the conversion of Chalmers had all round. The change on himself was extraordinary. Literally all things became new. The Bible became a new book, the pulpit found a new significance and struck a new note. In a pamphlet published anonymously in 1805, entitled Observations on a passage in Mr. Playfair s letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh relative to the Mathematical Pretensions of the Scottish Clergy, Chalmers Writes: "The author of this pamphlet can assert, from what to him is the highest of all authority, the authority of his own experiences, 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" (pp. 10-11).

But with a changed spiritual outlook, the claims both of ministry and parish took new proportions in his mind. In a moving speech which he made in the General Assembly of 1825, in reply to a charge of inconsistency, he said: "I was at that time, Sir, more devoted to mathematics than to the literature of my profession; and feeling grieved and indignant at what I conceived an undue reflection on the abilities and education of our clergy, I came forward with that pamphlet to rescue them from what I deemed unmerited reproach, by maintaining that a devoted and exclusive attention to the study of mathematics was not dissonant to the proper habits of a clergyman. Alas! Sir, so I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have 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.

His affection for the Bible became marked. He tells how he felt a power and a preciousness in passages which he formerly read with heedlessness and even with disgust. There is something very human in his letters and journal, something also that speaks of growth and of wonderful longing. • One of his parishioners who knew him well and ventured to speak freely, said to him one day: "I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another, but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath." "Oh, an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that," was Chalmers reply. Alter the change had come, John, on visiting the manse, often found Chalmers poring over the Bible. "I never come in now, sir," was John's remark, "but I find you aye at your Bible." "All too little, John, all too little," was the memorable answer.

Things began to hum in the parish. It was just as if a great force had been liberated. The Church became crowded. Sometimes the crowd was so great that he had to stand in one of the windows and preach at once to those within the church and to the throng in the churchyard. There was a spirit of expectancy abroad. The organisations were put on a sounder basis; Bible classes were formed, special services held ; visitation was begun, catechetical examinations were commenced. In the life-work of Paterson, the missionary of Kilmany (grandfather of Paterson of Hebron), and of his comrade Edie, and in the simple faith of many others, there is ample testimony to the blessings which attended the last years at Kilmany. And speaking generally his influence grew with his people and with an ever-widening circle, in exact proportion to the strengthening of his godly purposes and the ideals that held him.
One day when visiting an old woman who was dying, he bade her with earnestness believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather ignorant, she stopped him, crying: "Believe, believe! but what is it to believe?" "Lippen to Him," said Chalmers. To which she replied, "Lippen to Him! ay, I understand that."
Of Alexander Paterson, the missionary of Kilmany, Chalmers wrote: "His labours have been more blessed than those of any man I know: I have had many a precious letter from him."

"I called on Dr. Chalmers and told him of your father's death. He seemed to feel much. He asked what state of mind he was in. I told him of the last meeting I had with him at Kilmany; when he heard what I said, the tears ran down his face, and he said nothing could have given him more comfort."
Chalmers loved to recall how at Kilmany in 1804 be had proved the power of littles in the case of a Bible Society which was instituted among the husbandmen and some of the farm-servants in that locality.

But even a ministry like that of Chalmers was not without its disappointments. We are wise to remember it. One of the reasons which he gives in weighing the claims of Kilmany and of Glasgow, to which he was called in 1814, is stated thus: . "Earnest petition. (That is in favour of his remaining at Kilmany.) But one argument of the petitioners was the good I did by my school. Now previous to that petition the children had very much ceased to come; and even after there were only the children of ten families whose heads had signed the petition that attended." Could anything be sadder or more ominous? It smote him sorely. Yet when the break came, it was like the tearing of his heart strings. Amongst the touching papers which he penned in his Glasgow days is a work of fifty pages on The Duty of giving an immediate diligence to the business of the Christian Life, being an Address to the inhabitants of the Parish of Kilmany. He Writes: "I ought not to lament my withdrawment from you as a calamity upon me, but it has had all the effect of a calamity upon me. It takes a time before the heart can attune itself to the varieties of a new situation. It is ever recurring to the more familiar scenes of other days. The present ministers no enjoyment; and in looking to the past the painful circumstance is, that while the fancy will not be kept from straying to that neighbourhood which exercises over it all the power of a much-loved home, the idea that it is home no longer comes with dread reality upon the mind, and turns the whole to bitterness" (p. 72).
We love the man for this his sorrow. His first love in the Church was his deepest. The address is full of characteristic sayings. "The right attitude of a returning sinner is what I have sometimes called in your hearing, the compound attitude of service and expectation. It concludes with the last words in his last sermon at Kilmany: "Choose Him, then, my brethren. Choose Him as the Captain of your salvation. Let Him enter into your hearts by faith, and let Him dwell continually there. Cultivate a daily intercourse and a growing acquaintance with Him. 0, you are in safe company, indeed, when your fellowsbip is with Him."

The Glasgow call already named was to the Tron Church, where he began work in 1816. In those days, Glasgow was relatively small. Renfield Street, one of the busiest streets in the city, was then in the country. Its population was in 1818 under 140,000. But the industrial movement had begun. The people were packed together far too closely, the city centres were badly lighted, houses lacked conveniences, the streets were even then too narrow.
The Church was passing though a crisis, and was shaking itself after the slumber of half a century, but the situation was anxious. The work before Chalmers was hard and needed - it was none other than, as he put it, to excavate the heathen. If Chalmers conversion marked an era in his own life, it was also eventful in the life of Scotland. Things that had seemed dead began to move, and with his Glasgow ministry a new epoch began. His first sermon in Glasgow was delivered early in 1815, about three months before his admission to the Tron Church, which took place just a month after the Battle of Waterloo. The sermon was preached on behalf of the Society for the Sons of the Clergy. It was a noble effort and made a great impression on those who heard it. In his biographical notice of Chalmers, Dean Ramsay, who was present, has recorded how, at a famous passage in the sermon, the tears of the father and preacher fell like rain-drops on the manuscript.

The sermon was memorable for yet another reason. Glasgow, as is known, became the centre of a challenging experiment in the treatment of pauperism. In this his first public pronouncement, Chalmers outlined the theory which was growing in his mind.
The Tron ministry was a busy one. Every moment was occupied in visitation, in meetings, in discussing questions of philanthropy. Quite early in his Glasgow life, he broke down many a custom which its citizens and his own parishioners loved and expected their ministers to observe, but which to his eager and God-fearing mind were sometimes impossible, often trivial and unworthy of his office. Chalmers wanted things done. The cry of the children rang in his ear. With a population of eleven thousand in the parish, he found to his grief that just one hundred children attended Sabbath Schools. One of his first endeavours was to remedy this, to evoke and to organise the energy latent in hearts.

He divided the parish into forty sections, allotting thirty or forty houses to each. He got teachers for each section, telling them to take children from their district and urging them to visit every home to secure them, if possible. The experiment was successful and was one of the ways in which Chalmers developed a large staff of social and evangelical workers. Never during the whole time did he allow any of these things to interfere with his pulpit preparations - preaching was no longer a parenthesis in his life.

His fame spread fast and far. When he preached before the Commissioner in Edinburgh the crowd began to gather at 9 o clock and it was with difficulty that those in authority could reach their places. His text on that occasion was Ps. viii. 3-4, "When I consider thy heavens." The sermon is one of the Astronomical Discourses, written for the mid- week service which he carried on in Glasgow. They had an extraordinary success. The church was crowded, and in one year 20,000 copies of the sermons were sold. The interest in them was far from being confined to Scotland. They ran, Hazlitt says, like wild-fire through the country, were the darlings of watering- places, were laid in the windows of inns, and were to be met with in all places of public resort. In 1817, when he preached for the London Missionary Society in Surrey Chapel, the excitement was intense. Service began at 11. By 7 o clock the chapel was crowded and it was only along a plank that Chalmers with some of his friends could enter the building.

His power as an orator was at its height. " All the world is wild about Dr. Chalmers," is the testimony of Wilberforce. And Canning, who was sometimes moved to team, exclaimed in delight: "The tartan beats us all." After hearing Chalmers in the General Assembly of 1816, Lord Jeffrey, no mean critic, said : " I know not what it is, but there is something altogether remarkable about that man. It reminds me more of what one reads of as the effect of the eloquence of Demosthenes, than anything I ever heard."

After ministering in the Tron Church for about three years, Chalmers was transferred to St. John's. The work here was more strenuous still. According to a census of the parish taken in 1819, it had a population of 10,304 souls. The district had degenerated sadly, and was needing to be reclaimed. Of its 2161 families, 845 had no seats in any place of worship whatever; and even such a figure gives no adequate idea of the extent to which church-going habits had been relinquished. The number of sitters in their own parish church scarcely amounted to a hundredth part of the whole population.

The work in St. John's was greatly helped by the splendid band of workers, teachers, visitors, laymen whom his contagious enthusiasm had rallied to his side. His schemes were many and carefully devised. Amongst them were the establishment of the parochial agency which facilitated the visitation of his flock; the erection of a Chapel of Ease; the organisation of Sabbath Schools; his provision for the spiritual wants of the degenerate his erection and maintenance of day schools, the operation of which, even in his time, made a sensible impression upon the poor inhabitants of his poverty- stricken parish.

Of these schemes - their nature, their accomplishment, and their results - a full exposition and defence are given in the Christian and Civic Economy in Large Towns issued quarterly during his connection with St. John's. Schools were provided where seven hundred children were taught for moderate fees. There were between forty and fifty Sabbath Schools, where 1,800 children were taught. Then the parish was divided into twenty-five districts and placed under the care of Elders and Deacons who watched both for the spiritual and physical needs of the people. Behind all was Chalmers himself superintending, visiting, holding evening meetings.

The charge of the poor was a special care. Chalmers had a dislike of the English method of grappling with poverty as tending to degrade and also to render the evil stagnant. He had almost unlimited faith in what could be done by love and service, in stimulating endeavour amongst the poor to help themselves.
When he undertook the experiment, it was costing the parish £1,400. Four years later, it was down to £280. And latterly it took the Deacons in charge only an hour a week to work it.

Chalmers successor was able to report favourably on the results of his experiments. Right or wrong, Chalmers views and experiments arrested attention far beyond Scotland. "It will give you pleasure," Dr. J. M. Mason, of New York, Wrote him in 1818, "to hear that correct principles on the subject of poor-laws and pauperism are gaining ground on this side of the Atlantic; and that the favourable impression is under no small obligation to your pen. A Society was formed in this place about five weeks since, for the prevention of pauperism. Whatever auxiliaries it may employ, its chief reliance is upon the intellectual and moral cultivation of the poor. It has to encounter many difficulties, of which one of the most formidable is the continual stream which flows in upon our population from abroad." Life of J. M. Mason, p. 478.

A recent visitor to Mr. Knudsen, resident chaplain of the Lutheran Cathedral in Bergen, tells how he found lying on his desk a Danish translation made about forty years ago of Chalmers "Sufficiency of a Parochial System." Knudsen was enthusiastic about it, declaring that it was perhaps the most epoch-making of all books bearing upon. social work. It had been, in his opinion, the inspiration of the Elberfeld system in Germany, and, in Bergen, the ideas of Chalmers and of the Elberfeld leaders had been largely adopted, if not directly under the aegis of the Church, in the spirit which it had quickened. Scots Observer, July 21St, 1928.

Sir Michael Connal mentions in his Diary that when the British Association met in Glasgow in 1840, Chalmers spoke from twelve to a quarter to four on the resources of every parish to support its own poor without any assistance ab extra, or from civil authority or public charity (p. 3 r).
The interest was so great that the meeting was held in one of the largest Churches. His method is not, perhaps, equal to a state of civilisation such as now exists, but it can be legitimately pointed to as an answer to such as doubt the possibilities of social Christianity. But his views have appealed to students of economics. In "Dr. Chalmers and the Poor Law" (Edinburgh, 1911), two of his papers on Poor Relief are reprinted. More notable, perhaps, is the discussion of his teaching in "Chalmers on Charity" from the pen of Mr. N. Masterman (London, 1900).
But the fullest discussion is to be found in Dr. Harper's Chalmers Lecture on "The Social Ideal and Dr. Chalmers Contribution to Christian Economics" (Edinburgh, 1910).

One of the fruitful friendships formed during this period was with Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. He was in 1818 a young man of thirty with a keen, wistful mind, and, in intercourse with Chalmers, he sought to test and clarify his views. Of Erskine's voluminous correspondence the only extant letters written during 1818- 1819 are those addressed to Chalmers. They relate to Remarks on the Internal Evidence, etc.

But a passage may be quoted about Chalmers himself. "I hope that I have benefited by my visit to you. Certainly I was much struck with some circumstances in your conduct, and I will tell you what these are. You have been much followed, by great and small, by learned and ignorant, and yet you listened with the meek candour of a learner to one whom you could not but consider as your inferior by far. If you had opened to me all mysteries and all knowledge, you could not have brought to my conscience the strong conviction of the necessity and the reality of Christianity with half the force that this deportment of yours impressed upon me." Erskine mentions in a letter to Chalmers that Madame de Broglie had read his Civic Economy with much satisfaction.

During a visit in 1820 to Edward Irving, then assistant to Dr. Chalmers in Glasgow, Carlyle, a young man of twenty-five, was introduced to Chalmers, who is reported to have said of him that the young man was " a lover of earnestness more than a lover of truth." In quoting it (p. 38, Carlyle), Norwood Young observes that "the character of Carlyle could hardly be better described in a single sentence." Equally interesting is this from Carlyle's estimate of Chalmers in those days. "The good man was truly loveable, truly loved; and nothing personally could be more modest - intent on his own good industries, not on himself or his fame."

The scene when he closed his ministry in Glasgow baffles description. The interest was so keen and the crowd so dense (thee thousand people are said to have squeezed themselves into St. John's) that first the police and then the military had to be called upon to secure order outside. Lord Rosebery says that in the heyday of Mr. Gladstone's fame, he never saw anything so remarkable.

When Mr. George Cadbury died, one of his friends, Dr. Fox, paid this tribute to his character: "The greatest thing that can be said of him is that he increased the sum of love in the world." To his own question, What did Chalmers do for Glasgow? Lord Rosebery makes reply: "He warmed Glasgow." It is said of Dr. Arnold that while, perhaps, his most conspicuous and measurable achievement took place at Rugby, he probably did more lasting good by being a great antiseptic in public life (ci. Sir Michael Sadler, in Introduction to Arnold Whitridge's Dr. Arnold XXXIII).

It was true of Chalmers that he warmed Glasgow, and that he was a great antiseptic in public life. Let this brief extract from Dr. Hanna's Life tell its tale. "When Dr. Chalmers came to Glasgow unnoticed, thousands of the city population were sinking into ignorance, infidelity, and vice, and his eye was the first in this country to foresee to what a fearful magnitude that evil if suffered to grow on unchecked, would rise; when he left it, his ministry in that city remained behind him a permanent warning to a nation which has been but slow to learn that the greatest of all questions, both for statesmen and for churchmen, is the condition of those untaught and degraded thousands who swarm now around the base of the social edifice, and whose brawny arms may yet grasp its pillars to shake or to destroy. When Dr. Chalmers came to Glasgow, in the literary circles of the Scottish metropolis a thinly disguised infidelity sat on the Seats of greatest influence, and smiled or scoffed at a vital energetic faith in the great and distinctive truths of revelation, while widely over his native land the spirit of a frigid indifference to religion prevailed; when he left it, the current of public sentiment had begun to set in the contrary direction, and although it took many years, and the labour of many other hands to carry that healthful change onward to maturity, yet I believe that it is not overestimating it to say that it was mainly by Dr. Chalmers ministry in Glasgow - by his efforts at this period in the pulpit and through the press - that the tide of national opinion and sentiment was turned."

Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Interests | Links | Quotes | Photo-Wallet