from "The St. Andrews Seven"

In November 1823 the most celebrated preacher in Scotland became Professor of Moral Philosophy at the country's oldest University, St. Andrews, thirty miles north-east of Edinburgh. Each needed the other. Thomas Chalmers, aged forty-three, looked for rest from the parish labours in Glasgow which had brought him fame throughout Britain. St. Andrews, with just over 200 students and threatened with a further decline in student numbers, calculated the benefits of acquiring a professor of Chalmers stature.

In their enthusiasm both parties glossed over the real potential for conflict between them. In a rapidly changing world St. Andrews remained a bastion of conservative ‘Moderatism' , which emphasised learning and morality rather than doctrine and spirituality. Chalmers, on the other hand, was the brightest star in the new galaxy of Evangelical leaders. To expect the Evangelical Chalmers to live in peaceful co-existence with his Moderate colleagues was asking too much. His arrival was followed by five years of tension and controversy. It also heralded the greatest influx of students at St. Andrews in the nineteenth century. His departure from Glasgow had occasioned dismay and disappointment, the citizens consoling themselves with a civic banquet in his honour, but his arrival at St. Andrews was greeted with unprecedented enthusiasm on all sides. Even the ladies of the town clamoured for admission to his opening lecture only to be told that their presence would be ‘unprecedented and unacademic' .

Within a month of his arrival the local press reported: The popularity of Dr. Chalmers increases daily. The Moral Philosophy class has trebled its members and the prelections are attended by a host of more advanced students and others, to whose accommodation the Reverend Doctor shows every attention. The class met in Dr. Hunter s class-room (the largest in the college) on Tuesday. The old one had previously been crowded to excess.

This was not the first time that Chalmers had been to St. Andrews, nor even the first time he had been a member of the staff. The town had memories of earlier associations to lend colour and contrast to his more recent reputation. In 1791, at the precocious but not unprecedented age of eleven, Chalmers had enrolled in the Arts course at St. Andrews in the United College of St. Salvator and St. Leonard. He then completed the divinity course at St. Mary's Divinity School before leaving St. Andrews and his native Fife (he was born in Anstruther) for further study in chemistry and philosophy at Edinburgh.

The great ambition of his early life was a University Chair in Mathematics. This hope seemed destined to fruition in 1802 when he was appointed assistant to the Mathematics Professor at St. Andrews, a position which gave him effective control of the whole course. Chalmers was energetic, talented and opinionated, and tactless. He criticised his professor in public and found himself summarily dismissed. His pride more dented than his self- confidence, he was appointed to the rural parish of Kilmany nine miles west of St. Andrews. To him the chief attraction of Kilmany was its proximity to the University. From Kilmany he maintained a running battle with the Senatus of the University, undermining the enemy through the medium of unofficial lectures in mathematics and chemistry.

Many tales circulated around Fife about this strange young man and his bizarre chemistry experiments. Not surprisingly questions were also raised about the neglect of his parish, especially when it was learned that he had applied for the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. As vigorous in his own defence as he was careless of the Church's welfare, Chalmers maintained that ‘after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties a minister could ‘enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science which his taste may engage' . Reflecting on this claim twenty years later, Chalmers said, ‘What. . . are the objects of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then.. . I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time. I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity! Instead he had thought only of his academic reputation. For him personal fulfilment was totally dependent on academic advancement and not at all on the faithful discharge of his pastoral duties as an ordained minister of the Gospel. Without a University Chair, he wrote despairingly in 1805, he was consigned to the status of ‘one of those ill-fated beings whom the malignant touch of ordination has condemned to a life of ignorance and obscurity; a being who must bid adieu, it seems, to every flattering anticipation and drivel out the rest of his days in insignificance.'

Chalmers never lost his passionate need to live a life of significance. By 1811, however, he had changed his mind completely about the means by which significance is attained. The process culminating in this dramatic change involved a number of experiences which fashioned him into the most outstanding teacher of prospective missionaries and ministers of the gospel in the nineteenth century.

The beginning of the great change may be traced back to 1806 in which year his brother George died following an illness during which he found comfort in the writings of some contemporary Evangelicals whom Thomas despised. Then in August 1808 his sister Barbara died, and Thomas, who had been commissioned to write the entry on ‘Trigonometry' for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia asked if he might also write the entry on ‘Christianity' , since he now desired to examine its evidences more closely. The death of his favourite uncle, Thomas Ballardie, in June 1809, followed by a serious illness of his own, left Thomas fearful that he would be the next victim. In preparing for what he supposed must be his early death, he concluded that his academic ambitions were insignificant by comparison with the ministerial duties he had neglected hitherto.

His new evaluation of the labours distinctive of the minister of the Gospel was reinforced by his reading Pascal' s Thoughts on Religion. Of incomparable mathematical genius, Blaise Pascal could nevertheless, as Chalmers observed, ‘stop short in the brilliant career of discovery, . . . resign all the splendours of literary reputation, . . . renounce without a sigh all the distinctions which are conferred upon genius, and resolve to devote every talent and every hour to the defence and illustration of the Gospel . In later years Chalmers was to present to his own students the great challenge of Pascal's example.
The first stage, then, in the process culminating in Chalmers' conversion began, as with many others, in anxiety about his prospects after death. This was followed quickly by his discovery of the strength of the evidences for the Christian faith and the liberating truth that a sense of personal significance need not depend on academic achievement.

The second stage, which lasted through 1810, saw Chalmers struggling to achieve the high standard of personal devotion and dedication to duty which he imposed on himself out of the conviction that salvation consisted of self-preservation through the re-ordering of priorities and the establishment of habits of discipline. In this stage of his conversion process, Chalmers can be compared with John Wesley in his Holy Club days at Oxford and with the early Martin Luther attempting to storm heaven by asceticism. Chalmers Journal of the period reveals that, as with Wesley and Luther, there was little peace or joy in the struggle as he oscillated between the presumption that he deserved to be saved and despair because his failings suggested that he was far from right with God. He later realised that both the presumption and the despair have one root cause: looking to oneself instead of Christ.

The third and final stage in Chalmers conversion is best described in his own words, written nine years afterwards in a letter to his brother:
Feb. 14, 182.o My Dear Alexander, — I stated to you that the effect of a very long confinement, about ten years ago, upon myself, was to inspire me with a set of very strenuous resolutions, under which I wrote a Journal, and made many a laborious effort to elevate my practice to the standard of the Divine requirements. During this course, however, I got little satisfaction, and felt no repose. I remember that somewhere about the year 1811 I had Wilberforce's View put into my hands, and as I got on in reading it felt myself on the eve of a great revolution in all my opinions about Christianity. I am now most thoroughly of opinion, and it is an opinion founded on experience, that on the system of 'Do this and live', no peace, and even no true, and worthy obedience, can ever be attained. It is,'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.' When this belief enters the heart, joy and confidence enter along with it. The righteousness which we try to work out for ourselves eludes our impotent grasp, and never can a soul arrive at true or permanent rest in the pursuit of this object. The righteousness which, by faith, we put on, secures our acceptance with God, and secures our interest in His promises and gives us a part in those sanctifying influences by which we are enabled to do with aid from on high what we never can do without it. We look to God in a new light — we see Him as a reconciled Father; that love to Him which terror scares away reenters the heart, and, with a new principle and a new power, we become new creatures in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now the tales circulating about Chalmers were of a different order. An example may be taken from the pen of Dr. Robert Balfour who visited Kilmany in 1814:
I never saw nor heard him till I came here, but report made him great and good. I went, therefore, to his parish church with very high expectations indeed. They were not disappointed: his talents are of the first order, and now distinguished grace adorns them. He has long been known as a celebrated philosopher and scorner of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity; now, from conviction and with a warm heart, he preaches the faith which once he destroyed. I have had serious conversation with hip, and am astonished at a man of such superior powers so modest and humble. He is indeed converted, and like a little child.

Actually, Chalmers disliked such categorical descriptions of his conversion. The minister's role is to proclaim ‘the whole counsel of God' without partiality , he said, whereas the desire to be thought orthodox often arises from ‘the temptation of human praise' . Though he quickly assumed leadership of the Evangelical party in the Church of Scotland, Chalmers proved problematical to his fellow Evangelicals because, while sharing their beliefs, he retained his own inimitable vocabulary.

Yet there was no denying the radical practical changes which resulted from his new understanding of the Gospel. He now preached, not the ineffective moralising sermons of his Moderate days, but the utter alienation of the heart in all its desires and affections from God,. . . the free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit given through the channel of Christ s mediatorship to all who asked Him . Because the Scriptures had now become the living Word of God, he set himself to relearn Greek and Hebrew which he had neglected during his student days at St. Andrews. His considerable organising abilities were now devoted to the support of missionary and Bible societies, while insisting that the traditional parish system of the Church of Scotland is the best means of fulfilling the missionary obligations inherent in the Gospel. He set aside the study of mathematics since it could not help him to defend or illustrate the Gospel, whereas he retained his academic interest in economics because he believed it could subserve that end. His views on the areas of academic activity relevant to the defence of the Gospel were not understood by all, but were to influence generations of students.
Chalmers remained at Kilmany until 1815 forging his own synthesis of the best of Evangelical traditions and scholarly habits of thought retained from his Moderate days. Accompanying the new-found concern for prayer, Bible study, personal religion, and the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, which were the distinguishing characteristics of Evangelicals, was a determination, then rare among Evangelicals, to relate this faith to the social and intellectual problems of his day.

In Glasgow, where he served as a minister from 1815 to 1823, his mid-week lectures on business ethics and on science and religion drew such crowds that shops closed as they could not compete with the magnetic orator. He travelled to Edinburgh in 1816 and London in 1817 and took both by storm. Returning to Glasgow, he explored ways in which Christian life could be made possible in a society tottering on the brink of revolution and fragmenting in the face of post-war unemployment and rapid social change. In 1819 he set up the St. John's Experiment in which, with the help of a highly organised and enthusiastic laity, he implemented his ideas on systematic visitation, the use of Sunday schools, and poor relief.

This blend of the spiritual and the practical was the key to Chalmers appeal. He struggled to release people from what he saw as an endemic fear of doing in the Christian life. Such inactivity may have been attributed to a distorted view of predestination, or plain apathy. So Chalmers often spoke of the power of pains and prayer and severely criticised those who emphasised either at the expense of the other.

Chalmers, as we have already observed, also had a rare appreciation of the relevance to theology of other disciplines. Chalmers saw moral philosophy - provided it concentrated on ethics from which it had been sidetracked by Hume's scepticism - as a handmaid to ministerial training; and political economy (which he also taught at St. Andrews) was in his view a framework for understanding the way society worked, which Christians concerned to apply their faith to the whole of life could not ignore. By accepting a Chair in Moral Philosophy in 1823 and embarking on lectures in political economy, Chalmers, as a key figure in Scottish Evangelicalism, was demonstrating a commitment to holding together facets of the Christian mission which have a tendency to fly apart. Rather than distinguishing between the ‘spiritual and the ‘material , Chalmers sought to apply Christian insights to a number of social issues: economics and poor relief, the needs of the working classes, the ethics of the business community, famine relief, and the compatibility of the Christian faith with applied science and technological change. Through the Gospel, then, society is renovated as well as man. This comprehensive vision of the Christian good of Scotland , to cite his much quoted phrase, formed the social conscience of a generation of St. Andrews students. Chalmers' refusal to restrict religion to limited areas of human endeavour arose from a deep conviction, derived froth his study of the writings of the great American Evangelical theologian of revival, Jonathan Edwards, that truth was a great whole, of which philosophy, science, and revealed religion were inseparable parts. His students quickly caught the vision of their new professor's grand design .

By the 1820s St. Andrews, by-passed by the industrial development then revolutionising Scottish society, was a backwater. Its cathedral, one of the largest in Britain, had been a ruin for more than two centuries; its harbour, once the centre of an opulent textile trade, lay deserted; and in its streets, perpetually swept by east winds, the grass grew undisturbed by traffic. The ancient university, founded in 1412 by Bishop Henry Wardlaw, was in a dilapidated condition. The ancient college buildings, which were so much off the perpendicular that they had to be bound with cross beams, reminded Chalmers of an old cotton mill.

St. Andrews was rich only in the romance of historical association. In the sixteenth century Cardinal Beaton had been hanged from his castle window, John Knox had preached, and the French had captured the town. But while the very stones breathed history they did not cry out, and St. Andrews was easily forgotten by Edinburgh and even more so by Westminster after 1707 when Scotland and England were united by the Act of Union. The university suffered from financial mismanagement and neglect. Funds intended for building maintenance were used to augment the salaries of professors. Nepotism was rife in staff appointments, and although there had been and still were some fine teachers, the main criterion for appointment was political reliability rather than academic excellence.

By refusing to take part in corruptions long hallowed by usage, Chalmers quickly got off-side with his fellow professors. They had been willing to risk Chalmers presence among them for the sake of the new students he was expected to attract, but they were not prepared to have him rock the boat financially, politically or, indeed, theologically. By the 1820s Moderatism was ossified at St. Andrews in its most defensive and anachronistic form. It was not surprising that the students had voted against Moderatism with their feet. The professor of logic invariably arrived late for class and left early as he had written few lectures and had to spin them out. The professor of church history excelled only in slowness of utterance: in the University chapel he commenced a sermon on the text ‘Enoch walked with God :

Walking, — my — brethren, — is — that — mode — of — progression — by which — a — man — by — alternately — advancing — first — one — foot — and then — the — other, — gradually — proceeds — along — the — road.

Chalmers supplied the missing ingredient - life: enthusiasm and conviction - and the students returned. The university year or session ran from November through to April the following year. After the manner of newly appointed lecturers, Chalmers, in 1823/4, prepared his material barely one class ahead of his students. His lectures were fresh and intoxicating, and as we have seen, his classroom in the quadrangle of ruins was overcrowded. A much larger room had to be found, and the following year he taught the largest moral philosophy class at St. Andrews in the nineteenth century. The lecture room seated 150, but so many crowded in to hear ‘the Doctor' that even in the middle of winter, the fire normally essential for warmth had to be extinguished, and the windows thrown open. Students came from England and Wales as well as from the other Scottish universities in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Some older students who had completed the course re-enrolled to do it again under Chalmers.

Chalmers commenced each class period with a brief prayer followed by a succinct outline of the lecture to follow. In his delivery Chalmers made few concessions to his change from pulpit to lecture room. Some students were so spellbound by the presentation and the vision of comprehensive, systematic, unified truth which Chalmers embodied as well as expounded that they never got past taking down the first sentences. He imparted not just ideas, but a vision - the grand design - taught not just by lecturing, but by inviting participation. Students were interrogated, set prize essays and required to take part in seminars in which they did the major work of presenting each topic. Chalmers students were not only inspired; they learnt to think for themselves.
The resultant atmosphere was highly conducive to hero-worship. Many of his students were young teenagers, and it is not surprising that someone of Chalmers strength of personality should have made an enormous imprint on young lives. Of the many who came under his influence we will follow the progress of six in particular. Nesbit, Duff, Mackay and Ewart attended Chalmers class in his first (1823/24) session, and Urquhart and Adam attended the following year. John Urquhart was the most brilliant of the six, so that it mattered less that he was one of those generally too transfixed to take notes. Robert Nesbit, more introspective in personality, made a determined effort to write down Chalmers every word. Alexander Duff was destined to come closest to his mentor in fame, thought and personality, although he imbibed more of Chalmers elaborate phraseology than his sense of humour. John Adam had left his theological studies in Glasgow to sit under Chalmers and, judging by the following reaction, he was not disappointed:

Dr. Chalmers lectures and even examinations and repetitions are really quite a treat; he has the art of clothing every thing in such vivid colours, his comprehensive mind takes such a grasp of its subject, and his fine imagination and nervous language present such a luminous display of it, as to fix the attention and fill his hearers with delight, whilst he carries them along wiht him in his new and original elucidations. The most careless are at length fixed in a listening posture, and every countenance bears the mark of the profoundest attention, till his brilliant imagery sometimes irresistibly calls forth the testimony of universal admiration, by 'ruffing', though forbidden.

It would be wrong to underestimate the equally formative influence of their earlier experiences and home backgrounds, and the extraordinary effect of their interaction one with another. It was St. Andrews that provided the nest and Chalmers who drew them - and we must begin with an account of their early lives......

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