Thomas Chalmers - by Adam Philip
OF all the famous Scots who have ever lived, I should
like best to see Thomas Chalmers. "Bury me beside Chalmers," was the passionate
prayer of John Mackintosh, whose story has been told so vividly by Norman
Macleod in The Earnest Student. "What I thirst to read is Chalmers Life, one of
the few men whom I love and reverence almost to idolatry. I cannot conceive of
a wiser, greater or better man. Every part of his character was colossal; he
had the heart of twenty men; the head of twenty men; the energy of a hundred.
He has not left his equal in the world."
Few men have been spoken of
like Chalmers. Carlyle once called him the last of the Christians. He stood
alone, another says, and centuries may elapse ere the Church shall see - and
when did she ever more need to see ? - another such spirit as he.
Principal Rainy was asked who was the greatest man he had ever met, he
instantly replied "Chalmers." I have met no human being in the world that I
would call "greater" than Chalmers, Professor Masson wrote. In his paper on
Chalmers, admired by Queen Victoria, Rab (Dr. John Brown) called him a "solar"
"He was several men in one," he writes. "He had a sedes on
which he sat, and from which he spoke; he had an imperium to and from
which he roamed as he listed; but a status was as little in his way as in that
of a Mauritanian lion !"
He has been described as this Great-Heart,
this incomparable Scot, the Moses of our country, and as the Moral Engineer of
Scotland, always busy constructing works for the good of his fellows. Principal
Denney said of him that he had a distinct impression that he was our greatest
man since Knox, and that he was greater than all his works. "He had the
greatness of the nation in him as well as that of the Church, and it is an
immense gain to a Churchman when he has such an interest in the State as keeps
his ethics from becoming ecclesiastically narrow in range." Statesmen like Mr.
Gladstone and Lord Rosebery were conscious of his sway and have paid noble
tributes to his greatness. "He does indeed seem to be an admirable man," Mr.
Gladstone wrote; "one of nature's nobles." He speaks of his warrior grandeur,
and he describes him as a man with the energy of a giant and the simplicity of
a child. Lord Morley calls him the "mighty Chalmers," Dr. Stalker writes of his
"mighty mind." Wherever he was, men gravitated towards him, and willing or
unwilling, when they called him - mad, when they denounced him, they felt the
might of his soul and his strange, compelling influence. No man of last century
in the life of Scotland was quite like Chalmers, a landmark, a force. No one
impressed himself so deeply on the mind and heart of his fellows; and, above
everything, this capacious, chivalrous, Christian soul was identified with the
cause of the Evangel. Though Chalmers moved on a wide front, the whole force of
his being was concentrated on Evangelism.
Norman Macleod could only
conceive of him in the future as asking reverently in the presence of Christ if
there were no other worlds to evangelise. That any one should say such a thing
seriously of another is praise indeed of the nobility of his aims and his
Godward purpose. And it is the highest and the truest tribute that can be paid
to Chalmers. He stands before his countrymen in many roles, Preacher, Orator,
Professor, Reformer, Statesman, Economist, and Patriot. But his highest
ambition was Evangelism - the Christian good of Scotland, his nearest and
dearest for Christ - his comrades for Christ, Scotland for Christ - the world
During the eighteenth century and onwards, there were
stirrings of Evangelism in Scotland. We think of the Erskines, of George
Whitefield and Wesley, Stewart of Moulin, The Haldanes, Dr. A. Thomson. But
Chalmers brought gifts of his own to the work that make him tower above his
fellows in purpose and range of service. He ranks with the greatest of Scottish
churchmen and he was, undoubtedly, the most commanding spiritual force of the
nineteenth century in Scotland. Even David Livingstone, whom Professor Watt has
chosen as perhaps the most representative churchman of the century, a century
of Foreign Missions, owed more than words can say to the impulse and atmosphere
created by Chalmers.
In all directions Chalmers has left enduring
results. He raised the standard of life and set himself to keep up the pitch,
and flung out ideas that are fruitful still. Almost meteoric in splendour, he
is a planetary man - one who abides and does not grow dim. Chalmers both made
history and was moulded by it. He has given a character to Scotland's life and
people. He was one of those men of whom with truth it is said that they need a
great historic epoch to exhibit the full proportions of their noble manhood.
None of his contemporaries - great as they were, - none of Scotland's sons back
to the Reformation were on the scale of Chalmers. He was the greatest force
since the time of Knox. His successor in New College, Dr. James Buchanan, spoke
of him as recognised and honoured all the world over, as the greatest
representative and noblest specimen of living, large-hearted, catholic- minded
Christianity, and he has been justly described as the great Evangelical
Moralist of the Scottish pulpit, a man who loved the sunlight of the Gospel and
the fresh air of truth.
If the secret of his greatness be asked, the
answer is that it lay in his personality. There was something greater in the
man than anything he did. Like many another, Chalmers made no claim to
greatness, nor did he lay himself out to attract the attention of his fellows.
A big human, but unworldly withal, friend and foe alike were conscious of his
power, a power that grows upon the mind the longer and the more closely men
look at him. With a spacious mind and intellectually alert, he was simple,
direct and real, and everything he touched he touched with life and force, and
drove it home by the strength and vividness of his convictions. Chalmers works
may pass into comparative oblivion, and the ideas that came glowing from his
lips may be challenged, but, looking back, there he stands, one of the great
men of history, with a contagious enthusiasm for his fellows, attracting us,
speaking to us, dominating us, living though dead, and like an uncrowned king
in our hearts.
We feel as we look at Chalmers as if we were in the
presence of a Master-Mind, of one who thought nobly, who did greatly, and who
lived grandly, always equal to his task and baptised with the spirit of
We close this chapter with two or three further appreciations
of this quite exceptional man. They come from brilliant writers like Professor
Masson and Lord Rosebery, Mrs. Grant of Laggan, Carlyle, etc.
Masson went from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. He says: "My fascination to Edinburgh -
why should I conceal it ? - was Dr. Chalmers. On one of his missionary
perambulations of Scotland for the purpose of rousing us all in favour of his
mighty national schemes, he had passed through our benighted parts; and thus I
had actually seen his grand white head, and been subject as one of a vast
assembly to the mass and rush of his living eloquence. . To me through
circumstances, this was given in dear old Chalmers. Till he flashed casually
before me in that perambulation of benevolence which led him into our bleakish
parts, never had I felt such power, never had I conceived the possibility of
such prodigiousness of energy in human form. He answered all one's young
notions, and more,- of what greatness might be; and from that day the whole of
that part of our island to which my vision was as yet pretty much bounded,
seemed to me full of him, and almost of him only. Scotland was but a platform
to and fro on which there walked a Chalmers. " . . . I have met no human being
in the world that I would call greater than Chalmers."
Mrs. Grant, of
Laggan, Writes thus:
"There is one high distinction Dr. Chalmers possesses
- that is, making the genuine doctrine of the gospel respectable even in the
eyes of worldly men by the masculine energy and simple dignity of his style
which never stoops to blandishments or the meretricious embellishments of a
studied and fashionable eloquence. "You ask me to tell you about Dr. Chalmers.
I must tell you first, then, that of all men he is the most modest and speaks
with undissembled gentleness and liberality of those who differ from him in
opinion. Every word he says has the stamp of genius; yet the calmness, ease and
simplicity of his conversation is such that to ordinary minds he might appear
an ordinary man." Comparing him with Sir Walter Scott she says: I "There was a
more chastened dignity and occasional elevation in the divine than in the poet;
but many resembling features in their modes of thinking and manner of
expression. Sir Walter, we know, was deeply moved when told of Chalmers
admiration for him. They appeared if together once on a public platform in
Edinburgh. "He was one of the greatest of our race; a commanding character, a
superb orator, the most illustrious Scottish churchman since John Knox. It is a
noble and blessed life, none more enviable.
If ever a halo surrounded a
saint, it If encompassed Chalmers, a unique personality of prodigious powers
all devoted to the sole purpose of service to God." LORD ROSEBERY,
Miscellanies, Literary and Historical, Vol. I., p. 238.
Chalmers," Norman Macleod calls him, "whose noble character, lofty enthusiasm
and patriotic views will rear themselves before the eyes of a posterity like
Alpine peaks, long after the narrow valleys which have for a brief period
divided us are lost in the far distance of past history." - Life of Norman
Macleod, I., 263.
"The greatest moral force of his age, simple,
massive, and grand as some structure of the early world." DR. WALTER C. SMITH.
"Truly I consider him as raised up by God for a great and peculiar work.
His depth of thought, originality in illustrating and strength in stating are
unrivalled in the present day. "In another respect he is too sanguine. He does
not sufficiently see that a Chalmers is necessary to carry into effect the
plans of Chalmers." CHARLES SIMEON,
"His one, his great forte, as the
leader of ingenuous youth, was his enthusiasm. He was the man of all others to
kindle the torch. "It was his contagious enthusiasm for humanity that invested
him in the eyes of students, as well as congregations, broad Scotland over,
classes and masses alike, with an admiring reverence assigned to one of the old
Prophets of Israel." J. R. MACDUFF.
"He was the pride both of the
Church and the country, the greatest religious orator of the day, bringing, as
Scotland loves, his fame to swell the national glory. Government and people
alike recognised his moral predominance. Notwithstanding the Presbyterian
parity, which is the rule of his Church, no Archbishop was ever more truly the
Primate of the great province which he swayed." Mrs. OLIPHANT'S Thomas
Chalmers, p. 225.
"Wherever Thomas Chalmers is, there is the Church of
Scotland." J. DODDS, 266.
"It must do good to the world to revere such
a character." W. ARNOT, Life, p. 222.
"Scotland never had a better patriot
Churchman. . . . . Within the first quarter of the century arose two ministers
of surpassing power (Dr. Andrew Thomson and
Chalmers) whose gifts and work
made a glory to their generation . . RANKIN.
"His great name has been
throughout both Scotland and England, as upon the Continent, the apology of the
Free Church. Many were unable to study the whole details of the question; but
Chalmers, one of the most philosophical minds, and one of the most Christian
souls of our age, was upon that side; this was sufficient to make them say, -
there lies the truth. " D AUBIGNE, p. 179.
"I am reading, I suppose for
the dozenth time, Hanna's Chalmers. He was the first Principal of the New
College. Oh! what a falling off is here! Be sure you read Chalmers carefully."
DR. WHYTE to his son.
"Far and away the greatest man in the Scotland of
that day." DR. WHYTE.
"And on the whole," Writes Mr. W. Law Mathieson,
"whilst rendering homage to a personality so great and so varied in its
manifestation as that of Chalmers, one cannot but concur in the judgment of
Carlyle: - He was a man essentially of little culture, of narrow sphere, all
his life," though we may justly allow for exaggeration in what follows: - Such
an intellect professing to be educated, and yet so ill read, so ignorant in all
that lay beyond the horizon in place or in time, I have almost nowhere met
with." (W. L. MATHIESON, p. 303, Church Reform, 1797-1818.)
One is tempted
to ask: Who is Mr. W. Law Mathieson that he should belittle the culture or the
sphere in which this princely man moved? As for ourselves, we abide by the
judgment of history which has put Chalmers in the front rank of Scots, and we
appeal from Carlyle dyspeptic to Carlyle sound and true. "It is not often,"
Carlyle wrote to Dr. Hanna,the biographer of Chalmers, "that the world has seen
men like Thomas Chalmers, nor can the world afford to forget them; or in its
most careless mood be willing to do it. Probably the time is coming when it
will be more apparent than it is now to every one that here intrinsically, was
the chief Scottish man of his time - a man possessed of such a massive
geniality of intellect and temper as belonged to no other man. What a grand
simplicity, broad humour, blent so kindly with enthusiastic ardour and blazing
thought - a man of such mild, noble valour, strength and piety - above all
things, of such perfect veracity, I have not met with in these times. Honour to
him. Honour belongs to him and to the essential work he did - an everlasting
continuance among the possessions of this world."
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