VISION OF THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND
The practical outworking of Dr Chalmers' Christian faith
and doctrine was of great significance for him. He saw his outlet for service
in the Christian church, but his service was always outgoing, working within
the Christian church to improve and strengthen it, working outwards to those
who lay beyond its immediate sphere of action, working intensively within
limited areas to extend knowledge of the gospel, working on a world scale that
the Kingdom of Christ and His righteousness should be known and loved in lands
beyond the limits of Christendom.
There are at least four distinctive facets of Chalmers thought and action which require some explanation and clarification. These are:
(a) The Parish Concept
Thomas Chalmers had a vision of Scotland as a Christian nation. He longed to see the whole land evangelized for Christ and serving Him. Every congregation in its organization and activity should serve the area in which it was, bringing the light and power of the Christ of the Scriptures to bear on every aspect of life. In Kilmany, the Tron, St Johns, St Andrews and Edinburgh, he endeavoured to give the concept practical expression, even when he was not himself the parish minister. The West Port experiment demonstrates his firm belief in the effectiveness of the system even after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland.
The preaching of the Word of God was central to this idea, the gathering of people to worship God on His day, the day of rest, but the emphasis on worship in family and personal religion was also strong and was encouraged by his own example and the aids to daily and Lords Day devotions and study which he produced.
The minister and elders were responsible for going out to meet the people of the parish, and help them with their spiritual andmoral problems. The burden of work that he himself undertook in this sphere was extraordinary, but he and his elders gave themselves to the task of building strong family and personal religion.
This personal knowledge of the people in the parish was vital in the service of the deacons who served the material need of the people, distributing the finances available, encouraging relatives and friends to help those in need.
Parish service in sabbath schools, in general education, in training women in housecraft and in finding employment for the unemployed formed an integral part of the parish concept.
While love for God was the driving force behind the parish concept, some of its most forceful expressions are to be found in Chalmers care for and interest in the spiritual and material welfare of those living in the parish.
(b) The Establishment Principle
The idea of established religion is perhaps repugnant to many at the present time. The separation of Church and State is considered as an essential doctrine by many who might also assume that, because of Dr Chalmers leadership of the Free Church of Scotland in abandoning the Established Church at the Disruption in 1843, he would have opposed the principle of establishment.
Dr Chalmers support of the establishment principle was consistent - from the publication of his paper "On the use and abuse of literary and ecclesiastical endowments" in 1827, to his "Lecture on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches" in 1838. His desire was for a pure establishment. "That corruption and error have been spread abroad by the organ of an establishment is no more an argument for the destruction of the establishment than that infidelity, and licentiousness have been printed is an argument for the destruction of printing presses. The way is to preserve and to extend both - making the one the instrument for a full diffusion of Bibles, and the other for a full diffusion of Bible-preaching and Bible-sentiment through the land."
A religious establishment involves sure legal provision for the expense of religious ministrations. Where there is legal provision for the ministrations of Christianity, there is an Establishment of Christianity in the land. This establishment may imply a connection between the church and the state or it may depend on revenue from benefactions. Should there be a connection between church and state, this would only relate to temporal aspects. "There might be an entire dependence on the state in things temporal, without even the shadow of a dependence upon it in things ecclesiastical."
The idea was not an abstract one for Dr Chalmers. His question was, "What is the most effectual method of making Christianity so to bear upon a population as that it shall reach every door and be brought into contact with all families?". The State could help the Church to fulfil its task and overcome mans reluctance to seek spiritual help.
"It is just because men will not go forth in quest of Christianity, that Christians, or the bearers of Christianity, have to go forth in quest of men." and "It is thus that the work of Christianisation was essentially a missionary work from its very outset; and an establishment is, in fact, the consummation of this principle. It multiplies preaching stations all over the territory - thereby confining the attractive process within the narrow limits of a parish; and, so far from superseding, giving to the aggressive process its likeliest advantage - for though the families have to move on Sabbath towards the minister, the minister, through the week might keep up a busy and incessant movement among the families."
The establishment ideal proclaimed by Dr Chalmers was no arid dogma, but practically linked with the ministry of Christian truth in the context of the local parish.
(c) Church Extension
Thomas Chalmers had, himself, received the benefits of Christian teaching - his life had been transformed by the power of Christ. For others he desired the same fulness of life and sought the same blessings of Christs grace and love. Not only as a private individual, but also as an office-bearer of the Church of Scotland, he wished to see the Church make its impact in usefulness on the people of Scotland. Where it sinfluence was weak, he desired to see it strengthened. Where it didnt exist, he wished its impact known beneficially, especially among the poorer people.
In Glasgow and St Andrews, this impact had been considerable, but it was when he was in Edinburgh that an opportunity came to him that more than any other illustrates his great zeal for church extension. Since the time of the Reformation, the population of Scotland had more than doubled, but the number of parishes had not increased. To keep pace with this growth, another 1,400 churches should have been provided. This had not been done. Town Councils who had the responsibility for providing new buildings were unwilling to undertake the necessary projects and often fixed seat rents at prices that made it relatively difficult for the poorer people of a parish to attend. The dissenting churches had met some of this need, but the provision of new churches was urgent.
In 1828, a Committee on Church Accommodation was appointed by the Church of Scotland, but little effective was done for several years. At the General Assembly of 1834, the committee was re-appointed with new powers and new instructions - and a new convener, Dr Chalmers.
He rejected the idea that their purpose was simply one of building churches, and emphasised the necessity of "a special and distinct reference to the Christian good of the families by whom it (the church) is surrounded". Three essentials were established for the relation between the church building and the families: A church (1) near enough, (2) at seat rents low enough, and (3) with the district small enough and the families few enough to be thoroughly cared for by the weekday attentions of a clergyman, so that he become "the counsellor and Christian friend of one and all of them".
His idea was quite specifically that of "church-planting".
The cost, if not forthcoming from the State, could be raised in other ways. "it is quite marvellous in the organization of any system of means, how much sub-division adds both to Its productiveness and its efficacy. Let us never forget that a penny aweek from each household of Scotland would afford the yearly sum of a hundred thousand pounds."
The practical fruits of this work were seen in 1839 when the Church Extension Committee reported that, since 1835, 201 churches had been built at a cost of approximately £232,000, a sum which had already been raised. This was a prodigious effort, especially when one considers the range of Dr Chalmers other activities. It is also typical of him that, not content with such an achievement, he was burdened with the need of some 30,000 people in Edinburgh and some 50,000 in Glasgow who were still without regular parish instruction in the Christian faith. That burden was rendered all the more weighty for him because these people were mainly destitute and friendless.
This concern continued to find practical expression after the Disruption when the cost, not only of new buildings had to be found, but also of new stipends. Some 250 ministers had been added to those maintained in 1843. There were churches for its congregations for which £450,000 had been given and £100,000 had also been subscribed for the building of manses. Of even greater significance than these achievements, was the spirit behind them - the spirit of service to Christ and His Church in the extension and support of His Kingdom in Scotland.
(d) Foreign Missions
While Dr Chalmers vision for his own country and its people was far-reaching and comprehensive, it was not limited by the frontiers of Scotland. The Scriptural view of the Church of Christ is of the people of God redeemed out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and this was the view of Thomas Chalmers. Awakening concern for peoples in lands where Britain had trading interests was reflected by William Careys departure for India in 1793, although the East India Company had made it impossible for him to sail in a British ship and he went to a Danish settlement in a Danish ship. Bible Societies seem first to have been formed around this time for providing British soldiers and sailors with the Scriptures. The British and Foreign Bible Societywas founded in 1804 and attracted widespread attention and support.
It was about the time that Chalmers had come to see the light of the Scriptures that he came to know of associations formed for the diffusion of the Scriptures. He strongly supported the formation of the Kilmany Bible Association, with a subscription of a penny-a-week. When some objected to the voluntary subscription as imposing a burden on the poor, he endeavoured in a sermon to answer the objectors on behalf of the humble subscribers. "It is true we have our distresses, but these have bound us more firmly to our Bibles; and it is the desire of our hearts that a gift so precious should be sent to the poor of other countries. The Word of God is our hope and our rejoicing: we desire that it may be theirs also that the wandering savage may know it and be glad; and the poor negro, under the lash of his master, may be told of a Master in heaven who is full of pity and full of tenderness."
When William Careys work in Serampore suffered a severe setback through a fire in the printing office, the Dundee Missionary Society requested Chalmers to preach the annual missionary sermon in the Tayside city, having already decided to give the proceeds of the collection to helping Carey repair the damage. Chalmers gladly took part. When, in 1813, the East India Company wished to renew its prohibition on the entry of missionaries to India for another 20 years, Chalmers organised a petition in Kilmany in support of Mr Wilberforces eventually successful attempt to have Parliament change this situation.
On 14th May 1817, a Wednesday, at 11 a.m., Dr Chalmers was to give the anniversary sermon of the London Missionary Society. An observer reported that "at seven in the morning, the chapel was crowded to excess". Dr Chalmers was ready to support the Moravian missionaries who were working in Greenland, Labrador, North and South America, the West Indies and South Africa. A promise made to raise £500 for them was faithfully kept. He was also concerned for the work amongst the Jews and took a practical interest in it.
It was, in a very special way, the years spent at St Andrews that link Dr Chalmers most closely with the missionary movement, and Dr Alexander Duff is the one who records its significance in his own life and the life of the whole University. In public meetings in the Town Hall of St Andrews, Dr Chalmers dealt with the history and aims of missions. The University Missionary Society, previously repressed by the university authorities and refused a meeting-place, was recognised as worthy of official help, and offered a room by the Principal of St Marys College. According to Dr Duff, a third of the students at the University supported it.
Perhaps, however, the most extraordinary fruit of the years Dr Chalmers spent in St Andrews was the number of those who offered themselves for missionary service. Of Dr Chalmers, Duff wrote: He carried about with him a better than talismanic virtue, by which all who came in contact with him were almost unconsciously influenced, moulded and impelled to imitate".
Parochial organisation, the Establishment principle, Church Extension and Foreign Missions were drawn together in the ample vision of the Kingdom of Heaven to which he gives expression in the following words: I long to see the day, nor do I despair of seeing it, when every parish shall have a Christian society - when not a district shall be left uncultivated, but shall yield a produce to the cause of the Saviour - when these lesser streams shall form into a mighty torrent to carry richness and fertility into the dry and desolate regions of the world - and when Britain, high in arms and political influence, shall earn a more permanent glory, by being the dispenser of light and power, and the message of Heaven to the remotest nations".
(From "Thomas Chalmers" by W.M.Mackay.)
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