1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Chalmers

Thomas Chalmers
Scottish divine
(1780-1847)




DR THOMAS CHALMERS (1780-1847), a distinguished Scottish divine, was born at Anstruther in Fifeshire, on the 17th March 1780. He was early destined to the church, and while only eleven years old was enrolled as a student in the university of St Andrews. Having completed his collegiate course, in which he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of mathematics, in January 1799 he was licensed as a preacher of the gospel by the presbytery of St Andrews. Instead of entering at once on the duties of his profession, he spent the two following winters in Edinburgh, attending the lectures of Professors Stewart, Playfair, Robison, and Hope. In May 1803 he was ordained as minister of Kilmany, a small parish in Fife-shire, about nine miles from St Andrews. During the preceding winter he had acted as assistant to Mr Vilant, professor of mathematics in the university of that city, who for many years had been laid aside by ill health. The novelty, however, of his method, and the singular enthusiasm that he exhibited and excited were distasteful to those attached to the old routine of university education; and at the close of the session he was informed that his further services would not be required. Indignant at the fancied injustice thus done him, he adopted the singular expedient of opening mathematical classes of his own during the succeeding winter, which, though discountenanced in every way by the university authorities, many of the students were attracted to attend. The winter of 1803-4 was a very busy and exciting one. During the week he taught three classes in St Andrews, and prepared and delivered there a course of lectures on chemistry, largely illustrated by experiments,—appearing at the same time in the pulpit of Kilmany every Sunday. Having sufficiently redeemed his reputation by the great success which attended them, his mathematical classes were not resumed. The lectures on chemistry were frequently redelivered in his own and in many adjoining parishes, to the surprise and delight of many rural audiences. In 1805 the chair of mathematics in Edinburgh became vacant, and he appeared, but unsuccessfully, as a candidate. In 1808 he published an Inquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources, a treatise originated by the alarm which Bonaparte's com-mercial policy had created in Britain, and intended to elucidate some of those questions in political economy which the existing state of affairs had raised. He was preparing a new edition of this work when a series of domestic bereavements, and a severe illness that brought him to the brink of the grave, and laid him aside from all duty for upwards of a year, turned his thoughts and life into a new channel. Dr Brewster had invited him to become a contributor to the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia; at his own request the article Christianity had been assigned to him, and he was now engaged in preparing it. In studying the credentials of Christianity, he received a new impression of its contents. A sustained but abortive effort to attain that pure and heavenly morality which the Gospel of Christ requires led on to that great spiritual revolution the nature and progress of which his journal and letters enable us to trace with such distinctness. When he resumed his duties, an entire change in the character of his ministry was visible to all. The report of discourses so earnest and eloquent as those now delivered, and of household visitations conducted with such ardent zeal, soon spread beyond the limits of his own neighbourhood. His reputation as an author received at the same time a large accession by the publication in a separate form of his article on Christianity, as well as by several valuable con-tributions to the Edinburgh Christian Instructor and the Eclectic Review. So strong, however, at that time was the public bias against those evangelical doctrines which he had embraced, that when a vacancy occurred in Glasgow, and his friends brought him forward as a candidate, it was only after extraordinary efforts, and by a narrow majority, that his election was carried in the town-council.

In July 1815 he was formally admitted as minister of the Tron church and parish. A blaze of unparalleled popularity at once broke around him as a preacher. A series of discourses which he had preached on the connec-tion between the discoveries of astronomy and the Christian revelation were published in January 1817. Never either before or since has the same reception been given to any volume of sermons in our language. Within a year, nine editions and 20,000 copies of the volume were in circula-tion. Soon after its appearance he visited London, and occupied for the first time one or two of the pulpits of the metropolis. The crowds were enormous, the applause loud and universal. " All the world," writes Mr Wilberforce, " wild about Dr Chalmers." His extraordinary popularity remained undiminished during the eight years that he remained in Glasgow.

His preparation for the pulpit, however, formed but a small part of his labours. In visiting his parish, which contained a population of about 11,000 souls, he speedily discovered that nearly a third of them had relinquished all connection with any Christian church, and that their children were growing up in ignorance and vice. The appalling magnitude of the evil, and the certainty of its speedy and frightful growth, at once arrested and engrossed him. To devise and execute the means of checking and subduing it became henceforth one of the ruling passions of his life. Attributing the evil to the absence of those parochial influences, educational and ministerial, which wrought so effectually for good in the smaller rural parishes, but which had not been brought to bear upon the overgrown parishes of our great cities, from all spiritual oversight of which the members of the Establishment had retired in despair, his grand panacea was to revivify, remodel, and extend the old parochial economy of Scotland. Taking his own parish as a specimen, and gauging by it the spiritual necessities of the city, he did not hesitate to publish it as his conviction that not less than twenty new churches and parishes should immediately be erected in Glasgow. All, however, that he could persuade the town-council to attempt was to erect a single additional one, to which a parish containing no fewer than 10,000 souls was attached. This church, built at his suggestion, was offered to him and accepted, in order that he might have free and unimpeded room for carrying out his different parochial plans.

In September 1819 he was admitted as minister of the church and parish of St John's. The population of the parish was made up principally of weavers, labourers, fac-tory workers, and other operatives. Of its 2000 families, more than 800 had no connection with any Christian church. The number of its uneducated children was count-less. In this, as in his former parish, Dr Chalmers's first care and efforts were bestowed upon the young. For their week-day instruction, two commodious school-houses were built, four well-qualified teachers were provided, each with an endowment of £25 per annum ; and at the moderate school-fees of 2s. and 3s. per quarter, 700 children had a first-rate education supplied. For the poorer and more neglected, between forty and fifty local sabbath schools were opened, in which more than 1000 children were taught. The parish was divided into 25 districts, embracing from 60 to 100 families, over each of which an elder and a deacon were placed—the former taking the oversight of their spiritual, the latter of their temporal interests. Over the whole of this complicated parochial apparatus Dr Chalmers presided, watching, impelling, controlling every movement. Nor was his work that of mere superintendence. He visited personally all the families, completing his round of them in about two years, and holding evening meetings, in which he addressed those whom he had visited during the week. Many families were thus reclaimed to the habit of church-going, and many individuals deeply and enduringly impressed by the sacred truths of Christianity.





The chief reason why Dr Chalmers removed from the Tron parish to that of St John's was that he might have an opportunity of fairly testing the efficacy of the old Scottish method of providing for the poor. At this period there were not more than 20 parishes north of the Forth and Clyde in which there was a compulsory assessment for the poor. The English method of assessment, however, was rapidly spreading over the southern districts of Scotland, and already threatened to cover the whole country. Dr Chalmers dreaded this as a great national catastrophe. Having studied in its principles, as well as in its results, the operation of a compulsory tax for the support of the poor, he was convinced that it operated prejudicially and swelled the evil it meant to mitigate. It was said, however, that though the old Scotch method of voluntary contributions at the church door administered by the kirk-session was applicable to small rural parishes, it was inapplicable to the large and already half-pauperized parishes of our great cities. Dr Chalmers asked the magistrates of Glasgow to commit the entire management of the poor of the parish of St John's into his own hands, and he undertook to refute that allegation. He was allowed to try the experiment. At the commencement of his operations, the poor of this parish cost the city £1400 per annum. He committed the investigation of all new applications for relief to the deacon of the district, who had so small a number of families in charge, that by spending an hour among them every week, he became minutely acquainted with their character and condition. By careful scrutiny of every case in which public relief was asked for, by a summary rejection of the idle, the drunken, and the worthless, by stimulating every effort that the poor could make to help themselves, and when necessary, aiding them in their efforts, a great proportion of these new cases were provided for without drawing upon the church-door collections ; and such was the effect of the whole system of Christian oversight and influence, prudently and vigorously administered, that in four years the pauper expenditure was reduced from £1400 to £280 per annum.

At the commencement of his ministry in St John's, Dr Chalmers began a series of quarterly publications on The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, devoted to the theoretic illustration of the various schemes of Christian usefulness which he was carrying on,—presenting himself thus to us as at once their skilful deviser, their vigorous conductor, their eloquent expounder and advocate. But the fatigues of so toilsome a ministry began to exhaust his strength ; and he was already longing to exchange the personal for the literary labours of his profession, when the vacant chair of moral philosophy in the university of St Andrews was offered to him. This offer, the seventh of the same kind that had been made to him during his eight years' residence in Glasgow, he accepted, entering on his new duties in November 1823, and devoting the next four years of his life to their fulfilment. Hitherto meta-physics and ethics had been taught conjunctly by the professors of moral science in the Scotch colleges, while, in teaching the latter, allusions to the peculiar doctrines of Christianity had generally and often carefully been avoided. Looking upon mental philosophy as belonging properly to another chair, Dr Chalmers confined his prelections to the philosophy of morals, entering at large upon the duties man owes to God as well as those he owes to his fellow-men, endeavouring throughout to demonstrate the insufficiency of natural religion to serve any other purpose than that of a precursor of Christianity. Many of his lectures, as remodelled afterwards and transferred to the theological chair, are to be found now in the first and second volumes of his worts. In the purely ethical department, the discussions in which he made important and original contributions to the science are those occupied with the place and functions of volition and attention, the separate and underived character of the moral sentiments, and the distinction between the virtues of perfect and imperfect obligation. It was not so much, however, for their scientific speculations that his lectures in the moral philosophy class-room were distinguished, as for that fervour of pro-fessional enthusiasm with which they were delivered, and which proved so healthfully contagious. Beyond the intel-lectual impulse thus communicated, his frequent references to the great doctrines of Christianity, and still more the force of his inviting example, kindled to a very remarkable degree the religious spirit among the students of St Andrews ; and not a few of them—including many men who have since highly distinguished themselves—were led thereby to consecrate their lives to missionary labour.

In November 1828, Dr Chalmers was transferred from the chair of moral philosophy in St Andrews to that of theology in Edinburgh. In this wider theatre he was enabled to realize all his favourite ideas as to the best methods of academical instruction. To the old practice of reading to his students a set of carefully prepared lectures he added that of regular viva voce examination on what was thus delivered, and introduced besides the use of text-books, communicating through them a large amount of in-formation ; and coming into the closest and most stimulat-ing contact with his pupils, he attempted to combine the different systems pursued in the English and the Scottish universities. In' the professorial chair there have been many who, with larger stores of learning, have conducted their students to greater scientific proficiency; but none have ever gone beyond him in the glowing impulse, intellectual, moral, and religious, that he conveyed into the hearts of the ardent youths who flocked around his chair; and to that spirit with which he so largely impregnated the young ministerial mind of Scotland, may, to a large extent, be traced the Disruption of the Scottish Established Church.

The leisure for literary labour which professorial life afforded was diligently improved. At St Andrews he resumed the work which his departure from Glasgow had suspended, and in 1826 published a third volume of the Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns. This was followed in 1827 by his treatise on the TJseand Abuse of Literary and Ecclesiastical Endowments, the ablest defence of endowments in our language, a work which itself would have won celebrity for its author. For many years his chief ambition had been to complete a treatise on political economy, a science which had been a favourite one from youth. In St Andrews, besides his ordinary course on ethics, he had opened a class for instruction in this science, and had been delighted to find how attractive it had proved. As soon as he had got through his first course of theological lectures in Edinburgh, he resumed this subject, and embodied the reflections and preparations of many years in a work on Political Economy, published in 1832. Many of the particular doctrines of this work have not met with genera! acceptance. The public mind, however, has been gradually coming round to a belief in that great truth which this volume was mainly intended to enforce,—that a right moral is essential to a right economic condition of the masses,—that character is the parent of comfort. His work on Political Economy was scarcely through the press, when, on invitation from the trustees of the earl of Bridgewater, Dr Chalmers was engaged on a treatise On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, which appeared in 1833. Literary honours, such as were never united previously in the person of any Scottish ecclesiastic, crowned these labours. In 1834 he was elected fellow of the Boyal Society of Edin-burgh, and was soon after made one of its vice-presidents. In the same year he was elected corresponding member of the Royal Institute of France, and in 1835 the university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of D.C.L.

Hitherto Dr Chalmers had taken but little part in the public business of the church. He had given some effective help in the prosecution of two measures—the one for the abolition of pluralities, and the other for the improvement of theological education. The death of Dr Andrew Thomson, who had long been the able leader of the Evangelical party, and the obtaining by that party of the ascendency, called him to lead the counsels and doings of the church. One of the earliest acts of the General Assembly of 1834, the first in which the Evangelical party had the majority, was to place Dr Chalmers at the head of a committee appointed to promote the extension of the church. In this office he had a double duty to discharge— to solicit the Government to make a grant out of the public revenue, and to stimulate the friends of the church by their own voluntary efforts to meet the spiritual necessities of the country. In both departments extraordinary efforts were made, but with very different results. The Whig Government, insecure in its hold of power, and dependent to some extent on the political assistance of the Scottish Dissenters, could be induced to do nothing beyond appoint-ing a committee of inquiry, which led to no practical result. It was otherwise when Dr Chalmers appealed to the country. That appeal was made with singular ardour and eloquence. When circulars, pamphlets, and reports had done their uttermost, he made a tour through a large part of Scotland, addressing the various presbyteries and hold-ing public meetings in the most populous districts. Year after year swelled the fund that these efforts created, till at last in 1841, when he resigned his office as convener of the Church Extension Committee, he had to announce that in seven years upwards of £300,000 had been contributed to this object, and 220 new churches had been built.

This great movement on behalf of church extension was finally checked by another in which Dr Chalmers was destined to play a still more conspicuous part. In 1834, the General Assembly, after declaring it to be a fundamental principle of the church that " no minister shall be intruded into any parish contrary to the will of the congregation," had enacted that in every instance the dissent of the majority of the male heads of families, being communicants, should be a bar to the settlement of a minister. This Act, commonly called the Veto Law, was based upon the old constitutional practice of the "call," in which the people invited the minister to undertake the pastoral office, on which invitation alone the spiritual act of ordination was grounded. The church believed herself to possess the power of determining what kind and amount of popular concurrence was necessary before the pastoral tie was formed by ordination. She had often exercised that power to the effect of setting aside the nominee of the patron. When invited in such instances to interfere, the civil courts had refused, on the ground that the church was acting within the limits of her acknowledged authority. In other instances the civil courts had often reviewed decisions of the church courts, but only with a view of regulating the title to the benefice. But now the power of the church to pass such a law as that of the Veto was challenged, and the civil courts claimed a right not only to regulate the destination of the benefice, but to control and overrule the decisions of the church. In the parish of Auchterarder, containing a population of 3000 souls, only two individuals signed the call, while 287 out of 300 dissented; but in an action raised at the instance of the presentee, the Court of Session decided that his rejection by the church was illegal. This decision the House of Lords, on appeal to it, confirmed,—Lords Brougham and Cotten-ham, in delivering judgment, stating it expressly to be their opinion that in settling a minister the church had no legal right to look beyond his qualification as to " life, literature, and morals." In this decision, as involving a forfeiture of the benefice, the church acquiesced, declaring at the same time her intention, for her own spiritual objects, to interpret for herself the statutes which established her, and announcing her unaltered purpose to protect her congregations from the intrusion of unacceptable ministers. It speedily appeared that she was not to be permitted to carry out these resolutions if the Court of Session could prevent. The presbytery of Dunkeld rejected a licentiate presented by the Crown to the parish of Lethendy on the ground of his having been vetoed by the people. The Crown acquiesced and issued a new presentation. At the instance of the first presentee the Court of Session inter-dicted the presbytery from ordaining the second. The church ordered the presbytery to proceed with the ordina-tion. It did so, and was summoned in consequence to the bar of the civil court, solemnly rebuked, and informed that in the next instance of such disregard by the church of the interdict of the civil court imprisonment would be the punishment. In the parish of Marnoch, with a population of 2800 souls, only one individual signed the call; an overwhelming majority dissented; but in defiance of the law of the church, and in obedience to the Court of Session, the presbytery of Strathbogie, by a majority of 7 to 3, resolved to proceed to the ordination. To prevent this ordination the church suspended the seven ministers who formed the majority. The Court of Session not only annulled that suspension and prohibited the church from intimating or executing it, but interdicted all ministers from preaching or administering any of the sacraments within any of the parishes of the seven suspended clergymen. The church held such interference as a violation of her spiritual independence, and proceeded as if no such sentence of the civil court had been passed,—many of the most distinguished ministers, Dr Chalmers and Dr Gordon among the rest, preaching in those parishes in the face of interdicts served on them personally. The seven suspended clergymen treated in the same way the supreme ecclesiastical authority, and on the 21st January 1841, in opposition to an express order of the General Assembly, consummated the ordination. By the following General Assembly these clergymen were deposed from the office of the ministry. The Court of Session immediately thereafter pronounced the deposition null and void. Other like instances occurred. The collisions between the two supreme courts became frequent and most unseemly. Matters were running into inextricable confusion. The church appealed to the Government to interfere. At first the Whigs were in power, but they declined to interfere. In 1841, Sir Bobert Beel was placed at the head of a Government strong enough to have applied the remedy, and the hopes of the church were excited. Still no measure was intro-duced. Under the guidance of Dr Chalmers the church pursued her course with steady unfaltering step; but she was not prepared to prolong the controversy indefinitely. Denying the right of the Court of Session to act as it had done, she freely conceded to the legislature the right of determining on what terms she held her temporalities ; and if, fairly appealed to, the legislature declared that she held them on condition of rendering such obedience to the civil courts as they now required, she felt that she had no alternative but either to renounce her own principles or relinquish the temporalities. At a solemn convocation held in November 1842 a large number of ministers signed and published a declaration that if no measure of relief were granted they would resign their livings. Up to the last, however, it was not believed that any very extensive secession would take place. In January 1843, the Government not only refused to grant the protection the church required, but put a final and peremptory negative on her claims of spiritual independence. And in March the House of Commons did the same by a large majority,— the Scotch members, however, voting in the proportion of more than two to one in her favour. The controversy was now closed, and it remained only for those clergymen who felt that they could not with a good conscience submit to the civil restraint imposed upon the church to adopt the only expedient now left to them and retire from the Establishment. On the 18th May 1843, 470 clergymen withdrew from the General Assembly and constituted themselves into the Free Church of Scotland, electing Dr Chalmers as their first moderator.





For two years previous to this final step, Dr Chalmers had foreseen the issue, and in preparation for it had drawn up a scheme for the support of the outgoing ministers. For a year or two afterwards the establishment and exten-sion of that fund, to which the Free Church owes so much of her stability, engaged a large share of his attention. He then gradually withdrew from the public service of the church, occupying himself with his duties as principal of the Free Church College, and in perfecting his Institutes of Theology. In May 1847, he was summoned before a committee of the House of Commons to give evidence regarding that refusal of sites for churches in which a few of the landed proprietors of Scotland who were hostile to the Free Church were still persisting. He returned from London in his usual health, and after a peaceful Sabbath (May 30) in the bosom of his family at Morningside, he bade them all good night. Next morning, when his room was entered and the curtains of his bed withdrawn, he was found half erect, his head leaning gently back upon the pillow, no token of pain or struggle, the brow and hand when touched so cold as to indicate that some hours had already elapsed since the spirit had peacefully departed.

During a life of the most varied and incessant activity, spent much too in society, Dr Chalmers scarcely ever allowed a day to pass without its modicum of composition. He had his faculty of writing so completely at command that at the most unseasonable times, and in the most unlikely places, he snatched his hour or two for carrying on his literary work. He was methodical indeed in all his habits, and no saying passed more frequently from his lips than that punctuality is a cardinal virtue. His writings now occupy more than 30 volumes. He would permanently perhaps have stood higher as an author had he written less, or had he indulged less in that practice of reiteration into which he was so constantly betrayed by his anxiety to impress his ideas upon others. It would be pre-mature to attempt to estimate the place which his writings will hold in the literature of our country. We may briefly indicate, however, some of the original contributions for which we are in-debted to him. As a political economist he was the first to unfold the connection that subsists between the degree of the fertility of the soil and the social condition of a community, the rapid manner in which capital is reproduced (see Mill's Political Economy, vol. i. p. 94), and the general doctrine of a limit to all the modes by which national wealth may accumulate. He was the first also to advance that argument in favour of religious establishments which meets upon its own ground the doctrine of Adam Smith, that religion like other things should be left to the operation of the natural law of supply and demand. In the department of natural theology and the Christian evidences, he ably advocated that method of reconcil-ing the Mosaic narrative with the indefinite antiquity of the globe which Dr Buckland has advanced in his Bridgewater Treatise, and which Dr Chalmers had previously communicated to that author. His refutation of Hume's objection to the truth of miracles is perhaps his intellectual chef d'ceuvre, and is as original as it is com-plete. The distinction between the laws and dispositions of matter, as between the ethics and objects of theology, he was the first to indicate and enforce. And it is in his pages that the fullest and most masterly exhibition is to be met with of the superior authority as witnesses for the truth of Revelation of the Scriptural as com-pared with the ex-Scriptural writers, and of the Christian as com-pared with the heathen testimonies. In his Institutes of Theology, no Material modification is either made or attempted on the doctrines of Calvinism, which he received with all simplicity of faith, as he believed thern to be revealed in the Divine word, and which he defended as in harmony with the most profound philosophy of human nature and of the Divine providence.

The character of Dr Chalmers's intellect was eminently practical. The dearest object of his earthly existence was the elevation of the common people. Poor-laws appeared to him as calculated to retard this elevation ; he therefore strenuously resisted their introduction. The Church of Scotland appeared to him as peculiarly fitted to ad-vance it; he spoke, he wrote, he laboured in its defence and exten-sion. " I have no veneration," he said to the royal commissioners in St Andrews, before either the Voluntary or the Non-intrusion controversies had arisen, "I have no veneration for the Church of Scotland quasi an establishment, but I have the utmost veneration for it quasi an instrument of Christian good." Forcing that church to intrude unacceptable ministers, and placing her in spiritual sub-jection to the civil power, in his regard stripped her as such an in-strument of her strength, and lie resolutely but reluctantly gave her up.

It is as a mover of his fellow men, as the reviver of evangelistic
feeling in Scotland, and as a leader in the great movement which
terminated in the erection of the Free Church, that Dr Chalmers
will fill the largest place in the eye of posterity, and occupy a niche
in the history of Scotland and of the church. Various elements
combined to clothe him with public influence—a childlike, guile-
less, transparent simplicity, the utter absence of everything facti-
tious in matter or manner—a kindliness of nature that made him
flexible to every human sympathy—a chivalry of sentiment that
raised him above all the petty jealousies of public life—a firmness
of purpose that made vacillation almost a thing impossible, a force
of will and general momentum that bore all that was movable
before it—a vehement utterance and overwhelming eloquence that
gave him the command of the multitude, a scientific reputation
that won for him the respect and attention of the more educated—
the legislative faculty that framed measures upon the broadest prin-
ciples, the practical sagacity that adapted them to the ends they
were intended to realize—the genius that in new and difficult cir-
cumstances could devise, coupled with the love of calculation, the
capacity for business details, and the administrative talent that
fitted him to execute—a purity of motive that put him above all
suspicion of selfishness, and a piety unobtrusive but most profound,
simple yet intensely ardent. (W. HA.)








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