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Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

February 2020 | by John Keddie

Rev. Thomas Chalmers by Thomas Duncan 1840 (SOURCE Stephencdickson Wikipedia)
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Often described as the greatest Scotsman of his age, Thomas Chalmers was something of a polymath. He became a colossus for evangelical historic Calvinism in Scotland in his day and arguably the most influential instrument used by the Lord in his Church in Scotland since John Knox.

It wasn’t like that initially though, for, although obviously a young man of unusual ability, he went into the ministry of the Church of Scotland at Kilmany, Fife, in 1803 in an unconverted state. The ministry was a sinecure which gave him, as he saw it, ample opportunity for more pleasurable pursuits and recreations. He could spend a few hours on a Saturday working up a sermon and that was fine. Otherwise he would be pretty well away from the congregation much of the time.

Chalmers was your typical moderate minister. But all that changed in 1810/11 when he experienced an evangelical conversion. There followed a seismic change in not only Chalmers’ life and ministry, but also in the course of Scottish evangelicalism.

Chalmers’ subsequent achievements were diverse. He became minister of Tron Church in Glasgow; held professorships of moral philosophy and divinity at St Andrew’s and Edinburgh University respectively; and in 1843 he led the formation of the Free Church of Scotland at the Disruption.

Chalmers emerged as leader of the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland. He encouraged the extension of parish churches and became involved as leader of those who resisted state interference in the appointment of ministers in congregations during the run-up to the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843.

He was a man of great energy; a mathematician, a philosopher and a scientist. He was an outstanding preacher and lecturer whose influence in the Edinburgh Divinity faculty was to have a profound effect on his generation, fostering future evangelical preachers and Calvinists in the ministry of the Kirk. His writings were prolific and in many respects he led the way in countering the sceptical principles of the French Revolution.

An imposing statue of Chalmers is in Edinburgh. Sadly, few passers-by will have heard of him. Scotland has drifted far from the Calvinist vision of this great man of God.

Here is an example of Chalmers’ preaching on Isaiah 7: ‘When the messenger of the gospel is … executing the commission wherewith he is charged … he may well say that there is no fury in God. Surely at the time when the Son of God is inviting you to kiss Him and to enter into reconciliation, there is neither the feeling nor the exercise of fury. It is only if you refuse, and if you persist in refusing … it is only then that God will execute His fury … And therefore He says to us, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little”.’

 John Keddie is a retired minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), lecturer in Church History & Church Principles.