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Thomas Chalmers: The chief Scottish man of his time

By John W. Keddie
October 2021 | Review by David Shedden
  • Publisher: Free Church of Scotland Continuing
  • ISBN: 978-0-14486-888-8
  • Pages: 40
  • Price: £3.00
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Book Review

What do you know about Thomas Chalmers? Have you even heard of him? If not, this booklet gives an opportunity to learn about the life and work of a man who was a leader in 19th century Scottish church life, and one of the leading personalities in Scottish life in general.

In my younger days I was part of the Church of Scotland. As a student I took courses in Scottish history at a Scottish university, and on a staircase bookshelf of that department the outstanding volumes were the works of Thomas Chalmers. But it was only when reading Scottish church history in preparation for Christian ministry that I started to learn his importance.

Keddie suggests that trying to write a brief introduction to Chalmers is a thankless task. His abilities, achievements, and interests were many and varied. For example, alongside his preaching and his theology, he was also a mathematician and gave lectures in astronomy.

Famously, Chalmers was the leading figure in the evangelical party that left the Church of Scotland in 1843. But for years before the Disruption he fulfilled his career as a parish minister and then a university professor.

Like many Scottish churchmen in the 19th century, his parish ministry included what amounted to work as a social reformer. The truth is that Chalmers and others could not meet the social needs brought about by changes in Glasgow in the early 1800s. But his tireless efforts are worthy of recognition and should be an inspiration for Christians today. Chalmers was a man who was devoted to the wellbeing of the parishes in which he lived as well as the nation as a whole.

In my opinion, his greatest influence was his work as Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University between 1828 and 1843. He had a huge impact on Scottish evangelical heroes like Andrew and Horatius Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and George Smeaton. Through his lectures Chalmers inspired his ministerial students to study with a view to preaching the gospel of God’s free grace.

His great influence was not due to his theology being perfect. Keddie does not hide that Chalmers held some ‘off beam’ positions. Perhaps influenced by his reading in contemporary science and astronomy, Chalmers taught a ‘gap theory’ in his understanding of the opening verses of Genesis.

The fact that Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) Publications has issued this booklet demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive legacy which Chalmers left behind. In Keddie’s final assessment, he was a man of phenomenal industry, exemplary piety, and faithful to the end.

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